Wednesday, June 4, 2008

How to win the New Yorker's cartoon caption contest (and maybe the Observer's)

Patrick House, a recent winner of the New Yorker's Cartoon caption contest, has revealed his strategy on, and most of what he said strikes me about right. There are, of course, differences between the New Yorker's contest and The Observer's You Write the Caption, so not everything he says is applicable to our contest -- for instance, the gatekeeper and final judge at The Observer is the same person, and who knows what's shaped his sense of humor, and no one's ever been disqualified from making him laugh out loud -- but Mr. House has one insight that sums up a winning approach better than any I've seen in print:

You must aim for what is called a "theory of mind" caption, which requires the reader to project intents or beliefs into the minds of the cartoon's characters. An exemplary New Yorker theory of mind caption (accompanying a cartoon of a police officer ticketing a caveman with a large wheel): "Yeah, yeah — and I invented the ticket." The humor here requires inference about the caveman's beliefs and intentions as he (presumably) explains to the cop that he invented the wheel. A non-theory-of-mind caption (accompanying a cartoon of a bird wearing a thong), however, requires no such projection: "It's a thongbird." Theory of mind captions make for higher-order jokes easily distinguished from the simian puns and visual gags that litter the likes of MAD Magazine. To date, 136 out of the 145 caption contest winners (94 percent) fall into the "theory of mind" category.
With this recipe now out there in cyberspace, we look forward to your cartoon caption shaving cream pies. Fire away! -- Kevin Siers