A weblog by Will Fitzgerald

Why the New Yorker cartoon caption contest winners are not especially funny

Here’s a QA with the primary gatekeeper to the New Yorker cartoon caption contest:

Q. Did your predecessor or Bob give you any advice when looking through the responses?
A. My predecessor stared me in the eyes and warned me that reading too many captions in one sitting could make a man crazy. Oh, and also to “pick the funny ones.”

Q. After a while isn’t it difficult to decide what’s funny? Do you say to yourself—“#4,347, sort of funny. #4,348—sort of but not quite funny enough?”
A. I’ve developed a system of sorting algorithms that allows a laptop to pick the finalists without any human input.

Q. Really?
A. Yes and no. What actually happens is that when each entry is received it’s sorted by keywords. The keywords are grouped into 5 or 6 categories. Then I sort through all the one-liners, zingers, gags, goofs and gaffes, looking for the very best—which I pass on to Bob.

Q. Uh…you had me, and then you lost me.
A. Take, for example, a recent contest cartoon depicting crash test dummies. All entered captions were broken into keyword groups like “insurance,” “driving,” “crashing.” So at that point it’s easier to read them and make the best choice.

Q. What if I decide to send in a caption in Esperanto?
A. All the unique captions are grouped together in a category we call “Huh?” “Huh?” captions have indeed made the finals. No Esperanto yet, though.

In other words,

  • There are too many entries to sort through,
  • They are sorted by an intern (who also has to do a lot of photocopying, as he says elsewhere in the interview),
  • A keyword based sorting algorithm does the first sorting.
  • Yep, that seems like a recipe for caption mediocrity.

    I wonder if it wouldn’t be better just to randomly select, say, fifty captions and choose the funniest of these.


One response to “Why the New Yorker cartoon caption contest winners are not especially funny

  1. Michael H. August 29, 2007 at 11:34 am

    Didn’t you know? A slavish consistency is the key to humor.

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