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If You Want to Win The New Yorker’s Caption Contest

… the first thing you must know is that the funniest line does not capture the prize: “You are not trying to submit the funniest caption; you are trying to win The New Yorker’s caption contest.” And then there are the tips for getting past the contest’s gatekeeper, “the cartoon editor’s assistant, a twentysomething from Texas named Farley Katz.” Appeal to his past as a Six Flags rollercoaster operator and a telemarketer. And then? And then it comes down to putting together that one simple line.

Now that you know your gatekeeper, it’s time for some advanced joke theory. Should you make a pun or, perhaps, create a visual gag about a cat surreptitiously reading its owner’s e-mail? Neither. 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. [Slate]

So how did Patrick House, who is giving out this free advice, come to be such an expert?

Because he won this week’s Caption Contest, for the cartoon pictured above.

House’s winning line: “O.K. I’m at the window. To the right? Your right or my right?”

Jun 5, 2008 · Link · Respond
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