Wrong cartoon captions only
Or, The New Yorker on GitHub
Every time you submit an entry to The New Yorker’s cartoon caption contest, an angel gets a tennis racket.
Also, this dataset on GitHub is updated.
Then, visitors to the magazine’s website decide whether each of the approximately 5,000 weekly submissions are Not Funny, Somewhat Funny, or Funny. These scores are aggregated, weighted, and subjectively winnowed down by the magazine’s editors. Three finalists are presented in another online ballot, the winner of which makes it into the magazine. So it’s basically the Electoral College but with talking dogs.
I learned about the current state of play from a great piece in The Pudding wherein the authors attempted to train an artificial intelligence to win the contest. It’s neat! And they didn’t!
Using GPT-3 and open datasets, they confirmed what Patrick House explained when he won the pre-GitHub contest in 2008: “You are not trying to submit the funniest caption; you are trying to win The New Yorker’s caption contest.” Or as they found in 2022, “it increasingly became clear that this contest was actually a competition in cleverness instead of laugh-out-loud humor.”
And it led me down three pathways.
1. “Everyone lands on the same joke angles.”
This was what The Pudding researchers noticed, and it confirms three years of investigating wit in this newsletter: What you say matters but how you say it matters more. In the words of Clive James:
“All I can do is turn a phrase until it catches the light. There was a time when I got hot under the collar if the critics said I had nothing new to say. Now I realise that they had a point. My field is the self-evident. Everything I say is obvious, although I like to think that some of the obvious things I have said were not so obvious until I said them.”
Specifically, for contest #771 below, there were 760 entries about a ring, 310 entries about losing keys, 264 entries about losing the remote, and 103 entries about losing a phone. The winner was “Don’t worry about it, I was going to say yes anyway.”
2. Do permacaptions work?
A 2015 compilation of captions that work for all New Yorker cartoons included:
“Christ, what an asshole!”
“Hi, I’d like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn”
“What a misunderstanding!”
Profanity obviously won’t fly and the social network reference is a touch dated, but that last one — the brainchild of artist Cory Arcangel as developed from 2009-2014 on what-a-misunderstanding.com — continues to resonate.
In March alone, the following captions were submitted:
None of them made it to the top 25%, which certainly qualifies as someone misunderstanding something.
3. What if we flip the polarities?
There’s a popular theory that all great art is divisive, so perhaps you’re as likely to find a winner at the bottom of the pile as the top. Or as Jacob Falkovich put it on the Less Wrong blog, “There are too many options out there to waste time on mediocrity, and everything great will be divisive.”
Investigating the least popular submissions is, sadly, not a revelation. For this couple in an apartment filled with bowling balls and pins:
The lowest-ranked caption was “You strike me as a pinhead,” with its two random puns landing in 5603rd place. The funniest thing about that is that it was narrowly beat by gibberish, with 5595th place going to:
“Strike out doesnE4ODRjNDFmLWM5Y2MtNGYwMC1iYzE0LTYxYzRkMmE5ZDgwNiIsImNyZWF0ZWQiOjE2NDgwOTM1ODg3NjMsImluU2FtcGxlIjpmYWxzZX0=”
The best caption may not win but it doesn’t lose, either. But imagine if it did? What a misunderstanding!
Quick quips; lightning
“The marvelous thing about a joke with a double meaning is that it can only mean one thing.”
— Ronnie Barker
“Every man has, at some point in his life, an ambition to be a wag.”
— Samuel Johnson
“Fusilli, you crazy bastard! How are you?”
— Charles Barsotti
GWQ No. 144 was written under a single palm tree on a desert island. Thanks to Josh Landy who points out that the TikTok version of a permacaption is “we have been trying to contact you regarding your car’s extended warranty.” Here’s one good example and also 29,400 more examples. You’re on the hook for any repairs that need to be made to Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting. Tapping the ❤️ below feeds some algorithm somewhere, maybe.