Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Counterpoint: Collective Creativity in service of the unfunny

When Tim and I first started batting around the idea of this panel, one thing was clear from the beginning: we didn't want this to be boosterism at the expense of honest examination of the phenomenon. This is one of those times.

Above is an example of the New Yorker's caption contest; for those not in the know, the contest was started about 5 years ago as a way to drive more traffic to the New Yorker site by having one of their esteemed artists draw a potentially hilarious cartoon, but leave off the one-line zinger below . The New Yorker then invites the audience to submit the caption, of which the best three were picked by the editors. These three then are listed on the site for the New Yorker audience to determine the winner. It is, in a neat little package, nearly exactly what we've been getting at in this discussion.

It's also an abysmal failure, in my humble opinion.

What makes people go to solo art shows, show up for one-woman plays, read manifestos, and, perhaps most germanely, think a trip to a comedy club might be a good time? In a phrase, it's singularity of vision. The New Yorker caption contest takes away everything that is (ok, occasionally) brilliant about New Yorker cartoons, namely, that the best ones are usually completely misanthropic and rather twisted. Only a magazine dedicated to the vast social experiment that is New York could wrangle the pathos that comes out in some of the cartoons in the magazine, and that is why they are funny. They are funny in a way that all slack-jawed gapes at the absurdity of life are funny; they are funny because they are bred from one too many brushes with humanity.

With all due respect to Ms. Klein and Msrs. Templeman and Harrington, the final captions options at the top of this post are, by contrast, tragically unfunny. The caption contest planes down the singular despotic comedic vision into a bland, Two And A Half Men, good-enough formula. I assume the people that enter want to win. So what's most likely to win? Probably that which appeals to the massive base of the New Yorker readership, which, while I'll grant is probably a little more urbane than most, doesn't necessary possess the nihilistic wit that a really sharp cartoon commands.

So. We end up getting suggested captions about broken coffeemakers. Crowd-sourced, indeed.


  1. This reminds me of an article on Slate a while back where the author tells how he systematically submitted to and won the caption contest. He posited that humor was a factor, but by far not the most important one. He said that it's mostly about trying to win the contest by creating a caption that serves the intellectual needs of the audience. The ideal punchline is one that reinforces that the reader knows stuff that a complete plebe might not, but that wouldn't alienate them or make them feel mentally bested by a cartoon.


  2. I agree that the NYer caption contest is awful -- in fact, it's made me dislike all of their cartoons. They all seem captioned by committee, now. Which I've heard they actually are, anyway.

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