Tuesday, March 17, 2009

with each week i learn more

"Well, at least he made curfew."
"I thought our sex life was a train wreck."
"We should tell the G.P.S. people that they changed the off-ramp."

I think that this week's finalists teach us a great deal about the mechanisms underlying the New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest.

Let me start with an analogy. Sometimes a man will be asked, "What were you doing last night?" He might vary his answer based on who is asking--be it his lover, paramour, inamorata, shortie, or mother. Often, his answers will be inconsistent, and the man soon loses track of what he told each interlocutor. Next, he tells more and more lies in order to squeeze the previous lies into plausibility, resulting in what might be called a "web of lies." At least this is my experience.

A similar thing happens in New Yorker cartoons. I mentioned in my algorithm that the captioner must find "the incongruous thing." But often, in adding the incongruous thing to the cartoon, the artist was forced to add several other incongruous things in order to squeeze the primary incongruous thing into plausibility, resulting in a "web of incongruity." My algorithm should thus be amended to instruct: "Find the primary incongruous thing"--the incongruous thing from which all others follow.

Better appreciating this might have led me to reconsider my entry for this week:

"And to think you didn't want the carbon fiber bed frame."

Monday, March 16, 2009

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

new week, new ideas

Algorithms. They've revolutionized fields as diverse as baseball, finance, and biology. But only when that one iconoclastic pioneer had the courage to employ them. I am that pioneer. I lead that vanguard.

The man who can simplify cartoon captions to a mathematical formula will dominante. I will now propose and test an algorithm.

1) Look at cartoon image
2) Find the incongruous thing
3) Choose a noun related to the incongruous thing
4) Go to rhymer.com and find words that rhyme with the noun of part 3 (note: I am in no way affiliated with this website)
5) Is someone in the image speaking?
6) Can this person be saying a rhyme identified in part 4?
7) I allow for some creative license here
8) Enter the New Yorker cartoon caption contest

Let's try it on the above image.

1) O.K.
2) Cats are stacked up
3) Totem pole
4) buxom, whoredom, hokum, condom, datum, eardrum, bedlam, flotsam
5) Yes
6) Yes, although none of the "rhymes" have anything to do with cats, and many of them seem actually not to rhyme at all
7) Hmm
8) "They seem to have formed a flotsam pole."

Sunday, February 8, 2009

brainstorming ii

"What's outrageous is the economic stimulus plan."
"Mine is a little underripe."
"No, I did not know these were real. Yes, things may have turned out differently."

I'm having writer's block, and, perhaps not unrelatedly, I'm in really low spirits this week. But I don't think this is all my fault: the artwork in question, by the inveterate ament Paul Noth, is particularly confusing, with one character's legs apparently melting into the boat and both characters in completely implausible shirts--some sort of sleeveless button-down. And is the boat on water or on sand? If Mr. Noth had a specific intention, he was completely inept at conveying it. Furthermore, I am puzzled by the presence of some sort of dartboard in the distance.

I think I'll just take this week off to sort some things out.

prisoner at a bar finalists

"If anybody calls, I'm not here."
"I'd kill for some peanuts."
"Most men drink to escape. I escape to drink."

Not too bad this week. I have no real complaints.

Friday, January 23, 2009


"This is a robbery."
"My wife just left me."
"Nice bow tie."
"I bet that readers of the New Yorker would look smilingly upon my zany predicament."
"My other tunnel goes to Mexico."
"There are no stools here."
"I guess I won't find the stool pigeon here."
"I guess I won't find the stool pigeon here, as there seem to be no stools."
"It's funny that I am looking for the informant, or stool pigeon, who sent me to prison, and I wind up in a bar that is completely lacking chairs, or stools."

Sunday, January 11, 2009

firing squad

My caption: "Et tu, Sparky?"
Winning caption: "I guess my wife couldn't make it."
2nd place caption: "Frankly, your brochure is a bit misleading."
3rd place caption: "Gee, you guys are really having trouble meeting your recruitment quota."

I consider this my best caption to date, although the judges still deem it worse than the unadulterated garbage that populates the winners' circle this week. The winning caption made my lip twitch slightly--so a lukewarm success. The second place caption is childishly senseless in a somewhat British manner, whereas the third place caption is nothing short of a catastrophe.

In brainstorming my caption, my keen eye for incongruousness noted that there is a dog among the firing squad members. That is an unusual thing, I thought. Indeed, closer inspection revealed that the firing squad members--which include an octogenarian, a suited person, a doctor, a cowboy, and a child--form a community of sorts. But then the dog. Why is the dog there? Is his or her paw anatomically capable of grasping the trigger to fire the shot? Probably not, which lends the dog's presence something of a poignant sincerity.

But how could a dog turn against a human? Are dogs not "man's best friends?" Indeed not in this cartoon, in which the normal state of things has been turned completely on its head.

I think that, for most people who attended prestigious universities, a situation like this brings to mind the assassination of Julius Caesar, a man whose own community turned against him. Indeed, amongst the conspirators who planned Caesar's death was Caesar's own friend (his "best friend?") Brutus, a fact that inspired what are often said to be Caesar's last words: "Et tu, Brute?" (Of course I realize that Plutarch does not corroborate this as Caesar's last utterance, but I don't expect the obtunded cartoon caption judges to have enough sense to realize this.)

My first thought, therefore, was to simply write "Et tu, Brute?" as my caption. But this seemed too easy. Surely others would submit the same caption, and if this occurred, I realized, my odds of winning would be reduced to a simple coin toss. So I changed the name of the dog from Brutus, certainly an uncommon pet name, to Sparky, the acme of canine cognomen. I am aware that the use of the name "Sparky" disrupts the grammar of the Latin somewhat.

a preternaturally large bird

My entry: "You must be the early bird."
I reference a popular proverb: "The early bird catches the worm." The first recorded use of this proverb was John Ray's "A collection of English proverbs," 1670. Only at that time the phrase was rendered slightly differently: "The early bird catcheth the worm." My allusion to the rich history of the English language was apparently lost on the judges.