The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest

Since it was founded in the 1920s, the New Yorker magazine has been famous for its one-frame black and white cartoons, each with a single one-line caption published underneath. For the last few years, the magazine has gotten readers involved in the art of cartoon humor: it publishes a one-frame cartoon, without a caption, and invites readers to come up with funny captions and submit them. The funniest caption is selected by a panel of judges and published two weeks later.

Here’s a short article I wrote after interviewing a few recent winners of the contest, after being introduced to them by cartoon editor Bob Mankoff.

How do you win the New Yorker cartoon caption contest?  Even if you never plan to enter the contest, taking the question seriously may help answer a bigger question:  where do good ideas come from?

Maybe it’s like this—the proverbial light bulb moment.  You stare at the cartoon for a while, stumped, until a caption suddenly jumps up from your unconscious mind like Newton getting bonked by an apple and thinking  up gravity. But that’s not the way it usually happens—not with cartoon captions, and not with scientific or artistic breakthroughs, either.

I’m a psychologist who studies what goes on in the mind when you’re being creative.  I found that there’s a pattern to their creativity—and this pattern provides a window onto how all creativity works for scientists and inventors and for The New Yorker caption contest as well.

The first important discovery about creativity is that ideas emerge over time, from hard work and constant revision.  The “sudden flash of insight” is largely a myth. And the same goes for the cartoon caption contest: caption winners almost never have their ideas instantly.  They think hard about the cartoon, and they keep trying new ideas and work on improving their first ideas.  One winner, John Brouwer told me, “The caption came slowly. I felt my mind would crack.” Second, creativity takes preparation: training and constant effort to get better, or what the psychologist Anders Ericksson calls “deliberate practice.” You think about what’s working while you’re doing it, and you constantly aim to improve.

Many contest winners hone their abilities by entering the contest every week  and think hard about what captions  are effective : Todd Bearson  said, “I’ve probably gotten better by watching which captions end up winning, comparing them to what I wrote and learning what seems to work and not work.” Third, cartoon contest winners usually generate lots of captions.  Studies of creativity have shown that quantity breeds quality—what I call the productivity theory, because high productivity corresponds to high creativity.  When  the famous physicist Freeman Dyson was asked how to generate good ideas, he said, “Have a lot of ideas, then throw out the bad ones.”  Cartoon caption winners are no different. Colin Nissan  said, “Keep writing until one rises to the top.”

The fourth and final feature of creativity is perhaps the most surprising of all.  The creative insight seldom comes to lone geniuses who sequester themselves from society; on the contrary, conversation and social ties enhance creativity.  Contest winners tend to bounce ideas off of friends or family. Patricia Carrington  had her  idea while discussing the cartoon with her husband. Harry Effron while talking about the cartoon with his dad. John Kinde actually gets together every week with a “humor master-mind group” to brainstorm caption ideas.

In my own research, I’ve learned that creating with a group increases people’s creativity.  It works like a jazz ensemble—everyone’s ideas build on everyone else’s, and the improvised performance is created collectively by the entire group.  To collaborate, you don’t even have to be in the same room; creativity over time flows in an improvisational river. Think of all the cartoons that include the mythical figure of death carrying a scythe.  When you connect them over the years, you notice that each new “death” cartoon invokes and builds on all the others  in what amounts to is a collaboration over time.

Consider the fact that everyone who enters the caption contest is collaborating with the cartoonist.  The cartoonist launches the contest by generating an ambiguous cartoon, one that can be interpreted many different ways. This kind of ambiguity, the kind that opens up many future possibilities, often prompts innovation.  Sometimes the best ideas are the ones that inspire good ideas in others.

18 thoughts on “The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest

  1. Super lucid. But as a serial cartoon contest entrant who has yet to win, and an ‘old school” documentarian cum new media player, I think you underestimate the role of sudden inspiration and singular genius. How many great novels, symphonies or jazz compositions have been written by a group? Dostoevsky//Copeland/Miles.. were not groups. And the Beattle’s songs were mostly written by individuals.
    Newton was awesome, as is Tim Herbert for his …”also hailing from Chernobyl…” line. Killer.
    Thanks for the inspiring post.

    1. I understand your point; answering it is the theme of my book GROUP GENIUS. There I make a radical claim, that even these works that are apparently created by a single individual are, much more than we realize, the result of collaboration. As “collaboration” I include not only face to face groups, but also collaboration over time with social networks, colleagues, etc. Miles Davis and the Beatles are two great examples but to convince you the argument (based on the historical record) is somewhat elaborate in each case. But you’ll see my general style of argument with the “individual creation” myths that I debunk in GROUP GENIUS.

      1. Your theory’s interesting, but it doesn’t apply to the way I come up with captions. I’ve been a finalist in the caption contest four times and have won three times. (The last time I was a finalist I came in second to what Ken Ellis called the “killer” line about hailing from Chernobyl.) I’ve never tried collaborating with others, though I do sometimes run my captions by my wife or friends before I send it off, just to see if they think it’s funny. More often, though, I tell others about the caption after I’ve already submitted it. Though the captions don’t come to me instantly, I usually think of something in about ten minutes — otherwise I just give up and wait for the next week’s contest — and then spend a few minutes making sure it’s as short as possible.
        Though I’m not sure I subscribe to your theory, your book sounds interesting and I’ll look for it.

  2. Lawrence, of course not everyone will align with the collaborative process I described in the posting. Yet I thought it was interesting that so many use collaboration, in a task that many people might think would be completely solitary.

  3. Excellent post. As it happens I have just published a sort illustrated post on my blog called The Evolution of a “Gag” cartoon. In it I talk about the caption doing a complete flip during the four or five-stage development process. Perhaps your readers will find it of interest. You can find it at
    Jim Sizemore

    1. I took a look at that cartoon evolution, and it’s a great example of what Bob Mankoff talks about in his book…he does an insightful analysis of the connected history of cartoons that have the classic figure of death (in a cloak, holding a scythe).

  4. I’m running a series of caption contests where the winner gets to keep the watercolor that they wrote the caption for.

    I’m an artist who is working on a literary/painting collaboration and so I’m trying to widen my list of internet friends and pen pals to include authors. If you get a chance maybe you can help me with two of my writing/painting projects.

    I would like to invite you and any authors you know to participate in an ongoing caption contests as well as flash fiction challenges I have on my blog. The winner of the challenge can win an original watercolor or a drawing by me in exchange for the best story (I also have caption/title contests).

    I just completed one cycle and the flash fiction stories have been published in a catalog integrated with my exhibit in San Francisco at ArtHaus Gallery, The next cycle of stories and paintings will travel to Ohlone College in February 2012 at the Louie Meager Art Gallery in Fremont California.

    This time there will be a newspaper catalog but the gallery will be converted into a 1930 or 40’s cabaret set and students will be acting the stories out as monologues at some of the events at the college in the art gallery.

    If this interests, please visit my site and click on one of the links marked “Competition”

    Thanks so much!


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