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.