What It Takes To Win The New Yorker's Cartoon Caption Contest

Press Release

Leeds School of Business

April 25, 2011

University of Colorado Boulder Professor Peter McGraw teams up with The New Yorker Cartoon Editor Robert Mankoff to unlock the code behind the magazine’s celebrated Cartoon Caption Contest

Recently featured in Wired magazine, McGraw, director of the Humor Research Lab (HuRL), launches an analysis of all 5,291 caption entries for the The New Yorker’s April 25, 2011, issue. Initial results reveal that novelty, caption length, and punctuation are keys to success for the finalists, including the winning entry by film critic Roger Ebert.

BOULDER, CO, April 25, 2011: Peter McGraw, an Assistant Professor of Marketing and Psychology at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Leeds School of Business, is on a scientific mission to crack the humor code, which was recently featured in the May 2011 issue of Wired magazine (www.wired.com/magazine/2011/04/ff_humorcode/). McGraw is now teaming up with The New Yorker’s Cartoon Editor Robert Mankoff to empirically investigate the magazine’s illustrious weekly Cartoon Caption Contest.

The question of “What makes things funny?” has puzzled scholars since the dawn of civilization. But over the past few years, McGraw has been zeroing in on an answer with the help of former CU-Boulder doctoral student Caleb Warren, who is now a professor at Universita’ Bocconi in Italy. According to McGraw and Warren’s “Benign Violation Theory,” published in the August 2010 issue of Psychological Science, humor only occurs when something seems wrong or unsettling (i.e., a violation) but simultaneously seems okay or acceptable (i.e., benign).

To test the theory, McGraw formed the Humor Research Lab (aka HuRL) with a team of CU-Boulder students dedicated to applying cutting-edge experimental techniques to the issue of what’s funny and what’s not. McGraw is also testing his theory in the wild, from trying his hand at stand-up comedy at the toughest open mike night in Denver to cornering comic Louis C.K. before a big performance and asking him awkward questions.

Now McGraw is curious about The New Yorker’s Cartoon Caption Contest, the weekly competition in which thousands of readers submit potential captions for the cartoon on the last page of the magazine. The research topic arose from a chance meeting between McGraw and Mankoff at a January 2011 psychology of humor conference in San Antonio, Texas. Mankoff, an established cartoonist who authored the book The Naked Cartoonist: A New Way to Enhance Your Creativity and who edited The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker, is also a humor scholar in his own right. He teaches a class on the psychology of humor at the University of Michigan, part of an interdisciplinary program dedicated to humor research (http://www.ur.umich.edu/0405/Oct11_04/02.shtml).

Together McGraw and Mankoff launched a textual analysis of the Cartoon Caption Contest to uncover systematic differences among the vast majority of the captions submitted, the short list of 43 runners-up, and the three finalists chosen by editors (the ultimate winner of the three is chosen by readers). McGraw and Mankoff have teamed up with Phil Fernbach, a cognitive scientist from Brown University who is an expert at using quantitative techniques to uncover insights about how people think. Mankoff provided McGraw and Fernbach with all 5,291 captions submitted in Caption Contest No. 281, published in the April 4, 2011, issue of The New Yorker (http://contest.newyorker.com/CaptionContest.aspx?id=281).

The team’s initial look at the data has already uncovered several key factors associated with captions making the short list: -Punctuation: Submissions without question marks, commas, and exclamation points were likely to make the list. -Length: Submissions containing fewer words were more likely to make the cut. -Novelty: Submissions containing words appearing infrequently in other submissions often got the nod.

Judging from the data, Fernbach has three pieces of advice for those looking to win the Caption Contest: “Be novel. Be brief. Avoid punctuation.” Mankoff has a fourth: “Be funny,” which may or may not follow from the first three. One caption that had it all was that of film critic Roger Ebert; he won.

Final results of the analysis will be published concurrently on McGraw and Mankoff’s blogs (http://blog.PeterMcGraw.org and http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/cartoonists/) on Wednesday, May 4, 2011, followed by a cross-blog discussion between the two.

Visit http://petermcgraw.org.

For More Information

Peter McGraw
Associate Professor