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Home » Archives » August 2006 » Have a Nice Day, Sez I
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08/17/2006: Have a Nice Day, Sez I

Are you all aware of the cartoon caption contest that appears in every issue of The New Yorker? It's a pretty good way for you aspiring comedy writers to practice your punchline writing skills.

And every now and then, Bob Mankoff, the magazine's Cartoon Editor, sends out an email to participants in which he gives more details on the entries received for a given cartoon. This is the REAL reason to enter the contest -- to get those emails. I find them fascinating.

What he does is set out what he calls the the "major categories" of caption entries for a given cartoon. These are what TV writers would call "joke areas."

In this case, the cartoon was of a pirate ship. The ship's flag is a traditional Jolly Roger only with a happy face in the place of the skull. Think about the caption you might have submitted.

Here are the joke areas that were mined, with representative jokes for each area, as reported by Bob Mankoff. (I hope, Mr. Mankoff, that you won't object to these being reprinted here for educational purposes.)

Jolly Roger
"Certainly it's jolly. My concern is that it's seen as cloying."
"A bit TOO jolly if ye asks me!"
"Aye, matey. 'Tis proud we are to be sailin' under the flag of the Jolly Melvin."

Yo Ho Ho
"Yo ho ho and a bottle of milk!!"
"Yo ho ho and a bottle of fun!"
"Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum daiquiris!"

"I wonder if Wal-Mart has good 'burial at sea' benefits?"
"Now that we're with Wal-Mart, we just pillage mom-and-pop stores."
"Avast, ye Wal-Mart shoppers."

"In between floggings he's quite a cutup."
"I don't mind the floggings, but I wish he wouldn't call us 'associates.'"

"Then, once they heave alongside, we're all supposed to yell: 'Just kidding!'"
"Gone are the days of pillaging. Now all we do is tickle people."

Mixed Messages
"I feel ambiguous."
"He's cruel, but fun."
"New rule: Everybody dies happy."


I find this to be about as clear a dissection of possible joke areas as I've ever seen. Thanks, Mr. Mankoff!

Which category did your caption fall under? Did you only think of one of the possible joke areas? Or did you jump around as you worked on it? Jumping is a good sign.

A room full of comedy writers does the same thing this email does, in a way. Someone seizes on a joke area, and then other pitches accumulate that represent the same area, and then someone else pitches a joke from a different area, and then people start piling into that area. This is one reason that comedy is written by such large groups of people -- to find all the areas.

As a solo spec writer, it's important to take the time to think of areas you haven't found yet. Don't just look for new ways to craft a joke around "Wal-Mart," in other words. Instead, think of other points the joke could be making.

Lunch: onion rings and a root beer from Bob's Big Boy


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