Here are some tips for writing funny cartoon captions:
1. First, study the cartoon drawing and ask yourself a few questions.
2. What is happening here? What is the most obvious thing happening? Can you twist an obvious cliche? A recent New Yorker cartoon caption contest featured a group (perhaps a board of directors) on stage beneath a banner which read, Welcome Stockholders. One man stands behind the podium (lectern). All the people onstage are naked. The audience is not. Of the three caption finalists, my favorite was. “First, I’d like to thank the podium.” This is a perfect opening line for a naked speaker, combining a cliche opening with the fact that he was naked and needed some cover. Great line.
3. Can you twist something 180 degrees. In the Welcome-Stockholders cartoon of the previous paragraph, the caption I wrote was based on a tip for controlling stage fright…imagine your audience naked. I placed the nervousness in the audience instead of the speaker. “The audience controls their quarterly-earnings-announcement jitters by imagining the board of directors naked.”
4. What could be happening here that is NOT obvious? This may lead you in a funny direction. A great Gary Larson cartoon shows a snake sitting in a snake restaurant, twisted in an exaggerated fashion. A snake in the foreground comments: “Oh, honey, he’s just signing.” This is a reference to communicating with sign language and implying that the snake was deaf.
5. Ask yourself “what if” questions. A New Yorker caption contest featured a cartoon with small children standing on the side walls and ceiling of a hallway. Two adults are walking down the hallway. I asked the question “what if this were an art exhibit by Christo (the artist who designs and photographs unusual art themes). It inspired my caption: (one adult saying to the other) “Actually, I preferred the Gates of Central Park.” The unstated setup of the joke is that Christo posed the children on the walls and ceiling of the hallway as an art exhibit.
6. What should be happening here that isn’t happening? In the children-on-the-ceiling cartoon of the pervious paragraph, one of the top three submissions (and my favorite) was based on the observation that if the children were upside down, loose change should be falling from their pockets. The caption: “Unfortunately, children don’t carry much change.”
7. What could have happened that is not shown in the cartoon? Another cartoon from the New Yorker contest shows an old man sitting in a living room. A little girl is standing in front of him and holding a violin. The room looks like it was hit by a minor explosion. My caption: “I’d love to hear you play it again, sweetheart. But first, let me get the cat off the ceiling.”
8. What could this detail mean? What else could this be? Inspiration is in the details. And in humor, specific is usually funnier than general. In a contest, the cartoon showed the speaker’s head tilting wildly to the right. A caption could be, “It was obvious that the speaker leaned to the right.” This caption plays with the connection between alternate meanings of the word “right”.
9. What if you can’t find a contest to enter? Challenge yourself without a contest. Take an existing cartoon and cover the caption without looking at it. Then write your own caption. This is a great exercise whenever you have some extra time on your hands: For example, on an airplane or in a waiting room. Find a cartoon in any magazine and create your own captions. Then compare your lines with the published caption.
10. It’s about relationships. One of the basic humor writing skills is to look for connections. Humor is often about connecting two things which were previously unconnected.
11. Inside information gives you the inside track. How can you relate the details of the cartoon to specific things about your work group, about your civic club, about your association, about your reader’s profession? When the caption is customized for a group, it has magical power. Use buzz words, activities, habits and names of people to drive the humor. Those customized captions would not be funny to an outsider, but it will hit the mark with the target audience. And if you’re going to use the cartoon for a company newsletter or a staff meeting, that is what counts!
12. It’s a numbers game. Quality comes from quantity. For each New Yorker caption I submitted, I wrote at least ten captions and submitted my best one. Push yourself. If you can write ten captions, then write five more. If you can write thirty captions, make it forty. Sometimes your last line is your most brilliant. In our Toastmasters weekly caption writing contest, I normally submitted ten captions each week. I mentioned to the President that I could just as easily write thirty. So the next week I submitted thirty captions. I could have written 100, but made sure I didn’t tell anyone.
13. Team up. Find a humor buddy. Write your own captions individually. Then compare your initial efforts. By combining and improving your first-effort captions, you’ll find that your writing team will produce much funnier material.
14. Write dull lines. Write captions that aren’t funny. This is a basic principle of brainstorming. Early in the creative process, don’t censor. Let the ideas flow and record them all. You may be able to twist them into something better in the editing process.
15. Good writing is rewriting. Write down several captions. Study the placement of the punchwords, the words that drive the joke. They should normally be eat the end of the punchline. Eliminate excess words. Look for colorful and funny words. And then rewrite again.
16. Humor writing is not a microwave oven, it’s a crock pot. At first glance, when you look at a cartoon, you may not have a single idea for a caption. Don’t worry, ideas will come. Study the cartoon. Let it stew. Let it simmer. I don’t normally come up with a dozen captions the first time I sit down to write.
17. Sleep on it. Write your lines and then review them the next day for a fresh perspective. The brain does amazing things while you are sleeping.
18. The improvement cycle. Fair becomes good. Good becomes excellent. Excellent becomes outstanding. A cartoon caption contest featured a cartoon with a speaker standing behind a lectern with a wide-eyed, surprised look on his face. One of the first captions I wrote was, “The speaker was shocked to see that the audience was still awake!” That was eventually changed to, “A speaker imagining a Powerhouse Pros audience in their underwear!” Although I like both lines, the revised line was referring to the specific Toastmasters Club sponsoring the contest. This newer line does four important things. It justifies the look on the speaker’s face. It customizes the caption for the group. It links the common advice “control nervousness by imagining the audience in their underwear” to the cartoon. It placed the punch word “underwear” at the very end of the caption.
19. Take the challenge to try the caption writing exercise. You don’t do it to become a cartoon writer. You do it to exercise your creativity and sharpen your ability to see and create humor in all areas of your life.