How to write a great caption

Writing a good caption is not a black art. Here’s the “advanced joke theory” which is the closest truth in the discipline.

… Should you make a pun or, perhaps, create a visual gag about a cat surreptitiously reading its owner’s e-mail? Neither. You must aim for what is called a “theory of mind” caption, which requires the reader to project intents or beliefs into the minds of the cartoon’s characters. An exemplary New Yorker theory of mind caption (accompanying a cartoon of a police officer ticketing a caveman with a large wheel): “Yeah, yeah—and I invented the ticket.” The humor here requires inference about the caveman’s beliefs and intentions as he (presumably) explains to the cop that he invented the wheel. A non-theory-of-mind caption (accompanying a cartoon of a bird wearing a thong), however, requires no such projection: “It’s a thongbird.” Theory of mind captions make for higher-order jokes easily distinguished from the simian puns and visual gags. …

Excerpt from “How To Win the New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest” by Patrick House.

Is it humorous or offensive?

Once in a while, something that we find hilarious becomes deadly offensive to others. How could this happen?  Dan Heller summarised the situation generally in two points.

  • what we find as humorous is strictly a cultural phenomenon.
  • humor is only funny if you know the context (or lack thereof) from which it came.

When a caption or a humor is taken from a different culture or a different context, things may go awry. Dan has something interesting about the difference between Americans and the rest of the world in his essay .