Part 1: Establishing A Connection Between Incongruous Subjects

Find a subject. There are different ways to do this. One is to read the paper. Another is too free associate. You are looking for a topic or situation or idea or person that interests you, or that is topical, or that seems ripe with associative possibilities. Ideally find something that is all of the above.

Once you have your subject, find a connection to a second idea (person, place or thing) that is completely different from your subject.

To find that second idea, write down all the words and phrases you associate with your starting subject that immediately come to mind. These will be the obvious and apparent associations. Write them all down and get them out of the way.

Now the real brainstorming begins. To get to a truly surprising and inspired joke, you must move past the obvious and the apparent. This is key. Push yourself to find facets of the subject that aren’t immediately obvious or apparent. Then connect that facet to a second idea that is completely different or incongruous.

Three techniques you can use to find or create less obvious or surprising facets of a topic:

  1. Do ‘what if’s. Use your imagination to change or manipulate the topic: What if it was round instead of square? What if there were fifty people in the elevator? What if the cliff was only four feet off the ground? What if the waiter was a robot? What if the CEO was a child? Etc. Give yourself permission to exaggerate and be totally bizarre.
  2. Analyze the nature of the subject by asking who, what, where, when, why, or how questions about the subject. This helps you see the subject from different angles.
  3. Find opposites. Write down all words and phrases that are the opposite of your starting topic.

For instance, I recently wrote a gag where two bees are seen working on a honeycomb, but the cells of the honeycomb are square rather than hexagonal. One bee says to the other, “I love the new cubicles.”

To get there, I began by thinking about honeybees. A picture of two honeybees working on a honeycomb came to mind. I noticed that the cells are hexagonal in shape. I asked myself, “what if the cells were square shape?” That would make them cubes since they have depth. I instantly thought of office cubicles, because that is a popular subject for cartoons. And in quick succession I remembered the term “worker bee” and the association of hard work and diligence with bees (“busy as a bee” etc.) Office workers, like these two honeybees, are (or are supposed to be) hard working and diligent, plus they work in cubicles.

I have made a surprising and clever connection between two very different subjects. But that is only half the battle. The next step, and perhaps the most important one, is to write a good caption.

Part 2: Writing The Caption

By using choice language and the right turn of phrase, a good caption can make something that is not in itself funny, come off as funny. The opposite is also true. A poor caption can make a promising idea unsalable to an editor. This is why it may be the most important step in the process.

To write an effective caption, begin by reading a lot of great cartoon captions. This will give you an ‘ear’ for rhythm and timing. You will find great cartoon captions in The New Yorker magazine or New Yorker cartoon anthologies. Notice the use of language and choice of words.

Three basic rules:

  1. Reveal the unexpected surprise or incongruity toward the end of the caption.
  2. Keep the caption as succinct as possible while still containing all the information the reader needs to get the joke.
  3. Pay very close attention to language. Using just the right word(s) or turn of phrase can make something that is not funny seem funny.

Looking at the honeybee example, I could have written, “These new cubicles are great.” The surprise happens too soon in the sentence and the wording (“these” and “great”) is too generic.

In the caption I composed, “I love the new cubicles.” The surprise is revealed at the end, the word “love” is stronger, and using “the” instead of “these” gives the sentence a better rhythm.

Take the time to polish your captions. An excellent way to do that is to have a process in which you put them away for a week then come back to them. When reread fresh, it will be obvious to you how well they work and if any changes need to be made.