office of surrealist investigations

Manipulating Chance


New Yorker

Kurt Vonnegut Slideshow New Yorker

As you may have noticed, I have some kind of obsession with New Yorker cartoons, which results in me often perusing the New Yorker, but really only buying it for the articles. Came across this great slideshow of Kurt Vonnegut drawings. Some appear to be along the lines of automatic drawing.



Finally the contest I’ve been waiting for!

The reverse caption contest. Go to it! link is here

Send your submissions my way and I’ll post them.

Hope to get a few artists I know to do a few I’ll post as well.


MAY 9, 2013


POSTED BY Our Caption Contest has demonstrated that when courageous captioneers are given an unusual drawing, they will come up with a suitable caption. And a feature that we ran in the Cartoon Issue demonstrated that when we give cartoonists a commonplace phrase, they can come up with an apposite drawing.



Recently, I wondered if it would be possible to reverse-engineer a Cartoon Caption Contest. Below is a list of captions that all describe a cartoon that has been published in The New Yorker. Put on your reverse-engineering hats and tell me what the image is (the Cartoon Bank is a good place to start looking). What do you get for correctly identifying the cartoon? Ah, come on, after all I’ve done for you? O.K., how about a signed electronic copy of the cartoon with either the original caption or with one of the captions that you like below. In either case, just e-mail your guess to


“Have you ever read ‘The Accidental Tourist’?”
“Do you suppose the Johnsons will mind if we drop by this afternoon?”
“Did you ever hear back with an estimate from the plumber?”
“No, we don’t need to worry, Congress reached a compromise on the fiscal cliff.”
“I have the strangest feeling I left the tub running.”
“All right, have it your way—you heard a waterfall.”
“Do we still have the October issue of Better Oars and Paddles?”
“I know the Fox News was telling us that Obama was sending us down the river, but I really don’t see the harm in a little more debt.”
“Does this mean you’ll concede that I was right about global warming?”
“Are you sure you bought the real infinity couch, dear?”
“So, what’s for lunch?”
“Did you turn off the water before we left?”
“And you said retirement would be boring.”
“What’s all this fuss about the precipitous decline of print?”
“Does global warming affect creeks?”
“ I think I hear something. Did you leave the toilet running again?”
“I think there is someone at our door.”
“Are those new glasses?”
“Your life jacket is under the sofa cushion.”
“If you don’t pass the plumbing-certification test, what will you do then?”
“I prefer to think of it as a much needed test of our relationship.”
“We need to talk about where this marriage is going.”
“Evelyn finally says something more interesting than the news.”
“Why must you always go with the flow?”
“Barry, I told you we should have Scotchguarded.”
“It’s so cute how you mix up your words. It’s ‘liquidate our assets,’ not ‘liquefy our asses.’ ”
“Can you check my horoscope? I’m an Aquarius.”
“Honey, do you ever get a sinking feeling in your gut … out of nowhere?”
“Honey, I’ve been meaning to tell you something … I’m pregnant.”
“I don’t know what all of this ‘fiscal cliff’ stuff is about, it’s been a pretty smooth ride so far!”
“We’re single in the afterlife, right?”
“And now for the good news … your seat cushion can be used as a flotation device.”
“Did you notice how high the water bill was?”
“I keep having to go to the bathroom.”
“Harold, did you fix that leaky faucet?”
“Maybe we could couch-surf on our next vacation.”
“My horoscope says something life-changing is going to happen soon. Wonder what it could be?”
“I told you not to spend that much on the 3-D TV.”
“Honestly, John, sometimes you’re so focussed on reading the newspaper that you don’t even notice that I’m talking to you.”
“Sounds like you left the sink running again.”
“How does roasted chicken and a garden salad sound for dinner tonight?”
“Did you remember to shake the handle?”
“Come again? A totter-fall? A huge overhaul? Our daughter called?”
“I told you we should have moved before the last storm.”

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More Bob Mankoff, word balloons and stranger things

Came across this in Bob Mankoff’s blog today.


You should check out Saul Steinberg’s cartoons, they are a nice blend of cartoon humour and art and philosophy as Bob points out and anyone with a headshot like this deserves a look.

SaulAnyway what caught my eye was the word balloon. Something that I have been messing around with lately.

balloon cover
Does that need punctuation? Who cares? Who needs punctuation when your word balloons don’t necessarily contain words

subway directions

Or at least words not necessary to read in sentences or spoken phrases. word balloonsor in the case of my personal favourite balloons, maybe it should be punctuation only

I often wonder about the hang up with words. I’ve been told many a time that it’s not just language. A while back I posted Bob’s investigation of captions vs. captionless cartoons. Personally, I enjoy the wordless joke, saying so much without the need for language, though I am fond of wordplay which I often find myself talking about while out for coffee (coffeeng?). Bit of a stretch there. I am not entirely against captions, but so often you get a bad gag or poorly written or readers can challenge it with something better, which I suppose is the nature of the New Yorker caption contest. Worst of all is the atrocity committed by Family Circus on a regular basis.

family circusWord balloon and continued speaking part in the caption. Drives me crazy when I see cartoons put together like this. If you’re going to do word balloon and caption, at least do it right.


No caption no problem

To follow up on the Doodle first Caption first cartoon argument, here is John O’Brien. He ponders the question of no caption, though I figure no caption belongs in the Doodle first school. Cool to see the process evolve through quick working drawings.

O’Brien writes:

I’m definitely a doodle-firster, as I’m very much a visual person, and my cartoons are mostly captionless. I begin with an inkling of something on paper. It could be a common image, an inanimate object, a visual pun, a cliché, or whatever.

I move from one thumbnail sketch to another, adding and subtracting elements, until it morphs into something, often totally different from my original concept, that I think is funny and worthy of submission.

It might develop quickly, but often it takes weeks or months of bouncing around in my sketchbook before it works.

The illustration below shows my process for this idea.

Doodling and writing automatically: Again from the Desk of Bob Mankoff

As I look around for inspiration, I often find myself looking at the cartoons of the New Yorker and cartoon editor Bob Mankoff’s blog postings.

The latest deals with a chicken or egg scenario in the approach to cartooning that mirrors automatic writing and drawing. Of course, we all know the answer to which came first. Eggs. Chickens simply haven’t been around as long. So, what came first the drawing or caption. Not sure if the caption or the drawing is the chicken or the egg, but in the case of something like the Far Side, I can imagine Gary Larson sitting at his desk drawing some ludicrous scenario and captioning it later. 

Here’s Jack Zeigler’s take on doodle first.

I’m sitting in a comfortable chair, doodling on a clipboard in search of an idea. I’m on my second or third cup of morning joe. I try not to raise my eyes from the blank sheet of paper on the clipboard because there are too many distractions in the room—and I’m easily distracted. If I allow my eyes to light on any of the spines on any of the books, LPs, or CDs on the shelves that surround me, I’m a goner. Not to mention the pictures on the walls, mostly framed cartoon originals accumulated over the years from friends in the profession. If I look up, I know there’ll be one of these pictures that needs straightening, and if I give in to that urge I’m just asking for that Jesse James moment—the bullet in the back from that dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard, which would be the biggest distraction of all.

I’m trying to come up with cartoon ideas. I find that if I have nothing written down already—a preconceived idea or setup, say—I generally start my doodling process, my search for something tangible, by drawing a man’s head. Sometimes the face will look like there’s something going on just out of my eyesight. What is it? I have no idea, but I go ahead and attempt to draw it anyway. Today I’m looking at this guy’s head from a 3/4 angle behind him. I give him a cowboy hat, because is there any person more fun to draw than a cowboy? Probably not. I should probably put him on a horse. The horse I’ve drawn seems to be looking down, so maybe he’s high up on a hill that both of them in their prairie wanderings have just happened upon. There’s obviously something down there in the valley below. I’ve dressed my cowboy in a jacket that looks vaguely modern. Possibly shearling? Kinda screams Ralph Lauren in a Western mojo, doesn’t it? It’s then just a short, logical hop of the imagination from that jacket to a shopping mall, isn’t it? So I draw the mall down there in the valley, surrounded by a lotful of cars. What’s the cowboy going to do? Rein his horse off to the right in order to skirt the mall? Or will he succumb to an urge to shop? And if that’s the case, shopping for whom? His wife? Girlfriend? Himself? Nope.

For me, it’s generally the case that an idea for a cartoon springs from a tiny germ that I keep adding to until it builds into something that slowly begins to make a semblance of sense. Sometimes this construction project can be quite elaborate and consume an hour or more, but ultimately lead to a dead end. Other times it can take a mere few minutes and get me somewhere worthwhile. Either way, the journey can be fun, and occasionally one finds a jackpot at the end.

And Matt Diffee on caption first

I don’t doodle. I’ve got nothing against folks who do, but I’ve never come up with a decent cartoon idea that way. When I need an idea, which is always, I sit down with a full pot of coffee and a blank sheet of paper and I write. I’ll jot down a phrase I’ve heard or just a single word. It can be something that feels sorta funny to me or not. It’s just something to get the process started. Occasionally it’ll be words that describe an image or concept, like I might write down “dog afraid of vacuum cleaner” or “two beavers talking,” but I never draw those things until I’ve actually got a joke idea.

A good example of how this typically works is in this cartoon.

I started by jotting down the words “writer’s block.” For some reason, these words pop into my head a lot during writing sessions, as do the phrases “I got nothing” and “I should have gone to law school.” Anyway, I started by playing with those words. First I thought of alternative meanings of the words themselves. So “writer’s block” could be a city block where writers live. It could be writers playing with children’s building blocks, or a football block performed by a writer. You can see there’s probably a joke to be had among those options, but I don’t think it would be a very good one. Might be more “punny” than funny. You could mess around with the “writer” part of the phrase, too, and make it “rider’s block.” You could take that as far as you wanted and get “horse-rider’s block” or “subway-rider’s block.” I don’t think I pursued that angle very much. I mostly thought in terms of replacing the “writer” with another occupation. I jotted down things like “dentist’s block,” “taxidermist’s block,” “proctologist’s block,” “ventriloquist’s block,” and then a bunch of occupations that end in “-er” like “plumber’s block” and “butcher’s block” (which has its own punny potential). In the end, I found the gag by adding words to the phrase. Where can you add words to it? In the middle? Not really. At the end? “Writer’s block and tackle.” “Writer’s blockade.” At the beginning? Sure, “copywriter’s block,” “grant-writer’s block,” then eventually I came to “skywriter’s block” and BAM, there’s the idea. And it came fully intact. I immediately saw the whole image exactly how I ended up drawing it here. That’s the best part of doing this for a living; going from the moment when you have no idea at all to the moment when you have an idea. In a way I think it’s the same experience for the reader, except it happens a lot faster. Hopefully.

So that’s how I get ninety per cent of my ideas. Some come other ways, and I’ll take ’em any way I can, but mostly it’s this rational, relentless pursuit. Doodling seems like an unnecessary step, and, honestly, my mind-set when I’m drawing isn’t really a creative mind-set. It’s a mundane-task mind-set, like folding laundry or doing dishes. Sure, a cartoon can flit into my mind while doing those kinds of tasks, but it’s rare and I’m better off doing dishes than doodles, because if it doesn’t happen at least I’ll have clean dishes. I need that more than I need another stack of Diffee doodles.

People work in different ways and I am particularly interested in the doodle first approach because that is what I find myself doing a lot and taking ideas from those doodles. In a sense both modes work as automatic exercises, though in a more organised way. This isn’t always entirely random, but I am intrigued by the fact that both cartoonists start with a blank canvas avoiding all distraction. The New Yorker caption contest plays out like a doodle first assignment. You get a drawing and then you find an appropriate caption. My captions usually come in the midst of a ballgame when my mind has had a rest from the image for a while.

Incidentally, I didn’t win the latest edition of the New Yorker caption contest. Thought I was a shoo in this time.

Ever seen Deliverance?

Of course as Bob mentions then there are also cartoons with no caption. 

Follow up to Bob Mankoff

Not my idea, but I do enjoy introducing and playing drawing games, so I took Bob Mankoff’s ideas and had a few people put together some creations.

Thanks for those who played and will continue to play along.

Caption Contest? Family Circus? I have a better idea

Following up on yesterday’s last week’s post, I got thinking about the New Yorker caption contest. I often find the winners voted by readers lacking. Yes, I am bitter my captions have never been finalists. Obviously, the best caption for the cartoon below was my submission.

Wrigley just hasn’t been the same since they installed lights

Unbelievable that this was not short listed as a finalists. Writing has never been my forte (with the exception of the above cartoon), as evident by this blogs lack of words for the first twenty-odd posts. I often find myself sketching new drawings for these poor captions, much like I do for Family Circus in my local daily. Drawing to these captions has yielded far greater results.

I like puddles, they’re easier to play with than oceans or lakes.

Of course, these type of mash ups are not new as seen following the opening of Kanye West’s twitter account.

Yes that’s Kanye West tweets matched to New Yorker cartoons. Check out more here.

Which brings us to Family Circus… ugh, poor captions and bad drawings, not sure I know a worse cartoon.

I’m not the first to notice this, nor am I the first to ridicule.

To Mr. Keane’s credit, he does post the take-offs on his comic on his website.

So I invite you to do the same and will post alternate cartoons to Family Circus captions here and there, and send me your own takes on Family Circus captions. Or if you prefer the traditional caption contest, work out elements of the surrealist manifesto into Family Circus cartoons. Until then, Best of luck.

Cartoon Drawing Game from the Desk of Bob Mankoff

An interesting approach to cartooning from the New Yorker.

Anyone stumbling upon this, try it out as a New Yorker contest, but also send me your drawings funny or not using the cues.

JUNE 6, 2012


Posted by 
In a previous post, I wrote that “cartooning is idea creativity on overdrive.” Cartooning, of course, is also a form of humor. In his 1964 book, “The Act of Creation,” Arthur Koestler considered humor, scientific discovery, and artistic creation to be forms of creativity, because they all involve making connections between things not usually connected to create novel and surprising combinations. Research has shown that individuals with a greater sense of humor also tend to be more creative in other areas.The assortment of shapes shown below are part of a psychological creativity test. Participants are asked to take any three pieces and use them to build an invention, a tool, an animal, a toy—anything their minds can imagine.120604_cn-objects_p465.jpgSince cartoonists have some of the most imaginative minds out there, I’ve put them to the test to see if they can meet this challenge, and come up with something funny to boot. As might be expected, the rules were not always followed. I guess that could be looked upon as cheating, or creativity, or maybe both. Anyway, here’s what they came up with:

Pat Byrnes:


Bob Eckstein:


Tom Cheney:


Kim Warp:


Jack Ziegler:


Julia Suits:


Paul Noth:


Well, that was a good time, wasn’t it? But why should the cartoonists have all the fun? Now it’s your turn.

Here again are the shapes for you to work with:


Just combine the three pieces anyway you like. They can be any size, and they can be made of any material. You can send us your result three ways: Reply to us on Tumblr, post on our cartoon Facebook page, or tweet your drawing with the hashtag #tnydrawing. I’ll discuss the best entries next week.

P.S. You can try to be funny or just functional, but, either way, I think you are going to do splendidly. Why? Well, as I’ve explained, the research indicates that people with a good sense of humor tend to be good at creative tasks, and since you’re reading a blog from the cartoon editor, I’m going to assume you have a good sense of humor. And there’s experimental evidence that simply exposing subjects to humorous stimuli before having them engage in an unrelated creative task makes them more creative. So consider yourself exposed, and get on with it.

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