BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 11:13 GMT, Thursday, 22 May 2008 12:13 UK

The caption competition is back

Ant and Dec. Or is it Dec and Ant?

It's back! After a hiatus of 10 months, the Caption Competition has made its return. Here comedy writer John O'Farrell gives his tips on how to make that entry really count.

Caption competitions are nothing new. If you look at the Bayeux Tapestry you can see the winning entry for 1066 stitched in Latin across the top.

And during my childhood I would turn straight to the back page of Punch to read the winning entry in the magazine's famous caption competition. My dad and I would occasionally have a go at this contest, never with any success it has to be said, perhaps because it seemed to be won by the same person every week.

Darwin statue placed in the Natural History Museum

C Thomson of Glasgow (I think it was) achieved a certain degree of celebrity when his or her success even started to be the subject of the winning entry.

A perplexed Victorian man would be shown staring at a piece of paper and the new caption would say "There's no point in even trying – C Thomson of Glasgow always wins it."

What was also quite disarming about the Punch caption competition was just how staggeringly unfunny and ponderous the original captions seemed 100 years later.

MISTRESS OF THE HOUSE, SURVEYING BROKEN CROCKERY: "You foolish girl, you have broken the second vase as well!"
HOUSEMAID: "Lawks a lawdy Miss, I thought it best, what with them being a pair an' all!"

Now the internet has brought an immediacy and worldwide reach to the traditional caption competition, and the BBC News Magazine is reviving this much-loved feature in an effort to make millions of office workers spend even less time on the things they are supposed to be doing.

You should never really lay down too many firm rules in comedy writing, but in the case of caption competitions it's probably fair to say that puns are very rarely funny (said the author of I Have A Bream).

Nice pun

The fact that one word sounds a bit like another is rarely the basis for a brilliant comic conceit (although the Magazine's much lamented Punorama is another honourable exception.)

It is the lateral thought that often makes for the most outstanding caption; not the first thing you think of, or indeed the second. When I was writing picture gags for some TV show or other, I remember staring at a photo of a really immaculate opulent bedroom from a palace somewhere, with an ornate bedcover that looked like it had been ironed into position; not a thing out of place in the entire luxury suite.

"Well, there's no joke you can do with that…" I thought as I went on to the next photo. But the great Not the Nine O'Clock News veteran Laurie Rowley wrote the caption: "And police have just released pictures of the state of the hotel room as left by rock star Cliff Richard." We cut to the tidiest room you ever saw and there was a huge laugh from the studio audience.

Boom boom

More often, dozens of people will land on the same basic comic idea, but then it is the perfection of the wording that will make the difference. At the risk of stating the bleedin' obvious, the word that detonates the comic idea should come at the end of the sentence, or as near as possible.

But the choice of words that lead up to the reveal are also crucial. I remember a fine joke that my old co-writer Mark Burton wrote for a Clive Anderson monologue: "Ice cream for your pooch has just gone on sale in America. Dogs can now lick their way through three different flavours; chocolate, vanilla and testicles."

Dog eating an ice cream
Judicious word placement is key

Obviously you wouldn't put those flavours in any other order but it is the way the word "lick" is smuggled into the set-up that really makes the joke explode on the final word.

But with all creative writing, you're probably best ignoring all advice, especially this bit. The only rule is "This made me laugh, so I thought it might make you laugh as well".

Running an online satire site has convinced me that there is a huge reservoir of un-tapped comic talent out there, the BBC provides the chance to reach millions and millions of readers around the world.

There is no huge cash prize for the winning entry to the BBC caption competition, or any prize for that matter (except a small quantity of kudos). But bringing a smile to fellow readers is surely enough reward in itself.

Maybe there is a new C Thomson of Glasgow out there, who will win it every other week. But whatever comes of it, professional comedy writers like myself are always delighted when new opportunities like this come along. Because the more that new writers are distracted from writing funnier scripts than ours, the better...

John O'Farrell is creator of the satirical website

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