The 2006 Winners
"What? Those are the winners?! Where is my glorious entry?
Dammit, you wouldn't know funny if it bit you on the ass!"
No doubt. This sort of thing is enormously subjective. On a different day
I might well have picked a slightly different group of winners, and a
different judge would almost certainly have come up with a very different
list. It's hard to draw a line between those that just barely make it in
and those which are just barely left out. So if your sentence doesn't appear
below, that doesn't necessarily mean it was no good — it just didn't
jump out at me the way these did. And of course, I wouldn't know funny if
it bit me on the ass.
One thing that has become clear over the years is that this contest is
hard. By which I mean both what I said above — it's hard
to draw a line between the weakest of the winners and the strongest of
the rest — and also that the contest presents a very tricky target
to hit: opening lines that are so bad they're funny. Almost every entry
succeeds on at least one of these two counts. But going two for two is
harder. I won't bother to list examples of entries that were bad without
being funny. But here are a couple that I liked, but in the wrong way.
One entry submitted by a Michael (no last name given) read, "It was only
after the third corpse had been removed and all the blood had been cleaned
off the walls that Jack decided that perhaps dentistry just wasn't for him."
See, that is the sort of sentence that would never be found at the beginning
of a bad and therefore unintentionally funny book. It's clearly a joke,
complete with punchline. It might well be the beginning of a good comedic
novel. Which is fine, but not what this contest is about. Here's another
one, by Brian Derksen: "The rain came down in buckets at first but later in
the normal fashion, making it a whole lot safer out there." I laughed, but
it's not quite right.
Closer is this entry by Sarah Cornell: "It was 5 AM, and much to my
consternation, my pet rat was standing on my face." It doesn't have
the setup-punchline structure that dooms so many entries. It's not a
pun, it's not misdirection... but the other thing it's not is bad. Like,
if I were an editor and had pulled this off the slush pile, I would proceed
to sentence two. See, it's hard to write a Lyttle Lytton line on purpose!
It's simulated unintentional comedy, and sometimes there's just no competing
with the real thing. Which explains why a number of people this year submitted
lines that they admitted they had found elsewhere. If I hadn't decided it was
unfair to throw these into the pool with the original sentences, this would
have been this year's winner:
The mega beasts were united by only one thing: their size.
entry not signed
This sentence, the anonymous email reported, appeared in a Discovery Channel
documentary. I looked into this and found that, indeed, the Discovery Channel
had aired a program called "What Killed the Mega Beasts?". It was directed by
someone named Chris Lent, but I haven't been able to find the writer listed
anywhere. Whoever it is has probably never heard of this contest, but he or
she is going straight into the Lyttle Lytton Hall of Fame.
Here was another entry that would have been a contender had it been original:
His eyes were brown, although you wouldn't know it just by looking.
Dan found this in a vanity press novel by one Paul Panks. I'm speechless.
Before we get to the real entries, let me throw in one more. This one I found
myself. You've probably heard it before. But now imagine it as the first line
of the foreword of a sweeping historical novel. Ready? Here we go:
I just recently came off a trip to the Far East, and it struck me
that I was in a region of the world where wars had started.
George W. Bush
Okay! Enough preliminaries! The actual winner of the 2006 Lyttle Lytton Contest
This is the cipher key for all that follows: |||||| || |!
P. Scott Hamilton
To those of you saying, "That is too gimmicky! How am I supposed to quote that on my blog?":
hey, you can always quote the mega beasts.
Or you can go with this one, the runner-up:
Dora liked to explore.
¡Madre de dios! I mean, yes, on the surface this just recapitulates what
we already know about Dora based on the title of her show. But on the other hand, no!
She is just a kid! She is not ready for Lynne Cheney to pack her off to Bryn Mawr to
"explore" with Jessica Paré! So much wrongness packed into four words! Or
is there? I've been looking at this for months now and I still can't tell whether
it's supposed to be suggestive. I think that's what makes it so good.
Comrade Todd Award:
Does the dance of love have to be a dairy of romantic sonnets; can it not be a Haiku
and still be sensually poetic?
Good question. (Coincidentally, shortly before I wrote this up, I was reading a rather
inane diary post on dailykos.com and happened upon a comment that declared, "This is a
Fabulous Dairy. Much more interesting than yet another 'Why I Hate Bush Dairy'." Hmm,
I guess most dairies are in blue states...)
Though Montfort Medals were originally given to sentences that referred to their own
production, I'm sure that noted metalepsis fan Nick Montfort won't mind if one is also
awarded to this inadvertently postmodern gem:
"The hero has cancer," thought the doctor grimly.
And maybe throw in another one for:
Bill's goiter had burst and it was on my head, Mary thought quietly.
What I like about the second one is not the content but rather the way the
reader has to suddenly recast what seemed like simple narration as the thoughts
of a character who is for some reason thinking in the narrative pluperfect.
As for the content, well... I am a little disappointed to find that, year after
year, probably over half the entries resort to simple gross-out humor. On the
rare occasions that scatological comedy works, it's because there is some other
element in the sentence that makes it work, such as the ambiguity of:
"I can't!" screamed Jake to whomever was outside the airplane's single
Of course, not every winning entry relied on ambiguity. This one conjures
up a very clear mental picture:
Cries of "Ahoy!" broke the turgid silence of the golf course; the
entry not signed
Eventually I'm going to get tired of the "unnecessary clarification" gag,
but apparently it still works for me:
James took Mary's hand — not in matrimony just yet, but plain
physically — and led her to the altar.
I woke up shuddering; my soul was now dead inside.
This year I received many more entries for the Byg Lytton than I did
last year. Byg Lytton was an experiment — part of my purpose here,
apart from gathering funny lines for your amusement, is to explore (eek!
there's that word again!) what makes things funny or not. I wondered to
what extent the one-sentence limit was acting as a fetter restraining
entrants from reaching even more rarefied comedic heights. After all,
I'd received many entries over the years that were funny as one sentence
but would have been funnier as two. What would happen if people could
string multiple sentences together?
In most cases, the answer was that they created the sort of Bulwer-Lytton
entries that led me to start this spinoff contest in the first place. They
took a goofy situation and rambled about it for a full 100 words. Some
entries I could see would have been better as Lyttle Lytton submissions.
For instance, the last Lyttle Lytton winner this year was actually submitted
as part of a Byg Lytton entry:
Everyone in the year 2020 knows about nanobots!
On its own, that is indeed an amusingly bad way to start a science fiction
novel. In its original context, coming at the end of a fairly witty
paragraph, I would have accepted it as the voice of a cheeky postmodern
writer rather than an incompetent one... and this contest is about
My favorite Byg Lytton entries were those that took advantage of the
opportunity to use multiple sentences while remaining punchy. (And even some
of those needed a little trimming.) If I must pick a single winner, I
The evil Intergalactic Emperor surveyed the destruction he wrought.
"Booyah!" he cried with glee. "I'm in ur base! I'm killing all ur
Don't worry, future contests will not be filled with l33t. But I
love the idea of a menacing Darth Vader figure striding onto the scene
and declaring, "I'm in ur base!"
On the other hand, this one is just as good:
"And that's when I stabbed her in the face," Jake finished. The
rest of the support group looked on in horror and abject confusion.
They weren't sure what this had to do with testicular cancer, but
they knew it had to be bad.
If I can't pick co-winners, the reason that this one gets ranked #1B is that
it's actually too good. The situation is definitely contest material, but
the writer clearly has an ear for the language. Look at the balance between
the long strings of monosyllabic words used for the more basic elements of
the tale ("And that's when I stabbed her in the face"; "they knew it had to
be bad") and the contrasting polysyllabic phrases ("abject confusion";
"testicular cancer"). That's deft.
This year's Berman Prize winner is:
On November the 22nd, 1963, an innocent man by the name of Lee Harvey
Oswald stood inside the Texas School Book Depository, burdened with
the knowledge of what would soon happen, but with no way that he could
possibly prevent it. Seconds later an American presidency was
destroyed. He never had a chance to tell his story. This is his story.
The frightening thing is that I've actually seen ads for vanity press novels
exactly like this.
Here's another Montfort Medal contender, suggesting an unlikely origin for
the 100,000 words to come:
Dear Mister Spray:
I am writing to you to inform you of your
son's death. What follows were his last words.
But hey, as long as we're handing out Montfort Medals, why not finish with
The door dilated1.
1This is in the future, when
doors dilate instead of opening the way they do now.
And that just about wraps it up for this year. The new rules for '07 are
already up, so see you then!
Return to the Lyttle Lytton page!