The 2008 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. It's hard to draw
a line between those that just barely make it in and those which are just
barely left out; on another day the jury and I might well have chosen a
rather different set of winners. And of course, I wouldn't know funny if
it bit me on the ass.
Every time I think this contest has run its course, along comes a year
full of great entries: 2004 was one, as was 2007. And then there are
years like 2008, which make it clear, as I noted last year, that this
contest is hard. There were an awful lot of entries that made
me think, "This would probably win some giggles from certain readers,
and that by itself might have been enough for me to put it on the list
back in 2001, but it's just not what the contest has come to be about."
I'd like to share some examples, but since I feel bad about singling
people out as non-winners, I'll leave off the names of the entrants.
If you wrote one of these and would like to claim credit, please
email me and I'll be glad to attach your
So. As noted last year, this contest is an exercise in intentional
unintentional comedy. Anything that sounds like a deliberate joke
on the part of the author is therefore not what this contest is
looking for. Examples:
- It seemed the stifling summer heat would never end, and it would
not, for Bob was in Hell.
- It hadn't been a very good week for me: I'd developed a mysterious
rash that wouldn't go away, and also existential angst.
- Little did Beethoven know, on that cold December morning in 1770,
that he was about to be born. (Randall Munroe)
- It was only fitting that was allowed in the fitting room, the Macy's
security guard told Brad.
- On ordinary Sundays, David wouldn't just stare blankly at the screen,
watching as the Florida Hurricanes won the game, but today, he was
experiencing a cardiac arrest.
- Hugo kissed Rachel like no man had ever kissed a woman; he put his
nose deep in her mouth and exhaled.
- Face screwed up in deep concentration, Paula pushed and heaved and
pushed on end until at long last I finally entered this world with a
- Smeano, the evil overlord of the underworld, ruled with a steel fist,
for he had found the iron one too heavy.
- When one o'clock came, the chime sounded once and eventually
diminished to silence well before two o'clock.
I can imagine all of these lines appearing in different sorts of
genuinely good comedic novels. The problem is that I'm laughing
with the imaginary authors rather than at them, meaning
that they're not right for this contest. The same could be said for
some other entries that came very close to making the list of winners
— those that were not jokes, exactly, but which nevertheless
seemed like they could appear in a successful humor piece:
- Dwayne was lactose intolerant, although he tried harder than
most to overcome this obstacle.
I can imagine someone like Neal
Stephenson spinning that into a short chapter.
- As I lay
sprawled on the porch swing, my mouth crammed painfully full of forced
Werther's Originals, I knew Grandpa's chuckles wouldn't lead to a happy
story, and they didn't.
That's sufficiently well-written that I
actually want to continue on to the next sentence. Then you have these:
- As the subtle smell of baking monkeys filtered through the classroom,
I wondered where the science experiment had gone wrong.
- Then came the year 3429. Nothing happened — until one day, the
french-bread-mutants invaded lustily.
- The screams died down and Earl drifted off to sleep; he had the dream
about the marshmallow factory again.
Same idea, only this time instead of trying to be funny, they're trying
to be silly. Some people like this sort of thing, which would
make it successful humor and therefore wrong for the contest. Many
others find it annoying, which would make it failed humor — and
failed humor is very rarely funny. (Someone should tell that to
Christopher Guest, whose recent career seems to be founded on the idea
that there's nothing more hilarious than people making jokes that fall
flat. Ha ha, you tried for laughs and got awkward silence! Hysterical!)
The ironic thing is that, having explained why the above entries will
not appear on the list of winners, I fully expect that most of them will
be more popular on the blogs than the ones the jury and I did select.
Deliberate jokes are, by definition, more immediately funny than the sort
of weird conceptual humor this contest is about. Adding to the degree of
difficulty is that the more obvious the badness of the sentence, the less
likely it is to really work:
- Bob gave a cry like a human being shot as the machine gun spoke with
a quiet chattering, silencing him.
That's not terrible, but the joke — using a simile to describe
something that is literally the case — isn't very subtle. Nor
- It was Halloween night, and they crept through the creepiest part
of the creepy mansion. "This place is kind of creepy," Milton whispered.
And yet I must admit that these are not entirely dissimilar from the winner
of the 2008 Lyttle Lytton Contest:
Because they had not repented, the angel stabbed the unrepentant couple
thirteen times, with its sword.
We have the same repetition of an idea (this time repentence rather than
creepiness), and some of the other surface elements aren't all that intrinsically
funny — the precision of the number, the tacked-on mention of the sword.
So why is this #1? Because in sixteen words it conveys a devastating portrait of
its imaginary author. I mean, you can just see this guy, can't you? He's the
one sitting three rows in front of you in lecture, the one with the mop of
hair that doesn't touch the collar of his Warrior for Christ t-shirt. An overtly
proud but secretly frustrated virgin (note that it's a couple getting stabbed),
whose own sexual fantasies have grown more disturbing as he reached and then
passed the big two-oh, he has turned his frustration outward into righteous
fury at the sinners, penning a magnum opus that is part warning to the
unbelievers and part revenge fantasy. And these guys exist, after all. Look
at Chick tracts, look at Jarod's Journey — heck, is the Left Behind
industry really much more sophisticated than this? Winner.
Sophi broke down in tears, like a diesel car that had run out of petrol.
I like this one because even though the simile doesn't work, the phrase "broke
down" makes it feel like it should — so much so that it forces us
to imagine that cars that have run out of gas do indeed weep bitterly, lamenting
the fuel system that has betrayed them.
Her face, though scalded, was as lily-white as I could ever want as we
"Jovially" is great here — certainly not correct, but also not obviously
wrong, it's the exact sort of thing Mark Twain referred to when he talked about bad
writers choosing the second cousins of the words they actually needed. But even
better is the implication that paleness is the number one quality the speaker looks
for in a lady, and yet in this case he'll let it pass, so enamored is he.
I've pretty much retired the various specialized awards from the last few years,
but I have to break out the Berman Prize for this one:
Portia, distracted, brushed the fetlocks of her steed, murmuring softly.
It's not so much the sentence itself that makes you wince as the prospect of
reading about Portia, eldest daughter of a family fallen into genteel poverty,
and the sensitive horse that understood her better than any of her boorish
swains or impulsive sisters.
More honorable mentions:
The Ramadan tree was lit, and Aladdin joyfully sat around it.
I guess Mary had better hope this doesn't get reprinted in a Danish newspaper.
Also combining disheartening ignorance with suspect word choice is this one:
Queen Elizabeth sat alone, wondering when Napoleon was gonna get there.
That one actually went on for another sentence, but it was one of those
"ha ha, I repeated something" jokes. There were other sentences that
improved greatly upon editing:
This story is a murder mystery — the mystery of a murder.
That one's even better if you do the voice. "The mystery... of a
John Gantry surveyed the grim aftermath of battle through the aft
That one should be totally innocuous, and yet "aft porthole" sounds gross.
Hussein read the agents TSA badge, gently grazed his strong hand with
hers, and whispered two words that would change her love life forever.
Nathan von Colditz
That was a Berman Prize contender in its own right, suggesting as it does a
romance novel straining to be relevant to our times. Though I guess it's
more relevant to 2002 or so than to our times exactly.
(Authors of the above, if you want your name removed from the edited versions
of your entries, let me know.)
Another one in the same vein as the last one is:
Liz Trundy burst onto the stage to the wild applause of her fellow Mary
Kay comrades, unaware that the wildest applause came from Digby Jones,
NFL punt receiver, who had never let himself forget her.
I have to admit that part of the reason this made the list was because it
brought up the (to me) fascinating question of what the funniest-sounding
football position is. Obviously a lot of it depends on the context: I
recently read a joke that used "middle linebacker" to great effect, but here
it wouldn't be as good. "Defensive tackle" has a certain ring to it, but here,
no, I think using a special-teams player is important. "Punt receiver" instead
of "punt returner" is an interesting choice, too — it suggests either
that Digby only takes fair catches, on that the imaginary author of this
romance novel decided to add a football angle without sufficient research.
Hey, wait, that's 35 words. I guess that means that technically it's
disqualified. Hunh. Well, here's one that made the word limit:
Bob is sad. :(
For some reason a couple of years ago I suddenly started to find emoticons
hilarious. The new graphical ones still annoy me, but my deployment of the
old typographical ones has been increasing exponentially. Every time I type
:D or ixi I giggle a little. (What's ixi, you ask? It's a crying cat! You
all should start using that one.)
Under Bobs fez was another.
I like that one because it feels like it's missing a word, but then it takes
a moment to figure out what it would be, and then once you've figured it out
you realize that adding it would make the sentence even worse. I don't know
why that kind of conundrum amuses me, but it does.
As Lucas hunkered in the shadows waiting for his name to be called he
fiddled with his cuff links, praying that this time his knife thrusts
would be sufficient.
I may have chosen that one in large part because it feels like an ever-so-slight
parody of the book I'm currently reading. (The Confusion. I'm somewhere
in the mid-300s right now. So, less than halfway. Sigh.)
FUCK. I scream and pound my monitor so hard it stops functioning for four
minutes, but Im not using it anyway. Im crying.
I think it may be the switch to the progressive aspect that pushed that one onto
On to the jury prizes — the ones I probably wouldn't have included but
were among the favorites of one or more of the jurors.
PEWPEW — Lasers! — PEWPEWPEW!
I admit, that one grew on me. As one juror correctly noted, "It is like the
first sentence of a novel written by a seven-year-old boy with ADHD."
More jury prizes:
The thing is, you can never really tell if a person is looking out from
behind their own eyes, or if the eyes are being piloted by tiny mice in
Sadly, Jim retracted his penis; it obviously wasn't welcome here.
Sleep was about to clutch my eyes, when suddenly the text rang through
my head. Peering at my phone I saw, WTF? LMAO! and I could
not help but smile.
On to the Found contest. A number of these were submitted anonymously,
including the winner:
Tears are permanent when you tattoo them to your face.
anonymous, quoting espn.com, 24 October 2007
Oh, man. Where do I even start? "Tears are permanent" strives so very hard
for lyrical pathos. "Tattoo them to your face" is perhaps the least lyrical
phrase ever written. They're in the same sentence! And it's kind of a
tautology, given what "tattoo" means! And it says something ridiculous!
And yet by its existence it suggests that someone actually did something
just that ridiculous! WTF? LMAO! I could not help but smile.
But here's something to wipe that smile off your face:
Tune your ear to the frequency of despair, and cross-reference by the
longitude and latitude of a heart in agony.
anonymous, quoting Amazing Spider-Man #544
Egad. That may well be the single worst sentence I have ever read. I have
never been more thankful that I don't read Amazing Spider-Man. Again,
it's trying so hard for lyrical pathos and falling so very, very flat. It
looks like the recipe here is "Add two parts nerdy, inappropriate metaphors
to one part steamingly purple prose; mix poorly." So where's the humor? I
guess it's the bitter, cosmic jest that we live in a universe where someone
got paid for this.
At the risk of exposing myself to that dreadful epithet, unorthodox,
I am jumping feet-first with you into the past tense.
Daniel Koning, quoting Madrigal's Magic Key to Spanish
I was iffy on this one until I actually followed the rules of my own contest
and imagined it as the first sentence of a novel. Like, take any novel
written in the past tense, and attach this to the beginning. Ha ha ha!
I observed this wheelchair dude in the vestibule. He was waiting for me.
Rui Pires, adapting an sample sentence from Apple Thesaurus
Bookending the crassness of "this wheelchair dude" with "observed" and
"vestibule" is delightful.
Finally, here's one I found myself:
With the backbreaking work of the Gold Rush came massage techniques from
across the globe.
from a pamphlet at the Claremont Resort & Spa in Berkeley
And yet when we covered the Gold Rush in fourth grade my teacher said nothing
about the prospectors' fondness for shiatsu! The educational system has failed
Anyway, that's all for 2008. Check back next year for more. You know where
to find me. If you forget, just tune your ear to the frequency of despair,
and cr—gah, I can't even bear to finish
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