The 2009 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 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.
I will begin with my now-traditional exhortation about what this contest
is not. It is not a "funniest sentence" contest. It's relatively easy to
make people laugh with you, if you try. In the past I've attached
long lists of such entries, but this time I'll keep it to just three:
- Larry, the dung beetle, was in tears outside the soda shop,
having realized that his dung ball had been stolen while he had been
inside enjoying a cola and some dung.
Norm Macdonald, is that you? No, actually it's someone named Dave
McKenzie, who submitted way too many entries to be considered even if
they had been the right sort of thing. Here's another of his:
- The familiar "Arf! Arf! Boom!!" jolted Captain Lance Westwood
out of a dream and reminded him that the war against the planet of the
dog people wasn't going well.
And one from longtime contributor Mark Silcox:
- The slender Zap-gun shivered lewdly in Captain Freck's hand,
then whispered "ka-pow" and squirted its laser into the damp cave.
Again, what this contest is going for is a simulation of unintentional
comedy — we should be laughing at your entry, not with it.
This is hard to do on purpose. It's a lot easier when you're not trying. For
instance, I just went to the suspiciously heterosexual Amazon bestseller list
and pulled up the top book, which was something called Liberty and
Tyranny by one Mark Levin. It begins:
- There is simply no scientific or mathematical formula that
See, that would be a winning entry in this year's contest! It raises a
number of questions: who exactly does the author think he's disabusing of the
notion that a political belief system can be rendered as a "scientific
or mathematical formula"? What distinction does he believe he's drawing
between scientific formulas and mathematical ones? How deep into this
imaginary argument is he that he thinks he needs to add the word "simply"?
Most importantly, it doesn't make me want to learn the answers to any of
these questions. The first sentence convinces me that the author isn't
going anywhere with this that I have any interest in following. On the
other hand, this entry sounds like a setup:
- As a secretary, Penny was skilled in answering multi-line phones,
receptionist duties, copying, faxing and documenting things, but as her
performance evaluation noted, she wasn't very good at filing. (John Vent)
The rhythm of this sentence suggests that the author is going somewhere with
this. Heck, I can finish it myself. "As a secretary, Penny was skilled in
answering multi-line phones, receptionist duties, copying, faxing and
documenting things, but as her performance evaluation noted, she wasn't very
good at filing. A memo about the new parking policy might be found under H
for 'horseless carriages,' while a cash payment was likely to end up in the
Jaa-Jal drawer in a folder labeled 'Jackson, Andrew, portraits of.' Thus,
Penny was fired, and a new secretary brought in who didn't quite understand
the intricacies of the phone system. And that is how, in attempting to put
me on hold, she wound up connecting me to the private conference call in
which CEO Avner Wilkrest ordered me killed." Or something like that.
- At sixteen, Ben understood the emotional depth of the world around
him and he had a number of respectable poems to prove it. (Erin Spradlin)
That would indeed suggest a bad novel if I thought for a moment that the
author wasn't being sardonic. But since clearly this will be a satire at
Ben's expense, it is just plain funny rather than unintentionally so. And
it's well-written enough that I'd certainly read on. Another example:
- She swabbed her pale neck with alcohol. "I'm ready," she cooed. He
licked his canines, anticipating the germ-free surface of her skin and the
taste of her blood. (anonymous)
OCD vampire! I'm sold! Clearly this author has a future in comedy! And
that's why her entry didn't appear among the winners. Because that's not
what this contest is about. We're not supposed to be laughing with you, but
at you, and while, as noted, that's easy enough to pull off when you're not
trying, it's harder when you are. And the best example I found this year
was the winner of the 2009 Lyttle Lytton Contest:
The mighty frigate Indestructible rounded the Horn of Africa and
Now that's bad! As soon as you hit the name of the ship you can smell the
cheap irony coming, and the "ooh, look how nautical I am!" reference to the
Horn of Africa is immediately trumped by the trying-even-harder apostrophe
However, I imagine the second-place winner will be more popular:
Pika ... chu, thought Pikachu.
Ten years ago that probably would have netted the author a three-book deal
worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $600,000.
And speaking of ten years ago, let's start the honorable mentions, presented
in no particular order:
Alex turned to Gertrude, in much the same way Martin Landau turned to
Barbara Bain in the opening of Space: 1999.
A novel whose every simile is a television reference might seem a little
unrealistic, but isn't that basically Bill Simmons's career?
As long as we're living in the past, let's party like it's 2005, when a
paean to a certain beach sport won first prize:
For many, surfing can be a pleasant and enjoyable pastime, if you like
surfing, but not Peter.
I received entries within minutes of each other from about a hundred and
fifty Leggatts. Apparently they were having a little intra-family contest.
Cormac is the winner. Cormac, if this means you get envy-fueled dinner
rolls thrown at you at Thanksgiving, I am sorry.
And now let's relive those heady days of 2007:
Zamboni doubled — nay, TRIPLED over in happiness-demolishing
This one wins a mention for "happiness-demolishing," which isn't quite
as memorable as 2007's "unending holocaust of pain" but bears the same
Speaking of taking a quick jaunt to the past:
I have the ability to go through time, he suddenly remembered while
at a bus stop near a tree.
This is what we in the business call "painting a word picture." Setting is
Sometimes painting that word picture requires the imperative mood, or the
Deep space. The silence of the void. Shh.
I try not to fall for the same gimmicks every year, but here are a few that
do some of the usual things well. Unnecessary explanation:
Deborah walked briskly down the street with pants on her legs.
Jerrys wife looked forward to a romantic time with him, Jerry.
Ooh la la! whispered Larry in French.
Jim Van Donsel
The thing that gets me about the third one is that not only is it
unnecessary explanation, I'm not entirely sure that "ooh la la" really counts
Farmer John admired the golden corn, sprouting from the ground like
It seems like it should work! Corn and treasure are indeed usually roughly
the same color. You do indeed place both in a hole in the ground. And both
do spontaneously erupt from the earth after— oh, wait, that would be
the sticking point, wouldn't it.
Continuing with matters underfoot:
Tectonic plates fascinate me, she says, her eyes swiftly
darting from my eyes to the ground, and back again.
That's probably too far over the line into deliberate comedy, but I couldn't
resist. And let's conclude the originals with one more:
I hope I win, thought Ernest, blinking laboriously; he was
proud to represent his country in the Olympics, but What did it
What indeed? See, winning isn't everything. Sometimes it just brings on
On to the Found contest. In the past, most of these have been repurposed
from non-fictional sources, but this year a number of entries cited
bestselling novels. I found one myself, which shouldn't really count
because I know Neal Stephenson wouldn't write a sentence this astonishingly
awful except for his own amusement. Nonetheless, from The Confusion:
- "Caramba!" exclaimed Diego de Fonseca, "a cucaracha has
fallen onto the tortillas of my wife!"
This is the actual beginning of the Mexico City chapter, and in its own way
it's kind of a masterpiece. I may get married just so I can refer to "the
tortillas of my wife," but only in written contexts where I can apply
But the winner should not be going for something dire on purpose, so the
winner of the Found contest is:
Despite having ascended to the most powerful political office in the
world, President Zachary Herney was average in height, with a slender
build and narrow shoulders.
Scott Silverstein, quoting Dan Brown's Deception Point
Wow. Just... wow. Yes, I know that presidents tend to be tall, but still...
that's the contrast you're going with? It reminds me of a story I wrote in
which I included a "surprisingly average-sized gang member," but, like, I was
a child then. Seriously, man, this is supposed to be a prose
novel — try to be less transparent about writing it for the
casting agents. Sheesh.
A leg and part of a torso lay on the sidewalk — the remains
of Alan Tompkins.
Mark Wells, quoting LaHaye and Jenkins's Left Behind
Mark notes, "Try imagining the scene without guessing as to which part of the
torso." He also points out "the implication that the viewpoint character has
just identified Tompkins from his leg and torso-part."
Dan Brown and LaHaye/Jenkins are among the bestselling writers of our era.
We are all doomed.
Here's one from another bestseller, though not a novel:
Huang Lee has a simple mission: deliver an ancient sword to his Uncle
anonymous, quoting the box to Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars
This raises the question of how often Asian-Americans who themselves have
Anglo names decide to play up the ethnic heritage angle. Like, if Matt and
Lisa Sullivan of Somerville can stick their kid with something like Siobhan,
do Tim and Amy Lee of Sunnyvale ever say, "Fuck it — we're going
A more obscure source now:
Org of Otterland was not Duke Og and Duchess Dina's first child, for
that honor belonged to Natalya, brown-haired, eyed, and furred.
not signed, quoting Duke Otterland's Org's Odyssey
Fanfic (or in this case a vanity-press novel) is kind of easy pickings, but
nostalgia won out here, for this reminded me of the beginning of Stephen
Ratliff's "Time Speeder": "Lyam Sympton was your average human from the
outside. You would have never guessed that those brown eyes and brown hair
covered a obsessed man."
And hey, suddenly I'm on to the last couple. This one is one of the old-style
No matter what you believe, whether youre Christian, Muslim, or
Jew, this is where it probably happened.
Josh Wood, quoting a PBS plug for a show about Israel
There's a lot I could say about that one, but for right now I think I'll
just marvel at the placement of the word "probably." And here we have
someone who may not have been 100% clear on word definitions:
The door, which had been left open a few inches, was ajar.
Ella Manley, quoting something she read somewhere
And that just about covers 2009. Which means that next year is (ulp) the
tenth go-round with this thing. Yet another occasion upon which to ask,
criminy, where the hell did that decade go?
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