The 2018 Winners

On more than one occasion I have grumbled about movie reviews written by critics who watch three hundred movies a year and, after a decade or two of this, start to judge movies primarily on whether they contain something the critic hasn’t seen before.  The same sort of thing happens with restaurant reviews—​a dish might be delicious, but a food critic who’s had a dozen versions of the same dish might yawn at it.  These sorts of reviews risk leading less jaded people, who might watch a movie or go out to eat a couple of times a month, to miss out on something they might really enjoy.  I worry that, with the Lyttle Lytton Contest in its eighteenth year, I might be falling prey to the same trap: this year I often found myself thinking, “Wow, this entry would have easily made the list back in the early ’00s, but I’ve read thousands of entries since then and have seen this exact gimmick several times. Pass.”  On the one hand, I doubt that readers want to see slight variations on the same entries year after year after year (though I’m sure that there are people out there on the message boards asking, “Why stop now?”).  But on the other, I imagine (or at least hope) that there may be folks reading this page who haven’t been following the contest since 2001 and who might be seeing some of these tropes for the first time.  There’s also the fact that this whole contest is just an excuse to post a bunch of jokes and it therefore seems better to err on the side of including more jokes.  So I’ve put a few of these in a supplementary list called “Perennials”.

But enough about borderline cases—​let’s get to the winner of the 2018 Lyttle Lytton Contest:

As I felt the vampire sexily drinking the blood from my neck, the warmth between my legs grew both in wetness and in fear for my life.

Cole Borsch

This might strike some as a candidate for the list of perennials I just mentioned, partly for its subject matter—​didn’t we just have a spate of vampire entries a few years back?—​but also for its structure.  It’s at least vaguely reminiscent of 2012’s winner, with the eyes taking in the sights and sounds: once again we have a list whose items do not all fit with the subject.  But this year’s winner takes that idea a couple of steps further.  I don’t think I’ve seen another entry in which the narrator experiences three sensations and casts the second and third as aspects of the first—​I was going to say that it’s like saying that the Jolly Green Giant is known for his huge, verdant cheer, but even that works better than this entry, which adds to the mismatch by blithely jumping from two physical sensations to an emotional one.  Throw in the fact that the imagined author’s idea of setting an erotic tone is to shove the adverb “sexily” into the opening clause and you end up with the kind of train wreck that made picking a winner this year unusually easy.

Which is not to say that there were no other strong contenders!  Take this year’s runner‑up:

The girl with the vegan pork regarded me with eyes more kind than the nonviolence on her plate.

Neil Martin

Comparing a character’s eyes to a slab of soy protein isolate is the big pratfall here, but what made this stand out for me was the use of an abstract noun to refer to a concrete one.  This is no mere vegan pork—​it is nonviolence incarnate!  (Or incarnitas, as the case may be.)

On to the honorable mentions, and I believe we’ll start with an entry from the found division:

Meghan Markle could not wait to say yes to Prince Harry when he proposed during a cosy night in over a roast chicken.

@TheScotsman, 2017.1127
quoted by Alyssa Alcorn

Roast chicken?  Now we see the violence inherent in the system!

(Actually, while I am amused by the idea that the chicken was the clincher in securing an enthusiastic acceptance, it’s really the whole pileup of prepositional phrases and subordinate clauses that makes this work.)

Ericsan had only one goal in life: make Kimikochan his waifuchan.

Dylan

Step one:

But before getting too attached to Kimiko‑chan, Eric‑san might want to heed the words of the Master, making a return appearance after last year’s debut:

“Thou must bewarest of woman, little Abu,” quoth wisely the Master. “For while her eyes holdeth the sweetness of a hundred dates, her lips holdeth the sting of a thousand scorpions.”

Benjamin Smith

I have frequently written about how, in addition to the intrinsic comedic value of a joke, other factors affect how much any given person will enjoy it.  For instance, a lot of Lyttle Lytton entries each year, including this year’s winner, have something to do with sex; those who enjoy sex comedy generally do so at least in part because they have pleasurable associations with sex, and these associations enhance the pleasure the audience derives from the actual comedy.  This is also how in‑jokes work.  There’s the actual comedic value, but then there’s also the sense that, hey, not everyone would get this, but I did!  There’s an in‑group and an out‑group, and I’m part of the in‑group!  And the pleasure of being included enhances how much we enjoy the joke, to the point that something that’s really only mildly funny can have us roaring with laughter.  For that matter, the unexpected shock of recognition can itself produce such a reaction, given how central the shock of the unexpected is to comedy.  And I have to confess that while I do think that “the sweetness of a hundred dates” is funny in and of itself, one side effect of my variegated ethnic background is that in my youth I had a number of exchanges with random adults of my father’s acquaintance that went like this:

▸  Adult: “Every child has a sweet tooth! Would you like some sweets?”
▸  Child me, with visions of Crunch bars and Caramellos dancing in my head: “Yes please! Thank you very much!”
▸  Adult brings out a plate of dates
▸  Child me dies a thousand deaths

So, yes, the notion that the date is the ultimate unit of sweetness gave me a little zap of recognition that secured this entry’s spot among the honorable mentions.

Holding a more sanguine view of women than the Master does is this entry:

Commander B. G. Robinson is very feminine and graciously endowed: everything she has two of are perfectly matched, coordinated, and move with a wonderful grace that is called “woman.”

Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Outrageous Okona” shooting script
adapted by Harper Cole

Those graceful kidneys!  Those perfectly matched kneecaps!  Criminy.  Anyone care to volunteer something like this that’s, y’know, a little less overwrought?

Let me tell you about Sally. Her tits were good.

Sam Kabo Ashwell

I guess I asked for it.

She walked in with a dress the paralyzing green of the BlackWidow Ultimate Stealth 2014 Edition Elite Mechanical Gaming Keyboard by Razer (4.5 stars, 37 customer reviews)

Katherine Morayati

Like I said up top, it’s hard to come up with something new after nearly two decades of this, but I hadn’t seen this exact joke before, and I thought it was pretty great.  4.5 stars for Katherine!  But that’s a lot of entries in a row with women as the object of the narrator’s gaze—​what’s up with that?

Our eyes are always pointing at things we are interested in approaching, or investigating, or looking at, or having.

12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson
quoted anonymously

Okay, I guess that’s a good answer, though it’s hard to shake the suspicion that the author just started listing all the gerunds he knows.  Still, though, maybe it’s time we had an entry from the woman’s perspective?

I had always been the kind of woman to put my career first, but as I prepared to abandon my crying children to go to work for the hundredth time, a thought struck me—​“Was this His plan for me?”

Holly McEwen

I think that one of the things I like best about this entry (like the one with the dates) is the suggestion that the author considers a hundred to be a really big number.  I am a sucker for the idea of someone reaching for hyperbole but ending up with understatement, as the 2011 winner with the red hot sun attests.  That said, sometimes when an entry breaks out the number 100, it’s not just hyperbole, it’s hyperbole and a half:

You find a cave (you’re a male Halfelf). The female Fullelves inside try to restrain their libidos, but that’s like butterfly nets trying to stop 100 mph of uncooked rice.

Allie Brosh

I guess that mention of unrestrained libidos means it’s time for this one:

Agent Gunner Storm closed his steely grey eyes and pictured the erotic sphere of Lady Liberty’s bare breast as he thrust into the terrorist princess.

Greg P

The entire thing is impressively awful, but I have to give a particular shout‑out to the phrase “erotic sphere”.

Continuing with the sex‑focused entries:

The award show was a veritable orgy—​not of sex, but of cultural appropriation.

Bari Weiss, New York Times, 2017.0830
quoted by Peter Berkman

Oh, a veritable orgy not of sex.  My mistake.  (The article is actually not as bad as that sentence would suggest, but, my goodness, that sentence is a doozy.)

Another topic of many entries each year is the pain of relationships gone bad.  Here are three that run along those lines:

My lamestream friends told me to start dating again, but I knew the jet fuel of love couldn’t melt the steel beams of my heart.

Klaus Virtanen

Texas “Cheap Shot” Jack, the famous Newark poker player, sighed about his life. Matters of the heart—​unlike the hearts he held in his hand—​could not be folded so easily.

Sam Coppini

The tongue has no bones, but it is strong enough to break a heart.

Power of Positivity Facebook page
quoted by Clare Fischer

I had reservations about including all three of these, as they all revolve around the word “heart”.  But I liked all of them, and they’re not making precisely the same joke—​one is a topical (or formerly topical) allusion, one a strained parallel, one an overreach for irony.  Still, I suspect that the bar for future entries that lean on the word “heart” will be heading higher.

And since sad protagonists have taken over the proceedings for the time being, let’s continue with this one:

A tear rolled down her face like a tractor. “David,” she said tearfully, “I don’t want to be a farmer no more.”

anonymous

Not too many other bad similes made the list this year—​it looks like the only remaining one in the original entries is this:

The puddle detective Amelia Stone stepped into reminded her of a pool of blood or sins as dark as the muddy water.

Iva Hauer

I concede that I didn’t exactly laugh out loud at this one, but I do admire the heck out of it—​it’s a nifty little ouroboros of a comparison.  But on the topic of sins:

There is no human hunger like unto the hunger for pride.

Brad Hanon

Another one that I may not have laughed at but which did set off my “hey, this is clever” alarms.  The nature of the sin determines what you hunger for, so if you say that what you hunger for is the sin itself you might as well start the sentence with “Yo, dawg”. 

Moving from hunger to its natural companion:

“It looks like this continent is out of water,” I said in Antarctica, as a rookery of penguins waddled thirstily by.

Ally Walker

I love the whole thing, but I am tickled by “waddled thirstily by” in particular.  Between this and “sexily”, perhaps the lesson is that adverbs are the funniest part of speech.  I will have to ponder this.

Dany approached the castle. (If you’ve forgotten about Dany, reread books 3‑6). In her hand, she held the sword Justificier (reread book 7), still bearing the blood of Durin (reread book 9).

Jenny

I haven’t seen that joke before, so a virtual high‑five to this entrant.  I also must confess that it hits home for me—​these days not only would I not remember things from one book in a series to the next, but I often can’t remember things as I move from one chapter to the next.  (One advantage is that I don’t have to spend as much on comic books, because instead of buying a new issue every month I can just reread last month’s issue and it will seem like it’s hot off the presses.)

The brute was reminiscent of an ancient Ethiopian warrior, bristling with muscle and melanin, yet Charlie was unfazed.

Grayson Seelke

This is another one of those entries in which the verb works with the first object but not with the second one.  Though given all the people in the news lately who’ve had the police called on them for existing while black, I wouldn’t be surprised if the phrase “bristling with melanin!” showed up in one of those 911 tapes.

Here’s a contestant who managed to get two entries selected in 2014, landed two more in 2015, and now scores yet another two‑fer in 2018:

Unhesitantly I skydove, commending my body into the lightweight but capable hands of my parachute.

Hannah Sim

Tad quit school to paint the canvas of Google Maps, his dad’s Camry his brush and his mind his own.

Hannah Sim

One of the archetypal examples of how important word choice is in comedy is that if you want to name‑check a car, you pick a Buick, because “Byoo‑ick” just sounds funny.  But in this context, “Camry” is better—​perfect, even.

Every so often we have a special jury prize, when those who review the Lyttle Lytton list before it goes up make a case for an entry that they feel has received insufficient acclaim.  This was originally going to go in the list of perennials under “unusual approaches to detective work”, but apparently it revolves around a topical reference I didn’t get but that other people find really funny, so here is this year’s jury prize winner:

THE BULLET JOURNAL OF KELSEY JOY
To‑Do: 1/1 - 1/7
* Three‑year anniversary w/ partner in crime!!!
^ Appointment w/ ob/gyn
- Study for LSAT
+ Solve sister’s murder

Aimee Lim

This will probably be happening more as the years go on, as I have to be introduced to what’s happening in the world of you crazy Millennials with your bullet journals and your avocado toasts.  (Actually, I eat a lot of avocado toast.  Y’all are definitely on to something there.)

That actually wraps it up for the original entries this year, so I guess that before I finish up with the remaining found entries, I’ll put together that list of perennials I’ve been talking about.  Again, these are all highly worthy entries, so cheers to all who appear—​the tropes are just a little familiar after eighteen years.  Here we go:

Perennials

  • Word error

    He opened the door fastly.  —Stan Clooney

  • Eyes and hair

    Haileighe Summers sat, tears crossing her azure eyes, as Xackary Florets, the chestnut‐haired love of her life, lay expiring.  —Daria

  • Obnoxious objectivist

    Join me, traveler. Join me in slaking my thirst for truth at the wellspring of Reason.  —Aidan Lockett

  • Reference to better‑known work

    The wizard’s beard was long, much like Gandalf’s in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, who was also a wizard.  —Luke Fowler

  • Fun with onomatopoeia and personification

    RING! John stood up to see what the doorbell wanted.  —Brad Porter

  • Smarm

    Back then, few believed that World War III would involve fighting, not with guns and swords, but with hearts and minds.  —Benjamin Johnson

  • Mixed media

    Setup of Act One, Scene One “The Killing”: please set your Oculus filter to sepia and put on Bagatelle No. 25 in A minor (WoO 59, Bia 515).  —Bjorn Edstrom

  • Meta

    My name is Amy and you’re going to like me because I’m a strong female character!  —Samantha Pine

  • Repetition

    Olivia wore a sexy red dress that was just sexy enough that people who saw her thought she was sexy but knew she wasn’t a slut.  —Mary Potts

  • Murder of people and of the language

    “How could I have done this?” cried Jeremy, during a solemn reaction to his beloved corpse, whom he called a wife.  —Jude Loveless

And we’re back!  Of the five remaining found entries, the first may seem a little unfair, as it dates to 1911.  But when it popped up in my inbox, I couldn’t resist:

Queen Aquareine had a stern look upon her beautiful face. Cap’n Bill guessed from this look that the mermaid was angry.

The Sea Fairies by L. Frank Baum
quoted anonymously

Good sleuthing, Cap’n!  And yes, it is the unironic use of “Cap’n” and the extremely obvious conclusion said Cap’n draws that stand out here, but on a more subtle note, look at how Baum unnecessarily specifies that the look is on the mermaid queen’s face (as opposed to what, her elbow?) in order to be able to shove the word “beautiful” in there.  Even the name “Aquareine” is a groaner.  I guess we’re lucky he didn’t name the girl who went to Oz “Terrafille”.

General Clap did not understand the way of the ancient warrior. However, the Shadow Wolves did.

The Way of the Shadow Wolves by Steven Seagal and Tom Morrissey
quoted by Brendan Atkins

I was going to make a joke about whether the Shadow Wolves had gotten hold of the Chaos Emeralds, but I looked up this book and discovered that it also prominently features Barack Obama and that in so doing it makes the Chaos Emeralds author look like Robert A. Caro.

I dance with English, and our tale is only just beginning.

Gods of the Word by Margaret Magnus
quoted anonymously

Perhaps so, but the 2018 edition of the Lyttle Lytton Contest is drawing to a close.  We have two found entries left.  Picking a winner between these two was tough; the one we’ll see first is written worse, but I couldn’t give it the (imaginary) top prize in the found division because it doesn’t sound much like the beginning of a novel:

Joe just looks at me with that stupid look, covered in flowing blood, going onto his shirt like ketchup randomness, so much messier and more random than I could ever plan.

Palo Alto by James Franco
quoted by Ruben Luthman

Wow.  This sort of thing is one reason the found division developed in the first place: no matter how hard people try to write something as bad as possible, it’s very hard to beat someone trying to be good and genuinely failing.  Comparing blood to ketchup is inane.  Using the word “random” right on the heels of “randomness” is a misstep.  But using an abstract noun like “randomness” (like “nonviolence” in this year’s runner‑up) is itself a misstep—​and that’s before we get to the fact that “ketchup randomness” is not a thing.  Ideally, similes fix an image for us by comparing something we don’t yet have an image of to something we do.  The author here is basically saying, “I know you probably can’t imagine what blood flowing onto a shirt looks like, but just pull up the mental image of ketchup randomness that I’m sure you have handy, and it’s like that!”  And then the “than I could ever plan” ending… it suggests that the author thinks we carefully plan out how to get blood to flow onto a shirt, aiming for maximum messiness, but we fail.  We achieve only ketchup orderliness, I guess.

But again, that’s not this year’s winner of the found division; this is:

The atmospheric molecules that filled the Rose Bowl were in full vibration as kickoff approached.

Ryan McGee, espn.com, 2017.0915
quoted by Ryan S.

I hope the spectators were dressed for full temperature when they arrived at this air receptacle.

I am not a scientist (as Republican politicians are fond of saying about themselves).  So when I encounter something like the above and think, “What the what?”, it is not the pedantry of an expert at work.  It means that I have encountered yet another example of writers and marketing types who do not care whether their science metaphors actually work, even for total laypeople, so long as they “sound sciencey”.  We can place this one next to the 2013 entry about harnessing the raw power of an eclipse and the 2010 entry about using the Hubble Space Telescope to look at something microscopic.  That last one was also by a sportswriter, and these sorts of sentences are the equivalent of a scientist explaining a phenomenon in particle physics by comparing it to kicking a home run through the hoop for birdie.  Except no editor would let that through, whereas in the case of all of these some editor said, “Yup, that’s a winner.”  And I agree!

That concludes the contest for 2018; the 2019 edition is officially open!  Historically, I have wrapped up this results page with a few remarks about how tough it is each year to draw a line between those entries that make it in and those who are left out, and even after adding a whole new class of entries to include, that remains true: there are a couple dozen entries sitting in a folder called “tentative winners” that wound up as a “not quite” when it came time to do this write‑up, and on another day, any of them might have made the cut.  So, many thanks to all the entrants, as well as to the posters, rebloggers, and retweeters who help to spread the word about this contest.  If you enjoy Lyttle Lytton, please consider supporting it by tossing a few cents at my Patreon account, the proceeds from which allow me to devote time to this and other projects.  It would be kinder than a plate of vegan pork and sweeter than a hundred dates!

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