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 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 name.

So.  As noted in previous years, 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 satisfying splash.

  • 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 is this:

  • It was Halloween night, and they crept through the creepiest part of the creepy mansion.  “This place is kind of creepy,” Milton whispered.  (Chris Graham)

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.

Graham Swanson

We have the same repetition of an idea (this time repentance 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.

Karina Kantas

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.

Third place:

Her face, though scalded, was as lily-white as I could ever want as we jovially kissed.

Lucus Keppel

“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.

Miles Wilson

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.

Mary Potts

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.

Jennian Leister

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.

Guy Hungerford

That one’s even better if you do the voice.  “The mystery… of a MURDER!

John Gantry surveyed the grim aftermath of battle through the aft porthole.

Walt Freitag

That one should be totally innocuous, and yet “aft porthole” sounds gross.

Hussein read the agent’s 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.

Erin Spradlin

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. :(

Mozell Gibbons

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 into a chat window I giggle a little.

More Bob:

Under Bob’s fez was another.

Jeff Marr

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.

Brian Derksen

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 I’m not using it anyway.  I’m crying.

Ken Carfox

I think it may be the switch to the progressive aspect that pushed that one onto the list.

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.


David Poore

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 swivel-chairs.

Noah Smith

Sadly, Jim retracted his penis; it obviously wasn’t welcome here.

Alex Burleson

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.

Jackie Goodman

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., 2007.1024
quoted anonymously

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.

Amazing Spider-Man #544
quoted anonymously

Egad.  That may well be the single worst sentence I have ever read.  I have never been more thankful that I don’t currently 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.

Madrigal’s Magic Key to Spanish
quoted by Daniel Koning

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.

sample sentence from Apple Thesaurus
adapted by Rui Pires

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 me.

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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