11 September 2009

Fill in the Blank

The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest Book is the first and so far only collection of those captionless comics at the back of the New Yorker magazine, each printed with the three “finalist” options and the winner that appeared in sequential issues of the magazine.

Cartoons editor Robert Mankoff worked hard to fill out the volume with information that hasn’t been published before: remarks on what makes a usable captionless cartoon (a recognizable scene with an anomalous element), commentary from winners and finalists (it’s apparently quite a coup to get your name in the magazine), pie charts of the voting results, and other statistics.

I couldn’t resist crunching one set of numbers. Among the finalist captions, there were 309 from men and only 105 from women (about 3:1). Among winners, the male-female ratio is more even, but still over 2:1—105 men’s captions to 43 women’s. So does this contest favor men over women?

Not really. According to Mankoff, “In general, five times more men than women enter the contest.” So women who send in captions are far more likely to become finalists and to win. To put that another way, men are far more likely to think they’re funny.

Another set of data derives from comparing the entrants’ given names to the most common given names in the country. For example, the name Robert is the third most common among American men (and the name of the book’s editor); it’s therefore not a big surprise that Bob is the top name among men entering the contest. Mary is the most common name among American women, and the fourth most common among entrants.

Certain given names are greatly overrepresented in the New Yorker captain contest, so much so that they seem to be markers of people who think they’re funny (in a New Yorker way, of course):

  • Harold is #40 in the country and Harry is #70. Among the male caption entrants, however, Harold is the second most common name and Harry the fourth.
  • Marge is only the 1,251st most common name in the country but the third most common among women entering the contest.
So now you understand your Uncle Harry and Aunt Marge a little better.


Anonymous said...

I wonder. Could it be that the same Harry and Marge submit every single week, and perhaps multiple times? That certainly would skew the numbers.

J. L. Bell said...

That thought had occurred to me as well. And I rather hope that it would have occurred to Mankoff, that he would have checked to see if multiple entries from the same folks were skewing his sample, and that he would have mentioned it. But maybe he thinks he’s funny.