Scott Weems, Ph.D.

Scott Weems Ph.D.

What’s So Funny?

Three Things You Can Do to Make Better Jokes

What do New Yorker cartoons, IQ, and Kanye West have in common?

Posted Jan 26, 2018

Source: CreativeCommons/PhotosForClass

Every week, thousands of people submit entries for the New Yorker cartoon caption contest. So far there have been roughly 600 winners and millions of frustrating failures.

Even something as simple as writing a funny caption can sometimes seem impossible, as those of us who submit entries regularly can attest. Former cartoon editor Bob Mankoff once published a list of reasons why captions fail, and the results were predictable. Being too brief or too long-winded is a problem. So is profanity, though that alone doesn’t disqualify you. The key is remembering that you’re writing a joke, Mankoff claims, not a Kanye West lyric. However, the most common problem is being commonplace.

Being common is a huge challenge in comedy, as any professional will attest. For a joke to stand out, it must be special. There are several steps you can take to make yourself funnier, but below I narrow the list to three. Though I can’t promise you’ll win any contests if you follow them all, it certainly won’t hurt:

1. Remain open to new experiences.

The most common way of measuring humorousness is to ask people to write funny cartoon captions, like with the New Yorker. Yet recently Dr. Emily Nusbaum of Yale University developed two other tasks. The first involved asking subjects to finish sentences such as “That food was so bad that…” The second had subjects come up with funny definitions for unusual noun-noun pairs, like “yoga bank.”

Nussbaum saw that no matter the task, the funniest individuals were those who scored high on separate tests of “openness to experience.” This is our inclination to avoid routines and lead a curious, creative life, and it turns out that it has a connection to humor. So don’t be afraid to daydream occasionally, or fantasize about your dog’s inner thoughts. It can’t hurt.

2. Actually study cartoons.

This one may sound strange, but it’s true. Aaron Kozbert of the City University of New York found that being able to understand what makes a cartoon funny is related to coming up with original captions on your own. So if you’re like Elaine from that Seinfeld episode, wondering what that latest New Yorker caption actually means, try a Google search.

3. Be smarter.

I know, that’s a tall order. But it turns out that being funny is closely linked with being smart. In another study by Nusbaum, hundreds of individuals were tested for their humor ability and their intelligence, and the connection was amazing. Not only were the two related, humor ability was closely linked with ‘g’, the term psychologists give to that aspect of intelligence common to all tests. In other words, ‘g’ is what any good intelligence test tries to measure, and it’s as linked with humor as with most measures of IQ. So be smart if you can, and if you can’t, maybe forget the cartoons and try writing Kanye West lyrics after all. Whatever you come up with, it can’t be worse than this: “Are you into astrology, cause’ I'm tryin' to make it to Uranus.”


Christensen, A., Silvia, P., Nusbaum, E., and Beaty, R. (2016). Clever people: intelligence and humor production ability, Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 12, 1-8.

Kozbelt, A. and Nishioka, K. (2010). Humor comprehension, humor production, and insight: An exploratory study, 23, 375-401.

Nusbaum, E., Beaty, R., and Silvia, P. (2016). Ha Ha? Assessing Individual Differences in Humor Production Ability, Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 11, 1-37.