Last fall, Xiwen (Miranda) Wang ’21 took a multivariable calculus course taught by Professor of Mathematics Colin Adams. From this class, she quickly gained exposure to Adams’ zany approach toward incorporating humor into his teaching. When she read about Adams’ humor writing Winter Study course, she signed up right away.
Little did she know that the class would be different from what she expected, and that it would ultimately result in Wang submitting the winning caption for The New Yorker’s weekly cartoon contest for Jan. 29.
“I really took the class to be a humor appreciator,” Wang said. “I thought I was signing up for three weeks of going to class and laughing.”
As it turned out, the course was structured around regular writing prompts, in which students would read aloud their pieces in a circle and comment on each other’s work. Though Wang initially found this intimidating because some people were more spontaneously goofy, she found value in listening to the class’ work and engaging with the friendly atmosphere. Wang’s quieter, less over-the-top sense of humor made it so that her jokes often elicited the most laughs.
“Oh, she definitely has a more subtle humor,” Adams said of Wang. “But it’s great. She’s a natural.”
Class assignments included a wide variety of prompts, ranging from short assignments like “come up with three funny products” to longer pieces such as “write an obituary.”
Wang laughed when I asked, with widened eyes, how on earth her obituary prompt turned out. She said that she wrote an obituary of the year 2017. A highlight of the piece included, “At his death, many were present and celebrating with champagne popping. He witnessed many things; his regrets were few but included bitcoin-ing the term ‘stable genius.’”
Wang is indeed a natural.
Early on in the class, students discussed effective approaches toward humor, which, as Wang recalled, included self-deprecation and satirizing anything that was really true and relatable. She latched onto the approach of poking fun at herself.
“I feel like, at the beginning of class, I had a reservoir of things I could self-deprecate on,” she laughed. “[I’d say,] ‘Today, I’m going to make fun of the fact that I buy too many things online.’”
There’s a saying that goes, “Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog; you understand how it works, but it’s not funny anymore.” And indeed, in talking to both Adams and Wang, there was a consensus that it is difficult to delineate exactly what goes on in the humor writing process. There are some tried-and-true tricks of the trade, however.
“When I can’t think of anything, I just go for a pun,” Wang said.
Puns featured prominently in Wang’s submissions to The New Yorker’s weekly caption contest throughout Winter Study. Adams required students to make caption submissions throughout the course. The quippier the caption, the better. The week there was a dog in a spaceship surrounded by aliens, Wang’s caption was, “We have a ruff situation.” Or when there were two people being chased by a giant Saguaro? “Cactus if you can.”
But her most clever caption was still to come. In the final week of the course, The New Yorker released a cartoon featuring a gingerbread man lying in a hospital bed, surrounded by doctors. Wang’s caption, “Have you tried icing it?” ultimately won the official contest and made it into publication, beating out thousands of entries that week.
While humor is subjective, it is undoubtedly a zinger of a caption.
“I’ve found that if it’s a pun on a thing in the picture, that’s too obvious,” she said. “I find the finalists they pick [often make] puns [on things] not immediately in the picture, so that’s one thing I try to do.
“Also, longer [captions] are harder because it’s just more words. And it being a question really helped with the phrasing.”