Style Conversational Week 1047: Riffed from the headlines (paywall-free edition!)

November 14, 2013

By my count — I’m using Elden Carnahan’s Master Contest List — this is the 10th incarnation of our contest to write a “bank head” either misinterpreting a Post headline or, less commonly, wryly commenting on it. (We’ve also had similar contest in which you get to change the wording slightly.) It debuted in March 2001, under the fill-in reign of the Uberczar, a.k.a. Tom Shroder, while the Czar was on a three-month leave; as I recall it, he wrote up the new contests and chose the top winners, while I, as Auxiliary Czar, judged all the entries and presented a short list of finalists to Tom.
That Week 391 contest was headlined “Spinning Out of Control” (??) and was credited to longtime Loser Greg Arnold, who’d suggested that the Losers “create a subhead (which Arnold defined, in a bravura show of technical expertise, as ‘whatever you call that headline-like thing in smaller type below the main headline’) that spins the story in an opposite or unexpected direction.” Actually, various newsrooms use various terms for that secondary headline; when I started working on the Style section copy desk at The Post, they were calling it a “redeout,” while on the national and metro desks it was a “bank head” or occasionally a “deck.” At my college paper it was called a “kicker,” though that term is used mostly for an interesting quote, etc., that ends a story. I think “bank head” (or “hed” in intramural jargon) is most common.

That first contest was won by Big-Time Loser Sarah W. Gaymon:
The Buck Goes There
New Patrons Don’t Know Tipping Etiquette, Exotic Dancers Complain

A few other inking entries that week:
Let’s Enroll Our Kids in Shooting Classes
Frustrated, Michael Jordan Looks to the Future (Charlie Myers) [Jordan was coaching the always-lousy Wizards at the time]

Fire on Prime Minister’s Plane
‘Just Following Orders,’ Troops Claim (Paul Kocak)

Business Backs Bush Tax Cut
Earth Labeled ‘Spherical,’ Pope ‘Catholic’ (Michael Knab)

Bush Works the Phones
President Also Manages to Operate Light Switches, Doorbells (Michael Swanlund)

Note that most of these entries are in the elliptical style unique to newspaper headlines: use of the present tense; a comma in place of “and”; the omitted “a” and “to be” verbs; the attributions at the end such as “Troops Claim.” To me, mimicking a traditional headline makes the joke headline funnier; it’s one reason that The Onion’s satirical heads are so funny. (Admittedly, the humor requires the reader to be familiar with traditional news headlines, something that might not be true for long.)

Since I took over as Empress, I’ve run this contest about once a year; perhaps I’m especially fond of it because headline-writing was part of my job for 26 years, but it’s always drawn lots of entries as well. Here are the first-prize winners from the past decade:

Compelling Body of Art
Simon Explains Real Reason for Reunion With Garfunkel (Michelle Stupak, 2004)

Ta-Ta to the Windsors
Janet Jackson Performs at White House Dinner for Camilla, Charles (G. Smith, 2005)

She Says Tomayto, He Says Tomahto . .
Dan Quayle Invitational Spelling Bee Ends in Tie (Fred Winter, 2006)

Expansion Is Approved for Alamo
Pentagon Notes ‘Regrettable’ Delay but Predicts Troop Surge Will Thwart Santa Anna (Christopher Lamora, 2007)

Talk All You Want! Hook Up Now! [a cellphone ad]

High School Adopts ‘Progressive’ Policies (Beverley Sharp, 2009)

Saudis may get huge arms deal
Landmark ‘oil for spinach’ accord signed (Elden Carnahan, 2010)

Top architect, once rooted in the sky, comes down to Earth
Almighty Creator opens Tysons office ‘to try My hand at condos’ (John Shea, 2011)

Romney: ‘The sky seems to be crying’
‘It’s called rain, sir,’ explains butler who had accidentally lowered boss’s umbrella (Melissa Balmain, 2012)

Note that The Post had switched to “downstyle” headlines by 2010, capitalizing only proper nouns. That move prevents some ambiguity that one used to be able to exploit for this contest. For example, something like this entry was sent by many people in 2001:
Burundi’s Capital Is Shaken by Hutus Who Rejected Accord
Generals Demand Camrys, Civics or Else

If “accord” is lowercase in the headline, you can’t pretend it’s a model of car. (If the non-Post head you’re using is in upstyle, however, you’re in luck.)

On the other hand, you can still get away a bit with in the opposite situation, in which a word is actually capitalized but you want to use it generically. I think I’d still use this one, for example, from Pam Sweeney in 2006:
25% [o]ff Jockey
Pudgy Rider Makes Weight as Amputee

In general, this contest works best when the reader grasps the actual meaning of the headline; if it’s not clear what it’s supposed to mean, then the twist on it isn’t as funny. A very brief line such as [“a cellphone ad”] above can work, but not a long one explanation, because it will probably kill the joke. Looking back at the winners above, I have second thoughts about the architect “once rooted in the sky,” because I’d have no idea what it was talking about. (It seems to be about an architect who was originally known for designs that were more cerebral than practical.)

Sports headlines have provided great fodder for this contest over the years, with team and school names — and even verbs — put to new uses:

Temple Remains Too Much for GW
President Still Unwilling to Attend Mormon Service, but Insists He Is ‘Ecumenable’ (William Bradford, 2001)

Lake Braddock Sweeps Meet
Track Event Washed Out When Reservoir Overflows (Russell Beland, 2001)

Bolt’s Best Times
Lightning Most Likely to Strike in Late Afternoon, NOAA Says (Russell Beland, 2009)

Tejada Is Adamant About Staying With O’s
Teammates Miffed Over All-Star’s Inflexibility at Pregame Tic-Tac-Toe (Brendan Beary, 2006)

I hope that my allowing any headline in the whole world will allow as many Losers as possible to play this game. But remember, you still get to send no more than 25 entries. So it might keep you sanest if you stick to one publication (I recommend The Washington Post, though it won’t get you preferential treatment) or even just one or two days’ worth of papers.

Reality bites: The results of Week 1043

The humor was, not surprisingly, heavily topical among this week’s inking entries for reality TV shows featuring various celebrities, along with a sprinkling of puns on the titles of existing shows. All four “above the fold” winners this week focused on personalities and news of the past few months.

It’s the first win and just the fifth blot of ink for Tim Livengood (official Loser Stats anagram I Vomit Golden), though Tim was a runner-up in Week 1018 for the neologism “Voldemart: Wal-Mart rebrands for a more positive image.” Tim is yet another member of the Loser Astronomy Cohort; maybe there’s more time at NASA these days for work on Invite entries?

And it’s just the fourth ink for Laurie Tompkins, though she’s already won the whole contest; In the 2012 Tour de Fours (words including the letters VOTE), Laurie got an Inkin’ Memorial for “Tevow: An electronic device that suppresses displays of religious fervor that occur during secular events. ‘I tevowed the Country Music Awards and watched the whole thing in 12 minutes.’ ”

The other runners-up, Gary Crockett and Frank Osen, keep popping up in these wrap-ups. Suffice to say that Gary and Frank have 22 above-the-fold blots between them.

Some entries went for the “truth is stranger than fiction” tack:

Richard Wong suggested a show about the attorney general of Maryland, who’s currently running for governor: “How about a show featuring a heroic statewide official who drives on the shoulder of the road with police lights flashing and sirens blaring to bust teenage drinking parties, seizing red Solo cups from the hands of the females (who need greater protection) and smashing those cups with a lacrosse stick? — D. Gansler, Annapolis

Doug Hamilton (another astronomer) offered this news item as “how could it not be a Style Invitational entry”: “Make Shroom for me in the Ivory Tower:” A Malaysian university awards an honorary doctorate in economics to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in part for his plans to make his country a ‘world famous mushroom producer.’ ”

And Larry Pryluck noted an actual reality show that does promise to outdo “Vanilla Ice Goes Amish”: “ ‘The Governor’s Wife’ is about Edwin Edwards, the 86-year old former governor of Louisiana who served time for corruption, and his 35-year old trophy wife Trina.”

Join us at brunch this Sunday at noon!

We’re up to 14 Losers, Devotees and their orderlies to descend upon the buffet at the GI-themed Kilroy’s this Sunday, but certainly more are welcome. Click here for more information and to RSVP. It’s conveniently just outside the Beltway at the Braddock Road exit. (I’m trying not to think too much about the chocolate fountain for strawberry-dipping.)

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