Here we have another drawing by Benjamin Schwartz. It shows a caveman proudly displaying his latest invention, a square-wheeled tricycle, to his neighbor.
The tricycle needs round wheels. The invention of such wheels is credited, at least in cartoons, to cavemen. Initially, therefore, I came up with eight variations on a joke about a caveman who invents a tricycle but doesn’t realize it’s missing that archetypal example of primitive technology: the circular wheel.
- “If you thought the wheel was impressive, take a look at this.”
- “Sure, Bob invented the wheel, but it has no practical implications.”
- “The wheel’s a fine invention, but what do you do with it.”
- “I came in second, right behind that guy who invented the wheel.”
- “And Ted thinks he’s so great because he invented the wheel.”
- “Marge tells me you’re working on something called a wheel?”
- “So, that’s my latest invention. What’s this I hear about you and a wheel?”
- “I hear you’re an inventor, too. Tell me about this so-called wheel.”
After beating that joke to death I moved in a slightly different direction. I thought about having the inventor of the tricycle explain his creative process by referencing circular wheels without realizing they are exactly what his invention needs: “I was just spinning my wheels and then, Eureka!”
Moving in still another direction, but still only slightly, I considered a caption that would show that the cavemen understood that his invention still needed work:
- “It’s an early model.”
- “It’s just a prototype.”
Then I considered the possibility that the caveman knew his prototype needed work, but did not understand what component needed improvement: “I still need to work on the handlebars.”
Than I thought about how much energy it would take to propel a tricycle with square wheels:
- “It’s a hell of a workout.”
- “It really works the calves.”
But maybe the caveman intentionally invented a tricycle that didn’t move. That possibility led to, “It’s a stationary bike.”
I was bothered by the fact that none of my captions addressed the fact that the caveman’s invention is a tricycle as opposed to a bicycle. I know that Schwartz drew a tricycle because his cartoon is part of an exhibit at the National Museum of Mathematics, where a top attraction is a square-wheeled tricycle, but I still thought I should at least try for a tricycle-specific caption. So I tried, but I failed.
Maybe that doesn’t matter, because very few of the nearly 2,700 captions you submitted addressed the fact that the invention was a three- as opposed to a two-wheeler. And the ones that did address this fact were puns—plays on the word tricycle—that didn’t work as well as the more conceptual captions.
Like I did, many of you made a joke about a caveman who realizes his invention needs work but focuses his attention on the wrong feature. The best of these included, “I know, I know—it needs a bell,” and “The seat needs more padding.”
In other entries, the caveman acknowledges that his invention needs work without suggesting specific improvements:
- “I’m thinking of reinventing it.”
- “It’s a bit primitive.”
- “It’s just a prototype.”
I’m partial to that last caption because it’s identical to one of mine.
Several of you thought of a terrific joke I never considered and submitted captions highlighting the caveman’s proud refusal to cut corners, an admirable trait in most situations, but not when it results in square wheels. Most of these captions, however, were too long. “We didn’t cut any corners on this model,” is good, but “I didn’t cut any corners” is better. Better still is, “I never cut corners.” Not only is it two syllables shorter than its closest competition; it highlights the inventor’s misplaced pride in his commitment to avoiding shortcuts.
There were many stationary bike jokes but the best, submitted by a few different entrants, was, “It’s a stationary bike.” Do I prefer that to similar entries because it’s identical to one of my own captions? Maybe, but that’s not the only reason. It’s punchy and omits the superfluous words I found in so many versions of the same joke.
Closely related to the “stationary bike” captions were jokes about exercising on such a bike, such as, “In theory, this could increase life expectancy to 35 years.” I especially like that reference to our prehistoric ancestors’ short life spans, but why begin with the words “in theory?” They add nothing.
Another caption acknowledged that most people who purchase exercise bikes never use them: “Square, round—it doesn’t matter. Three months after people buy it, it goes in the attic.” That’s too long but I enjoyed it, in part because I have an exercise bike collecting dust in the corner of my basement.
I also enjoyed, “I’ve gone ’round and ’round trying to figure out how to improve it,” and not just because it’s conceptually similar to the “spinning my wheels” caption I thought of.
Some truly clever captions were premised on the idea that the caveman was not a failed inventor but a mischievous prankster playing the long game. The best was, “Just having a little fun with future anthropologists.” Compare that to, “I know, but in 50,000 years, archaeologists are going to find this, and I’m imagining the looks on their faces.” Both captions are going after the same joke, but the second explains too much. (The second caption enjoys only one advantage over the first: it refers not to anthropologists but to archaeologists, who focus on analyzing material remains, and therefore makes a little more sense.)
In several entries, the caveman extolls what he sees as the benefits of a square-wheeled tricycle. The best examples include, “It can take you anywhere you already are,” “On the other hand, no one will steal it,” and “It’s a vast improvement over the triangle!” That last caption is clever, but why does it end with an exclamation point? Unless the person speaking is obviously yelling—e.g., “I hate exclamation points!”—understated is always better.
Several of you imagined that the caveman who’s speaking is not the inventor. One of you made him helpful (“Okay, here’s a crazy thought . . .”), while one of you made him part of the problem (“Marketing tweaked your design”). That last caption will resonate with any creative person who’s had to stand by helplessly and watch others try to make his work more marketable.
That’s all for this week. If I had to pick a winner—the cream of a very good crop—I’d choose, “I never cut corners.”