I have become obsessed with the New Yorker’s weekly cartoon caption contest. Since the magazine’s first issue, in 1925, it has been known for its cartoons. They have even attained pop-culture status. You may recall a Seinfeld episode in which Elaine demands to know why a particular New Yorker cartoon is funny. The magazine’s editor responds, “Cartoons are like gossamer, and one doesn’t dissect gossamer.” In other words, “I don’t get it either.” The caption contest has existed since 2005. On the HBO series Bored to Death, Ted Danson’s character, George, studies the contest cartoon, on the last page of the magazine. He muses, “What would a police duck say to a suicidal bear? . . . ‘You can bear it.’ Oh God, that’s terrible. I’m never gonna win this thing.” Actually, some of the reader-generated captions are very good. Of the ones I have seen, my favorite accompanies the illustration of a woman and a clown at a sidewalk café table. The clown is seated, looking sad. The woman is standing, her wine untouched. She says, “Well, if you must know, he makes me laugh.” You can see it here.
I have to imagine that the contest presents one of the best ways for the average person to get published in the New Yorker. Still, the odds are against you: the magazine receives five to ten thousand entries per contest. (You’d probably have better luck with a letter to the editor.) And being a celebrity doesn’t help: High-profile losers include comedian Zach Galifianakis, political satirist Stephen Colbert, country singer Brad Paisley, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, and three-term mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg. In 2011, film critic Roger Ebert became a finalist and won, on his 107th try.
How does the contest work? The magazine publishes a cartoon in need of a caption. Readers submit their captions online. The magazine chooses three finalists, on which the public votes. The winning caption appears in the magazine, and the winner receives a print of the captioned cartoon, signed by the artist who drew it—a.k.a. my new goal in life. Is there a magic formula for getting a caption past the judges? Humor would seem to be the most important component. Contest winner Patrick House, a Stanford University neuroscientist, offers some insight:
To understand what makes the perfect caption, you must start with the readership. Paging through the New Yorker is a lonesome withdrawal, not a group activity. The reader is isolated and introspective, probably on the train commuting to work. He suffers from urban ennui. He does not make eye contact. Laughing out loud is, in this context, an unseemly act sure to draw unwanted attention. To avoid this, your caption should elicit, at best, a mild chuckle. The first filter for your caption should be: Is it too funny? Will it make anyone laugh out loud? If so, throw it out and work on a less funny one.
Chicago attorney Larry Wood, who has won multiple times, gives the opposite advice: “I think you should try to be as funny as you can.” The New Yorker’s cartoon editor, Bob Mankoff, concurs; to increase your chances of winning, he recommends, “Be funnier.” I have collected the following additional tips from Mankoff, past champions, and researchers who have studied the contest:
- Be persistent. Enter every week.
- Be brief.
- Minimize punctuation, especially exclamation points.
- Be novel and surprising. (A thousand people might send in the same caption, if it’s an obvious fit for the drawing.)
- Be abstract, such that the picture can’t be retrofitted to the caption.
- Use simple language.
- Avoid proper nouns.
- Cover everything that’s happening in the image, but don’t restate what’s in it.
- Avoid puns and labored wordplay.
- Keep it clean.
I have entered six times. So, who’s with me? Remember, if you don’t enter, you can’t be bitter when someone else’s subpar caption wins.