Thursday, May 26, 2011

"What a misunderstanding!": "New Yorker" cartoon editor Bob Mankoff reports on the quest for the "universal" cartoon caption


Drawing by Ariel Molvig
Contest #289, May 30, 2011

This is the current captionless cartoon for The New Yorker's weekly Cartoon Caption Contest. Entries -- 250 characters or fewer -- are accepted through May 29.

by Ken

As I've had a number of occasions to mention -- most recently when the subject was Charlie Sheen -- I'm a big fan of New Yorker cartoon editor (and prolific cartoonist himself) Bob Mankoff's blogposts. You can sign up for an e-mailed version so you don't have to remember to check the magazine's website for them. (On the home page, look down on the right side for a tab that gives you checkboxes for two weekly NEWSLETTERS: "This Week" and "Cartoons.")

This week Bob returns to a fertile blog topic, the magazine's weekly cartoon-caption contest, in which a captionless drawing -- normally by one of the magazine's large roster of regular cartoonists -- is published and readers 18 or older everywhere in the world except Quebec are invited to submit captions. (I've spent a lot of time trying to come up with a working theory for the Quebec Exclusion.)

This week's contest cartoon, for example, is at the top of this post. From among the apparently huge number of submissions the usual three finalists will be chosen and published -- online as of Monday, June 6; in print in the issue of June 13 & 20 -- for reader voting that determines the eventually posted winning caption. This week's winner, for example, is:

"I came, I sawed, I conquered."
Juli Rodgers, Santa Fe, N.M.

Second place, in case you're wondering, went to: "I must find the tree that killed my father" (Graham Watling, Brooklyn, N.Y.). Third place went to: "That one was asking for it" (Ian Spain, Ann Arbor, Mich.).

As we've learned from some of Bob Mankoff's blogposts, his department maintains extensive records of submissions. For example, in his April 25 post, "Roger Ebert Wins the Cartoon Caption Contest," he was able to report that that week's winner had entered 107 contests before: "To the delight of film fans, film-criticism fans, Caption Contest fans, and Roger Ebert fans -- and count me among all of the above -- Mr. Ebert has finally fulfilled his quest to win The New Yorker Caption Contest." He quoted from a July 2009 Chicago Sun-Times blogpost, "The New Yorker. No, The New Yorker," in which Mr. Ebert lamented:
I have entered the New Yorker’s Cartoon Caption Contest almost weekly virtually since it began and have never even been a finalist. Mark Twain advised: "Write without pay until somebody offers to pay you. If nobody offers within three years, sawing wood is what you were intended for." I have done more writing for free for the New Yorker in the last five years than for anybody in the previous 40 years.

It’s not that I think my cartoon captions are better than anyone else's, although some weeks, understandably, I do. It's that just once I want to see one of my damn captions in the magazine that publishes the best cartoons in the world. Is that too much to ask?

"Done," Bob Mankoff replied in the April 25 post, which included the Ebert winning entry:

(By the way, there's also a carefully maintained online archive of previous contests.)

In his May 21 post, "Caption Contest Devotees," referring back to the April 25 Ebert post, Bob noted that Roger's 107 contests entered paled beside "the ten most devoted entrants," whom he listed with totals between 279 and 262 -- all without winning!
But I applaud their persistence. As I’ve pointed out, persistence in the face of failure is often the key to eventual success, except in skydiving.

Persistence certainly paid off for Mr. Don Symons, who entered two hundred and thirty-one contests before winning:

This week Bob returns to the subject in a glorious post called "The Universal Caption," taking off from the conviction of Cory Arcangel, "the digital artist profiled in this week's issue of The New Yorker": “I think the same joke over and over becomes something eternal.” "Week after week," Bob notes, "Arcangel has taken the images from The New Yorker Caption Contest and supplied them with the same caption: 'What a misunderstanding!'" He offers some samples starting with:

(The winning caption: “Well, you’re the one who insisted on the smoking section.”)

Then he offers the cartoon with the winning caption by Don Symons (see above), “Careful, the water’s hard today," and the one with the newly announced winner (see above), Juli Rodgers' “I came, I sawed, I conquered.”

It appears that there's a history to the quest for the universal caption. "Christ, what an asshole!" has been proposed, and now, Bob reports, New Yorker cartoonists are pitching in, starting with the suggestion from David Sipress that this caption (from a cartoon by Jack Ziegler) could fit the bill:

Other New Yorker cartoonists have proposed --

Matt Diffee: “You many not remember me, but we went to high school together.”
Farley Katz: “Who farted?”
Kim Warp: “I don’t get this cartoon, and I’m in it.”
Emily Flake: “My being riddled with tumors, this seems insignificant.”
Zach Kanin: “Surprise!” “Surprise.” “Surprise?”

Try each of these with all of the cartoons above.


Bob provides a Twitter address for posting it, promising to "round up the best of them."

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At 8:03 PM, Anonymous Bil said...

Thanks Keni, great post.

I am an irregular readr of the NYr but signed up for the Cartoon feed!


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