The New Yorker weekly magazine, long renowned for its single-panel cartoons, features a cartoon caption contest in its online edition. The premise sounds like fun — but this being the notoriously fussy New Yorker, the simple task of crowning a weekly contest-winner is a month-long ordeal:
Week 1: Readers are shown an un-captioned cartoon drawn by a New Yorker contributor. They are given seven days to submit the most outrageously funny caption known to man, or at least to themselves after a glass or two of Bordeaux.
Week 2: The cartoon is reprinted and various submitted captions — possibly randomly selected, but preferably randomly curated — are presented. Readers may register their opinions of these captions, each in turn, by clicking UNFUNNY, SOMEWHAT FUNNY, or FUNNY. (Be assured, UNFUNNY is the button one’s finger will hover over.) Exactly what happens to these votes is not entirely clear.
Week 3: Unlucky New Yorker staff members and interns are tasked with reviewing all the submitted captions and picking three finalists, according to some unpublished criteria.
Week 4: The cartoon and its three finalist captions are presented to New Yorker readers so that they may vote on the winner.
Week 5: The cartoon, the winning caption, and the runners-up — as determined by the previous week’s votes — are printed on the New Yorker‘s cartoon caption contest page.
Now, submitting a caption and then being forced to wait weeks to find out if yours is even a finalist… this is buzz-kill enough in the internet instant-gratification era. But I haven’t even touched on one’s (slim) chances of winning the New Yorker‘s caption contest without knowing the secret sauce. From what I can tell, a winning caption must first and foremost pay homage to the quirky concerns of upscale New York City residents. That is the ticket that gets you in the door. But you would be mistaken if you think your entry will score higher if it adheres to time-honored cartoon conventions — in fact, you may be ill-served by that approach. Here are a couple of examples of what I mean.
The Spacious Apartment
The cartoon at left (click to enlarge) shows a property manager or rental agent delivering the opening lines of her sales pitch about the apartment pictured. The lights in the unit are off and the prospective tenants have just stepped through the door. The couple cannot see the window and its planetary view, as the door is in their way. Rather, their concerned gazes are focused on something on the other side of the room. What could be over there?
One would think that the winning caption should answer the question: what is it that the prospective tenants see that concerns them (and which the agent hopes to explain away)? The scene in the window provides a clue but cannot itself be the answer, being that the couple has yet to look in that direction. Nonetheless, here are the captions selected by the New Yorker as the three finalists:
“It’s the closest you’ll get to Manhattan in your price range.”
“Keep in mind the neighborhood is expanding.“
“And, if you open the window, the view will take your breath away.“
Note that none of these captions adequately explains or even bothers to address the source of the couple’s concerned gazes. Is there an alien being across the room? Is there another floor-to-ceiling window? Or maybe there is nothing over there at all, no walls or floors or ceilings… just empty space. We don’t know. None of these captions advance the story.
I clicked through at least thirty reader-submitted captions for this cartoon. I would say that nearly a third of them incorporated some variation on “the view is out of this world.” This of course is both the most obvious and least intellectually-satisfying response, sort of the Neil Diamond of captions. That this cliché did not make the list of finalists is of some credit to the New Yorker, but then Neil Diamond was more Brooklyn than Manhattan.
In any event, all of the finalist captions violated an important precept of Cartooning 101, which is that the drawing and the caption must work together seamlessly. Vital elements in the drawing must be referenced in the caption, and vice versa, else there is dissonance. One can’t simply ignore the expressions on characters’ faces.*
William Tell Revisited
Our second cartoon (click to enlarge) offers a variation on the tale of the Swiss marksman William Tell. You may recall that Tell was forced by a local magistrate to shoot an apple off the head of his son, so that their lives may be spared. Here, however, a cherry has been placed atop the boy’s head rather than the legendary apple. In an unusual move for the New Yorker, the cherry has been colored red to draw the viewer’s attention. Tell looks worried; his son wears a narrow-eyed scowl. The background elements are unimportant.
So what is the boy saying to his worried father? Here are the New Yorker‘s three finalists:
“I’m just saying, after this haircut, it’s difficult to trust you.“
“I now see why you only get me every other weekend.”
“You know, pumpkins are in season too.”
Let’s consider these in turn. In the first caption (the winner), the cherry is totally ignored; the caption would have the same relevance if the target were an apple. So let’s just forget about the target and make fun of the boy’s hair shall we? As the caption is only marginally funny in any case, I give it a D-plus.
The second caption also fails to acknowledge the cherry. Yes, being the son of William Tell may have its occupational hazards, but this caption would have worked just as well with the original apple. If I were to channel my inner New Yorker — and I had just finished a good martini at Rockefeller Center — I might grant this one a middling C.
The third caption at least makes reference to the size of the target, so partial credit for that. However, the boy’s remark implies that it is his father who has chosen the target, which contradicts the legend. And if I may nitpick, there were no pumpkins in Europe when the William Tell narrative arose. Pumpkins — native to America — became known to Europeans only after a 1584 expedition by Jacques Cartier, over a hundred years later. Furthermore, pumpkins and cherries are not in season at the same time, not even in modern-day Switzerland. So the whole premise is unsupported by both fact and legend. This means I will have to give the third caption a C-minus for sloppy research as well as dearth of funniness.
At this point, you are probably anticipating that I am going to offer my own killer captions for these cartoons. No, not today. As they say, those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. Or they run the caption contest at the New Yorker.