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September162005

So What Do You Do to Write a Winning Caption, Evan Butterfield?

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evanpic
(c) Gahan Wilson and The New Yorker

It's time for another caption contest interview! Meet the charming Evan Butterfield from the great city of Chicago, whose caption for this cheerfully off-kilter Gahan Wilson drawing—"Well, it's a lovely gesture, but I still think we should start seeing other people"—is pitch-perfect and the rightful winner. We discussed head tattoos, their potential impact on burgeoning relationships, and other issues of the day.

What do you think the people in Gahan Wilson's drawing are eating and drinking?

I think they're in a perfectly acceptable, slightly overpriced and just barely overcrowded little restaurant that's been there for as long as anyone can remember (and whose untouched historic décor, considered Elegant in the early '50s, is sorely in need of a little touching). They are sort of enjoying a moderately priced wine that's not going to astonish anyone, but that isn't going to make anyone's pancreas dissolve either. They are, however, thoroughly enjoying the soup, which is one of the reasons the place has lasted so long. It may be a hearty gazpacho, but I tend to think it's more brothy, with little slivers of vegetables.

Who do you think did the man's head tattoo? What drove him to it?

The head tattoo was drawn by one of the artists at Charming Stan's Flaming Dragon Body Art & Part Piercing. It was very much unlike the otherwise quiet, mild-mannered man to go there, but once he had the idea it became an obsession, and he forced himself to go to an unfamiliar and vaguely scary neighborhood. He showed a picture of the woman to the first available artist, a young lady named Ja3leen who had had herself intricately tattooed into a zoetrope: when she spun around rapidly, a cowboy appeared to be riding a buffalo across her body. The man had, for some time, felt (with considerable panic) that the woman's affection for him had started to cool. Desperate to salvage their two-month-old relationship, he felt that only a dramatic, romantic gesture that clearly declared his undying love would force her to understand the depths of his love, something that clearly and publicly showed that his intentions were true, deep, and permanent. Her name on his pale bicep (such as it was) would be pedestrian. Then he noticed the vast canvas of his head, and it all became clear. Ja3leen at Charming Stan's was delighted to oblige, and more than sufficiently skilled.

Were you a fan of Wilson previously? Who are your favorite New Yorker artists? Writers?

Oh lord yes—I've always loved Wilson's cartoons. There's something about his wiggly, linear style that really appeals to me, and his odd world is the one I happen to live in. (He's similar in some ways to Charles Addams, but more consciously ironic and without the sort of, oh, "domestic" quality Addams has—Addams is about weird people in the normal world; Wilson's world is just slightly warped.) Did that make any sense at all? Bottom line, Wilson is my favorite New Yorker cartoonist, although Art Spiegelman appeals on a different level, and Roz Chast is a total hoot. What you need to understand about my relationship with The New Yorker is that I mostly don't play favorites. The magazine has managed, over the twenty years or so I've been a subscriber (never mind how old I am, thank you. I'm sure I started subscribing as a tiny toddler), to publish very little that I didn't find interesting, compelling, or at the very least readable. It's a remarkable feat, that even an article on a subject that I immediately say "ick" to, will nonetheless turn out to be, if not fascinating, at least worthwhile. That said, I'll read anything by Seymour Hersh or any of the other political writers; Dan Halpern's profile of Kinky Friedman (another favorite writer) was wonderful. I think that Tina Brown made a slightly fading magazine more vibrant and relevant; that said, I'm also glad she's moved on. And I think the single-advertiser Target issue was clever in a commercial sort of way and not an unforgiveable crime against humanity.

Is this the first caption contest you've entered? Your first contest of any kind?

This is the second caption contest I submitted to. (In the interests of airing my dismal failures as well as celebrating my momentary wonderfulness, I suggested "Go back to sleep, you're always hearing things." for #7, with the earth outside the couple's window and the wife looking alarmed.) I think it's a wonderful new feature, because New Yorker readers are a pretty creative bunch for the most part, and this is a good outlet. Also, it creates a sort of community by involving readers directly in a creative effort. (I'm also unutterably pleased that my fifteen words now permit me to casually announce to people that I have been published in The New Yorker.) I don't generally enter contests, and I think this is the first one I've entered and won. It's quite exciting, really. I have been e-mailed by people I don't know, asking if I'm the Evan Butterfield whose caption is in the magazine, and have received a couple of late-night prank phone calls from some disappointing subscribers. I'd've expected better behavior from New Yorker readers. Anyway, I will continue to pester the editors at The New Yorker with captions, because it amuses me. Oh—here's an interesting thing: I was called by a New Yorker staff person who told me my caption had been selected as one of the three finalists, but I was not called regarding my glorious victory—thanks and waves to all who voted for me. I have no idea when to expect my prize. It's a very mysterious system, really.

What's been your favorite caption, out of all the contenders, in the contest so far?

Well mine, obviously, because it's just so brilliant on so many levels. However, I also especially liked numbers 14, 13, 10, 9, and 1. I voted for 14 and 13; the others predate my active involvement with the caption contest. I have no idea why it took so long for me to jump in.

How are things in Chicago?

I love Chicago. I encourage everyone to visit and be astonished. The lake is lovely, the skyline is breathtaking, and the weather just now is perfection itself. We have lovely beaches and parks, and excellent architecture (although we're about to have a Trump thing inflicted on us). We get to see the hot musicals before they're any good (you New Yorkers totally missed out on some of the longest, dreariest, and most un-funny elements of The Producers and Spamalot, poor yous). Our city council just demanded an immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq (that'll do it) and is debating whether or not to ban pâté de foie gras because it's mean to geese. Our mayor, Richard Daley, is having some corruption scandals, but we must all remember that it was he who had huge planters filled with prairie grasses and wildflowers plunked down the middle of the financial district and on top of City Hall, and who, having planted trees in the middle of Lake Shore Drive, has the speed limit lowered every winter so they don't get salt splashed on them. Did I mention I love it here?

Where are you going to hang the framed print?

I hadn't thought about that. Possibly at work, since I've pestered everyone there with the news of my great victory. On the other hand, there's a bare spot in my hallway where it might feature nicely. I'm open to suggestions.

Did you base your caption on any personal breakup experiences?

Good heavens, no!

Do you know anyone who would consider this a nice gesture?

Absolutely not. In fact, everyone who's seen it has had the same reaction: they would consider someone tattooing their face on his or her head to be a rather large-ish red flag and would run as quickly as their little legs could carry them.

Do you have any tattoos, and if so, are they of people who might recognize themselves? Would they be flattered or distressed?

Sadly, I have no tattoos, although I have been known to draw on myself with a pen sometimes. If I were to get a tattoo it would probably tend to be something a bit more abstract than a likeness: I have a tremendous fear of doing something permanent to myself that becomes suddenly outdated and unstylish. We can't have that.

At your job, would they discourage head tattoos? How might one cover up if one had already gotten one as a tribute to one's beloved?

Well, (a), yes, I believe that even my relatively tolerant publishing company would look askance at forehead art for fear it would frighten the occasional visiting author. Is that right? Probably not, but such is life in corporate America. As for (b), I suppose one could cover it with artfully arranged bangs—sort of a sweeping, '70s-style forehead swoop à la John Davidson would do the trick, or a low-sitting hat of some sort. A Post-It note would also work, and you could put little messages on it like "Why are you looking at my forehead?" or "No head tattoos here!" Possibly an eye patch worn a bit high. There are many fashionable alternatives.

What's your relationship to your name? For me, it conjures up a lush field full of pats of butter, which is my vision of the afterlife if all goes especially well.

I'm delighted to have brought you to the brink of death for a wee peek at the other side. You're hardly the first. My relationship to my name goes back a number of years; I've had it almost all my life. When I was considerably younger I found it annoying, and for a time tried using my middle name instead, but I couldn't take it seriously (it's "Matthew", in homage not to any biblical figures but to Matt Dillon—and not the actor, but the TV sheriff. Thanks, Dad). I suppose I've gotten used to it, now. In fact, when my children were born (to quote another New Yorker cartoon, "I have two children by a previous sexuality"), I desperately wanted to name them Robert and Elizabeth, so that they would be Bob Butterfield and Betty Butterfield (maybe Robert would turn out to be toughish, and then he could be "Bob 'Buster' Butterfield," which would send me into fits of giggling). My then-wife was less alliteratively inclined, and that probably turned out for the best. I am not related to any jazz musicians or Watergate figures so far as I know. I am related to a Civil War general, Daniel Butterfield, who composed "Taps" and whose spurs lie in state at Arlington Cemetery's visitor center. I believe my fame now rivals his, however.

Do you think that if our hero had gone ahead and had his girlfriend's entire body tattooed on him instead, she would have stayed?

I think she was horrified enough by the face thing. On the other hand, if he'd had it done so that she appeared to dance when he raised his eyebrows, that might just be a classy enough gesture to have won her heart.

Evan Butterfield, encore!
Self-portrait.


***

Other Emdashes caption-contest interviews:

  • Robert Gray, winner #106 (“Have you considered writing this story in the third monkey rather than the first monkey?")
  • David Kempler, winner #100 (“Don’t tell Noah about the vasectomy.”)
  • David Wilkner, winner #99 ("I’d like to get your arrow count down.”)
  • Richard Hine, winner #98 ("When you’re finished here, Spencer, we’ll need you on the bridge-to-nowhere project.”)

  • Carl Gable, winner #40 ("Hmm. What rhymes with layoffs?”)
  • T.C. Boyle, winner #29 (“And in this section it appears that you have not only alienated voters but actually infected them, too.")
  • Adam Szymkowicz ("Shut up, Bob, everyone knows your parrot's a clip-on"), winner #27, and cartoonist Drew Dernavich interview each other in three parts: One, Clip-On Parrots and Doppelgangers; Two, Adam and Drew, Pt. Two; Three, Clip-On Parrots' Revenge
  • Jan Richardson, winner #8 ("He's the cutest little thing, and when you get tired of him you just flush him down the toilet.")
  • Roy Futterman, winner #1 ("More important, however, is what I learned about myself.")

Comments

Evan,

Any chance you could answer a few questions about the clowns on the beach photo?
I am a collector and historian of Bozo the Clown.

Looking forward to your friendly reply,

Tommy

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