Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

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Before it moved to The New Yorker:
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Best of Emdashes: Hit Parade
A Web Comic: The Wavy Rule


As the New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest creeps inexorably toward #100, intrepid Canadian intern John Bucher continues the renewed tradition of interviewing the clever and astonishingly elite contest winners.

David Wilkner, trolling for the next Big One

Congratulations to David Wilkner (above), of limerick-worthy Pawtucket, Rhode Island, for taking the prize in Cartoon Caption Contest #99—a Leo Cullum illustration of a doctor advising a glum and projectile-pierced cowboy—with the line, “I’d like to get your arrow count down.” Although this contest number has special resonance for Canadians—it’s Wayne Gretzky’s sweater number—David and I discussed things even more vital than hockey. Fishing, for one. —JB

One thing I always wonder about contest winners is whether the caption comes to them quickly or slowly. Which was it in your case?

My “arrow count down” caption was the first one I thought of that Monday morning while online, and it took three to five minutes to compose. I normally come up with a couple of captions that I like the first day, but by the end of the week I will have added ones I think are much better. I hardly ever submit an early one, but I knew this one fit the New Yorker mold of a professional person using his “professionspeak” in an absurd situation. I go to my doctor once a year for a physical, and, of course, he always wants to “get my weight down,” my “cholesterol down,” my “drinking down,” etc.

What process is the devising of a funny caption most like?

Fishing. You’re sitting in the boat waiting for something to bite inside your head. There are days when you catch nothing, or fish so small you throw them back, while searching and waiting for the “big one” you hope is lurking just below the surface.

I really study the cartoon and its makeup, and then follow my thought trail, which may draw from personal experiences or lead to something dealing with irony or an abstract idea. If I’m not getting anywhere I’ll even consider hackneyed phrases. I try to let the cartoon take me down its path to its “rightful” caption rather than forcing one on it.

What kind of relationship do you have with a) The New Yorker and b) its cartoons? How far back does the connection go?

I’ve been hooked on New Yorker cartoons for most of my adult life. As a long-time subscriber, I’ll cut out the cartoons that make me laugh the hardest and tape them on top of each other at my place of work so that people can flip through them. My mother compiled many scrapbooks of her favorites. She passed away five years ago, and would have been ecstatic to know that I won one of these contests.

Of the ones you cut out and post at work, can you winnow out three favorites? What, specifically, do you find funny about them?

1. The classic “I’m sorry, Sir, but Dostoevsky is not considered summer reading. I’ll have to ask you to come with me” cartoon of the beach patrol officer accosting the bewildered tourist; it’s by Peter Steiner. I read a lot of Dostoevsky in my twenties, and like the hilarity of the officer extending his authority into the realm of seasonal reading.

2. The Henry Martin cartoon of the explosion with the title: “Tim, a walking time bomb, met Ed, an accident waiting to happen.” This may be my favorite of all time, because it has no characters or quotations. It’s merely two volatile clichés in a head-on collision.

3. An illustration by Michael Crawford of a Swiss Army knife, but with fourteen corkscrews and no other options—the “French Army knife.” It’s so much fun to make fun of the French!

If you could have one thing in your home autographed by its creator, what would it be?

That’s easy! The print of the Leo Cullum cartoon I won in last week’s contest. It hasn’t arrived in the mail yet. Beyond the home, I’d have to say a Degas pastel of a ballerina in motion that I saw at the Providence Museum of Fine Arts last year. It was so perfect!

What, to the best of your knowledge, were you doing at 11 a.m. on February 17, 1986?

Skiing down the slopes of Killington with my two young daughters and wife.


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.”)
  • 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
  • Evan Butterfield, winner #15 (“Well, it’s a lovely gesture, but I still think we should start seeing other people.”)
  • 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.”)


Aside from a former girlfriend of mine celebrating a birthday, what is the significance of 2/17/86?

None whatsoever, although a Wikipedia search has just informed me that February 17 was the day of the beginning of the Sino-Vietnamese War (1979), Jeffrey Dahmer’s sentencing (1992), and Garry Kasparov’s victory over Deep Blue (1996). Each has a measure of cartoon potential, no?

Hold on, John, you’re a young whippersnapper. That’s not your birthdate, is it?

My birthdate is a good deal before that, and on August 23. Sorry, I just pulled one out of the air—didn’t mean to freak everybody out.

No, it’s fascinating! I like those Wikipedia collections. I should look up my birthday, although I already know that, apparently, Nikita Khrushchev’s soul was transmuted into my body, since he died almost the moment I was born. So…that could be good, or bad!

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2008 Webby Awards Official Honoree