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O Caption! My Caption! An Interview With Contest Winner James Montana

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This week, John Bucher returns with our recurring Cartoon Caption Contest interview. He spoke to winner #109, James Montana, whose caption for Mike Twohy’s drawing — “I hate connecting through Roswell” — pokes fun at the passionately debated UFO capital of America. Montana is a student of German Studies at Amherst College, in Arlington, Virginia, and although he answered some of our questions on returning from Senior Bar Night—“one of Amherst’s grander traditions”—you’ll agree that he’s commendably self-possessed and lucid.

First, what’s your personal connection with the premise of the cartoon, namely, air travel, mutant life forms, and snide comments from barrel-chested men?

I have no connection with the premise of the cartoon whatsoever. I’ve got to be the least abnormal fellow you’d ever met—Catholic, Republican, and I wear my hair in a side part—so, contrary to what a girl here at Amherst implied of me yesterday, I’m nothing like that pseudo-amoeba thing.

That’s interesting. Humor is generally the province of misfits, but as a self-described member of the majority you’ve flipped the tables here, don’t you think?

Oh, I was that pseudo-amoeba kid, no question. I was bookish beyond belief. I remember once, in fifth grade, that my heart actually leapt when a girl called me “dictionary boy,” because I thought she was trying to be complimentary.

I’m not quite sure what has changed—high school football, I think, had a lot to do with making me less of a head-on-legs and more of a human being.

Do you consider yourself funny?

I think that I am better at connecting words than most people, but I don’t have that peculiar gift—I think very few people really do, although conversation these days, at least here at Amherst, always seems like a never-ending round of humorous one-upmanship.

What is your history with the magazine?

Although I live in Virginia, I come from a New York family. My mother’s family was very German and professorial, so they subscribed to The New Yorker for years and years; my father’s family was very Sicilian, so they preferred The New York Post.

I subscribed to The New Yorker two years ago because I wanted to force myself to read more current fiction. I like history and philosophy best, but I had this niggling feeling that I needed more contemporary culture, so I ponied up for The New Yorker. By and large I’ve enjoyed the magazine. I especially like Anthony Lane’s pieces—I’ve never read anyone who reviews movies so insightfully, besides James Bowman.

How did the winning caption arrive?

It arose during a fit of filial resentment, because my father thought that he had a better one—which he sent in, without success. (Actually, to tell the precise truth, my father mentioned that he didn’t like traveling with extraterrestrials, so the germ of the idea was really his. Add that to all of the things I owe him.)

So, Oedipus, what was your father’s caption, and why is yours superior to his?

I’ve already said too much about that—both of my parents are psychologists, so I’ll be in for quite a grilling if I give them any more material!

What, in your view, is the signal characteristic of a good caption?

I wish I were better versed in captions, but the few winners I’ve seen have all induced a very particular kind of laugh: a knowing chuckle, but nothing that would provoke the sort of side-splitting pain that you get from great comedy. I have the impression that The New Yorker wants to add a dash of mild pleasantness without stirring the pot too much.

Allow me to stir the pot a little. As a side-parter (and, okay, Catholic and Republican), how do you find the magazine’s reporting on religion and politics? Do you feel that it skews left?

You’d know better than I, but I think the answer is clearly yes. Occasionally a conservative piece floats up, but it feels like a cameo next to the unrelenting—albeit interesting and thoughtful—liberalism of writers like Hendrik Hertzberg and George Packer.

I enjoy the leftward tilt, though; my usual diet is First Things and The Weekly Standard, so it’s healthy to read the other side.

Are you planning to make a caption contest entry this week?

I’d never entered the contest before and goodness knows I’ll never enter again. Can’t mess with that kind of luck.


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
  • 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.”)

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