Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

The Basics:
About Emdashes | Email us

Before it moved to The New Yorker:
Ask the Librarians

Best of Emdashes: Hit Parade
A Web Comic: The Wavy Rule


So What Do You Do to Write a Winning Caption, Jan Richardson?

Filed under: Seal Barks   Tagged: , , , ,

Jan Richardson, whose killer caption for Victoria Roberts' Man in a Fishbowl drawing was a recent big winner, spoke to me the other day from Ridgeland, Mississippi. She was terrific—funny, smart (with a Ph.D. in microbiology, she knows a few things about small life forms), and psyched. Not to mention a focused contestant who makes Rosie the Riveter look like a somnambulist. The million-dollar caption: "He's the cutest little thing, and when you get tired of him you just flush him down the toilet." Read on.

How does it feel to win the contest?

I’m very excited about the whole thing.

[Sounds of kids underfoot] Do your kids know you won?

My three kids know about the contest. My 7-year-old was waiting to see about the top three; she went to check the mail and came running back—she's the oldest of the three—"Mom, Mom, The New Yorker's here!"

Are you a lifelong subscriber?

No, I would say five or six years; I'm 41. I started subscribing after the Tina Brown era. I kind of imagined that I didn't like the magazine until I got a subscription. My mother gave it to me—she's a native Long Islander.

What do you read first?

Now I read the back page first! I read the cartoons and I love the nonfiction. I have to say that some of the short stories and poems I enjoy, but I don’t always understand.

You're not alone. Who's your favorite cartoonist?

Victoria Roberts, now. I love her. Roz Chast. I’ve loved Roz since college, actually; I would say she has to be my favorite. Of course, Victoria is now my new favorite! I was kind of hoping she would call me. One of my friends in town is Marshall Ramsey, a political cartoonist or editorial cartoonist—he's someone to talk to in the cartoon world.

Is this the first contest you entered?

No, I think it’s the fourth. It occurred to me when I was going to my college reunion, traveling without my family. I was looking at the [blank] cartoon and I thought, I can do this...you know, I want to win this contest. I ran into a friend in the bookstore who encouraged me, and every week I submitted a caption. Actually, I thought I might win two weeks in a row!

They probably wouldn't let you. What were some of your other captions?

The first one I entered was the one where the woman was talking to the six. It was something like, “My mom was a nine and my dad was a three”—basic genetics. For the clown date one, I had, “I think you misled the dating service when you said you were balding and had short red hair.”

That's funny! Do you know any clowns?

I know a clown. And my dad—he's a professional magician, so he's not really a clown at all. He’s actually a professor, but now he’s a professional magician. He’s a mentalist, which is recreating, or pretending to read, people’s minds—giving the illusion of reading people's minds, all using tricks you can come up with. It’s a thoughtful kind of magic.

Does your clown friend have trouble dating?

Actually, he’s got a lovely wife and her name is Tiny. That’s her real name!

What was your thought process for the Victoria Roberts caption?

When I looked at the cartoon I tried to come up with all the aspects of it; I tried to incorporate the whole cartoon into the little caption. I look at the details. For instance, for the clown, I noticed her glass wasn't drunk from and his was—she probably didn’t know him. The wine was sitting there, but she wasn’t gonna stay. She was leaving money.

Did someone from the magazine call to say you won?

No, I haven’t heard from The New Yorker yet. [Note: No doubt she has by now; I talked to her just after the results were printed.] I looked online on Monday and that's how I found out.

What do you do?

I take care of the kids mostly; I have a Ph.D. in microbiology, and I work at a Montessori school a little bit.

Did you look at other cartoons in the magazine for inspiration?

I looked at the ones that had won, to get a feel for what they would want. The other ones I look at, absolutely. My husband's a psychiatrist, and I always laugh at the ones that have something to do with psychiatry.

What was his reaction to your caption?

I consider myself a feminist, but not at all angry. More of a humorist. I had a few women express uncertainty about [the caption], but a lot thought it was really funny. And my husband was very, very proud. I keep insisting that really, it’s not personal.


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.”)
  • 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.")
  • Roy Futterman, winner #1 ("More important, however, is what I learned about myself.")

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, it may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Thanks for waiting.)

2008 Webby Awards Official Honoree