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 (or Three!), Carl Gable?

Filed under: Seal Barks   Tagged: , , , , , , ,

Congratulations, Carl Gable of Norcross, Georgia, for winning not just two New Yorker cartoon caption contests—the most recent of which is #75, “Hmm. What rhymes with layoffs?”—which is already a new record, but, as it turns out, three. Read on! I asked Blog About Town’s indefatigable David Marc Fischer, who covers the caption contest like nobody’s business (not to mention a slew of other riveting things), to contribute the first two questions.

I think you said that you’d won another caption contest—a third one. Details? Was it the yearly caption contest? Or another one?

Yes. I won what I think was the first of the yearly contests. It was maybe 7-8 years ago. The cartoon is by Jack Ziegler (my favorite) and shows two robots working at a factory conveyor belt feeding odd-looking parts into the toothy maw of some fierce-looking machine. One robot has just gotten his arm chewed off and is speaking to the other robot and a human supervisor. The contest was co-sponsored by the Plastics Council, and so my caption read “Yeah, the arm may be plastic but that was a $100 watch!”

The prize at that time was a trip for my wife and me to New York as guests at a cocktail party with several cartoonists present as well as Cartoon Bank bigwigs. They presented me with two framed versions of the cartoon. One was the Ziegler original, and one was a print with my caption below it.

And of course I got to meet Jack Ziegler. If that short meeting meant half as much to Jack (he prefers “Mr. Ziegler”) as it meant to me then he must think about it daily. While bathing. There was a comic he did years back that showed a dog spastically preparing to greet his owners at the door. He says to the goldfish: “They’re back! They’re back! How do I look? Oh, never mind! Never mind!” That is brilliance. My favorite.

Do you submit in any particular way—early in the week, in the middle, at the end of the week?

No, but I have often wondered if early in the week might be a good idea. Maybe the judges get overloaded with submissions early on and by Wednesday are all just drunk and throwing darts at emails on a corkboard. I suppose after they weed out all of Roger Ebert’s aliases there are many fewer, but the total still must be massive. Overall I think I tend towards earlier in the week just because I usually can’t wait to see the new cartoon on Monday.

[Back to me now.] You’ve won three caption contests. This is more than most mortals can hope to achieve in a lifetime. How much more can one person do without fear of angering the gods? Is that a risk you’re willing to take?

I suppose I am going to tempt the gods’ anger. Screw ‘em. If I can get them to hold off on the smiting (through flattery, church donations, and avoidance of idolatry) until I have found a way to make money out of this whole caption thing then it’s all worth it. I suspect that deep down they all appreciate a good joke anyway.

The two weekly contests you’ve won so far featured drawings by Harry Bliss and Mick Stevens. What about their work do you think provides such an excellent counterpart to your captions? If you could ask them anything about these two drawings, what would you ask?

Oooh. Excellent question. I always love the absurd drawings. Sometimes a cartoon drawing will be pretty cliché or mundane (two guys sitting at a bar, etc.), but these two cartoons both had ideas that were hilarious in and of themselves. Inspiration to silliness.

If I could ask them anything about the drawings? Honestly, if I ever had the chance to talk to them I’d be all business. I hope to send in a couple of cartoons of my own someday, and I’d love to know about their materials, paper, use of computers in illustration, and so on. Then after they were flattered and off guard I’d ask for money.

In “Well, that was abominable,” the smoking (and smokin’) postcoital lady seems not just disappointed, but quite angry. The employees in the Steinway conference room are surely on the verge of similar feelings. Is rage an essential part of humor?

I don’t know about other folks, but some of my best captions come to me after I kill a hitchhiker.

What are the books on the bedside table of the abominably performing snowman? Which one should he have read before getting intimate with the woman to be played by Catherine Keener in the film version? Should they possibly not have left the lights on?

I think he was probably reading John Irving and got some bad visual artifacts regarding the “older woman” thing. Also he may have been trying to read Memoirs of a Geisha. The woman in the cartoon read it with her book club and she swore it was really good. Pretending to enjoy that book is the only reason he even got her in bed. Unfortunately, not only did it suck, but it dropped his testosterone level through the floor. He should have read Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk to even things out, or maybe just turned the lights down a bit and fantasized about the Christmas special where Frosty got married. Yup. Lights out.

Similarly, what’s on the papers in front of the disgruntled, possibly non-musical employees? Or are they expected to jump in on the chorus? How could they have been better prepared for this meeting?

I think they were blindsided. They thought their boss was sane. He did get naked and pretend to be a turkey at the office Thanksgiving party, but they thought that was alcohol doing the gobbling. This particular morning they were sitting around the new conference table doodling on their copies of the yearly report and all of a sudden Mr. Zeldman starts in with the show tunes. If they had pulled a Hewlett Packard and done a bit of spying they might have seen the way things were going and showed up in costume, ready to act out Porgy and Bess.

For this tuneful C.E.O, what does rhyme with layoffs? What’s he revving up to? A couplet from his (I mean their) swan song, perhaps?

Maybe it’s all just a test. Some kiss-up will raise their hand and suggest “Payoffs, sir!” and Zeldman will shake his head sadly and proceed to fire him first. Or maybe he’ll just wing it with the rhymes, trying “hat doffs,” “wet coughs,” “burns off”…maybe “Smirnoff”?

Have you ever worked somewhere where singing was mandatory? Do you agree that tuneless humming in the workplace should be punished by the stocks, which should be brought back solely for this purpose?

Mandatory singing? Let’s see. I had a terrible job at a movie theater once. That wasn’t so much singing as crying. And it was only me. And it was frowned on.

If you dislike singing and humming, does that include my playing the bass line to “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” with my armpit? I have been told it is “memorable.”

If any New Yorker cartoonist, past or present, were to draw your home city of Norcross, Georgia, who would it be? How would your caption for it read?

Hmm, can I go with Gahan Wilson? It would show a horde of alien creatures looking like giant slugs devouring the city, the mayor looking on and speaking to his aide. He’d say “Hmm. What rhymes with layoffs?” No? Doesn’t work? Crap.

What’s your favorite line for the singing boss from the diabolically inventive, or inventively diabolical, anti-captioners at Radosh.net?

“I’m glad to see you all brought your lighters, as requested.” Posted by “Francis.”

Of the following Clark Gable movies, which best describes your life as a writer of cartoon captions, and why? Possessed, Teacher’s Pet, The Misfits, Manhattan Melodrama, One Minute to Play, Chained, Run Silent, Run Deep, Sporting Blood, Complete Surrender, Lone Star, To Please a Lady, Any Number Can Play, The Call of the Wild, Laughing Sinners, Gone with the Wind, or After Office Hours?

I’d have to say Gone With the Wind. I’m from the South. It’s the law.

What’s your favorite musical question of all time? For example, “Do you know the way to San Jose?” “What’s love got to do with it?” “Do you believe in magic?”

How about Aretha Franklin: Who’s zooming who?


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.”)
  • 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.”)


Remember when he was in the runners up? I told everyohe he’d won two already, didn’t I? I even told Zach and Bob in the cartoon dept. But nobody believed me! Harumph!

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