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O Caption! My Caption! Winner #100, the Cartoonist, Dark Humor, & the Ark

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The hundredth New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest is now past, but the Emdashes bloodhounds, just as the trail was falling cold, picked up the winner’s scent. In a gathering-momentum tradition, the victor sat down with assiduous Canadian intern John Bucher to discuss his win.

Congratulations to David Kempler, of Island Park, New York, for winning Cartoon Caption Contest #100—a drawing of a tourist couple marooned on Noah’s Ark—with the line, “Don’t tell Noah about the vasectomy.” This week, an additional treat: commentary from the cartoonist himself, Mick Stevens. The bolded questions are for David, and so it probably works best if you read the slanty portions, which are Mick’s, in a Wonder Years-style voiceover. —JB

It wasn’t clear to me until this last, much closer scrutiny that it was in fact a woman saying to a man, “Don’t tell Noah about the vasectomy.” I’d assumed it was one of those nonplussed-looking elephants. How did you first take in this drawing, and how did the caption come to you?

First off, you’re right that it’s often difficult to tell who is actually doing the talking in New Yorker cartoons, and I’ve actually submitted two entries in the past that had the wrong person talking.

Says Mick: I can see why you didn’t see right away that it was the woman speaking. I should have emphasized her a bit more. Cartoons depend on getting the visual across right away, otherwise the joke gets blunted some.

As to how this caption came to me, I’m not really sure. I do know that how I used to construct my entries didn’t seem to work so a few weeks before this particular cartoon I decided to try and think like a New Yorker staff member. After playing with that idiotic notion for a while I dropped the strategy and just went back to think what I thought was funny. I think I just got lucky.

Says Mick: The idea for the cartoon came to me this way: I started with the “Noah’s Ark” cliché, then started thinking about the various animal couples on the boat and what they might say to one another. Then I thought about the fact that humans are animals, too, and imagined them as tourists who had booked a cruise and somehow ended up there.

I think David’s caption is a good one. In most cases, those drawings are done specifically for the contest, but this one originally had a caption. The editors decided to drop mine and use the drawing by itself. (My original one: “Next time, I book the cruise.”)

Your caption, David, is a riff on the sacred and the profane—or, at least, the Biblical and the genital. What is your religious temperament, generally, and what are your feelings about the Noah’s Ark story?

I was raised Jewish and am the only child of two Holocaust survivors. I think I have a morbid sense of humor. Whether or not that is because I am a child of Holocaust survivors is impossible to determine. I also participate in a celebrity death pool, where I have enjoyed some success. They get about 1,200 entries for each game, and I have won a couple of times and been in the money a few other times.

I’m not religious but, as I get older, I reflect more upon my family history. This past March I was invited to Germany by a woman who started a program that features an artist who puts plaques outside the buildings from which people were taken to concentration camps. They unveiled four plaques—for my mother’s mother, father, sister, and brother. My mother did not attend because she felt it would have been too upsetting. It was a good decision on her part.

I view the Noah’s Ark story the same way I view all of the Bible. To me, it’s a somewhat honest attempt to represent history. Unfortunately, it suffers from the same problems you encounter playing a game of telephone, where one person reads a passage to a second person, who repeats it from memory to another, to another, etc. Eventually the story veers pretty far away from the original.

Let’s pursue the connection between morbidity and humor a bit more. What impact, if any, did your parents’ being Holocaust survivors have on your sense of humor? Do they share your sense of humor? And what is black humor, exactly?

Hard to say their impact on my sense of humor: I’ve never experienced life as another person or in different circumstances. Maybe I understand better than some how quickly our lives can be snuffed out. My father is dead. He was always clowning around but not in a morbid way. His brother shared my sense of humor. My mother is a much more serious person than my father was.

Black humor is comedy with an underlying uneasy feeling that tells you perhaps you shouldn’t be laughing. One of my favorite examples of black humor is the movie Happiness. One of the plot’s central points concerns child molestation. I thought it was brilliant—but both times I saw it in a theater about a third of the audience walked out, offended.

What is your first memory of reading The New Yorker? What are three pieces that stand out for you?

I don’t remember my first reading, but it was probably in college. Top three is tough and I’m sure I’ll forget something, but, off the top of my head, I would have to go with the Richard Preston piece about Ebola that ended up as the book The Hot Zone—one of the most terrifying things I have ever read. My favorite cover is the Art Spiegelman silhouette of the World Trade Center after 9/11. My favorite reading is anything by Hendrik Hertzberg.

I can’t help but ask a person who confesses a morbid sense of humor: What will your tombstone read? Or, if you prefer, what song will you have played at your funeral?

Never thought about my tombstone, but perhaps I should. Final song would be either something by David Bowie or Elvis Costello. “The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes” pops into my mind at the moment.


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 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.”)


My lifelong curse—no one ever spells my name correctly (see above).

David Wilkner

David WilknerJuly 11, 2007

Oh, sorry about that, David! I’ll fix it right now.

So what do you think of Kempler’s strategy? And have you gotten your signed Cullum print yet?

Thanks for the spelling correction. I often shared David Kempler’s dilemma of:
A. Not being sure who is really speaking.
B. Being torn between submitting my favorite caption versus one that fits the New Yorker criteria. Some weeks they are both the same, and then it’s easy. My advice to others dealing with this situation is— go with the one YOU like the best. The mathematical odds are against either one being picked, but at least you won’t second guess yourself for submitting your favorite.
No, I haven’t received my Leo Cullum signed print yet, and it’s been over three weeks.

David Wilkner

David WilknerJuly 11, 2007

Sorry for the misspelling, David. And I agree with the existentialist tenor of your choosing-captions point—the odds are absurdly against you, so you may as well go with what you like.

Michael Shaw, are you reading? Could you put in a good word for our friend David W. here? Or maybe the esteemed Mr. Cullum is at some summery hideaway and not able to dispatch autographed drawings till he returns.

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