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


Are You Funny? Tag-Team Caption Contest Throws Down the Wit Gauntlet

Filed under: New Yorker Festival   Tagged: , , , , , , , ,

Longtime friend of Emdashes Ben Bass contributed a terrific report from last year’s Festival about waiting on line for tickets; clearly Ben has a talent for making the best of a situation. This year he weighs in on the Cartoon Caption Contest event, held on the Festival’s opening night.

The 2008 New Yorker Festival kicked off Friday evening with a serious town hall meeting on race and class in America at which Thomas Frank, Cornel West, and David Remnick parsed those weighty issues. For those of us in the mood for something lighter, there was the Cartoon Caption Game, a friendly competition hosted by cartoon editor and bon vivant Bob Mankoff.

We entered to find a large open room dotted with nineteen round cocktail tables. At each table, presiding over four empty seats, sat a past New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest winner or finalist, easily identifiable by a red baseball cap emblazoned with the New Yorker logo and “Team Captain.” Our captain was a friendly New York City psychiatrist named Richard. Displaying the discretion so crucial to his profession, he declined to share his last name upon learning that I would be writing about this evening. He did, however, recite his winning caption, in which a man seated at an office desk in an electric chair says into his telephone, “Cancel my twelve-oh-one.”

If “What’s your line?” was the icebreaker that launched a million midcentury conversations, on this night the de rigueur greeting was “What was your line?” In a room full of strangers, the one fact you knew about these smiling folks was that each had written a good joke and so had a tale to tell. That was all we needed to get things rolling. On the other hand, as attendees (sorry, “contestants”) drifted into the room looking for seats, the captains’ icebreaker was, “Are you funny?” My companion and I answered with a deflective optimism; a bright young couple filled the last two seats with an appealing “We’re kind of funny.”

Of course, most people who attend something called the Cartoon Caption Game think they’re funny, and many of them are right. The trouble is, at least where competitive cartoon captioning is concerned, delight at one’s own witticisms often accompanies a certain solipsism, an unwillingness to acknowledge that others might have thought of the same joke, or even improved upon it. Bob Mankoff calls this malady “idea rapture.”

Mankoff’s introductory remarks included an illustration of this particular type of narcissism. He displayed a recent Caption Contest cartoon of a courtroom scene in which a killer whale is seated at the defense table. Like everyone else in the room, my first reaction was to posit that the whale’s putative killer status was at issue. In fact, I couldn’t think of any other joke. Sure enough, the winning caption was “Objection, Your Honor! Alleged killer whale.”

Mankoff then read an angry letter he received from a contest entrant who had submitted the same joke. The letter writer, convinced that he alone had come up with this line, wrote that he’d scribbled it on a magazine he’d left on an airline flight and bitterly accused the contest winner of finding the magazine and submitting the line as his own work. Mankoff’s elegant response was to send the writer the other fifty or so nearly identical submissions of the same joke.

His amusing spiel (“A lot of you are winners of the contest. The others are losers”) also described the process of administering the caption contest. The New Yorker receives between five and seven thousand contest submissions per week, with over a million to date and counting. As the readership has embraced the contest, it has taken on a momentum of its own, even spawning a new book on the subject, conveniently on sale this very evening.

After Mankoff explained the format, the competition began in earnest. Various gag illustrations from New Yorker cartoonists were projected seriatim for five minutes each, during which time each table huddled and brainstormed its caption ideas. When the time elapsed, each table submitted its best line for consideration by the evening’s panel of judges, New Yorker cartoonists Mankoff, Jack Ziegler, Barbara Smaller, and Matt Diffee, who chose three finalists for each cartoon (sound familiar?).

As in the magazine, where online voting determines the winner, popular acclaim, in this case in the form of applause, awarded the points for first, second, and third place. The evening’s cumulative point leaders would take the first prize, prints of their best-captioned cartoon; the runner-up table would receive signed copies of the new Caption Contest book.

Our group, known for lack of a more creative name as Table 14, came out firing. The first illustration was of a five-story-tall rabbit chasing a throng of business-clad types down a city street, Godzilla-style. A fleeing man in a suit was doing the talking. Table 14’s submission: “I miss the bear market.” Good enough, as it turned out, for second place, but we were aced out by another solid one: “And yet it’s adorable.”

The second cartoon was a Matt Diffee drawing of a domestic scene in a cave that a caveman and cavewoman had improbably furnished with sleek, modern-looking furniture. The club-wielding husband was the speaker. We liked our “There’s a difference between gathering and shopping” but went with “Wait ‘til you see the Cadillac I speared”; apparently we liked it more than the judges did.

As the evening wore on, the scarcity of really good jokes became apparent. Over and over, a line we had thought of but rejected as too obvious or hacky would pop up among the finalists as another table’s submission. Did this make us funnier than them, or just worse evaluators of which lines would go over big? We like to think that both are true.

Much like the actual NYer C.C.C., the exercise became a mind game in which we tried not just to think of funny lines but also to predict which of these would please the judges. As a recent Caption Contest winner wrote, “You are not trying to submit the funniest caption; you are trying to win The New Yorker’s caption contest.”

In the event, the wiseacres at Table 7 ran away with the Cartoon Caption Game. I’m happy to report that they won it not with Table 14’s rejects but with a number of genuinely witty and surprising lines. I hope John McCain, a few weeks hence, will graciously echo our content resignation at having lost to a demonstrably superior opponent.

As for New Yorker Caption Contest idea rapture, not even your correspondent is immune. Last spring I submitted a line my friends and I thought was at least as good as the three somewhat humdrum finalists. After mine wasn’t chosen, I wrote about the small setback, but it was mere whistling in the wind; I still didn’t know whether my joke was considered and rejected, or not even read among the thousands of submissions.

Happily, I got a small measure of satisfaction from Farley Katz, the New Yorker cartoonist, former Mankoff assistant, and Caption Contest first line of defense to whom I’d emailed the above link hours earlier. He told me that he’d checked his records and found that a number of people had submitted the same joke I had and that he had declined to include it among that week’s thirty or so semifinalists. At least now I know I was in the game.


I was there, people. It’s all true.

Great piece, Ben.

Ben — Great report on what was clearly the highlight of the New Yorker Festival. Thanks for not making fun of the unsuccessful team captain at Table 17.

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