Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Dear Captioneer,

Thanks for all your submissions (over 200,000 to date). That's right, thanks for all of them. Even the ones that are, shall we say, terrible—oops, I meant not quite right for us. Making humor is, by its nature, an uneven enterprise, even for folks who do it for a living. Often, in looking over the contests, you'll find that someone who had a very good entry in one contest submits another that completely falls flat. To be funny demands a certain kind of courage: the courage to be silly, look stupid, and, many times, not even get the payoff of a laugh. If we ever do a book about the caption contest, I think a good title might be Captions Courageous.

At Caption Contest Headquarters at The New Yorker, we receive, along with thousands of submissions every week for the contest itself (average: 7,000), many e-mails and phone calls wanting to know more about the contest. Many of these fall into the category of "Why didn't I win?" Well, what can we say, but that with 7,000 entries a week—well you do the math. Actually we have no idea what the math is or how to do it, but you get the idea.

And, even if you have a good caption, it's going to end up competing with others of a similar vein. The fact is that while there are thousands of entries for each contest, there are not thousands of different comic ideas. For example, in contest #27 over 95% of the captions could be grouped in the following categories, here shown with a few representative examples.

"We have to find a better way to record our meetings."
"Your idea is stupid!" "Your idea is stupid!"

"I thought we could use the additional feedback!"
"Even yes-men need yes-men."
"All right, let's just say we agree to agree!"

Parrots as clothes or objects
"Well, at least we didn't all wear the same tie."
"Shut up, Bob, everyone knows your parrot's a clip-on."
"I put my parrot on the same way as everybody else, Bill. One talon at a time."

"Nothing we say leaves this room."
"Well I guess that's the last time I'll ever confide in a parrot."
"Can you keep a secret?"

"The parrot's okay, but if you ask me it's a peg leg that really says you've arrived."
"This is nice but I really prefer hands-on piracy."
"Well, it's not my fault booty revenues are down this quarter."

"Every meeting it's the same—'Motion carries—more crackers!'"
"We've got to get past this issue of who wants a cracker."
"Cracker for your thoughts?"

From these we ended up picking the three finalists:
"We have to find a better way to record our meetings."
"Shut up, Bob, everyone knows your parrot's a clip-on."
"Well, it's not my fault booty revenues are down this quarter."

Each one represents a different angle on how to resolve the incongruity of the image in a satisfactorily funny way. Which one turns out to be most satisfactory and funny is a matter of taste, not truth. So enjoy the contests and the results, but don't take them too seriously or at least not so much that you have to call us about it.

Bob Mankoff
Cartoon Editor, The New Yorker

P.S. If you're looking for caption inspiration, The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker is a great place to start. This laugh-out-loud book and CD set is available at The New Yorker Store for a very reasonable price. I'll even autograph a copy for you. And because it's in such high demand, we've slashed the price of our Deluxe Edition of The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker so we can stay on top of our orders. While you're there, also look for The Complete New Yorker (book and DVDs), which not only includes every cartoon ever published but also every article, poem, advertisement, etc... Both of these are available as a combined set that makes the perfect gift for any New Yorker fan, including yourself! As always, join The Club (if you're not already a member) and receive wonderful benefits including FREE shipping* on all your orders.

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