Tuesday, June 25, 2019

The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest

The New Yorker magazine has a weekly feature:  the cartoon caption contest.  They feature a cartoon and readers are invited to submit funny captions.   Three finalists are selected, people vote, and then the winner is announced.  I don't even think there's a prize other than bragging rights. 

An article in KQED Arts takes issue with the selections the magazine makes.  When a colleague was a finalist but didn't win there was a lot of bitterness believing his caption was better than the winner's.

Here's the article.

Welcome to the world of comedy rejection.

Comedy is soooo subjective.  5,000 people apparently enter every week. Can you really take it personally when yours isn't selected?  I mean, seriously

Obviously, you're going to think that your entry was better.  I've got news for you:  in 90% of cases, you're wrong. 

But that attitude is still a great motivator.  How many talented people became successful sitcom writers when they watched the crap on TV and said, "I could do better that this!"?

But 5,000 to 1 are staggering odds.   You may write the most brilliant caption ever and it gets lost, or the reader didn't get it, or didn't read it right, or was in a bad mood, or has a different sensibility, or seventeen other reasons.

I find this when entering ten-minute plays in festivals.  Plays that won major festivals get rejected by minor festivals.  It's all subjective.  I can't take it personally.  It's worth it to me to keep submitting, and along the way I do get some acceptances, so I continue.  And I file the rejections and forget about it.

In the case of the caption contest, a very prominent comedy writer and I used to submit.  We would run our captions by each other to make sure they were good enough.  I trust this person's opinion of comedy way more than some assistant editor's.  We would send them in.   And then nothing.   Neither of us were ever finalists.  Did I think mine were better than those selected?   Most of the time.  Sometimes I thought the one they picked was terrific.  And often I thought the one my comedy writer pal submitted was better than mine.

But like I said, we never broke through.  So what did we do?  Instead of getting mad, and challenging their selection process, we simply stopped submitting.  We happily went on about our lives.  In this case, it wasn't worth it to keep submitting. Better to focus my talents on something else. 

And that would be my advice to anyone frustrated over not winning.   There's no big cash prize.  There's no fellowship attached.  There's no job with the New Yorker or SNL.  There's no dinner with the queen.  There's no agent who is going to take you on.   Only continue if you're having fun with it, and the moment you're not then stop.

And then stop reading the caption contest.   Who needs the added aggravation?  


Rock Golf said...

I actually got to the final three of a New Yorker cartoon contest once a few years ago. It showed two men squatting in separate wire cages obviously intended for pets. My caption was "Last time I'll ever book a discount vasectomy, that's for darn sure!"
Of course, I know it made no sense. Who goes for repeat vasectomies?!? And I stepped all over the twist with the gratuitous "that's for darn sure", but I found they like non-standard joke formats.
I lost to "Isn't AirBNB great?" At the time I had no idea what AirBNB was.

Anonymous said...

Burge's Law: Every New Yorker cartoon can be improved by recaptioning "I think I'm going to kill myself"

E. Yarber said...

Contests like that can be as maddening as playing some carnival game where it seems easy to win a stuffed animal by throwing rings around milk bottles or whatever. You think the prize is within your grasp, but the challenge isn't really what you perceive it to be.

Last year there were quite a few articles about a nine-year-old girl who wrote captions for the contest but was too young to officially submit them. The implication was that if she were able to enter her ideas, she'd be winning every week. You'd expect a parent to express such optimism at PTA meetings, but I think the real point to the brief flurry of attention the kid got was to reinforce the fallacy that the competition was really very easy and losing was only a matter of unfair conditions. That's the sort of thinking that appeals to people who don't really write but want to assume that success in that field is some sort of popularity test, not a long-term effort that involves constant effort to improve your work.

It reminds me of some years back when there was a reality show called Project Greenlight about unknowns getting money to make films. For a while, it seemed like every wannabe in Los Angeles was more obsessed with getting on that program than worrying about the quality of the screenplays they were writing. I suspect they were looking for some shiny object to distract them from the much more mundane task of learning their craft. In the end, you have to stay away from such artifical goals and realize that you actually have to compete with YOURSELF to reach a serious level of acheivement.

Keith Nichols said...

I share your experience with the New Yorker caption contest. If, as I assume, the judges are the folks who select the cartoons, their choices may give a clue as to why so many winning captions are pretty lame. However, New Yorker cartoons seem to have improved some lately, although it may be that my critical facility is conforming itself to current New Yorker standards.

Peter J. said...

I feel like Endless Jeopardy! might be good practice for the New Yorker's caption contest. Similar concept, except the (often nonsensical) clues are generated randomly, all of the answers are open for votes (likes), and there's a new one every hour.

Steve Bailey said...

The late film critic Roger Ebert used to submit captions to this contest. I don't think he ever won. If a Pulitzer Prize winner couldn't win the contest, why should the average Joe take it personally?

DwWashburn said...

I used to enter it a few years back. What you have to remember is that New Yorker cartoons are never funny. Their captions are usually statements that have nothing or very little to do with the drawing. This keeps the New Yorker's snob image alive. Most people don't "get" the cartoons and that suits the New Yorker editorial staff just fine.

Anonymous said...

I'm still steamed over the judge's choice in the Win-A-Ken-Levine-Autographed-AFTERMASH-Script contest of about 10 years ago.

Contestants were to complete the following: "Steve was so afraid of commitment that...". Clearly my "Switzerland awarded him their Congressional Medal of Honor" was the obvious choice. But the prize(?) went to someone in LA--probably to avoid shipping and handling costs. I think the fix was in all along.

Life is so not fair.


OrangeTom said...

My wife and I tried entering for about a month. One of us had a brilliant caption during that time and we were so pissed that we did not make the Finalists' cut we immediately quit in disgust. Glad to know we were in much more talented company in our "failure"

Unknown said...


I would also say this exact same scenario for aspiring writers entering script contests like myself. Every entry I submit, I want to win. I think I am going to win. But, the one thing I had to learn was that when I get eliminated, it means my script isn't quite good enough. I need the notes. I need to rewrite and adjust and keep going.

If you win, it's because you have something special. If you lose, it's not someone else's fault, it's the script you wrote. Go back and make it better and enter the next contest. And think you are going to win. And get eliminated. And rewrite. And re-enter. ETC...

Frank Beans said...

There's no point in getting emotionally invested in something that has an astronomically small chance of "winning". Who knows what their parameters or motivations even are?

The desire for humorous recognition is what parlor games, amateur comedy, corny jokes at Thanksgiving, clever bon mots at dinner parties, and Mad-Libs(tm) were made for. Really, you have no better chance at these caption contests than of winning the lottery.

Sincerely yours,
Mr. No Humor Guy

Frank Beans said...

Ok, I'm a hypocrite. As a caption I'm thinking:

"Your stable or mine?"

Michael said...

I have a friend and colleague who listed on his annual evaluation that one of his goals for the next year was to win the caption contest. He hasn't, but another friend has won it twice. Once was for a bunch of Easter Island statues of Mitt Rmoney (note the typo), and his caption was, "They're facing the off-shore accounts." Which is great.

Now, I claim to have been robbed once, and once only. The cartoon was of a monster truck on top of three members of a string quartet, with the fourth at the microphone, saying something. The winner was, "We will now play 'Pimp My Ride of the Valkyries.'" My submission, which didn't get to the finals, was "Will the music critic for Motor Trend please report backstage?" Ken, sorry, but mine was funnier.

Jahn Ghalt said...

Thanks for the link to the KQED piece. It's encouraging that more submit punchlines (5,000) than vote from the final three (1,500).

Since I get email reminders, I do vote somewhat often - on as many of the 5.000 as I can stand.

Since I'm not "in" - live 4,000 miles away from "The City", politically estranged from "both parties" (as if there were only two), and not fearful of the "fears" in "media" (or neurotic in a New York way), I vote down "in jokes" and tend to the non-topical (like so much material in Cheers, Frazier, The Dick Van Dyke Show, et al.)

(so, in the KQED piece, "Just water for me" is far better than "I'm from Brooklyn" - and would be in 100-years)

Tell you what, I'd like to see what comedy writers think is best - a separate poll as it were.

MikeN said...

Here is one New Yorker cartoon that I think is particularly clever. My question is, how many people don't get the joke? I had to have it explained to me.


JED said...

Wouldn't it be funny if they just throw all the entries in a bag and pick three for the finals? Maybe I'll just pick some random sentences from the encyclopedia and submit them without looking at the cartoon. If I win, I'll let you know.

Mike Bloodworth said...

I think the New Yorker contest is primarily about publicity and self-promotion. It peaks people's curiosity and draws in readers that might not otherwise buy the magazine. They got Ken to talk about it.
And yes, I believe that winning the contest has as much to do with random chance as it does quality.

Here are my submissions:
1. "Why can't they just accept our love?"
2. "Next time I lead."
3. "Yes. I'm a bull now, but I'm transitioning to a cow."
4. "It could never work out. You're a 'Trump' man and I'm a cud chewer."

Dhruv said...

Thanks Ken. A good post.

In my case, not captions but videos.

Almost everyday I post a video and wait for it to be a hit. But nope nothing... then I think "viewers are idiots, who don't appreciate original content put together after travelling hundreds of Kms. Rather they watch crap with fake thumbnails and stolen content from movies and cartoons".

"And I file the rejections and forget about it"

That's what I do now. Just upload and forget about it. Slowly one by one is picking up and reaching few thousands and some reaching 100K.

Like you said, I am gonna continue till I enjoy it.

Cap'n Bob said...

I had a friend win a cartoon contest at Hustler. He had to write and draw the cartoon. Since he was a cartoonist the drawing part was easy. I don't know how much he won but it was enough to waste going Clear at the Scientology Crime Family headquarters in Clearwater, Florida. He went a drunk and returned a drunk; so much for the efficacy of going Clear.

Anonymous: Switzerland may have a Congressional Medal of Honor but the U.S. doesn't. It is the Medal of Honor, period.

Today is the anniversary of Custer's Last Stand. A lot of Medals of Honor were won that day but none for the troops who were with Yellow Hair.

Peter said...

I'm curious which of the three you thought was best? Was the New Yorker right?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Steve Bailey: Ebert won once, in 2011, after 107 tries, and was so excited he did a blog posting about it:

As did the New Yorker's cartoon editor:

Earlier, in 2009, he wrote a posting about entering the contest and never even making the final three: https://www.rogerebert.com/rogers-journal/the-new-yorker-no-the-new-yorker

Later, he posted batches of his losing submissions:




DBenson said...

I've been trying to post here and not getting through. Pardon if you've seen this already.

I actually won contest #660 (Doctor addresses storybook king: "Worse than a cold. It's a common cold.") after a few years of entering without making the finals. My method is to give it less than five minutes each week, aiming for ad-lib inspiration.

The hardest ones are the drawings that are already implying a specific joke -- the bullfighter dancing with the bull is an example. A good caption is possible, but it's basically a cherry on the sundae rather than a complete gag. Going off on a tangent is tricky; it still has to register as somehow inevitable for that drawing. Easier and more fun are the slightly mysterious drawings: A bartender addressing a sad clown, a hot dog stand atop a small pyramid, etc.

TimWarp said...

@MikeN - splain it to me. I don't get it!

Anonymous - I thought it was funny, Cap'nBob's nitpicking notwithstanding.

Ken - AFTERMASH scripts? Who do I have to caption to get one?

Charles Bryan said...

Occasionally, people have come up with captions that work for any TNY cartoon. Here's mine: "Can you believe we charge $149 a year for this?"

Yes, I just looked at my credit card statement.

Unknown said...

Of the cartoon with two mice looking at a floor plan: I said, Its a cheese factory.

Of the cartoon with a Rat being a boss speaking to an underling, I said: "From now on keep your trap shut; but fetch me a wedge of cheese.