Wednesday, June 26, 2024

Books: "Your Caption Has Been Selected," By Lawrence Wood


Your Caption Has Been Selected: More Than Anyone Could Possibly Want to Know About The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest

By Lawrence Wood; Foreword by Bob Mankoff

St. Martin's Press; hardcover, 288 pages; $33.00

Lawrence Wood is certainly qualified to write this definitive history on The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest, as he has been a finalist a record-setting fifteen times, and won eight contests.

Each week, thousands of people compete in the hope that their names and caption will appear in print, and Wood is the only one that has achieved that level of success. He is known as the Ken Jennings of caption writing. 

Wood was a lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School for over twenty years, where he taught a class on housing and poverty that caught the attention of late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who called it a "waste of time." He is currently the supervising attorney at Legal Action Chicago.

Your Caption Has Been Selected is a behind-the-scenes look at The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest, its history, the judging process, and the secrets to writing a winning caption.

This coffee-table book is full of 175 of the magazine's best cartoons and features a foreword by Bob Mankoff, a former cartoon editor of The New Yorker and creator for the caption contest. Wood reveals his own captioning process and shows readers how to put together the perfect string of words to get a laugh. 

Wood writes of how this caption contest took on a life of its own: "Caption contests are not new. They've been around since the late nineteenth century, and the newspapers and magazines that sponsored them enticed people to participate by offering cast prizes. In 1912, The San Francisco Call offered twenty dollars for the best title to a drawing of a woman in a cooking apron sifting tiny, well-dressed men through a pan as if they were flour.

'The title,' the editors stated, 'must not exceed sixteen words in all - the shorter the better.' That's still good advice. Eight years later, the New-York Tribune reduced the word limit but increased the prize to $1,000 - the equivalent of $15,000 today - which was divided among the winner, who got $500, and two runners-up. 'Think of it!' the editor wrote.

    $500 in cold cash for writing from one to ten words. Isn't it worth trying? An        idea you already have in mind may strike the judges as being best.....Send in as      many titles as you want. Send in the first one that occurs to you now. Later you      can send in others.

The New Yorker, which has held a weekly caption contest since 2005 (it was initially an annual event), doesn't accept more than one entry per person. Nor does it offer cash prizes. It doesn't have to. The mere prospect of seeing one's name in the magazine - once if you're a finalist, twice if you're a winner - induces thousands of people to enter the contest every week.

Some contestants are famous. Grammy-winning musician Brad Paisley, Oscar-winning composer John Williams, Emmy-winning comedians Zack Galifianakis and Chevy Chase (who once left the magazine's cartoon department 'a five-minute phone message...with a very long caption suggestion), and Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Maureeen Dowd have all tried to win. Dowd said, 'I felt like Elaine in that Seinfeld episode where she kept trying to do a New Yorker cartoon, thinking it couldn't be that hard. But it is. Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert won the contest in 2011, and I'll have more to say about his victory later.

Why do so many people, week after week, enter a contest that offers nothing but bragging rights? Because The New Yorker is worth bragging about. Ebert declared his success in the contest 'a career milestone' because he could at last say he had appeared in the magazine. For most people there are only two ways into The New Yorker: writing a letter that gets published in The Mail, or becoming a finalist in the caption contest. And only the contest gives you the opportunity to claim that The New Yorker - which has published every great humor writer from James Thurber and S.J. Perelman and Dorothy Parker to Calvin Trillin and David Sedaris and Tina Fey - found you funny.

The contest is part of the cultural landscape. In 2010, when New Yorker editor David Remnick appeared on 'The Daily Show' to promote his biography of President Obama, host Jon Stewart complained that he had never won the magazine's caption contest despite having entered every week for a year. Stewart then showed Remnick three cartoons he had captioned with the same line ('Well, Obama DID promise us change!'), and said, 'There are forty-nine of those.'"

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