Every week, the New Yorker has a cartoon caption contest. They provide the cartoon on their website. They accept caption submissions. They choose three finalists and open it up to a public vote. There's no money, but the the winner gets the caption published in the magazine, along with their name.
The real prize of course, not openly acknowledged but universally understood is that one's mother will swoon with pride and joy if one wins the contest. "Hey mom, guess who got their cartoon caption published in the New Yorker?" is the sentence that the winner is permitted to speak. Because of the high value of this prize, I have been trying for months to win this friggin' contest. Thousands of entries are sent in every week and only one wins, so the odds are small. But still, most of the entries suck donkey balls, and so winning it shouldn't be so difficult. And yet success eludes me, most likely because the judges themselves also suck various parts of pack animals. Some of the "winning" captions are unbelievably bad. Even Roger Ebert, writing here about his own frustrations with the winning captions, was himself proposing stupid substitutes.
But let me tell you the problem with the contest. Besides bad entries and inept judging, the contest has a built in flaw that no one seems to have caught. Before I explain it in detail, have a look at some previous contest cartoons and the winning captions:
Okay now take a close look at the one with the subway panhandler in the hammock. And consider the winning caption "Brother, can you spare a lime?". Funny, right? Cause lime rhymes with dime. And he's not a typical beggar, see. He's on some kind of tropical vacation. And he's begging for fruit. In the subway.
Now I grant you, if you've been staring at that blank cartoon for a long time, trying to caption it, and someone says to you "How about 'Brother, can you spare a lime?'" then yes, you're liable to laugh and admit that that's a good one. But now, imagine opening up the New Yorker and looking at the same line, on the same cartoon - not realizing that it was a caption contest winner - just thinking that it was a normal cartoon. What do you think about it now?
Well, it doesn't make a lick of sense, does it? Why is there a guy on a hammock in the subway between two girders? Why is he wearing a Hawaiian shirt and begging for fruit? Sure, you get the pun, but the pun doesn't explain the image. The image requires an explanation. The caption contest winners never furnish explanation. They only serve as verbal solutions to the puzzle of the image. The image is always something nonsensical, like a piano filled with fish; and the winning captioner is always the one who can find the pattern in the nonsense, with something like “They were caught swimming off the Keys.”
But this is insufficient. If you opened up the magazine, and saw that fish cartoon, you would simply be baffled by its randomness. The bizarre scene of the image demands some sort of explanation that’s anchored to reality. It has to speak to some sort of truth about music, or culture, or the shoddy state of public aquariums, or I don’t know what. But what it can’t be is some kind of pun that merely relates the concept of fish to the concept of pianos. That doesn’t work. All of the caption contest winners have this problem.
The winner needs to be the one that makes the cartoon feel organic. The winner needs to fool you into believing that the caption and image were created concurrently, with a point in mind, and not that one was reverse-engineered from the other. This is such an obvious problem, but the contest just rolls on, oblivious.
You might be saying that all this complaining and nitpicking is because I’m just bitter that I haven’t won. That I'm somehow saying that all that stands between me and earning my mother's love is the stubbornness of the New Yorker. And you'd be right. And yes they are.