Wednesday, November 06, 2013

The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest Book, introduced by Robert Mankoff

Once upon a time there was a magazine called The New Yorker.

When The New Yorker ran a cartoon, it was a New Yorker Cartoon.

And under that cartoon was a group of words, a New Yorker Cartoon Caption.

After seventy-odd years of publishing cartoons with captions all written by the cartoonist, one plucky editor decided to run a cartoon without a caption, and ask New Yorker readers to come up with plausible captions for that cartoon and then vote on the best choice. And that was the New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest.

After five years of annual New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contests, they suddenly began appearing in every weekly issue. And then, after two years, there were enough to form a stack of paper large enough to bind.

And that, dear children, is how The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest Book came to be.

Each contest takes up two pages. On the first is the cartoon, with a line beneath it signifying the missing caption and a box of commonly-occurring words and phrases in the set of caption entries -- as if there were trying to SEO-ize their own cartoons.

On the second page is the cartoon bedecked with winning caption, the two losers, and two other captions the editors liked almost well enough to be finalists at the time. Alongside those bits of copy, there's a pie chart illustrating the caption voting, and, sometimes, a short remembrance by a winner or finalist about how the Cartoon Caption Contest changed their lives forever.

Up front is an introduction by New Yorker cartoon editor Mankoff, which explains the concept and history somewhat less flippantly than I've just done.

And that's what you have here: a bunch of crowd-sourced New Yorker cartoons, festooned with data and thoughts about the process. It's a particularly interesting book for those who worry about using exactly the right word or phrase -- seeing the same cartoon with several different captions clearly illustrates what Twain called the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

(Full disclosure: I've entered this contest a number of time -- not all that regularly, I admit -- and never been a finalist, proving something or other.)

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