The Seeker

A Meta-Cognitive Journal About Writing… Plus Other Stuff

It’s a Winner!

with 7 comments

I got an email from an editor at The New Yorker two weeks ago telling me that I was a finalist for their popular Cartoon Caption Contest.  It’s something they’ve run since 2005; they are nearing 400 contests in toto; they’ve even published a book full of contest winners.  It’s a simple setup:  They post an uncaptioned cartoon each week, and leave it up to readers to submit possible captions.  Three finalists are selected, and readers vote for a winner who is announced a few weeks later.  The New Yorker estimates that 5000 entries are made each week among its million or so subscribers.

I notified a small number of people about my status as a finalist and encouraged them to vote for me.  It turns out my entry is the winner for contest #377:


“We’re gonna need a bigger cat.”

What I didn’t reckon was how dedicated some people are to winning the contest.  None other than Roger Ebert was addicted to the contest, and it was on his bucket list to win it.  He finally did in 2011 after 107 attempts (he tried 93 times subsequent to that, to no avail).  Given his recent death, The New Yorker posted the best of his entries, including his winner.

I started to poke around as a curious writer is wont to do, and found an article in Slate from a few years back posted by a winner who makes recommendations about how to win.  His bent is to use a “theory of mind” caption that forces readers to project intents or beliefs into characters in the tableau.  Spark the right intent or belief given the circumstances of the cartoon, keep your fingers crossed that enough other people share a sense of irony that is as individual to you as your fingerprints, and you might have some good laughs on your hands.  By his calculus, 94% of winning entries operate on the “theory of mind.”  The other 6%?  Pretty much clever puns.  I guess my caption fits into “theory of mind,” though I’d really have to think more about it. I guess I’m surprised since I spend an absurd amount of time in my daily life creating horrible puns (which is why my friends are constantly punching me).

Time ran an article online in which a 3-time winner is interviewed.  One of his recommendations is to try to incorporate everything that is happening in the cartoon.  That would explain some of the other entries for contest #377.  One of the other finalists quipped, “Did you just order a hundred cheese pizzas?”  There were plenty of other rejects that riffed on that–“Just entertain him, I’m going to try to figure out how to place a call to Hamelin!”, “Pest control? I’m calling in a SWAT team.”, and “Mr. Giganto Rat, you have a call.” [seriously…  WTF?]–all of which in some way incorporate the phone the woman is holding.  I would caution people not to over-think things–I didn’t even see the phone until I started to read the rejected punchlines and got to wondering why so many of them made phone references.

Here’s how it unfolded for me.  I’ve only entered 6 times, and not at all for a year, because if something doesn’t hit me in the moment when I first view the cartoon, I give up.  If something hits me, which for the most part has happened when I’m lying in bed reading the magazine before I go to sleep, I’ll scratch out the line in a tiny journal I keep on my nightstand.  Then I’ll try to refine the line within the next day–I want to make it as short as possible because, after all, brevity is the soul of wit.  Maybe the drafting process will help me uncover or create a pun, or something higher up on the hierarchy of humor, but maybe not.  When I flipped right to the caption contest a few weeks ago, a thought flashed in my mind.  I immediately thought about how I’d just bought a brand-new bedside journal (don’t ask…  my journal habits are freakish), so why not scratch something out in that new journal so I’ve at least used the dang thing?  My first crack was an inference about the rat race; my second was a further attempt at the same.  I can’t remember how I got to my third line, which reads:  “I think we need to upgrade…”  But then it hit me.  There’s an excellent line from the film Jaws:  “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”  Bingo!  I had what I thought to be a clever riff on a classic movie quote.

I didn’t even have to get out of bed.  I flipped over to the internet on my Nook, got on The New Yorker website, typed my entry, and went to sleep.

So what do I get besides my fifteen minutes of fame?  A framed copy of the cartoon, signed by the author.  It’s billed as a prize worth about $250.  I also get to live with this thought:  Of all the ways in which I’ve struggled to publish the tens of thousands of words I’ve written over the last decade, it only took six words to reach the biggest audience I’ve ever had.

I’ll take that.

Written by seeker70

May 14, 2013 at 10:28 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses

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  1. Hey Jeff, You Da Man! Way to go! Love that thought six words got you the biggest audience you’ve ever had. Ray

    Ray Uloth

    May 14, 2013 at 10:38 pm

  2. Best blog post ever…in my opinion.  Love the ending.

    Sent from my Galaxy S®III

    Cory Fosco

    May 14, 2013 at 10:54 pm

  3. So you owe all of us who voted a drink. It did have it’s cost.

    Mike Burd

    May 15, 2013 at 7:03 am

  4. By the way, congrats!!

    Mike Burd

    May 15, 2013 at 7:05 am

  5. Hooray! As someone who has been your friend for some 27 years (!) and a fellow writer, I can say I am pretty sure I know why you won: Your clever, quick wit. You’re one of the funniest people I know (you make me laugh harder than anyone, you know that) and I have this hunch you saw the image and said the caption out loud then laughed. You won by just being you, not over-thinking, re-writing, agonizing, etc. Your truest self is always the best!

    Lauri Keagle

    May 15, 2013 at 7:45 am

  6. Excellent! Your cat is a little on the small side. Are you gonna need a bigger hat now though?

    Joel David Hutson

    May 16, 2013 at 12:58 pm

  7. Congrats! 6 words, apparently showing that brevity is the soul of wit.
    Coincidentally, also 6 words


    May 16, 2013 at 5:23 pm

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