For those not familiar with the New Yorker Magazine’s “Caption Contest”, a quick overview:
The New Yorker is one of the best and most-respected magazines in the world (J.D. Salinger was first published there, plus hundreds of other famous writers). They’re also famous for their cartoons. Every week, on the last page of the magazine, they have their “cartoon caption contest” in which they publish a cartoon without a caption. It’s up to the readers to come up with suggestions for a funny line that will work with the drawing. About 8,000 – 10,000 people submit captions for each contest. The assistant Cartoon Editor weeds through them all, selecting about 20 that he thinks are worthy candidates. Then the captions are presented to the Cartoon Editor himself, Bob Mankoff, who chooses the three captions he likes best. From there, all three finalists are published in the magazine, and then it’s up to the readers to cast their votes for the best one. The winner, of course, will forever be able to refer to himself/herself as “John Doe, New Yorker Caption Contest Winner.”
So in July 2013, my issue of the New Yorker arrived in the mail. As I always do, I immediately flipped to the back page, where the contest lives, and saw this:
(All images can be clicked on to embiggen)
After opening a beer, sitting down, and studying that week’s challenge (at the bottom of the page), a punch-line popped into my head that I thought might be pretty funny. I jumped online, went to the NY’er website, and fine-tuned the wording of my submission, my hand hovering over the “send” button for ten minutes, and clicked.
A few weeks later, I got an email from the assistant cartoon editor, one of my favorite emails ever:
Yeah, my hands were shaking as I replied. I couldn’t believe it. And I realized that, even if I didn’t end up winning, my name was still going to appear in print in the fucking NEW YORKER. Where JD Salinger’s name was first printed. I counted the days until the July 29 issue hit the stands. On that day I went into Chaucer’s Bookstore, pulled it off the stand, opened to the last page (still sure that somehow there was some mistake, they’d changed their minds, or at least that they would spell my name wrong). But there it was:
Holy. Hell. My name. In their font. Yes, good. Hands shaking again.
The next week I spent emailing, texting, calling, and messaging everyone I knew, with one request: VOTE FOR MY CAPTION!!! Seeing my competition for the first time, the other two finalist’s captions, I was fairly confident that mine was the best. But not entirely certain. The topical Edward Snowden-inspired entry about the Moscow Airport was sure to have a short shelf-life — but historically the New Yorker likes timely and topical ideas in their caption contests. The other entry: “I need someone without baggage,” was even more worrisome. It was maybe better than mine? If I’d thought of that one before I thought of mine, I might have submitted it. I thought that one was my biggest threat.
But I liked the sweetness of my own caption best. Just by looking at the woman’s eyes, you could tell that she was a nice girl who was just trying to make the best of an awkward situation and make her date feel at ease. She was a good person. I felt that she should be saying something comforting to the guy with the bag on his head.
The three weeks between the publication of my caption as a finalist and the actual decision were gut-wrenching. As I said before, just being chosen as one of the three finalists was an amazing achievement, but that was bullshit — I really Really REALLY wanted to win! When the decision day came, I couldn’t bear to look at the New Yorker website. But my amazing friend Sarah logged on shortly before midnight on decision day, and faithfully kept clicking “refresh, refresh, refresh” until the page finally updated. She texted me in an instant:
My hands were shaking again as I texted her “Are you SURE???”
I looked myself and there it was. So I got my name (and joke) published in the New Yorker TWICE! Such an amazing thing! My prize (besides the recognition) was a matted print of the cartoon, with my caption, signed by the artist (Carolita Johnson, a lovely and brilliant girl).
In the aftermath, I received emails and letters and texts from people I hadn’t heard from in years, offering me congratulations. And the Santa Barbara Independent interviewed me about it too. Click here to read that:
And I still enter the caption contest every week, determined to be the first ever two-time winner!