Your Caption Here (or: All You Need To Know To Win* The New Yorker Cartoon Contest)

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 cash 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.”1 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.

In the very late 20th century the idea gained new recognition and fame when The New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff ended the third annual Cartoon Issue with a full page Jack Zielger cartoon with an invitation for the readers to supply a caption.

“By E-mail and by snail mail, by fax and by courier, more than five thousand captions flowed into Contest Headquarters high above midtown Manhattan.”

The magazine’s very first New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest set off a tidal wave that continues to this day.

Among the contestants giving their best as a gag writer was Lawrence Wood. He did not win. That time.

But the following years would find Larry rack up a win, then again, and again. Eventually the lawyer would be an eight time winner and coming in second or third a few more times, marking him as a fifteen time finalist – more than any other entrant. He was eventually asked by editor Mankoff to come up with scenarios and gags for New Yorker cartoonists and worked with other cartoonists as a gagman getting the cartoons published in the magazine not as contest winners but as a REAL New Yorker contributor.

So who better to write a book about the contest?

Whether you have entered the contest or not Your Cartoon Has Been Selected by Lawrence Wood is a fascinating, behind-the-scenes look at the contest, the magazine, the cartoonists, and the art of gag writing.

Lawrence talks to cartoonists who contribute drawing for the contest and those who don’t.

Farley Katz:

Honestly, I’m always excited to see what great jokes people will come up with. I love seeing caption writers take my drawings to entirely new and unexpected places.

Sam Gross:

You will never see one of my cartoons in the contest,” he said. “I don’t want some dentist in Toledo captioning my work.”

And to cartoonists who have had their own captions stripped from the drawing then put into the contest.

Lawrence also gets feedback from contest entrants, both winners and losers. (Lawrence himself has sent in more than 800 gags, so he knows about losing as well as winning.) He also interviews some rather famous people who tried (and lost) including comedians and professional gag writers. An entertaining read.

Part Two – How To Win The Contest has 29 short chapters with such titles as “Who’s Talking,” “What’s Happening,” “Tell a Story,” “Choose Your Words Carefully,” Don’t Be Too Predictable,” “Don’t Be Too Unpredictable” and so on.

Part Three – Winning Isn’t Everything gets into leaving your ego behind. Maybe work up a few entries and get friends and family to judge. Yes, your entry was better than the one that won. They awarded your gag line to some one else because only you could think of so funny a gag.

Lawrence gives an example of a cartoon that drew more than 200 similar lines.

“I give no quarter.”
“I give you no quarter.”
“I will give you no quarters.”

Which one got picked? None of them, rather “I will give you no quarter.” was chosen to represent that gag.

A fun and funny read that is not hurt by including over 150 (the annual contest went weekly in 2005) of contest winning drawings and gags.

St. Martin’s Press (June 4, 2024, available for pre-order) Hardcover 288 pages

*Winning is not guaranteed.

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