What is the true nature of a cartoon caption contest? Does it produce quality cartoons? What is the nature of the resulting cartoon? What is the difference between a classic gag and a caption contest gag? Recently, my blog post on the nature of cartoon caption contests came to the attention of New Yorker Cartoon Editor Bob Mankoff. In an email to Lawrence Wood and myself, Bob weighed in on the matter:
Bob: I do agree that the best caption contest responses work very well as cartoon gags that would be published in the magazine. This is not that surprising in that the contest is seen by over a million readers and we get 5,000 entries each week. Those numbers favor coming up with captions for the image that range from serviceable to excellent. Still, it is in effect a collaboration between the cartoonist who is doing an awful lot by coming up with the right kind of incongruous image that has the potential for good captions. Also, not surprising when you think that for much of the history of gag cartooning there was, for many cartoonists a separation between the art and the caption with many captions supplied by gag writers. This was the case with Peter Arno, Helen Hokinson, and George Price among others. Also, in the early years of The New Yorker the captions were often not merely edited but changed to something completely different by the editors. Peter DeViries and E.B. White were responsible for a lot this.
Where the caption contests usually, but not always fall short, is in having an extra meaning or truth value over and above the joke. To some extent that may just be the nature of the caption contest which deals with the classic gag vocabulary of unrealistic nonsensical image that that requires a caption to be made pseudo-sense of.
Some of the best and most meaningful cartoons don’t follow this format. There the setting is quite ordinary and the joke is in the comment and the commentary.
And of course, ahem,