Writing A Cartoon Caption

Last week I received my winning-caption cartoon from the New Yorker, matted and ready for framing.  A nice memento.  You can order professionally reproduced New Yorker contest cartoons with YOUR caption, whether it wins or not.  They send you a link when you enter your caption.

Here’s my caption:

“You’re in trouble when we get to the bicycles.”

Here are some comments about my winning caption:

It’s basically a triathlon joke.  The joke drops itself into the middle of a triathlon, between the transition from the swimming to the biking.

One of the strengths of the joke is that it doesn’t SAY that it’s a triathlon joke.  That’s both a strength and a weakness.  It’s a strength because the Superiority Theory Of Humor tells us (in part) that a joke will be stronger if the reader is allowed to connect the dots to figure out the joke for himself.  The reader finds the joke funny because she “gets it.” 

But a strength is often a weakness.  A friend told me:  “I don’t get the joke.”  He didn’t link the caption with a triathlon event.  If the reader didn’t connect the caption with a triathlon, he would most likely think the caption was stupid.

Most jokes need a setup.  Sometimes the setup is best when clearly spelled out.  Sometimes it’s best when it’s simply implied, allowing the reader to do some work.  Deciding how much the reader should be allowed to figure out on her own is a judgment call.  Making the right choice comes with experience.

How to you win a New Yorker contest?

1.  A bit of luck never hurts.  The right caption at the right time.

2.  A master mind group can help you sharpen your caption.  I have a group of three who enjoys creating and critiquing caption entries for the contest.  Three heads are better than one.  Changing one word, or eliminating one word can make all the difference, and another set of eyes may help you see a new angle.

3.  The New Yorker allows only one submission per person per contest.  That’s a good thing.  It forces you to select your best line.  Each week I normally write about ten captions.  I pass the best three or four captions by my humor buddies.  And then I submit what I think is the best caption to the New Yorker.  We’re persistent.  We’ve been submitting weekly entries for over two years and this is the first time we’ve had a winner OR a top-three caption.  Here’s a link to the top three captions for the man/fish cartoon. 

4.  Winning is nice…but growing your humor skills is even nicer.

5.  Here’s a challenge to you.  Enter this week’s New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest.  And good luck!