Annals of Funny

Here’s a news flash to lighten your day: Berkeley University Librarian, Tom Leonard, has the winning caption in the New Yorker’s weekly Cartoon Caption Contest. Reached on the phone earlier today, Leonard said the fact that he and his wife have been babysitting their daughter’s cat probably helped inspire him. “I’ve had more cat time than normal lately, so I was reminded of that attitude cats have.”

The caption contest, now in its 374th installment, debuted in the April 25, 2005 issue of the New Yorker. The inaugural contest featured a caption-less rat cartoon—actually, it showed two men in a laboratory, one wearing a lab coat, the other dressed in a rat suit, and writing on a clipboard. From their cages, the rats looked on in curiosity.

The winning entry appeared two weeks later: “More important, however, is what I learned about myself.”**

As it happens, that cartoon was drawn by Berkeley alum Mike Twohy (MFA ’73), who we interviewed for our Humor Issue back in 2009. As he recalled it then: “[the magazine] had purchased that cartoon from me already, and Bob [Mankoff, the New Yorker’s cartoon editor] called me. He was very apologetic and said that they had a new idea, and would it be OK if they printed mine without the caption and had the readers put one on it? And I said, ‘Well, certainly. See what happens.’”

The results have been sensational. Mankoff reports that each caption contest now receives about five thousand entries on average—which means it’s very, very hard to win. For his part, Leonard admits he had lately been “sloughing off” in his captioning efforts. “For a long time there, I thought that the winning captions were so much better than anything I could do, so I retreated.” The cat caption just sort of came to him, he said. “I had to think about the wording a bit: rounds versus bullets, etc., but the key was ‘nine lives.’ Once I had that, it all sort of followed.”

And, so, it can happen that way, but it usually doesn’t. According to Mankoff, winning at humor, like winning in sports, is more a product of perspiration than inspiration. His advice to aspiring caption-contest-winners: 1. Enter more. 2. Be funnier.

That’s pretty much Twohy’s advice to would-be cartoonists as well; what came through in our interview with him was not what a great job he had, but just how hard he worked at it. “I send a dozen roughs to The New Yorker weekly,” he told us, “and I always feel lucky if they buy one. But there are no guarantees. Like Hollywood, you’re only as good as your last performance.”

And speaking of Hollywood and last performances, let’s turn now to Pulitzer-Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert, who died yesterday at age 70. It seems that Ebert, the man who gave the world the expression, “two thumbs up,” was not only a regular entrant in, and past winner of, the Cartoon Caption Contest, but he kept at it right up to the bitter end. Bob Mankoff today shared Ebert’s final caption (submitted for contest #374) in his blog, The Cartoon Bureau. It was, the cartoon editor admits, not the film critic’s best effort, “but considering the circumstances, at least worth one thumb up. And, anyway, if I had been able to ask Roger about this effort, I’d like to think he would have quipped, ‘Hey, give me a break. Dying is easy; comedy is hard.’”

Be sure to check out Mankoff’s blog to see Ebert’s greatest hits.

** We originally reported the winning caption as: “First, you must gain their trust.” That was actually the second-place caption.

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