Seated in a small cubicle 20 floors above Times Square, a 23-year-old Harvard graduate named Zachary Kanin sifts through submissions for The New Yorker's caption contest. The latest cartoon, depicting an Indian shooting a bow and missile, has generated 4,516 responses. Only about 50 are good enough to make it to the next round. Kanin looks at a sample entry: "Howwww much I want to destroy the building." "This," he says, "is weird," discarding it.
Since it debuted 78 cartoons ago, in the issue of April 25, 2005, The New Yorker's back-page contest, which asks readers to write the caption for a cartoon, has attracted a storm of entries--525,000--along with plenty of protests from rejected would-be writers. There's now a board game, which sold 23,000 copies last month, and even an anti-caption contest, at Radosh.net, for bad quips. "Originally there were all sorts of conspiracy theories, like we wouldn't let anyone from New York win," says Bob Mankoff, the magazine's cartoon editor. "But what often goes wrong, people don't know how to write a joke." To help shed light on the process, the magazine allowed a reporter to sit in on a judging session.
Arriving electronically in a bundle of about 7,000 a week, the captions span a range--short, long, profanity-laced; some are letters from readers complaining about delayed issues that prevented them from entering. Kanin reads them all. "After two months, I had to take a nap between every five captions," he says. "I thought I was going to die." Today he uploads the captions onto a spreadsheet, ordering them by length, then picking off nonsensical suggestions like "My bad!" or "How?" The rest are grouped by common phrases, such as "mass destruction" (154 entries last week), so it's easier to spot the best joke among similar themes.
The key to being selected as a finalist--readers vote on the winner from three--is to be clever without trying too hard. Most of the captions miss the mark entirely. Mankoff looks at one with the line "It would make a great casino." He dismisses it for being too simple. "This isn't 'America's Funniest Home Videos' in ink," he says. "We like to pick different humor constituencies, to have a more mainstream joke along with an absurd joke. But we don't do the meta-joke." That means no captions about New Yorker captions, although a handful of readers have attempted them.
By now, the caption contest is so entrenched in popular culture that it's been the subject of several academic studies. This year, two professors surveyed 39 past winners and discovered that a majority of respondents came up with their idea "all of a sudden." The winners were overwhelmingly male and "somewhat liberal," with an average age of 42. The same professors are performing a second study that asks respondents to write a caption on the spot, to see "what happens to humor when you make someone primitively anxious," says Dara Greenwood, a co-investigator of the study at the University of Michigan. "When I tell my friends I'm doing this, they want to know why The New Yorker always picks the bad ones."
Interestingly, well-known writers enter the contest each week and lose out to the unknowns. Film critic Roger Ebert is a regular contributor, according to Kanin, who once received a five-minute phone message from comedian Chevy Chase with a very long caption suggestion. In a fluke, two brothers were both finalists. Recently, a reader named Carl Gable from Norcross, Ga., became the magazine's first two-time finalist.
Back at The New Yorker, Mankoff thumbs through the prefinalists, which have been divided into categories like "language of Iraq war." After floating them with a few colleagues, he picks his three favorite captions (above, in red) and e-mails them to editor David Remnick, who occasionally vetoes one of the choices. He's got a good track record for predicting the winner. "A reader can't write a John Cheever or Jhumpa Lahiri story," Remnick says, "but this is something that you get the pen out for."