Because it's a pain in the butt to find me on the Boston Globe website.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

As funny as his captions

The Inside Scoop: Bob Mancoff was terrific to talk to for the sidebar. I wish I could have snuck more of his quotes into the story, especially his quip about the one caption that always works no matter what the cartoon: "He's an asshole." Funny stuff

The road to victory comes with a twist

What separates a winning New Yorker cartoon caption from thousands of also-rans?

Originality is important, but great captions go beyond that, says Bob Mankoff, the magazine's cartoon editor for nearly a decade.

Diction, tone, quirkiness, and pacing all play their part; the ideal caption shouldn't be too wordy or make the reader work too hard to get the joke.

Above all, the caption has to surprise.

If you can cover the last few words of the caption with your hand and guess them anyway, the joke's commonplace, Mankoff says.

''The Far Side" nature of a number of the New Yorker's contest cartoons -- dogs speak, accountants fly like Superman, and monster-wheel trucks squash string orchestras -- requires a dash of twisted thinking as well.

''What's interesting is there are many, many smart people who look at these pictures which need captions. People who I'm sure scored, especially in the Boston area, high on their SATs, who for the life of them couldn't come up with something," Mankoff said. ''You really have to tap into some sort of fantasy -- not logical, but having its own logic -- to come up with the caption."

The New Yorker's cartoons, he says, are ''little artificial wind-up toys that create some tension that is resolved in the punch line or the caption. 'A secretary in a pool of her own blood.' It's just a play frame. We don't have to put a lot together to understand it."

As for who wins the weekly contests, however, Mankoff can't offer much.

Entrants submit only their names and hometowns along with their captions (''We do get complete criminal records on them," he joked.)

But in this age of blogs and reality television, where participation in the media is greater than ever before, Mankoff assumes they're from all walks of life.

''There's not that bright a line sometimes between people who choose, unfortunately, a career in medicine rather than cartooning," he quipped.

''Maybe we'll do something at some point with the winners," he said. ''My people could invite the winners and have them divide into teams and have a contest. The ultimate cartoon contest smackdown!"

For everyone else, look for the New Yorker cartoon caption contest board game in stores by Christmas.

PETER DEMARCO

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