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

Sunday, April 02, 2006

New Yorker Toons

The Inside Scoop: I give kudos to some good editing on this one (esp. Tom Sheehan and Tom Coakley). A decent story-turned-centerpiece, which is always good for my wallet. I'm not sure it deserved that much play but what do I know? The people who won the cartoon contest were really great sports. I penned a three versions (Northwest and North ran the other two) but this was the best.


Peter DeMarco, Globe Correspondent

April 2, 2006 Page: 1 Section: City Weekly

None of the three local winners is a comic. In Lou Rubino's case, his own adult sons don't even think he's that funny.

But at some point during the past year, while lounging on the couch, lying sick in bed, or perusing The New Yorker magazine's website, comedic inspiration of the highest order struck them all. They jotted down their pithiest punch lines and entered the magazine's weekly cartoon caption contest. And they won.

Now, music librarian Andrew Wilson has a standing offer to write for a greeting card company. Fifth-grade teacher Miriam Steinberg gets congratulated by her pupils' parents. Sarah Bell, a fund-raising assistant from Cambridge, has strangers recognize her name months after it appeared in the magazine.

"My friend's uncle was joking I should just go around captioning things in the house," said Bell, 23. "People who are diehard New Yorker readers thought it was really great. It was just fun to see someone they knew win. Like my grandmother. But people didn't look at me like I was any smarter. My friends probably know better."

Famous for its erudite and clever cartoons, The New Yorker let readers join in the fun by introducing the weekly caption contest a year ago. A cartoon depicting an odd or impossible scenario a business meeting aboard a subway train, a minotaur sipping martinis at a bar appears on the last page of the magazine. It's up to readers to come up with their wittiest take on the scene.

As many as 8,000 captions are sent in each week. The magazine's staff, including cartoon editor Bob Mankoff and editor-in-chief David Remnick, choose three finalists, and readers vote in the eventual winner. With 60,000 subscribers, Greater Boston is the New Yorker's fourth-largest market. New York and California readers have sent in the most cartoon captions, with Massachusetts a distant third, Mankoff says. But considering how large the other two states are, it's clear that Bostonians love the contest as much as anyone. Maybe more so.

And Boston has flexed its creative prowess, with three winners to date Bell, Steinberg and Wilson, all with Cambridge ties. (As if Nobel Prize winners, Harvard, and MIT weren't enough for the city.) Rubino, an executive recruiter from Burlington, was one of three finalists in an early-March contest.

In his contest, the cartoon featured a woman speaking with a partner in bed. The twist? He is a huge snow globe resembling Frosty the Snowman. To come up with a quirky enough caption, Rubino says, he had to create a quirky enough back story to explain the cartoon. The two weren't just lovers they were adulterers. Who was she cheating on? Another snow globe, of course.

His final caption: "I think the Manhattan skyline is getting suspicious."

Pitted against a pair of strong entries, Rubino came up short when the top vote-getter was announced Monday. He proved to be Carl Gable of Norcross, Ga. His caption: "Well, that was abominable."

Rubino, gracious in defeat, says he was shocked just to make the finals. Boston's other caption champions, likewise, never figured they would win. Bell, Wilson, and Steinberg had never submitted an entry before (or entered any comedic writing contest, for that matter). And while some New Yorker readers agonize hours or days over their entries, Boston's winners say they didn't exactly slave over theirs.

Steinberg, a teacher at Brighton's Conservatory Lab Charter School, was sick in bed in her Cambridge apartment when she came upon a captionless cartoon of a beaten man crawling toward an "Emergency Hotline" phone bank. A woman leans over to speak to him. Steinberg's entry: "Neither the time nor the place, Doug!"

"I thought, `That's it,' " she recalled. " `How could there possibly be another answer for this one?' "

The New Yorker's Mankoff agreed, calling her offering "really nicely phrased." "You understand the whole back story," he said. "And then, of course, there's the correct choice of `Doug.' You wanted a simple name, a one-syllable name. You definitely wouldn't want `Stephen,' you know? It sort of has that final little thing that ends that caption. `Doug.' "

Wilson, a string bass player who lives in Ayer and works at Harvard University's Loeb Music Library, said he'd forgotten about the contest by the time a New Yorker intern called him to let him know he was a finalist. "He actually had to remind me I had entered," he said.

Wilson won for a November cartoon in which a nebbish-looking businessman hails down a savage barbarian on a horse. A pair of villagers are in the background, whispering to each other. His caption: "Dibs on the briefcase."

Morbid humor? Sure. But Wilson says he was going for something a bit smarter like something co-workers from "The Office" might crack if their boss was about to get his comeuppance.

Mankoff said the caption, aside from being funny, was "elegant" in its diction and tone. "There were a lot of ones about the briefcase. `Dibs' was funny," he said. "Look how short that is. It's four words. That's sort of nice."

Bell was just trying to write something that would make her friend, a fellow New Yorker reader, laugh. "We live in different cities, so it was kind of fun to think of a caption and see what the other person comes up with," she said. Her cartoon was of a pair of businessmen one of them a wolf in a suit and tie walking down the street. The wolf appeared to be grumbling about something.

"Oh, sure, they find one secretary in a pool of her own blood and everybody wants to blame the werewolf," wrote Bell.

Mankoff said many entrants played with a werewolf theme in their submissions, but no one nailed the tone quite like Bell. "We thought it sort of had a bouncy line," he said. "I think it was strange and funny, which is usually a category we're looking for."

Readers love the contest because they get the chance to impress the magazine's editors with their wit, as opposed to the other way around, Mankoff said. But in the end, Mankoff stressed, it's still the readers who decide the winner. "Just like `American Idol'," he said. "And then, of course, they go on to fame and glory and no money at all."

Indeed, as Mankoff muses, the contest is really just for fun. And the winners clearly know that.

Bell says she's hung her prize an autographed print of the cartoon signed by artist Tom Cheney on her bedroom wall, "and hired someone to stand security." Wilson got an unsolicited invitation from a California company to write greeting card sentiments for $50 each. ("My ship has come in!" he joked.) Steinberg says it's just cool to get asked about the contest at parties once in a while by envious fellow Cantabrigians.

Perhaps Rubino has reaped the greatest reward for getting his name in print. Finally, no less a comedic authority than The New Yorker has determined that he really is funny.

"Both my sons always say to me, `Dad, you have no sense of humor,' " said Rubino. After his choice as a comedic finalist, he said, "I rubbed it in, in a nice way."


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