Friday, April 4, 2014

A Year of Captioning

Today, April 4, marks the first anniversary of my entering a cartoon caption contest. It all began rather inauspiciously with Danny Shanahan's drawing of a pig sommelier, a cartoon to be captioned on his brand new blog.

I had always felt overwhelmed by the absurdities of caption contest cartoons and in the past I hadn't considered myself up to the task of writing a line clever enough for any such competition. I don't consider myself much of a humorist although I may have written a funny line once or twice, if only for the sake of this blog. When Roger Ebert died, there was a lot of publicity about his own inspired entries in the New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest. That, for me, was the key. I didn't have to think of myself as a funny man, just a writer. So I wrote.

One year after the fact, I present to you my very first cartoon caption contest entry. I submitted a total of ten unsuccessful captions, and when I summarized the contest on my blog, I chose to mention only two of the better ones. I did not include this one, and it is not worthy of note. It shows just how literal I can be. The first sentence is pretty much an exact description of the drawing. Danny Shanahan would never write a caption like that. Neither would Roger Ebert. It would take me a while to learn what to do instead.

The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest is the big leagues in this game. I started entering almost immediately. I encountered my first pitfall almost immediately. This Victoria Roberts cartoon appeared in Contest #375. Why is this egg smiling? I wrote a tortured caption to explain it.

"I really appreciate all your empathy, Doc. My last
analyst was an egg beater."

It's awful, I know. The finalists for this contest wrote excellent captions, and you know what? Every one of them ignored the smile on the egg's face. Once again, being too literal was something I was going to have to try to overcome.

It would also help if my captions didn't try to explain the gag's situation. The problem for me is that I like this kind of caption. A Michael Maslin pirate cartoon was featured in Contest #378. Here's the explanatory caption I submitted:

"She was my second choice. The only parrot in the shop
called me a damn buffoon."

Here's a better one, also explanatory, that I didn't submit. It's new to the blog:

"We'll have to make do.  Polly belongs to the casino now."

What I like about this second one is not that it's outrageously funny, but rather that it's an illustration of human foibles. Nothing like this is ever going to win a caption contest. It isn't clever enough. The question is, should I be trying to please myself or to win the contest? The point is moot. I'm trying to create an entertaining blog, first and foremost. The more mistakes I make, the more mistakes I can write about. If I misread the gag, so be it. If I have the wrong character speak, there's a story in that too. Just last week I forgot to submit my entry. There's no end to the ways one can go wrong. I receive some secondary gain from all this anyway. In general, my caption contest post is the most popular post in a given week. Why? I liken it to watching someone else fall on his face from the comfort and safety of your own living room. It's the captioning equivalent of "America's Funniest Home Videos."

Meanwhile, it's just possible I may be improving my game. Six months before I entered my first caption contest, I had occasion to write about an original cartoon by Claude Smith that had come down to us lacking its original caption. I took the liberty of creating one:

"But how on earth could they know you had 
the idea way before Jacques Cousteau?"
There's the germ of an idea there, but it doesn't quite work. Now, to celebrate a full year of caption-writing, I went back and tried my hand at it again. This time I think I nailed it:

"For heaven's sake, Arnold, you have no case
 Jacques Cousteau."

Not surprisingly, I prefer some of my captions to those of the finalists. That's not so much a reflection on the finalists, but it is a reflection on me and my taste. To give an example, here's my caption for Mike Twohy's Contest #409:

"Right off, I can think of three good reasons not to
mention this to the boss."

Similarly, here's Tom Cheney's cartoon in Contest #412:

"I'll show you my act if you'll show me yours."

Now just compare that with where I started out:

Just what is it about blogging that so often strikes me as hilarious?

Note:  All my cartoon caption contest entries this past year have one thing in common:  they are all losers, at least so far. Well, four of the Moment captions became finalists. See all the captions in all the contests here.


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