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A laughing matter for 'New Yorker'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

So, two dinosaurs are merrily munching citizens of some metropolis. Gobbling people like microwave popcorn, and one dinosaur says to the other ...

Well, what does it say?

So, there's a business meeting being held in a New York City subway car and the one CEO says to the others ...

OK, this is hard. One more.

A woman meets a man on the street. He's carrying a briefcase. He's shaped like the number 6. Smiling, he says to her ...

Maybe it's not so easy writing witty captions to New Yorker cartoons. The heavy humor lifting had been left to the staff for much of the magazine's 80-year history. But now, with history recorded by anyone with a blog and music broadcast by any contestant on a reality TV show, people expect anyone can write a funny line or two under a silly cartoon.

"We live in a more democratic entertainment age," says the magazine's cartoon editor, Robert Mankoff. Why can't someone be a caption writer? "Everybody thinks they are a newspaperman, too."

Capitalizing on its popular franchise, The New Yorker has expanded its annual "Cartoon Caption Contest," which began in 1998, to a weekly back-page feature. Readers used to have just one shot a year at greatness; greatness, as defined in this literary circle, is receiving a signed print of the cartoon and getting your name in the magazine.

Now, The New Yorker publishes a weekly cartoon caption for consideration, for which readers submit suggested captions. The staff picks three finalists from the submissions, prints them and, in a feature befitting American Idol, readers vote online for their favorite caption. The winner is then printed in a subsequent issue. It's become quite a production. Now that the contest is under way, every week features three cartoons in various stages of being captioned.

More than 50,000 people have entered captions since April - or between 7,000 and 12,000 each week. "Not only do a significant number of people think they are funny - they actually are funny," says Mankoff.

Paul Zinder thought he was funny. He probably is.

Zinder, a 34-year-old film professor from Westminster, came close to greatness last month. Call him the Bo Bice of the "Cartoon Caption Contest" in the magazine's May 30 issue. The cartoon was those two dinosaurs scarfing down a tasty populace. Zinder, who spent all of two minutes staring at the cartoon, wrote: "Pass me a beer truck." It was good enough to make him a finalist and he didn't even have to sing "Sweet Home Alabama."

But the winning caption was submitted by David Markham, a dentist in North Carolina. A funny dentist! Who knew? His entry: "Remember that time you made me laugh and people came out of my nose?"

"I think it's very witty. My friends and I actually predicted it would win. It was more New Yorker-like than mine," says Zinder, who is spending the year in Italy teaching film at the American University of Rome. He reads his favorite magazine online and plans to enter more caption contests. He has a taste for it now.

"I've been a finalist once," Zinder says. "I'm not going to give up."

To his credit, "Pass me a beer truck" avoided the common traps the nonprofessional caption writer falls into, Mankoff says. First, Zinder kept it short. And he didn't try to combine elements or overthink the cartoon.

His entry also fell neatly into one of the magazine's "humor constituencies." In weeding through entries, the staff files them by category - such as clever, poignant and aggressive. Zinder's caption was clever. The winning entry, on the other hand, was poignant. Who doesn't look back fondly on the days when a friend made you laugh and milk came out of your nose?

Because reading 12,000 captions a week would render them all tragically unfunny, Mankoff relies on these humor constituencies and classifications. He also really needs his computer. He has programmed it to sort entries by "comic domains" - such as "most commonly used phrases." Contrary to our right-brained egos, humans often respond to cartoons in similar ways.

The magazine recently asked readers to write a caption to a cartoon showing two people in bed with the Earth - not the moon - appearing in the night sky. Hundreds of readers responded with some variation of "So, the earth really did move." Readers also tend to be in sync with the cartoonists, who have already written their own.

"The interesting thing is that in every single instance, the real caption is one of the captions people thought of," Mankoff says, with maybe just a word or two changed.

In the May 9 issue, "First, you must gain their trust" was a finalist for a cartoon depicting a lab researcher wearing a mouse suit while taking notes on a group of caged mice. Cartoonist Mike Twohy's caption was "First, you must earn their trust." Close enough.

Voters, however, chose "More important, however, is what I learned about myself" as the winning caption. It wasn't the staff's pick, and the thought had crossed one creative mind to override the online tallies.

"These are just numbers here. Who's going to know?" Mankoff jokes. "We decided to be completely ethical."

The New Yorker is full-throttle in this cartoon business, with cartoon T-shirts, coasters, calendars and themed cartoon books (lawyers, dogs, politicians and, of course, drinking cartoons). Mankoff, a longtime cartoonist himself, assembled the magazine's first "bank" of cartoon inventory. Last year, The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker was published - all 68,647 of them. "Still, I'm haunted by the possibility that we missed one," wrote Mankoff, the book's editor. "So there's ten bucks for anyone who can find any cartoon that we missed."

The bet remains unclaimed.

Readers of The New Yorker are characteristically a literary and durable bunch. It requires endurance to tackle the magazine's long fiction and investigative journalism. This isn't to suggest John Updike, Susan Orlean or Seymour Hersh should slash their word counts. It's just the longer pieces are one reason New Yorkers tend to pile up; most people haven't accrued enough vacation time to finish some issues.

Given the magazine's imposing depth, it's no wonder many readers first flip to the cartoons. They want their dessert before the meal. And given this "democratic entertainment age," no wonder thousands of people each week think they can write the best caption to cartoons that puzzle and even paralyze lesser readers.

So, we now know what the businessman said to the others in the New York City subway car during their meeting. "This is my stop. Phil, you'll be C.E.O. till Sixty-third Street," wrote the winning writer, Lewis Gatlin - again of North Carolina.

But what did the man shaped as the number 6 say to the woman? The finalists have been chosen, and the magazine will announce the winner in its July 4 issue. But we vote today for the entry by Robert Cafrelli of Pennsylvania:

"It's me, '9' from your yoga class."

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