Friday, June 02, 2006

I Wasted 15 Minutes on the Word "Excrement"


I live in fear that the New Yorker will cancel its weekly caption contest, since there is definitely something twee, arch and even rococo in the fact of reading New Yorker cartoons, much less in trying to write captions for them. At some point, staff will conclude that the caption contest is too sharp a reminder of the great gulf fixed between the pretensions of their average subscriber and the fine healthy regnant vulgarity of your average Entertainment Weekly reader, and that the winds of the times do not blow their way.

New Yorker cartoons and those that sail in them are so nuanced, so self-satisfied in the apercu, the irony, the dying fall of just the right word, just the right rhythm. In short, if you are a fan of New Yorker cartoons, chances are five-to-two that you are just some damn liberal, rapt about words -- or should I say wrapped about by words, which fall down around your ankles and trip you up while those damned right wingers win the day with their high-decibel, blunt-force talking points.

Naturally, I am a fan of New Yorker cartoons and want more than I want firm ice for the polar bears to be mentioned in dispatches someday; i.e., make finalist in the weekly contest.

Some weeks I can't come up with any caption, not even a lame one. I have no idea how the typical contestant proceeds. I'm guessing the majority grab what comes off the top of their heads, polish it a little and let it go. I'm pretty sure most of the captions are the same six jokes. I know that's true. A month or two ago, I got an email from the magazine thanking me for entering and pointing out that yes indeed most entries make use of common themes. I don't remember if the email advised being more off the wall or advised more polishing.

But back to how the typical contestant arrives at a result. How many, I wonder, use the mechanical approach; that is, making a list of situations suggested by the cartoon and of the cliches surrounding that situation and then substituting elements into the verbal expression of those situations and those cliches to produce a nice incongruity? That's what I did with this weeks' cartoon.

From the basic situation, I derived:

* dull marriage (reading in bed; wife's dismissive expression)
* wife uttering zinger (her mouth is open; his is hidden)

And one of the common cliches of a difficult marriage is:

* a disapproving mother-in-law, whose views may or may not reflect that of the mother-in-law's child

* the possibility, however unlikely, that the disapproval of said mother-in-law is really not disapproval and that the injured spouse is overreacting or misinterpreting

So now we come to the initial incongruity expressed in the image and upon which the caption will almost certainly be based: husband is a fly. (And isn't it interesting that every sour cliche about marriage leads us to assume he is her husband?)

At this point, I googled basic fly facts. For a while, I thought I might get something out of "fruit fly." There could be a joke in there somewhere in which the husband prefers to call himself a "vegan fly." (A gay fly joke would be hurtful). As I said in the headline to this post, I thought there might be a joke in the word "excrement" -- but that didn't go anywhere; I couldn't come up with a premise, though I thought perhaps the wife could be reading a Julia Child recipe book in which.... I think not.

But then as a I read about flies and filth and disease vectors, I thought about flies back home in Virginia and what a nuisance they were and the word came: screen door. In 30 seconds, I had:

"I'm sure Mother's screen door has nothing to do with you, Dear."

Is this a first-rate caption? No. The idea that screen doors keep flies out is probably clear enough -- though I suddenly wonder if the average urban, air-conditioned reader of the New Yorker knows, or even remembers, what a screen door is. And he's a pretty big fly. He seems quite dexterous. He's holding a newspaper, after all....

Ah well. A caption does not need to point in directions that vex rather than amuse.

I'm sorry. I spent the 15 minutes I was supposed to be spending creating a post creating this joke. It must be enough that it is recognizably a joke. And it's not crude. Everything is so crude now. You are not surprised that one joke I immediately thought of was:

"Of course, I understand that if you eat shit you won't die. I was making a point."

So so so.... junior high. So junior high. But how we laughed and laughed in junior high.

Okay, one more just to save my reputation. The wife is speaking, sharing something she has just read.

And then he says, "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport."

To which she adds.... I can't think of a kicker.

Sigh. Perhaps I can get Wieder the comedy writer or Pabst the ad man or Carroll the novelist to finish that one off. They are funny fellows, funnier than I, and that is why I put up with them, though their faults are legion, wanton even.

Addendum: I dug this out of my old emails. I am not tempted for myself, but it would make a nice gag gift for a friend if you worked his name in.

P. S. TheNewYorkerStore.com has the perfect way to help you Captioneers immortalize your caption contributions. Our new Caption It! Cartoons allow you to purchase a contest cartoon print with your caption. And at the introductory price of only $49.95, who can resist the fame? Visit here for more information. And as always, if you are a Club member, you will receive complimentary standard shipping* on your order.

Second addendum: A friend points out that the thing in bed is not a fly. Flies don't have antennae.

Never mind.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Did you just fart?"

Let's see you or any other preening New Yorker reader top that one.

mackdoggy said...

At radosh.net there is a alternate New Yorker caption contest.

A few weeks ago I was first entry with the caption "When can you start?"

Which subsequently won the "real" New Yorker caption contest and earned me a spanking at Radosh for obviousness.

G Pabst said...

I think it's more than a fly.

It's Kafka. And he's having trouble writing.

Her line is something like:
"Franz, I know the costume helps you 'get into the character,' but I draw the line at your eating an excrement sandwich in bed."

Naw, too obscure.
GP

....J.Michael Robertson said...

Pabst rules, man, he rules.

My pal Lowell, who was my roomie at Whooping Jesus Bible College and who now is Web King of Detroit (look at the links) writes:


The first try is most often the best.

"I'm sure Mother's screen door has nothing to do with you, Dear."

Laughed my ass off at that one.

I was working on something about the similarity of their toes but drew a blank.


That's a nice roommate.

david silver said...

i'm with lowell:

"I'm sure Mother's screen door has nothing to do with you, Dear."

is hysterical.