(Illustration by Eric Shansby)

I am on the phone with Bob Mankoff, the renowned cartoon editor of the New Yorker. Bob is the man in charge not just of the magazine’s famously effete single-panel cartoons, but also of its weekly caption contest, where it publishes a cartoon without a caption and readers submit their own.

Me: I enter your contest every once in a while. I hope to win someday before I die.

Bob: Give me a call when you’re very, very sick, and I’ll see what I can do.

Me: Thanks. The other day I submitted a caption that I was certain would win. I confess I was being manipulative, playing to your prejudices. It was sophisticated and very New Yorky, with a nod to Jewish sensibilities. It was self-consciously elitist. It was modern, but not too modern. And last, it was rawther amusing.

Bob: I take it you have been in communication with my psychiatrist.

Me: Without telling them what it was, I immediately informed all my followers on Twitter that I had just submitted the winning entry. I explained that all that was left was the formality of the judging and the inevitable anointing of me.

The cartoon was the one with aliens emerging from a spacecraft that was shaped like an old-fashioned two-slice toaster. Hiding in the bushes nearby was a couple. The man was saying something to the woman. I see from the magazine, published today, that one of the three finalists is this: “They can’t be that advanced — there’s no bagel setting.” It was by David Onken of Milwaukee.

This was the entry I had submitted: “I don’t think they’re all that advanced. There’s no bagel setting.”

Bob: Ah!

Me: I do not challenge the New Yorker’s infallibility in matters of cartoon captions, or dry humor in general. Your decision is yours, and perforce it must be correct, righteous and just; like the Letters of Transit in “Casablanca,” it cannot be rescinded, or even be questioned. But for the masses who may not be as learned and discriminating in these matters, can you explain the comedic nuance that made Mr. Onken’s entry so much more hilarious than mine?

Bob: It’s better because it’s a little shorter.

Me: See, I would have argued that placing “all” before “that” should have tilted it toward me. While Mr. Onken’s formulation suggests the speaker in the bushes actually believes the aliens to be backward, my formulation is more realistic and better reflects human hubris. The speaker obviously understands these aliens must be more advanced — indeed they have traveled here, and we have not traveled there — but he does so only grudgingly, as a petulant child might, churlishly qualifying his declaration with a sour-grapes “all THAT advanced.”

Bob: Counsel, you make a good case. You should appeal to a higher court. Unfortunately, there is none. Are you aware we get 5,500 entries a week and that the winner is almost always chosen from many nearly identical entries?

Me: What?

Bob: Yes, I’m checking now. I see that we got 68 entries about bagels. Twenty were specifically about the aliens’ lack of bagel technology, including “What? Advanced races never heard of bagels?” “How advanced can they be? There’s no bagel setting.” “They’re not that advanced. They don’t even have a bagel setting.” “They don’t seem to be that advanced. There isn’t even a bagel setting.” And yours, of course.


Bob: If it helps, you can think of it as you basically won.

Note: The final judging is done by readers, who choose among three finalists. On May 24, the New Yorker revealed: The toaster entry won.

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