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Announcing the Winners of the New Yorker Caption Contest

The results are in and, as Bob Mankoff, cartoon editor of the New Yorker, made clear, the results are final.

Marthe Honts, a member of the Washington and Lee Class of 1997, won the special New Yorker/W&L cartoon caption contest:

Marthe came in just ahead of W&L Registrar Scott Dittman (“We need to talk about where this marriage is going.”). Art Professor Larry Stene won third: “And now for the good news . . . your seat cushion can be used as a flotation device.”

The contest ran in conjunction with Mankoff’s presentation in Stackhouse Theater on Thursday, May 9. And that presentation was held in conjunction with a Spring Term course, “The Psychology of Humor,” taught by Julie Woodzicka, professor of psychology.

The cartoon Mankoff chose for the contest is one of his own. His original caption? “Brad, we’ve got to talk.”

As Mankoff explained on Thursday, Marthe’s winning entry was evaluated just the way the “real” New Yorker caption contest is. Mankoff selected about eight finalists and then sent them off to New Yorker editors to cast their votes. Marthe came out on top and, for her humor, will be receiving a signed copy of Mankoff’s book, “The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker.”

In addition to describing the way the New Yorker’s caption contest has evolved and expanded over the years, Mankoff discussed the nature of humor and the particular kind of humor New Yorker cartoons represent.

Humor, he said, is extraordinarily subjective:  “Me telling you that what you think is funny isn’t funny is like you saying you like pizza, and me saying, ‘No, you don’t.'”

Surprise is the essential ingredient in humor, Mankoff said. “Surprise is always bad for an organism. You should always predict exactly what’s going to happen. The minute surprise occurs there is a slight negative emotion. Then you find out there’s nothing to worry about in a joke, and you laugh — like a waiter dropping the dishes or a balloon popping. This violates our expectation.”

When it comes to New Yorker cartoons, Mankoff said that they “remove some of the main levers by which we’re funny—and they do it intentionally—which are obscenity, aggression and cruelty. That’s our game plan. One of the reasons that is, is that the New Yorker is not an isolated comedy environment. It’s not a comedy club. It’s not even a comic strip. Right there in the New Yorker are stories about famine, and AIDS, and other very, very serious topics.” In that frame of mind, he said, people are enormously offended by humor that relies on obscenity or cruelty.

So unless you find the price of plumbing especially cruel (and some of you undoubtedly do), Marthe’s caption is clearly fit for the New Yorker pages.