Winning the New Yorker Caption Contest
Posted on April 8, 2019
Two Idahoans have made cartoon history in one of the nation’s prominent publications.
They did it by winning a contest.
There are contests, and there are contests. Winning a karaoke contest or the office March Madness pool is one thing. It’s quite another to win, say, the Pillsbury Bakeoff, an essay contest, the National History Day Contest …
Or the New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest.
The New Yorker, for readers unfamiliar with it, is a weekly magazine that publishes, among other things, commentary, journalism, essays, fiction, poetry and cartoons. Indicative of its range, its contributors have included John Updike, James Thurber, Joan Didion, Annie Proulx, Phillip Roth, Ogden Nash, Garrison Keillor, Joyce Carol Oates and Groucho Marx, to name a few.
Its cartoon caption contest is simple. Each week, the magazine publishes a cartoon (drawing only, no caption) and invites readers to enter the contest by submitting captions for it.
A simple process, but I can assure you that the contest is anything but simple to win. Some 6,000 captions from around the country and the world are submitted every week. The odds of winning are roughly twice as good as those of being struck by lightning.
A cartoon assistant reads all 6,000 entries and chooses the 50 he thinks best to give to the editors. The editors narrow the 50 down to three. They’re published as the finalists, with the winner selected from among them.
Most winners – and far more non-winners – have entered multiple times. Film Critic Roger Ebert, a smarter than average guy with a talent for putting words together, didn’t win until his 107th attempt.
A friend who has authored or co-authored ten excellent books has been entering the contest for a decade and has neither won nor placed. So he could be forgiven some muttered expletives or airborne manuscript pages to learn that the only two Idahoans ever to win are thirty-somethings who had entered infrequently. One of them won on her second attempt.
The latest Boise winner, whose successful caption was published in the March 25 issue, is Zak Snoderly. Snoderly, who turned 30 shortly after winning the contest, is a BSU graduate with a degree in marketing. He has spent the last five years working as an English teacher in Thailand. The cartoon that inspired his winning caption was a drawing of a couple on a deserted island, looking at another island strewn with candy canes, ice cream and other desserts.
His caption: “I wish we’d seen that before we ate Dave.”
I interviewed Snoderly in Bangkok, via Facebook Video. He said he’d been entering the contest about every other week for a year. He learned that he was a finalist in an email from the New Yorker, but was not notified that he was the winner. He found that out by seeing it online.
His reaction was low-key.
“I did a screenshot of the page so I could prove it happened. The first person I messaged was my dad. I knew he’d get a kick out of it.”
No victory sign? No cheering?
“No. I did giggle a bit. Then I showed a Thai co-worker. He wondered whether it was a contest that many people entered.”
The New Yorker sends winners copies of the cartoons with their captions, suitable for framing. He says he’ll probably give his to his parents.
“It would be a better keepsake for them to have. And I could see it when I come home to visit.”
His process for writing captions is straightforward.
“Typically I’ll have a couple of ideas that I’ll bounce between and then choose the one I think is best. When I first look at the drawings, nothing comes to mind so I let it stew for a few days and then something hits. When I came up with that one (the one that won), I just knew it was the one.”
His advice to other entrants:
“Don’t overthink it. Sit with the drawing for a while. Come back to it after a couple of days. Wait for that moment when something good hits.”
Dejah Devereaux of Boise won the contest last summer – on her second try. Her caption, for a cartoon of a man commenting to guests on what he was barbecuing, was, “It sends the other rats a message.”
Devereaux, 36, is a Boise State student who is finishing an art degree, already having earned a degree in Spanish. At first she didn’t realize the significance of her achievement.
“I didn’t think it was a big deal until I found out what a big deal it was (upon learning how few who enter ever win). “Then it was a validation.”
In addition to her artwork, Deveraux does standup comedy. She included winning the contest in her resume when applying to appear in an upcoming comedy festival.
She doesn’t consider herself qualified to give advice to other entrants after having entered so few times. Her process, however, is similar to Snoderly’s: Think of more than one caption and choose the best. Don’t try too hard; just let it happen. If a really good idea hits you, you’ll know.
Devereaux’s winning idea “hit me all of a sudden. It was a culmination of all the ideas I had.”
The odds against two people from Boise winning the caption contest are considerable.
The odds against two people who attended BSU winning? Probably greater than the odds of being stuck by lightning.
Snoderly and Devereaux’s husband are friends who worked together at BSU – another odds-defying fact which, coupled with the others, would appear to make a BSU connection key to caption-contest success.
The only states who have never had a winner or finalist, according to the New Yorker’s Madison Heuston, are Wyoming and North Dakota. (North Dakota, incidentally, is noted for being the last state people visit after venturing to the other 49.)
I’ve entered the caption contest three times, will continue to enter, and am confident of eventual victory.
This is not cheap confidence inspired simply by Snoderly’s and Devereaux’s success. Two other powerful factors are in my favor:
I attended BSU for two years, when it was still a junior college.
And I’ve never set foot in North Dakota.
Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.