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Captioning the moment

In the Seinfeld episode "The Cartoon," when an annoyed Elaine tries to get a New Yorker sketch explained to her, the fictitious editor replies, "Cartoons are like gossamer, and one doesn’t dissect gossamer."

Though ultimately forced to admit he ran the panel because "I liked the kitty," the editor had a point. Small and spare, usually one frame rendered in black and white, New Yorker cartoons seem airier than most. A woman at a drugstore looks over a display marked "Staff Picks." A dog tells his psychiatrist, "I can smell my own fear." They’re wisps of ideas — either you catch them or they drift away.

Take the cartoon on the New Yorker’s "The Back Page" this week: a bland-looking giant squid stands behind the counter at a sushi restaurant as the chef explains to a customer, "He feels he can do more good working within the system."

Although New Yorker regular Alex Gregory supplied the image, the man behind the punch line is Dan Heath of Boston, winner of the magazine’s sixth annual cartoon-caption contest. The Phoenix decided to put some questions to Heath, a 31-year-old MBA, Houston native, and researcher at the Harvard Business School, who proved game to dissect some gossamer.

Q: You’re an MBA with a sense of whimsy — explain yourself, please. Is the idea of business administrators as buttoned-up, serious folk way off the mark?

A: I don’t think of us as being buttoned-up or serious. That seems kind of insulting. I’d say we’re more soulless and money-grubbing.

Q: Apparently there were a few entries similar to yours, but your phrasing was judged the best. Did you have to polish those 11 words to get them just right?

A: Yes, I had to focus-group the hell out of them....

One thing that fascinated me was that [New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff] had put all the contest entries in a database and then clustered them by content. So he could tell you exactly how many people had submitted each joke variant — like the squid saying, "You want a piece of me?" You could learn a lot about how people think, maybe too much, by browsing through that database.

Q: What were some of your alternative ideas?

A: At first I was playing around with the idea of productivity — that the squid’s eight arms might make him a better worker in some funny way. And then I realized that thinking about "productivity" is such an MBA thing to do.

Q: The artist, Alex Gregory, said in an interview that Mankoff had eliminated some entries based on his logical assumption that the squid was an employee at the restaurant. (" ‘The squid works there? That’s news to me.’ ... I thought it was definitely open to interpretation what the squid was doing there," Gregory quipped.) What was your take on the squid’s motivation?

A: I’m with Mankoff on this one — the squid works there. He has a custom-fit chef’s hat on, for Pete’s sake. The mystery of the cartoon is: doesn’t he see how wrong it is? He’s selling out his own kind! I got really worked up about it. It’s like a little morality play with tentacles.

Q: How have your friends and your family reacted to your win? Has the news made it back to Texas yet?

A: My parents don’t know. They would be depressed that I’m still reading the New Yorker. It’s about three clicks too Yankee for their taste.

Q: Does "I wrote a New Yorker cartoon caption" have the makings of a good pick-up line?

A: I think it would be about as effective as saying, "I’m a philatelist." The one regret I have about winning the cartoon-caption contest is that it unmasks me as the sort of person who enters cartoon-caption contests.

Q: That Seinfeld episode has Elaine declaring she could come up with a cartoon gag good enough for the New Yorker which you’ve now done. Is it as easy as it looks?

A: No, it is fiendishly difficult and frankly a little dangerous. Now someone give me a book deal.

Issue Date: January 28 - February 3, 2005
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