The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest

by Mark Williams

It is better to write of laughter than of tears,
for laughter is the property of man.
                      François Rabelais


I’m stumped. A man angel with a giant halo
is talking to a woman angel with an average halo.
They appear to be a few feet apart,
but since they’re standing in the clouds,
they could be miles apart, in which case
they are giant angels and the man giant angel
has a ginormous halo and the woman giant angel
only has a giant halo. Either way,
I have no idea what the man angel is saying,
but I have six-and-a-half days to figure it out.

Possibly, cartoonist, Will McPhail, had an idea
when he drew the angels for this week’s contest: #526.
Or maybe he was Sullivan in search of a Gilbert.
I thought I was a Gilbert when, in response to #520,
Corey Pandolph’s drawing of a banana peel
slumped on a psychiatrist’s couch,
I had the psychiatrist saying,

Depression, heart palpitations, fatigue?
     You could be low in potassium.

Still, you have to hand it to first place winner, Michelle Deschenes
of Fort Collins, Colorado, who wrote,

It’s normal to feel empty after a split.


He never used one word when ten would do … 

is what I’d write if someone were to draw my tombstone.
I can see why everyone might think
the angels got me thinking about my tombstone,
but I’ve been thinking about my tombstone
ever since the banana peel in #520 when,
before I came up with

Depression, heart palpitations, fatigue? et cetera,

I was trying to tell the story—in two hundred fifty
characters or less—of British daredevil, Bobby Leach, who,
fifteen years after going over Niagara Falls in a barrel,
breaking both knee caps and fracturing his jaw,
slipped on a banana peel in New Zealand and died—
causing the guilt-ridden peel to seek counseling.

But not only could I not put the Bobby Leach-
depressed-banana-peel story into so few words
(which, by now, should surprise no one),
I learned, after further research,
Bobby Leach had slipped on an orange peel—
which would require even more words. Nevertheless,
though forced to go with

Depression, heart palpitations, fatigueet cetera,

I’ve been thinking about Bobby Leach ever since—
in the sense of tombstones and, more specifically,
you never know what’s going to get you.
Or when.

Five days to go.


If, in 1854, thirteen-year-old William Snyder
had known he would die by clown-swinging-around-by-the-heels,
he would have never gone to the circus, surely. On the other hand,
Greek tragedian, Aeschylus, did know—according to prophecy—
that he would die by falling object. Tragically, he stayed outside,
only to have an eagle drop a tortoise on his bald head
when the eagle mistook him for a rock.

For the life of me, I can’t work guardian, snow,
or even angel food cake into a caption.
With four-and-a-half days to go, the best I’ve come up with
is something about the order of Angels—
like she’s a lowly Principality or Power and he,
with his super-sized halo, is a decorated Seraphim, saying,

You’re late for inspection, Principality!

I wish Will McPhail had drawn an airplane nosing through the clouds
with people staring wide-eyed out the windows at the angels
as the man angel says,

Ladies and gentlemen, we have just been cleared for landing.


In 285 BC, the poet, Philitas of Cos,
wasted away from intense study of word-usage!
This would be about the last way I’d expect to go,
but then I doubt that twenty-one Bostonians
and three horses expected to drown in 1919
when a molasses tank burst at the Purity Distilling Company,
sending a twenty-five feet high, thirty-five mile per hour
wave of molasses pouring through the streets of Cambridge.

The last way I’d expect to go is to die from uncontainable joy
when—between now and midnight, Sunday—contest editor,
Bob Mankoff, changes the two hundred fifty character maximum
to an unlimited number of characters, and my poem,
“The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest,”

My mother’s maiden name was Angel. Martha Jeanne Angel.
I was an Angel before I met your dad, my mother,
divorced after forty-four years of marriage, liked to say.

Now my mother and my dad are angels.
The cartoon angels could be them!

I see he’s still fiddling around with words, my dad angel says.

Not exactly wasting away, is he? says my mother angel.
     How’d you get that great big halo, Paul?

I’ve been here longer than you. It grows on you.
     But you’re right, I’ve met Philitas of Cos.
     Our son is no Philitas of Cos.

     Still, says my mother angel, I like the poem
     where we’re listening to his teenage band play “Wooly Bully,”
     and the music is so loud I faint and swallow my tongue,
     and you cradle my head just so and tilt my jaws
     at just the right angle and plead with me to “breathe, breathe!”
     The poem where we still loved each other.

 Oh, Jeanne, it’s normal to feel empty after a split.

Very funny, says my mother angel.

I’m sorry, my dad angel says.
Would you like some cake?


My dad would have loved the story of Saint Lawrence,
patron saint of chefs, firefighters, and comedians, who,
after suffering the agony of a bed of burning coals, said,

Turn me over. I’m done on this side. 

I think Saint Lawrence had the right idea,
and The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest does, too—
that as you look at the big picture, if possible, laugh

almost as hard as seventeenth century Scottish writer
and Rabelaisian translator, Thomas Urquhart,
who died from a fit of laughter after hearing Charles II
had been restored to the throne.

I guess you had to be there.


12:10 a.m.

Given the life expectancy of the average U. S. male,
my current age is to the time I have remaining
to achieve lasting fame, discover the meaning of life,
and enter approximately six hundred nineteen
more Cartoon Caption Contests


12:10 a.m. Sunday morning is to the time I have left
to come up with this week’s entry.

Put another way:

65                       12:10 a.m.
⁄                =                      ⁄
76.9                                 11:59 p.m.

I’m inclined to go with the guy angel saying,

     Hey! You! Get off of my cloud!

or maybe a simple greeting like,


And the woman angel,
getting a good look at the man angel
with the giant if not ginormous nimbus, says,

Well, HALO!


Mark Williams enters The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest every week from his home in Evansville, Indiana. His writing has appeared in The Hudson Review, The Southern ReviewIndiana ReviewRattleNimrod, and the anthologies, New Poetry From the Midwest and American Fiction. Online, his poems can be found in Volumes Four and Five of The American Journal of Poetry, and you can listen to him read at: and

Illustration by Devan Murphy

One thought on “The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest

  1. I adore this poem. And it feels wrong to say this, but I think its true soul mate home is The New Yorker.


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