October 16, 2008


The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest Book. Introduction by Robert Manikoff. Andrews McMeel. $24.99.

The Day Phonics Kicked In: “Baby Blues” Goes Back to School. By Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

     They breathe rarefied air at The New Yorker, a magazine considered by some to be the finest in the world and by others to be impossibly pretentious and self-involved. Nowhere is the thinness of the air more evident than in the magazine’s supposedly democratic weekly caption contest, which presents a cartoon without a caption and asks readers, first, to come up with some; then, to vote on which of three finalists (chosen by New Yorker editors, including cartoon editor Robert Manikoff) should be designated the winner. This is a highly popular feature with the self-proclaimed intelligentsia, including the finalists quoted in The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest Book – a master’s in English here, a couple of greeting-card writers there, a newspaper writer on this side, an advertising copy writer on the other. To allow you to imagine competing in this heady atmosphere, Manikoff thoughtfully provides a series of “helper words” beneath each cartoon – words that occurred frequently in the magazine’s database of entries (larger-type words showed up more often, smaller-type ones less frequently). But to get right down to it: just how funny are the winning captions and the second-place and third-place ones? The answer is: generally extremely funny by New Yorker standards, but perhaps a tad abstruse by any other measurement. One cartoon shows a meeting at which participants, although dressed in business suits, have pirate-like parrots on their shoulders; the winning caption reads, “Shut up, Bob, everyone knows your parrot’s a clip-on.” Another shows a man and woman in bed, she reading a book and he reading a newspaper, but the parts of him visible from behind the paper show that he is some sort of huge bug; the winning caption says, “Two thousand eyes, but it still takes you all day to read the morning paper.” Perhaps the funniest cartoon in the book shows another of those meeting tables, around which sit six fully robed and hooded ominous figures and one smiling man in a business suit – who is saying, in the winning caption, “Perkins here, representing taxes.” That is a New Yorker cartoon at its best: making readers think about the old saying, “nothing is certain except death and taxes,” then playing a game with the whole idea. Neither this book nor The New Yorker itself will appeal to everyone, but neither intends to. If this type of humor tickles you, be prepared to encounter chortles, smirks and the occasional belly laugh here.

     There’s no need to invent your own captions for Rick Kirkman’s Baby Blues art – Jerry Scott’s are simply wonderful, and it’s hard to imagine any contest producing anything better. There’s nothing esoteric about Baby Blues – it’s simply filled with the sorts of things with which parents of young children live day after day (after day after day after day). The 24th Baby Blues collection (not counting seven oversize “Treasury” volumes) differs from earlier ones in being a theme book rather than a chronological sequence of reprinted strips. This is a great chance for readers to revisit some earlier strips focusing on the classroom, and what kids learn both within and outside it. For instance, Zoe remembers when leaving for school that she did not do her show-and-tell assignment, so she tells mom Wanda that she’ll get it done really quickly by pretending “that I’m you when people are coming over and you still have to clean the house.” Zoe then runs in circles screaming “AAAAAGGHHH!” – leaving Wanda to ask herself the entirely reasonable question, “Why do they do most of their learning when we’re not teaching them?” Then there is Hammie, Zoe’s perpetually put-upon little brother, who teases girls in preschool – but only ones littler than he is, since that’s the basis on which Zoe picks on him. There’s Zoe examining her closet, which is crammed with outfits; and, in answer to Wanda’s question about what she would like to wear to school, saying, “Somebody else’s clothes.” There’s Hammie having trouble with homework and worrying that he has forgotten all the Sesame Street lessons – in fact, he has “dreamed that Big Bird came over and beat me up.” There’s a head-lice episode, and an elaborate-kindergarten-graduation episode, and plenty of other episodes at which parents will nod or shake their heads knowingly – after they stop laughing. The most educational thing Baby Blues does, day in and day out, is to teach perspective: with only slight tweaking, your harassed and harried parental life can be seen as cute, amusing and occasionally all-out hysterical. (But you should still keep aspirin handy.)

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