In Robert Leighton’s cartoon, a court jester is performing a magic trick for his king. The jester has opened a box, out of which many doves have appeared and flown straight out the window. Both the king, who looks upset, and the jester, who looks surprised, are watching the doves fly away. The jester is speaking.
My first caption was, “Oh, fuck.” It doesn’t really address the medieval setting—it’s more of a universal caption like, “Christ, what an asshole”—but it matches the jester’s expression and conveys his realization that this one minor mishap might get him killed. It’s also concise.
I next suggested that the jester was surprised the window was simply an opening in the wall:
- “No screen?”
- “I just thought the windowpane was really clean.”
- “It’s open to the air? What do you do in the winter?”
Court jesters were known for telling jokes—not performing magic tricks—so I started thinking about the relationship between stand-up comics and magicians:
- “Man, and I thought comedy was hard.”
- “Comedy is easy. Magic is hard.”
- “The magician who was supposed to open for me called in sick.”
- “How do Penn and Teller do comedy and magic?”
Finally, I suggested that the jester was especially disappointed and the king was especially angry because the birds were intended as a present for the king’s daughter: “And these are for your…princess.”
Now let’s see how you did.
Here’s a good caption that could have been great: “And…Viola! Damn, nothing is going right today my queen.” The first two words are unnecessary. I assume they’re included because they show the jester making the first of several mistakes (“Viola” instead of Voila”), but that’s like beginning a joke with the punch line. The caption is stronger if the jester compounds one error, letting the birds fly out the window, with just one more mistake by calling the king “my queen.” And that brings me to my final point. There should be a comma before the words, “my queen.” The comma’s essential not only because it’s grammatically correct; it provides the split-second pause that really makes the joke work. If this caption had been “Damn, nothing is going right today, my queen,” it would have been this week’s winner.
Speaking of missing commas, I think one should appear between the only two words in this beautifully concise entry: “Well shit.” I’m particularly fond of that entry because it makes me feel less guilty about sharing my equally short and vulgar caption. Here’s a one-word and less offensive variation on the same joke: “Abracadohcrap.”
Like I did, several of you focused on the fact that the window is open to the air:
- “Who took the storm windows down?”
- “Who left that window open?”
- “Has that never had glass?”
- “…Perhaps I could interest you in double glazing?”
- “Ummm…I also sell shutters.’
That last caption would be better without the “Ummm…” And why does the caption before it begin with ellipses? They can be used at the end of a sentence to indicate an incomplete thought, or in the middle of a sentence to denote hesitation, but they serve no purpose at the beginning of a sentence.
The next three entries highlight the jester’s realization that he’s in a lot of trouble:
- “For my next trick, I’ll make myself disappear.”
- “There goes the flock and my head’s on a block.”
- “Now I kind of miss working from home.”
That last entry doubles as the week’s best pandemic-related joke.
There were a lot of captions that focused on the fact that cars and statues are often covered in bird droppings:
- “Please tell me you didn’t just wash your carriage.”
- “They appear to be heading straight for your statue.”
- “I guess they prefer your statue.”
- “Not on the king’s statue!”
- “If this angers you, you should see what they’re doing to your statue…”
Again with the ellipses. At least they appear at the end of that last caption and not the beginning, but are they necessary? Not here, because they don’t indicate an incomplete thought. I’m guessing some people like to put ellipses at the end of a caption because it’s the equivalent of pausing and waiting for the laugh, but they should be used sparingly.
Here’s the best of several entries that use doves as a symbol of harmony: “I guess you’re declaring peace now.” This next entry suggests they are also a symbol of achieving peace by ending a conflict—“I guess we just surrendered”—but whoever submitted that was confusing white doves with white flags.
Here are some clever references to a well-known English nursery rhyme:
- “Wait, Sire. I still have 24 blackbirds.”
- “They heard about the four and twenty blackbirds.”
As I often do, I’ll conclude this commentary with a few strong entries that don’t fit neatly into any category:
- “I said I could make them disappear. I didn’t say how.”
- “I’m more of a fool than a jester.”
- “Let’s skip sawing the princess in half.”
That last caption made me laugh out loud, but it comes in just behind this week’s winning entry: “Has that never had glass?”
Lawrence Wood has won The New Yorker’s Cartoon Caption Contest a record-setting seven times and been a finalist four other times. He has collaborated with New Yorker cartoonists Peter Kuper, Lila Ash, Felipe Galindo Gomez, and Harry Bliss (until Bliss tossed him aside, as anyone would, to collaborate with Steve Martin). Nine of his collaborations have appeared in The New Yorker, and one is included in The New Yorker Encyclopedia of Cartoons.