Caption’s worth a thousand words

When I called local advertising executive and film producer Dennis Neary to tell him he was my new hero, he assumed I was a fan of his 52 one-minute bicentennial stories that have aired on TV stations all across Indiana.

In 60 seconds, you get a thumbnail sketch of some Hoosier history such as Crispus Attucks High School, Robert Kennedy’s speech after Martin Luther King’s assassination, Philo Farnsworth (the inventor of television), Red Skelton, James Dean and the Von Tilzer Brothers, to name just a few. By the way, I didn’t know who the Von Tilzer Brothers were, either.

Go to YouTube (Bicentennial Minutes) and search Von Tilzer. It’s worth it.

So, all that is great stuff, but here’s what really impressed me. Dennis is the second New Yorker caption contest winner from Indianapolis in the past two years.

Just to review, this weekly competition is an opportunity for readers of this iconic magazine (known for its single-panel cartoons) to write their own captions for a picture drawn by one of the publication’s accomplished artists. Approximately 5,000 people try their hand (and mind) at it each week. It frustrates even the professional funny people. Stephen Colbert is still trying.

From the entries, The New Yorker picks a trio of semifinalists, then readers are polled to pick the best of the three. Each week the magazine features the current winner (based on previous voting) and an opportunity to vote for the next winner. And, of course, there’s a brand new captionless cartoon to stump us.

The previous Hoosier winner, Rachel Loveman, had tried a dozen times, then finally landed the honor with her caption for a cartoon that depicted a matador and a bull in a dancing embrace. “You had me at ‘ole,’ ” says the bull, reminiscent of Renée Zellweger’s line in the movie Jerry Maguire, with Tom Cruise.

Rachel had made a copy of the cartoon and carried it around for a week, hoping for inspiration. But Dennis’ brainstorm came pretty quickly. “I don’t do much noodling. It comes quickly or not at all,” Dennis said. In the cartoon, a therapist is talking to her patient, not a human, but a sub-compact car, parked on the couch.

Dennis admitted that his first inclination was to have the doctor make some comment about the car feeling inadequate because of its size, a somewhat risqué reference, but Dennis knew that the magazine would reject this caption — not because it was racy but because it was too obvious. In fact, the New Yorker uses a computer program to weed out the most-used words in order to narrow it to three finalists.

During a quick ride in his office elevator, Dennis came up with another idea based on the premise that this was a circus clown car. After he sent off his entry, his daughter told him it was actually a Google self-driving car, which made Dennis think he had not taken that into account in his caption.

Three weeks later, here were the semifinalists:

1: “Where do the voices tell you to go?”

2: “You got yourself here. That’s a good start.”

3: “And are the clowns inside you now?”

Number 3 was the winner. Dennis is proud of himself, though he does keep his accomplishment in perspective: “If I had to do a 53rd Bicentennial Minute, it wouldn’t be about this.”