‘Trust your instincts’: Easthampton resident wins New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest

Staff Writer
Published: 10/18/2020 11:54:38 AM

EASTHAMPTON — Something about the cartoon — a black-and-white drawing of Swiss folk hero William Tell aiming at a cherry, instead of an apple, on his son’s head — spoke to Emily Shallcross. The drawing was part of The New Yorker’s weekly contest in which the magazine publishes an uncaptioned cartoon, and readers submit their wittiest captions.

Shallcross shared her caption idea with her partner. As she recalled, “I showed it to her, and she said, completely deadpan, ‘You’re going to win.’ I was like, ‘That’s very kind of you.’”

Sure enough, she did win the weekly contest, and her caption is printed underneath the cartoon by illustrator Lars Kenseth in the Oct. 19 issue of the magazine and online. “I’m just saying, after this haircut, it’s difficult to trust you,” it reads. “Emily Shallcross, Northampton, Mass.”

Shallcross actually moved from Northampton to Easthampton this summer, though she works as a lawyer in Northampton at the Committee for Public Counsel Services.

She’s something of a frequent submitter to the caption contest, estimating that she has entered it about 30 times before. “But I hadn’t done it in a while,” she said. “I have to be completely honest: It is literally the first thing that came to my mind.”

The cartoon looked like a parent and child to her. “I think it was probably in the back of my mind that a lot of people are cutting their children’s hair” during the pandemic, she explained.

Inspiration came from her own life, too. At the start of the pandemic, Shallcross had short hair. She has been cutting it herself “probably to my barber’s dismay,” she said. “I have cut it probably every month, but I am going through a Hugh Grant-circa-1990s phase where I’m cutting just the side over my ears so it is longer.”

Shallcross is a longtime subscriber to the magazine, first gifted to her by her mother. “Now we go back and forth as a family giving each other subscriptions,” she said.

Some New Yorker cartoons already hang on the door of her office, and “I think I’ll be adding this one, too,” she noted. “It’s amazing to have the caption be a finalist and win.”

Thanks to the publicized win, Shallcross said she has been hearing from people she lost touch with, “people that I haven’t spoken to in years, literally over a decade. My mentor from undergraduate reached out to me.”

When asked why Shallcross’ caption won, New Yorker Cartoon Editor Emma Allen wrote in an email that winners are chosen by an online vote.

Robert Mankoff, the former longtime cartoon editor of The New Yorker, once told The New York Times that free thinking is key to writing good captions. “Humor is essentially a type of play,” he said. “If you try to solve this like you would answer an SAT question, you will fail. Part of it has to be loosey-goosey.”

Shallcross also has some advice for caption writers: “I would say trust your instincts and keep it simple.”

“And also,” she added, “try to make it funny.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.

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