The Great Uniter: Even Celebrities Fail to Win The New Yorker’s Caption Contest

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The New Yorker/WSJ

This entry by Zach Galifianakis didn't win.

“I’m not going to say the word I’m thinking of.”

Fear not, dear reader, this isn’t NewsFeed finally losing the plot and starting off a post with an abstract remark. Believe it or not, that opening sentence is pretty much the only occasion on which someone in the public eye (in this case, film critic Roger Ebert) has nailed The New Yorker‘s devilishly difficult caption contest which appears on the magazine’s back page. The cartoon in question showed a couple carrying shopping bags, arriving at a sign with the letter “F” in the middle of the desert.

Ebert wasn’t so much elated rather than relieved, considering it was his 108th attempt to win a competition that now stretches back six years. But he can count himself lucky, as certain celebrities (to say nothing of best-selling authors, Pulitzer Prize winners and business tycoons) haven’t come anywhere as close.

(MORE: The New Yorker Finally Gives Ebert Cartoon Caption Two Thumbs Up)

An extremely entertaining article in the Wall Street Journal explained the various woes that have beset some of the great and the good. Comedian Zach Galifianakis hasn’t entered since being knocked back in 2007 for the entry, “Big deal. I can DRIVE a stick,” for the cartoon that accompanies this article. His was one of 7,807 submissions, and the winner was the slightly more subtle (in NewsFeed’s humble opinion) “He’s his own best friend.” The New Yorker‘s cartoon editor Robert Mankoff said that “I think he was hurt.” Through a spokesman, Galifianakis declined to comment to the Journal, which would suggest that Mankoff is right.

Perhaps the funny man should have taken heed of the Grammy-winning country singer Brad Paisley, who has never come close to making the final cut. After being interviewed by the magazine for a story last year, he had his entries published online. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Other notable authors who have fallen short of back page glory include the op-ed queen of the New York Times, Maureen Dowd (“I felt like Elaine in that Seinfeld episode where she kept trying to do a New Yorker cartoon, thinking it couldn’t be that hard,” she said. “But it is.”) and the Brit Bernard Cornwell, who penned the Richard Sharpe novels (“I thought it was very funny but they didn’t,” he reflected, which is a feeling that this Brit knows all too well, having entered without any joy on occasion).

Perhaps New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg spoke as honestly as anyone. At a book party, Bloomberg went up to The New Yorker editor David Remnick and explained that no matter how hard he tried, nothing funny could come to mind. As so often, though, the last word on The New Yorker‘s last page goes to The Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart. He’s managed to offer up a caption that can work for any cartoon: “Well, Obama DID promise us change.” Tell that to Zach Galifianakis.

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Glen Levy is an Executive Producer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @glenjl. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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