Last night’s third place marks the local man’s astonishing fourth appearance in the New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest final

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It was probably Shakespeare who first observed that there are many paths to greatness. In the case of Paul Nesja of Mount Horeb and his current approach to the greatness of cartoon subtitles, a conversation with his niece paved the way.

“She told me about a contest that Bob Mankoff was starting,” Nesja said in our interview last week. “She knew I had an interest in cartoons.”

It was spring 2019. Mankoff had retired as the New Yorker cartoon editor and launched a website that included a weekly caption contest like the one he started at the magazine.

Nesja, 58, who, along with his wife Christy, owns a small design and letterpress studio in Mount Horeb, entered a few captions in the New Yorker Weekly Contest in 2008. The magazine and its readers choose three finalists and one winner. – Nesja didn’t hear anything.

“They went to the lower regions where the bad legends go,” he says.

In 2019, after her niece’s warning, Nesja entered the contest on the new website, which is currently called CartoonStock.

Almost immediately he was successful. “Within a month, I was a finalist in that one. A month later, I won.

Her success has led Nesja to re-engage in The New Yorker competition, which can be addictive, drawing thousands of entrants – weekly estimates vary between 5,000 and 10,000 – and is known to make unsuccessful entrants a bit dumb. The late film critic Roger Ebert wrote in his Chicago Sun-Times blog in 2009 that he entered the contest “almost every week since he started and has never even been a finalist. … Only once I want to see one of my goddamn legends in the magazine that publishes the best cartoons in the world. Is that too much to ask?

Ebert eventually won – in 2011 – but he would shake his head if he was around to hear about Nesja’s run lately.

Nesja won the competition last year. His winning legend appeared in the March 20, 2020 print edition of The New Yorker. The cartoon showed a blindfolded man walking on a plank suspended from a wagon, with pirates watching from inside. The caption: “No one walks through the Penn Station Pirates.”

Then, last summer, Nesja finished second in the contest for a cartoon that first appeared in the magazine at the end of July. In September, the legend of Nesja for the cartoon contest The New Yorker took third place. (Another time during the summer, Nesja wrote a caption that was in the top three, but another contestant had the same caption and was declared a finalist because his entry was received a few minutes before Nesja’s. )

When we spoke last week, Nesja was a finalist again – the third time in three months – and the winner will be announced on the New Yorker website at midnight on Sunday, October 17. This was the case. Nesja placed third.

Nesja knows that consistently reaching the top three in a field of thousands is exceptional, but adds: “I would like to win the first a few more times. “

Nesja’s interest in cartoons dates back to his childhood in Chippewa Falls, where he came across a 1945 book called “Cartoon Cavalcade”, which collected the best cartoons from major magazines of the time, including The New Yorker. . Other books followed, although Nesja never really dreamed of being a cartoonist. “I’m a bad artist,” he says. “It was never going to happen.”

Nesja attended the University of Wisconsin-Stout, where he met his wife. The Nesjas have two sons and recently celebrated their 28th birthday. After living for some time in the Twin Cities, they moved to Mount Horeb in 2000.

Nesja considers caption contests a hobby. “It’s something I appreciate,” he says. “It’s funny. Some people do crosswords every day. I do the caption contest.

What makes a good legend?

“It’s hard to pin down,” he says. “In the cartoon, there is always an incongruity or conflict between two elements of the cartoon. The legend should resolve this conflict in a surprising and satisfying way.

Nesja currently hosts – along with Vin Coca and Beth Lawler – a weekly podcast devoted to the New Yorker cartoon subtitle contests, and he has had the opportunity to interview some of the cartoonists he’s written sub for. -securities.

Nesja says conjuring up a good legend can take minutes, even days.

“If I’m lucky I can think of something in the first five minutes. If I don’t, for the next four or five days I keep notebooks in the house. I write something, a word, a sentence – something that is relevant to the image of the cartoon. Hope something clicks.

Another thing helps, Nesja said.

“I’ve always had a pretty good sense of humor.”

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