As a society, we’ve accepted there is such a thing as a universal New Yorker cartoon caption — a gag line that can work with any New Yorker cartoon. It’s an elusive thing. I’d be willing to wager the dream of discovering a new universal New Yorker caption is kicking around somewhere in the brain-pan of anyone who frequently submits to the magazine’s weekly Caption Contest.
Up to now-ish, we as a society have also accepted four New Yorker captions as “universal.” The first was unlocked by Chris Lavoie, back in 2006: “Christ, what an asshole!” The pace of discovery really ramped up within the last decade. Cory Arcangel unlocked “What a misunderstanding!” in 2011, and Frank Chimero has unlocked two: “Everyone was apparently very bored at work that day” (2015) and “Hi, I’d like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn” (2016). What are you gonna do, argue that any of these can’t serve the purpose every New Yorker caption is supposed to serve? Popular sentiment is right. All four work, every time.
I’ve been submitting to the caption contest on and off since 2016, and in 2019 I unlocked a fifth universal New Yorker caption: “Almost positive you’re in the wrong panel, my guy.”
Old news to my Insta followers, some of whom demand I compile all of my submissions (
which I’ll do, sooner rather than later which I did in November 2021 — I’ll continue updating the collection over time). New news to everyone else. I wasn’t updating this blog in 2019. For the record, I’ve been testing “Almost positive you’re in the wrong panel, my guy” for two years. It works. Please consider “guy” in this case to be a gender neutral term. Better yet, consider the conversational usage of “guy” to signify any living or inanimate being in existence.
What I appreciate about the four previously-recognized universal captions is that each works in a slightly different way. I know explaining these lines gets into territory painfully close to one of those Saturday Night Live prime-time specials where Lorne Michaels explains why each skit is funny, thus rendering it entirely unfunny, but still:
“Christ, what an asshole!” I love how this one subverts the tone of your typical New Yorker cartoon. Often, these panels sort of play with the urbane yet uptight bearing of a certain type of bourgeois New Yorker. The humor comes from the incongruity of the characters’ dispassionate reaction in the face of whatever absurdity is happening in the room. And yet, “Christ, what an asshole!” is a sentiment totally consistent with another type of New Yorker — the dgaf type that broadcasts their opinions to everyone on the street and has somewhere to go ASAP. I think what I like most about this caption is that it’s what I would say if I were to fly into a New Yorker cartoon.
“What a misunderstanding!” This one is subtle. It’s not my favorite — it feels slight, but you can’t argue against it, like what you think sometimes when you’re reading Kant. But it’s so on brand. Your typical real New Yorker caption isn’t actually all that funny. It’s more like: It asks the reader to acknowledge the existence of a joke, rather than commands a laugh, per se. The others are funny in part because they’re blatantly off brand.
“Hi, I’d like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn.” This one is great because, for a lot of professional people, the mere sight of this phrase tells you there’s some real dunderheadedness in your inbox. You know what’s happening when you see the generic LinkedIn greeting coming your way. It’s probably one of three things: 1. Someone’s thirsty for a new gig. 2. You’re about to get a follow-up message about a job that isn’t aligned with your experience at all. 3. Someone you haven’t seen in years is now leaning into LinkedIn, and your name resurfaced in a deep dive of their contacts. God, I wish I’d come up with this caption first.
“Everyone was apparently very bored at work that day.” Hard relate. I know from my incoming IMs what happens when any of my friends are bored at work. Someone’s always designing a custom gag T-shirt or writing lyrics to a song about a giant snow pile that won’t melt or narrating how they’re ducking out of work early and downing a bottle of wine alone. You know how it is. Plus, this caption is highly portable because it comes from an omniscient narrator. You can say anything when you’re an omniscient narrator!
All right, so now I have to do this to myself as well. “Almost positive you’re in the wrong panel, my guy” works because it speaks to the inherent artifice of a cartoon panel. Depending on how you look at it, the characters are either acknowledging the world they’re in isn’t real, or treating that world as extremely real and capable of supporting the most fantastical happenings. They just need to happen in the right forum, is all. And if you cross the wrong line, you’re kind of screwing this up for everyone else in the panel.
I admit, I’m a sucker for this fourth-wall-breaking kinda business. I often think of Renegade, the autobiography of The Fall’s frontman, Mark E. Smith, which is obviously just MES sitting in a pub and shooting his mouth off to his ghostwriter, Austin Collings. There are bits in the published book where he tells Collings to decide whether to leave in or take out a spiel he’s just wrapped up. Times like these, you have to wonder who’s even driving the bus in the first place.
I was also really into the versatility of “, my guy” in 2019. It’s one of those phrases like “You good?” that can carry countless meanings depending on the tone and context. You can “, my guy” someone to signal you’re on their side. You can “, my guy” someone to acknowledge your shared annoyance with something, or to communicate you’re getting annoyed with them. A well-placed “, my guy” can either defuse or escalate a situation. It can be part of a greeting, or part of a hard kiss-off. It’s in the nature of “, my guy” to fit everything, and to make whoever you’re addressing figure out on their own how to interpret it.
“Almost positive you’re in the wrong panel, my guy” has probably the most obvious application in the more absurd New Yorker panels. But when you place it next to one of the more mundane panels — the kind where two or three characters appear to be chatting, and there’s nothing going on — it takes you to another level entirely. Now there’s the implication that you, the reader/viewer, have just missed out on something important: Some kinda shit went down in this panel before you tuned in, and you’re never going to fully understand what it was.
I feel like I wander through scenes like that every day. I could walk down Wyckoff Avenue for 10 minutes and pass by three hella dramatic conversations of which I’ll only ever know a tiny, out-of-context snippet. Like, when you hear a “I hate this block; I only come here to eat and sometimes sleep!” or a “That’s why you don’t wanna shit in the hallway!,” you’re getting a glimpse into some other world you will never inhabit.
Anyway — I have dozens of New Yorker captions stockpiled in a different post. For a start, take “Almost positive you’re in the wrong panel, my guy” and run with it. Use your imagination.