One librarian. Eight words. One big win in New Yorker cartoon caption contest

The prize doesn’t come with a parking place. But University Librarian Tom Leonard is still tickled to win The New Yorker’s weekly cartoon caption contest.

The cartoon in contest No. 371 depicts a cat facing a mouse, just outside a mouse hole. The mouse points a gun at the cat, but the cat holds up a paw.

Cartoon and caption

The cartoon, with Tom Leonard’s winning caption. (New Yorker image)

Leonard’s winning caption: “Six rounds. Nine lives. You do the math.” New Yorker judges picked it as one of three finalists, and readers voted it their top pick.

As news of Leonard’s win flashed around the Berkeley campus, the campus librarian spoke with the NewsCenter from San Antonio, Texas. He was there late last week for a session of the Coalition for Network Information, which, as he says, “doesn’t sound like a cartoon — and it isn’t.”

When an email arrived announcing that he was one of three finalists, he says, he was with both of his adult children, helping his daughter paint the interior of a house she recently bought.

“I showed it to them,” Leonard recalls. “My son said, ‘I think the alternative was good.’ “
On the Sunday night when he knew the winner would be revealed, Leonard was at home in Berkeley with his wife. He downloaded the edition on his iPad, his favorite way of reading the magazine. Jumping right to the contest page at the back, he learned the good news. The cartoon also appears in the April 8 print edition.

For his labors, Leonard wins a signed copy of the cartoon, by artist Joe Dator, with the caption. According to contest rules, it’s worth $250 and the winner is responsible for any tax obligations.

Since the contest began in April 2005, it has attracted many thousands of entries from would-be humorists, including the late film critic Roger Ebert, who entered 107 times and won once. (Upon hearing of his death earlier this week, the magazine’s cartoon editor put the favorites among his entries online.)

Leonard tried his hand at the contest in the beginning, he says. “Then I took a hiatus when I realized how much better the other people writing captions were.”

Contest No. 371 was his first try in years — and the winning concept came to him out of the blue. “ ‘Nine lives’ was the hook I needed,’ he says. “The phrasing? I thought about it.”

Now Leonard sounds ready to rest on his laurels. “I sort of feel I want to be a one-hit wonder,” He says — without ruling out the possibility that he might enter the contest again one day.

“I’d have to be inspired again — but I’m not changing my day job.”