What you see above is one example provided by New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff of the process of a Reverse Caption Contest. Of course in the standard weekly New Yorker Caption Contest, one of the magazine's formidable roster of cartoonists provides a drawing minus a caption, and readers are invited to submit their best efforts. In the “reverse caption” process, cartoonists are provided with a caption for which, as Bob puts it, they have to “come up with an unusual image that makes it into a punch line.” As, for example, the line “No wonder we could get tickets.”
“We did this about ten years back,” Bob explains, “with exactly that phrase.” And the results included the cartoon above, and also these:
In case you hadn't guessed, the occasion for this look-back is Bob's announcement of a new Reverse Caption Contest. “Send your reverse-cartoon-caption entry to firstname.lastname@example.org,” says Bob, “and we’ll pick the top three phrases for our cartoonists to hilarify.” He goes on to provide Cartoon Contest links, which you'll find onsite: “To Enter the Contest,” “To Help Pick the Three Finalists,” and “To Vote for the Winner.”
It's an interesting question how different a process it is to concoct a conception totally from scratch vs. creating one to complete an existing drawing. I'm afraid I have no insight to offer, since my brain seems singularly ill-suited to cartoon-caption-writing. For me the Caption Contest is strictly a spectator sport. Over the years I've found that whenever I actually try to do the contest, all I come up with are pathetically obvious, literal snoozes — I've never come up with anything I wouldn't be horribly embarrassed even to submit. It's always interesting, when I do spend time on it, to check back to see the way the three chosen finalists' minds took the caption and ran with it.
How different is it when you're in complete control of the caption content? Boy, are you asking the wrong person.
“When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross.” — Sinclair Lewis