As the United States' most famous and influential film critic, Roger Ebert is used to having people hanging on his every word. So it has been galling when, week after week, The New Yorker magazine has tossed out his entries in the caption competition it runs for one of its cherished cartoons. Until now.
The New Yorker cartoon is, of course, the acme of erudite humour, a tradition stretching back to the magazine's foundation in 1925 and a pleasurable interlude in the serious business of ploughing through its super-long articles on culture and politics.
Just reading the magazine produces a self-satisfied glow, the knowledge of belonging to a wise, worldly and witty club. No wonder that, in recent years, its caption contest has become something of an obsession, not just for Ebert but for thousands of others wanting an entrée to the elite club of jokesters.
And now the film critic, veteran columnist of the Chicago Sun-Times and creator of the At The Movies TV show, has his proudest achievement (with the possible exception of becoming the first movie reviewer to win the Pulitzer Prize for criticism).
His winning cartoon is of a furious and lost-looking couple with shopping bags, standing next to an "F" post in what might be a supermarket car park except for the fact that they are in the middle of the desert. Under this, Ebert has proffered the caption: "I'm not going to say the word I'm thinking of."
Ebert's victory won a wry congratulatory message from The New Yorker's cartoon editor, Robert Mankoff, yesterday. "Two thumbs up for you, Roger," he wrote, mimicking Ebert's famous scoring system for movie reviews.
Mankoff wrote that "the Bureau of Cartoon Caption Contest Statistics" reports Ebert has entered 107 of 281 competitions since its inception, "which puts him in 569th place out of 502,416 unique entrants, who have submitted a total of 1,595,506 captions."
All of which means that Ebert is hardly the most obsessive of entrants. Nor is he the only celebrity correspondent. Last year, it emerged that country singer Brad Paisley had also been firing off captions for years, without success.
Such is the caché of winning, victorious entrants have provided "how to" guides on the web. It is, after all, a complicated process. Entries are first screened by the cartoon editor's assistant, to produce a long-list of around 50 that are than whittled by a panel of editors to just three – and then those three are voted on by readers. Slate's Patrick House wrote that the successful entrant must therefore psychoanalyse first the assistant ("a twentysomething from Texas... who used to be a rollercoaster operator at Six Flags"), then the editors, and then The New Yorker reader, too.
"The reader is isolated and introspective, probably on the train commuting to work. He suffers from urban ennui. He does not make eye contact. Laughing out loud is, in this context, an unseemly act sure to draw unwanted attention. To avoid this, your caption should elicit, at best, a mild chuckle. The first filter for your caption should be: Is it too funny? Will it make anyone laugh out loud? If so, throw it out and work on a less funny one."
That last piece of advice might have been the breakthrough for Ebert, since his winning entry is hardly his funniest. The New Yorker yesterday published some of the best of the rest, perhaps the greatest of which accompanied a cartoon showing a classical music concert where a huge truck has crashed through the wall on to the stage. The conductor tells the audience: "At this point you might as well go ahead and turn your cell phones back on."