Lawrence Wood is the funniest man in America.
“Oh, God, no,” he protests. “You can’t say that.”
Why not? The University at Buffalo law school grad has won the New Yorker’s cartoon-caption contest an otherworldly seven times. And today he is a finalist for a 10th time – as you can see here.
“I know I should be worried about the attempted coup and the threat to our democracy,” Wood says, “but I can’t stop smiling.”
No wonder. Roger Ebert, the late film critic, entered the caption contest for years and won once. Thousands more – like me – have tried for years and never been so much as one of the three weekly finalists. And now Wood has a chance for his eighth win.
The New Yorker likes to style its famous one-panel cartoons as “drawings and drollery.” So how about if we call Wood the drollest man in America?
“Fine,” he says, sounding unconvinced. “I’ll leave that to you.”
Wood, 58, is a lawyer in Chicago who grew up in Syracuse and graduated from UB School of Law, Class of 1990. He believes humor is our best refuge in this age of anxiety.
“No matter how dire things get,” he says, “you always have to maintain your sense of humor. It’s the only way to get through it. I also find that to be true in the work that I do.”
Wood is the supervising attorney at Legal Action Chicago, a subsidiary of Legal Aid Chicago, which bills itself as the Midwest’s largest provider of free civil legal services to those living in poverty or otherwise vulnerable.
“The people we serve are desperately poor and find themselves in desperate circumstance,” Wood says. “The only way I’ve been able to do this for 30 years is to maintain a dark sense of humor.”
He offers high praise for UB’s law school: “It had an emphasis on public-interest law that a lot of law schools don’t. The atmosphere was friendly and receptive to students interested in that kind of work. I really appreciate that.”
Wood teaches a seminar on housing and poverty law at the University of Chicago School of Law. His page on its website wryly notes that Justice Antonin Scalia once dismissed Wood’s seminar as “a waste of time.”
Caption contests, on the other hand, are time well spent. The happy task is to take a cartoon with a pair of disparate elements – a panhandling dolphin, let’s say – and come up with a caption that wittily reconciles the disparity.
As it happens, a dolphin asking for alms was the premise of the first caption contest that Wood won. A man reaches for his wallet as a woman snarls: “If he’s so damn intelligent, let him get a job.”
Disparity reconciled in 10 words – with the last word landing the joke. That comports with Wood’s caption commandments, offered here in cartoonish miniature:
• Be brief. (Brevity is the soul of wit.)
• Be punchy. (The punchline should come in the last word.)
• Be funny. (The belief that New Yorker cartoons are clever, not funny, is a canard.)
It’s difficult to quantify how astonishing it is that one person could win the magazine’s caption contest seven times – and be a finalist thrice more. How to explain such skill? Well, Tom Brady has six Super Bowl rings. Wood goes Brady one better – and, soon, maybe two better.
Not that he’ll appreciate the analogy: Wood doesn’t care for football. He spent the dawn of the Buffalo Bills’ Super Bowl era at UB (and grew up the son of a Syracuse University professor) and yet somehow hates spectator sports.
He saw the Bills play in person only once – on New Year’s Day 1989, against the Houston Oilers, in the Bills’ first home playoff game since New Year’s Day 1967.
“I remember little other than that it was freezing and the Bills won,” Wood says. “My housemate brought a small TV with him. I initially thought he brought it for me so I could watch something I actually wanted to see, like a movie. But it was so he could catch instant replays from the game that was being played right in front of us.”
See? The rest of us remember it as a watershed moment in Bills history, knitting together the golden playoff eras of Jack Kemp and Jim Kelly. Wood, meanwhile, recalls it for the absurdity of taking a TV to a live event in a sold-out stadium – like some New Yorker cartoon come to life.
The magazine is known for the erudition of its articles and, yes, the drollery of its cartoons. James Thurber drew his dogs in the New Yorker. Charles Addams gave life to Gomez and Morticia there. And Bob Mankoff was the magazine’s cartoon editor when its caption contest was born.
“The fact Lawrence won seven times is amazing,” Mankoff says. “Millions of people have entered the contest over the years. So, using rough math, I’d say he’s one in a million.”
Mankoff left the New Yorker in 2017 and now runs CartoonCollections.com, a website that’s part archive, part store – and part caption contest. Wood isn’t eligible to win that one, because he writes a weekly commentary for the site on each week’s best entries.
(Full disclosure: I won that contest, which is judged blindly, some weeks ago. Should you care to see, it is Contest No. 97 here.)
“Lawrence is so clever with his own captions and so smart in how he explains what a good caption is,” Mankoff says. “And he does wonderful work for the public good as a lawyer.”
Wood’s weekly comments offer several of his captions for that week’s Cartoon Collections contest (and how he came up with them) plus a critique of some of the best offered by others, though such an exercise defies the dictum that the surest way to kill a joke is to explain it.
“I do worry about that,” Wood says. “But I’m not trying to explain jokes. I’m trying to explain what captions work and what don’t. Maybe that’s a distinction without a difference.”
He needn’t worry. Wood’s commentaries are not only funny themselves but make you feel smarter for reading them.
It turns out he’s so good at the cartoon game that now he collaborates with a handful of top-shelf cartoonists whose work regularly appears in the New Yorker. In fact, eight of those captions have been published in the magazine, which (so far) beats his seven caption winners.
Wood tag-teamed with cartoonist Harry Bliss on four of those, plus three more with Peter Kuper and one with Lila Ash. The New Yorker has purchased, but has yet to publish, a ninth of Wood’s collaborations, this one with Felipe Galindo Gomez, better known as Feggo.
Wood worked regularly with Bliss for some time, but no more. Bliss works with someone else now. Perhaps you’ve heard of him – a comedic genius by the name of Steve Martin.
“Isn’t he busy enough with his stand-up comedy, acting, writing, and music?” Wood asks in mock pique.
OK, so maybe the funniest man in America is actually Steve Martin. Even so, I’m here to say the drollest is Lawrence Wood.
He does UB law proud. As a lawyer, he performs the work of angels. And, as a caption writer, he could make an angel laugh.
Written By: Eric Brady from the The Buffalo News