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You're flipping through a magazine, and there are almost always captions under the pictures (save for ads), but some magazine editors admit they can't do the best at them. So they offer the readers a chance to do better, usually challenging them to "Beat this caption." So if you can write a better caption than the magazine writers, it'll appear in the next issue, and maybe even win the contest. Any further prizes are optional.
Of course this doesn't just end with magazines. Web sites have them as well. They tend to be popular on forums.
Live Action Television
- Have I Got News for You has this round (almost) Once an Episode with odd-looking photos taken from news stories.
- A 2003 episode ground to a halt just before the end as the guests, Ruby Wax and Glenda Jackson, appeared not to understand the concept, with both of them asking what the "real" answer was and Jackson complaining that Wax's team had been given a photo and hers hadn't (prompting Guest Host Martin Clunes to shout, "Well, if you'll WIND YOUR NECK IN we'll get your picture out!").
- The SciFi Channel, back when they first started airing the eighth season of Mystery Science Theater 3000, had "Caption This!", a 24/7, MST3K-themed caption game based on screenshots taken from a live feed of whatever SciFi had on at the time. Not really a "contest", per se, as all what really happened was that the captions stayed up until they were flushed out by new ones in time, but still the same general idea.
- On The Office(US version) Pam puts up a funny drawing she made of a Sabre printer for a caption contest in the office. The other employees make suggestions which insult Sabre products, much to the chagrin of Gabe, the Sabre company's representative and he bans the contest.
- Maxim magazine.
- One of my favorites was a picture of a guy with three dozen cigarettes in his mouth. The winning caption was, "Huey Lewis will do anything to get attention these days," but my favorite was the runner-up, "In vain, he tried to postpone his execution."
- The New Yorker runs a weekly caption contest.
- Dragon Magazine had a few of these with black-and-white single-panel comics in its later years.
- Satirical magazine Punch ran a famous and long-running competition to find new captions for old cartoons featured in its pages a century earlier...
- Nickelodeon magazine had a caption contest at the end of each issue ("Say What?").
- The serious technical weekly publication Electronic Engineering Times featured a weekly "Immortal Works" feature. A famous piece of classical artwork was shown, and readers were asked to send in captions related to electronics, computers, or engineering in general. The winners would be "immortalized in genuine print".
- The British Army in Germany in the '80s used to issue a magazine teaching their troops about Warsaw Pact forces, and it sometimes ran these contests. One picture showed two soldiers riding in a ridiculously tiny armored vehicle -- it looked smaller than a jeep (not a Humvee; a jeep). The winning caption had one of the riders complaining that their vehicle had been a full-sized tank, until the other guy made a witch angry....
- The Age, a newspaper in Melbourne, runs a weekly caption contest called "The Adventures of Naked Man" in which readers have to caption an illustration similar to those found in Boy's Own style adventure, except one of the participants is naked.
- Nancy Cartwright has a caption contest in the newsletter she sends to her fans. The earliest ones involved Bart or other characters from The Simpsons, but currently the contest pictures are drawn by Jim Meskimen.
- The Funday Pawpet Show runs a weekly caption contest (when they remember to find a picture), the results of which are displayed along with the Art Jams, Pawtweets, and "Garrison Skunk's Top 40ish Quotes of the Week".
- PointlessWasteOfTime.com used to do something like this: Wong would post a picture and challenge people to come up with captions. This has since been taken over by Cracked.com after the merger.
- This was also a regular game in the short-lived online Spin-Off of the late 1990s.
- The BBC.co.uk Magazine section runs one now and then.
- Neopets does caption contests every week.
- Eggycaption's Journal offers up a pic for captioning (nearly) every weekday.
- Cracked holds a daily Craption contest: whoever comes up with the stupidest caption makes it to the home page.
- One female troper was one of the winners of a caption contest for Secret of Mana Theater. It had two categories, pure text (which she won) and Photoshopping.
- The webcomic Bruno the Bandit has them sometimes, for the single strips. (Most often, cartoonist Ian McDonald will deliver them later by himself.)
- I can has cheezburger? chooses its daily LOLcats with a caption contest: the visitors write the caption in the Lolcat Builder, and the best caption is featured in the home page.
- Star Wars fan site TheForce.net had a caption contest in its humor section, but it hasn't been updated for a while.
- Harry Potter fan site MuggleNet.com has a weekly caption contest. Warning: May be filled with in-jokes involving Hufflepuff House and GEICO.
- "Weekly", of course, meaning "whenever Eric gets around to updating it".
- In the "online forum/blog" variant, Fark will periodically offer farkers a chance to caption an odd picture, usually one featuring erstwhile dignified and newsworthy persons. (We're looking at you, Mr. President.)
- Twin Skies, an under-production MMORPG by Meteor Games, had one before it went back under the knife. It used screenshots of tests of the game.
- The Adventure Game Studio forums used to host regular "Caption Contests", where one user mashed a couple of completely unrelated pictures together and then challenged other users to make a (vaguely) coherent comic out of this.
- Mezzacotta's infrequently-updated strip Awkward Fumbles is basically a Caption Contest webcomic. Comics are drawn with word balloons but no dialog, which other readers submit.
- The Daystrom Institute Technical Library (a Star Trek fan site) has a monthly one, involving pictures of all Live Action Star Trek series in rotation.
- "Caption This!" mentioned above lasted until the reruns stopped airing in the mid-2000s, it inspired numerous other websites started by loyal participants knowns as "Cappers". One such notable site is Hipsoda's Caption Crack