Fix the Funnies or Put ‘Em Down
So newspaper comics still exist, not that any of us would notice. What used to be at least 3-4 pages of vibrant art, memorable characters, and clever humor has been reduced to a page (sometimes less) of crudely-drawn, stale, stagnant, unfunny drivel that would depress even the happiest of toddlers. Outside of the cartoonist who gets paid to write this junk, we can’t think of anybody who actually enjoys the funny pages anymore.
But they keep going, these sad simple sketches, entertaining nobody but still somehow surviving. And that’s weep-worthy, because plenty of new comics get drawn all the time. Scant few make the funny half-page though, because some character that was old and uninteresting in our grandparents’ day needs to repeat a bad sight gag for the nine millionth time.
Sadly, that’s what newspapers want; if they didn’t, they would’ve canceled the old crap decades ago. So, since these stale strips are sticking around until the Sun goes out, we might as well help them regain a spot of freshness. These aren’t parodies – the Internet has taken care of that many, many, many times over already — but rather real, sure-fire ways to spice up the sleepiest of scenes, while still keeping the basic point of the strip the exact same.
Because if there’s one thing we at the Man Cave are known for, it’s awesome, can’t-miss advice delivered to people with far more money than we have.
Jim Davis, the guy who created (and completely exploited) Garfield shouldn’t need our advice. He actually got it right for the first few years of his strip, and then pissed it all away once he realized he didn’t need to try anymore.
Yes, there was a time that Garfield wasn’t solely a vehicle for lame set-ups and punchlines that would seem forced on a primetime sitcom that gets canned after two episodes. There were over two dozen characters, many of whom made regular appearances. There were long-term storylines, many of which actually had heart and a moral. There were even topical references and political humor; it wasn’t exactly biting satire, but it also wasn’t day after day after day of “Garfield, you’re fat,” followed by “Jon, you’re stupid.”
For the past 20 or so years, all of that has been abandoned in favor of no politics, nothing topical, characters so not there they might as well officially be declared dead, and a long-term holding pattern that even the worst airline would find excessive. There’s been one major story twist in recent memory and it made no sense – the woman Jon had been relentlessly stalking and annoying for 17 real-life years randomly admitted she loved him, and they became a couple. And in a world where a cat walks on his hind legs, eats pasta, and communicates via thoughts that his owner completely understands, this might be the most unrealistic story they’ve ever told.
It’s extra frustrating because, like we mentioned earlier, Garfield had the right idea for a while. All they need to improve this an uninspired mess is to be reminded of that. Writing for 25 characters offers a lot more comic potential than writing for three or four. Looney Tunes and other classic cartoons have proven that topical humor can still breathe, long after the topic ceased being the hot new thing on everybody’s lips. And even in a silly gag-laden comic strip, long-term storylines that show some heart, flesh out the characters, and make you care about them is never a bad thing. Unless, of course, it comes after 17 years of creepy stalking.
And honestly, even if it’s not executed perfectly, this approach is a quadrillion times more interesting and rewarding than “fat joke, fat joke, lazy joke, stupid owner joke, dog joke, fat joke, repeat the cycle until the President makes fat jokes illegal.”
Hold on; we gotta throw up before writing this entry.
Ah, much better. Sorry about that; it’s just that the very thought of Family Circus’s irritating cloyness, blatant religious preaching, and cynical view of childhood innocence as the nonsensical babblings of a bunch of miniature morons, makes us – oh God, here comes more …
OK. That’s the last of it, hopefully. Point is, this strip has accomplished something truly amazing, in that it has lasted well over 50 years and not made a single good joke. They’ve probably published over 18,000 strips, and not one has ever been worthy of even a giggle. Funerals are funnier than the Family Circus.
This is a strip that has changed ONE THING in its lifespan; at some point in the ’90s, the mother changed her hairstyle. That’s literally it; they devoted a week to the children coping with new hair. And it wasn’t even THAT new; she trimmed a bit off the bottom, and that was it. It’s not like she suddenly added purple streaks and shaved Bill and Hillary Clinton’s faces into the sides. She went from one Mom Cut to another, which apparently counts as breaking news in a world where a five-year-old saying “leavesdropping” instead of “eavesdropping” is the height of comedy.
But changes like Purple Clinton Hair are the key to Family Circus finally earning a chuckle or two from the crowd. But they would need to make these changes constantly, because they’ve spent the past 50 years barely making any. So every few days, the Circuses should experience something new and exciting – Dad gets one of those giant ear piercings you could fit a hot dog through, Mom joins a cult devoted to inner peace through pyromania, Grandpa’s ghost becomes real and haunts the house in a fit of anger, and so on and so forth. At some point, they should definitely do a story arc where one of the kids becomes a successful MMA fighter, only to never mention it again after two days of jokes about how the Octagon should be called the Knockedogon, cuz everyone gets knocked out.
And that’s the important part; the dialogue needs to stay the exact same. Too many parodies derive their humor from taking these cutesy characters and making them say out-of-character stuff, usually R-rated. Here, they’d say the exact same stuff, in the exact same way they always do. They’d just be going through a series of batcrap insane changes while doing so, ones that don’t even have to be addressed the next day. After all, Mom’s pyro cult is great on Monday, but by Tuesday she’s got a neck tattoo of Ted Bundy, and putting the two together would just get confusing.
Beetle Bailey might be the most realistic comic ever – a bunch of soldiers alternate between cleaning up and goofing off, without one shred of combat ever seen. Yet, while that may be reality for the majority of people in the military, it doesn’t make the comic funny. And doing the same sight gags and dumb puns over and over again, for 50+ years, makes the comic even less funny. There are only so many times Beetle can get beaten into the form of mashed potatoes before readers look elsewhere for entertainment (spoiler: this happened at some point in the ’60s.)
What makes it worse is, unlike Garfield and Family Circus, there appears to have been NO storyline advancement ever. Beetle was a college student in 1950, joined the Army in 1951, and has literally done the same crap ever since. At least Mama Circus cut her hair once. For all we know, the past 50 years of Beetle Bailey have taken place in a week or so of their time. It’s the only logical explanation, which also gives us hope that, by the year 2525, they might get radical and update their uniforms.
But why wait until then? There’s an easy solution to Beetle’s creative woes, one that our pitiful political machine keeps presenting: put ’em in a war. They’re soldiers, right? Well, make them fight! They can remain inept and hopeless, and Sarge can still break all of Beetle’s bones if Beetle dares look at him the wrong way; that’s the strip’s heart, after all. But the simple addition of a common enemy, and a bunch of idiots actually using their guns for once, will freshen up their tired gags almost instantaneously.
That’s the point of an upgrade like this; the strip can still be silly, punny, and gaggy, even in a war zone. It doesn’t have to degenerate into some horrible, bloody nightmare where everybody dies slowly and painfully, though if that’s the route Mort Walker wants to take, we won’t complain. Because then we can have a bunch of stories revolving around funerals and grieving widows, which are always good for a tickled rib or two.
The above strips, along with any other lame, stale gag-a-days that we didn’t include because there’s gold in them thar sequels, all have one advantage over Peanuts: they’re still being made. They may be in reruns figuratively, but Peanuts has literally been nothing but reruns since Charles Schulz’s death in 2000. As opposed to simply removing the strip, freeing up space for somebody else, and letting Charlie Brown and company live on in book collections, thousands of newspapers all around the world decided to simply re-print old strips. Thirteen years later, they’re still doing that, and they wonder why nobody takes them seriously any more.
It’s a shame, because they could easily get somebody to take over for the now-very-dead Schulz, and start creating new Peanuts. The only catch is that, after all this time, simply picking up where the strip left off would not work. The Peanuts formula – Charlie Brown gets bullied relentlessly, Snoopy writes the first line of a book, Schroeder plays a toy piano masterfully, Linus fetishizes his blanket – is stale to the point where even all eight fans of the Family Circus get bored thinking about it.
Luckily, there’s a completely untapped market that Schulz never bothered to look into: the parents. For the strip’s entire run, adults were off-screen and silent; when the cartoons needed them to speak, they broke out the muted slide trombone. All this did was reinforce the fact that, once humans reach voting age, they become completely useless.
But they had lives too, right? They didn’t just stand around and wait for their children to do something whimsical, so why not put the focus on them now? Peanuts Part II should tell the story of the gang from the point-of-view of the adults that are theoretically charged with looking after them. Whole strips could be dedicated to Charlie Brown’s father dealing with issues in the barber business, such as the ’60s when more and more people grew their hair out and didn’t require his services anymore. There could also be a couple weeks devoted to Pigpen’s parents stuck in court, battling endlessly to maintain custody of a child they so clearly neglect.
And what would Peanuts be without its depressing recurring gags, such as bad baseball, kites in trees, and readers rapidly realizing Schulz should have retired in 1976? Schroeder’s dad has a built-in one; his son’s a piano prodigy, but he himself could be a failed musician who can barely bang out more than a few chords before losing the rhythm. Just about every time you’d see Papa Schroeder, he’d be hunched over a piano, desperately trying to master Beethoven, Mozart, or anything else more difficult than “Louie Louie.” He would never succeed of course, because the big hidden moral of the strip is that failure is inevitable, improvement is impossible, and you might as well learn to live with it and love it.
Also, you would never see the kids, because that’s another hidden moral in the Peanuts-verse; if the spotlight’s not on you, you are dead to the world. Wah-wah.
Jason loves telling people more successful than he how to do their jobs. Previously, he advised video game makers on how to create Better Licensed Video Games, and suggested far sillier ways to make old and tired ideas new again with Screw Gritty Reboots; The Time For Goofy Reboots is NOW.