On Strips: No Longer Relevant

By | Friday, December 19, 2014 Leave a Comment
There are any number of ways to divide the types of jokes and gags that appear in comic strips. One way is timeless versus contemporary. Timeless jokes are the type that can pretty much be pulled from any time period and still work. The specific trappings may be tied to a specific period, but the joke itself remains viable regardless of the level of technology we've achieved or what the current social climate is. Most of the "classic" comic strips you can read in the newspaper follow this premise.

Here's a recent Beetle Bailey strip...
Whatever you think of the quality of the joke, it would be equally funny if it were written in 1950 when the strip first launched, and it will probably be equally as funny in 2050. The joke is not reliant on the reader knowing much beyond how it's generally absurd/silly that grown adult might be confused about how to put on a pair of pants.

Now, compare that against a contemporarious joke in La Cucaracha...
Again, regardless of how funny you think this is/isn't, it references a very specific set of events. The events are a few weeks old already, so it's starting to sound a little dated in our ever-faster society, but in a year or two, this will fall fairly flat as a joke because it's so tied to events in the past. Readers (most of them at any rate) won't have a very direct connection to these events and probably won't remember them. A lot of editorial cartoons fall into this category, where they're really only funny within the cultural context in which they were written. One you remove yourself from that context, the humor (usually) fails.

There is also a third pseudo-category that I'd like to rail against: jokes that try to be contemporary but the cartoonist is out of touch enough with the current status quo that the joke seems dated as soon as it's published. For example, any comic that attempts to poke fun at how people use phones these days. Kids that want to talk to Facetime Santa instead of going to the mall. Couples who spend their entire date staring at their phones. The guy who pauses the lunch conversation to take a picture of his food. The woman who asks a celebrity for a joint selfie instead of an autograph. That type of thing, here in 2014, isn't funny. There's (frequently) no snide commentary involved; the cartoonist is just suggesting that the situation itself is absurd enough to warrant laughing at.

Except these aren't absurd situations. This is how people live and act. Not everyone, of course, but none of those situations are uncommon. Why wouldn't a kid want to Facetime Santa? When don't you see a couple both check their phones on a date? This is how society works in 2014. Whether you think things were better "in the good ol' days" or not, this is the reality in which we all live. Typical modern life can be funny if you hold up a mirror to it, and distort the image a bit to make things a little more extreme than they currently are, but just holding up a mirror to show a straight reflection is pretty uninteresting. We take selfies like that every day already. Sometimes with celebrities.
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