Friday, March 24, 2006

Perry Bible Fellowship and the Nature of Dead Baby Jokes

(All pictures from Perry Bible Fellowship by Nicholas Gurewitch. Click on the images to go to nowhere, really, since I can't figure out how to direct link to comics.)

This is probably a good comic to talk about right after my humor article. Perry Bible Fellowship is a three-panel gag strip. Many of the comics are completely without dialogue. Nearly every comic is some form of dark humor. It's a good comic, but before we get into, let's talk a bit about dead baby jokes.

Dead baby jokes are like the bottom of the humor barrel really. They're all simple one-liners. Most don't even have any form of wordplay. They get their humor mostly from being disgusting as possible.

In my experience it is never the first dead baby joke you laugh at. Dead baby jokes work and groups and they never come alone.

Picture this. You're with a bunch of friends goofing around, and decide to start telling jokes. It starts out innocently enough, but quickly moves to sex jokes or racist humor. Finally someone tells this gem:

"Hey, how do you make a baby crawl in circles."

Then a few people who have heard the joke many times before answer in unison:

"Nail his hand to the floor."

"How do you make him stop."

"Nail his other hand to the floor."

Usually there is a long silence after this, until one of the more sheltered members of your group decides to speak up.

"That's awful."

This, of course encourages someone else to tell another joke.

"What's the difference between a Porche and a pile of dead babies?

"I don't have a Porche in my garage."

This will start getting a few chuckles from the more jaded individuals of the group, then someone else will chime in.

"How do you get a baby in a fish bowl?"


"How do you get him out?"

"Nacho chips."

By then everyone who's heard a dead baby joke before will be in the spirit, and even the one person who spoke against the first joke will be grinning. Finally somebody gets really brave.

"Hey, how do you make a five-year-old cry twice?"

But I digress.

The point is dead baby jokes are jokes that work by building on top of each other until you basically have to laugh. Their brand of humor comes more from the delivery than the actual humor, which brings me to Perry Bible Fellowship.

Basically (and I mean at its simplest) Perry Bible Fellowship works as a much more sophisticated dead baby joke. It is a brand of dark humor, using the darkness of the subject matter to sell the joke more than such things as word-play. Almost every joke in the archive is really obvious. Most involve either sex or death.

The main difference between Perry Bible Fellowship and dead baby jokes is that there are quite a few Perry Bible Fellowship comics that are funny on their own. Still the entire site is a lot funnier if you just read straight through the archive.

An amazing aspect of the comic is how the author is able to convey the ideas he's representing with very few words. In fact, quite a few comics in the archives have no text of any kind. These visual comics usually have a more surreal feel. It's a mood in which Gurewitch excels.

Perry Bible Fellowship may not be for everyone, especially some of the more sensitive people out there. However, if you can deal with a little bit of depravity, or if you enjoy any of the picutres that accompany this review, it's worth a read. Like I say on my reading list, after a while you will reach a sort of zen state where every comic is just as funny as the last. Do check it out.

By the way, I want to keep this site PG rated for now, so any comments explaining how to make a five-year-old cry twice will be promptly deleted.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Questioning Ship's Existence

(Picture from Count Your Sheep. Click on the picture to see it within the context of the website.)

If any of you see me walking around with a shirt that says "I exist" on the front, I just want you to know that I made that shirt long before this comic came up.

I'm going to put Count Your Sheep in the top five now.

Friday, March 17, 2006


It's been a while since I've discussed webcomics theory. Let's give it a try.

Humor is a tricky subject. Most webcomic creators feel that they have to include humor in their strip because that's what the reader expects. The word comic itself suggests a sort of humor. A person that's new to the world of webcomics would only have seen newspaper funnies before. They will grow to expect that sort of humor.

However, there is the danger that if you write a newspaper style strip, noone will want to read it because they already have the newspapers. It's safer to read newspaper strips, too because those people are working for money and are professionals, so of course they'll be better quality (in theory, not practice).

I personally don't think a comic strip needs to be humorous to be read. I actually think that sometimes humor can ruin a strip rather than help it. In webcomics especially, there needs to be a balance between story and humor. Both are aspects of writing used to provide interest to your audience. If you write the same as everyone else, noone will be interested. (and for those who say they are writing for themselves, you know it's not true. I have actively written for myself many times before, but I still responded to feedback. I was still hurt when people didn't like what I'd created. The very fact that you are placing the comic on the interenet means that you want people to see it, and even if you don't realize it, you are subconsciously affected by other people's opinions, even if the reaction is to go against their advice.) However, there needs to be some humor. Even the most serious dramas have some humor. The audience needs a break every once in a while. It just isn't as important as some people tend to think it is.

One of the large problems with writing about humor is that there are so many different styles, and many people tend to fall into just a few categories for kinds of humor they like. As you can probably see by the reading list, I have many tastes when it comes to humor. Even so, I tend to gravitate toward wordplay, especially those shameless bad puns, dark humor, and banter. Banter being a series of really small jokes told rapidly in order to give a mmuch larger effect, or talking in a different way or with a definite rhythm that sounds humorous. (e.g. alliteration, streams of rhyming words, phonetic word associations) for a good example of this, listen to A Prairie Home Companion (really, it's free), which actually features examples of wordplay and dark humor as well. I also enjoy purposefully faulty logic, which doesn't work unless people know you're being stupid on purpose. A step down from that, I enjoy non-sequiturs, situational humor, satire, irony and some slapstick, as long as it's good slapstick. Saturday Night Live and Mad T.V. do not have good slapstick. After that, it's kind of hit and miss whether or not I will like it.

The point is, humor differs from person to person. There is no joke that will make everyone laugh. Humor is culturally defined. It's personally defined. It's intellectually defined. It's defined by experience. Whenever you put a joke in a webcomic, you run the risk of people not getting it, or getting it, but not thinking it's funny. The best thing to do to appeal to the widest audience is to support your humor with something else that's good; whether it be great story, strong characters, or good art. It's very rare for a comic that focuses purely on humor to be good. Of course, some people would disagree with me on that.

However, I do feel that humor is important within a strip. Even the most serious dramas, if they're good, have a little humor to release the tension. Read Shakespeare. Even in King Lear, or Hamlet there are humorous scenes. There's a reason Shakespeare is still read today. How many other writers from the Renaissance do you know?

So humor is important. It releases tension. It adds a small level of realism. It endears the audience to certain characters. It even helps with catharsis a bit. Humor if used right can be very effective.

How do you write effective humor? That's hard, but there are a few things which I think might help.

Don't rely on one joke to carry the strip. Think about having multiple related punchlines, or a long flow of jokes rather than just one joke when everything else is build-up. Have you ever seen a stand-up comedian perform? A good one, I mean? They often tell long and involved stories that are meant to build up to one huge laugh at the end. However, they don't just have the one huge laugh by itself. Sprinkled throughout the story they use a bunch of smaller laughs to keep the audience interested as well as warm them up for the huge punchline at the end. Also, if the huge punchline fails, there's a better chance everyone in the audience will have laughed at one of the smaller jokes that led up to it.

Also, jokes have a compound effect (not sure if I used the right word there). That is, a series of jokes told in succession has a better effect than those same jokes told separately. I'll discuss that in a little more detail when I review Perry Bible Fellowship later.

Don't be afraid to have jokes or humor which people might miss. It's okay too add subtle humor, obscure references, or humorous moments or dialogue that takes place in the background or partially hidden. Even if most people miss the humor, if you have enough readers someone will catch it, and will mention it to other readers who will go back, notice it, and think the comic is that much better. Think about it, if you get enough people to read your comic, that's great. If you get enough to re-read the comic, your page-views will shoot through the roof. Try to shoot for those re-reads.

Don't try to please everyone with your humor. It's impossible. On the other side, it might be good if you have the resources to ask a few people you trust whether or not they find your jokes funny, especially if you are running a humor concentration comic. It's hard to be completely objective with your own work. Who knows, your collaborator might have a joke or suggestion that you like more than what you have now.

As always, my biggest suggestion is to draw inspiration from other sources. Read. A lot. Try to figure out what works and what doesn't for you because a humor style that you don't find funny probably won't translate when you try to emulate it. I'm not suggesting you steal from people outright. That's illegal, but you can always take lessons from those who came before you. You can also read to find ideas that don't work and avoid those.

Finally, if you're having trouble with your humor, you might want to make a comic that focuses more on characters or story. One thing that's great about webcomics is the different comics don't have to stand alone, and they don't have to be funny to be read. There are many serious and semi-serious comics on my reading list. I think it's the same for most people who read webcomics. Find a style that works. That's really what's most important.

Humor is important, but it's not as important as some people think it is. As with all tools of writing it needs to be used effectively in order to have a positive impact on the audience. Sometimes the way to have effective humor is to use it sparingly. Humor is a small aspect of webcomics writing and should not overpower the overall experience.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Built for Comfort

(All images from Built for Comfort by Jamie McGarry. Click on the images to see them within the context of the website.)

I'd like to congratulate Built for Comfort for coming to the end of its run after 100 comics. This makes it a nice short read for.. Wait a minute. Forget I said that.

Built for Comfort is a humor comic which soon starts to focus on story that uses the author and his friends as characters. I'm not sure how closely this follows real life. It looks like the author makes no effort whatsoever to bring in elements of his own life, preferring instead to write fanciful stories about real people. It's actually a pretty decent comic.

The comic itself seems to be the followup of a previous comic called Lunch-Break Toons. However, you don't have to know much, or anything at all about that comic to get this one (if that makes sense). I was able to understand everything in the comic well enough without having any knowledge of what happened before.

The humor in the comic is kind of hit and miss for me. There are a few jokes which I got but didn't really find funny. There were also a few times I laughed out loud. For me, the humor seems to work best when McGarry starts to go toward the absurd. Other jokes that work are ones where the characters say something stupid, but it takes a beat for it to sink in.

The characters are okay. They're different enough to have their own personalities, and not so distracting that they take away from their surroundings. They seem to be consistent enough as well, although it's hard for me to believe it sometimes when the author insists his characters are not exaggerations of their real life counterparts.

The stories are interesting. The comic takes a while to find it's feet, and it gets a lot better as you make your way through the archve and story and humor start becoming more balanced. That could just be my preferences talking, though. McGarry tends to write stories that require a little suspension of belief, or maybe a lot. He also seems to rely on coincidence and last minute saves a little too often. Sometimes they look like they may be for humorous effect, but that might be something to watch out for.

Built for Comfort is a good comic. It could be better in a few spots, but it's worth reading.