Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Good Fruit Grows on the High Branches

I've now been posting the Campaigners comic for two months and the honeymoon is definitely over.  I don't mean that I'm done with posting.  I'm working on the comic every day.  Rather, I mean that the sense of it being something weird and profound with every comic I post has greatly diminished.

Some of you, I'm sure, have encountered this feeling.  The first dozen or so posts on a blog are a huge thing.  We find ourselves checking for comments every five minutes and wondering who will think it is the most amazing thing they've ever seen, expecting something big to come out of every post.  At first, that is.  Then, gradually, if we keep at it, the process of posting and checking the post becomes a routine.

With the comic, my first few weeks were spent in the height of anticipation.  The time between comics felt like a long time, as I anxiously waited for the moment when I would be able to post a new one.  But that feeling has gone now.  Now, it feels that the comics are barely up at all before it comes time to post a new one.  Whereas before there was no sense of missing a deadline, because I was ready to work on comics that would be coming out weeks and weeks after the one I posted today, now it becomes more and more evident that the train I'm on is moving faster and faster while I'm creating slower and slower.

This is what everyone experiences who sets a target for producing work.  Even as the regular practice of creating and setting a quality standard imposes itself, so does procrastination.  A day goes by without working, then another day, then a comic is posted and we remind ourselves, "Oh shit, I better make something right now.  I don't want to have to be putting in work last minute!"

But we know that day is coming.  At least, if we don't sort ourselves out and behave responsibly.

Just now, I'm not worried about getting comics out in time.  I still have a back-log that will keep me going a couple of weeks (which is down a long way from when I was five weeks ahead) ~ but I live in fear that I will get stuck for a joke.  And that is what this post is really about: writing jokes.

The one thing I don't want to do is get into the habit of creating what I call "low-hanging fruit."  I'll give an example from the Dragon Magazine #191, having found an archive just the other day:

This comic is an absolute piece of shit.  First of all, it's sexist.  Second, its a pathetic cliche, which itself started as a fabricated urban myth that got picked up by television and then repeated many, many times.  Everyone asks for directions.  I know this, because I am asked for directions very often.  So it doesn't even ring of truth.  Finally, for some reason, even though the cliche makes an argument that men are the stupid ones, the woman is made out to be embarrassed by the dialogue.  For fuck's sake.

Pillsbury, the author of this dreck, had a month to come up with this.  For fuck's sake.  I wish I had a deal to draw comics for the front-line magazine in the game culture, so I could phone in a decades-old joke.  This is the worst kind of low-hanging joke to reach for; it only requires watching reruns of old Johnny Carson shit and stealing from it.

But, sadly, there were many people ~ boys ~ who laughed at this.  Some of you, just now, smiled.  Low hanging fruit is out there, people use it and make a career out of it, just like Johnny-fucking-Carson did, as everything he spewed out for decades was stolen from the generation before him.

The same Dragon issue had three other comics: I'll post them together:

These are three jokes written by three different people.  Yet they're really just the same joke.  They are all three anachronisms.  Take something modern, slap it into the fantasy realm, point at it with an image and then have someone say something perfectly ordinary that is only funny because it's a thing belonging or appropriate to a period other than a fantasy existence.


Yet again, some of you smiled.  That smile is worth deconstructing, because if we're going to tell jokes, we ought to know a little about why they work.

First of all, we smile or laugh in part because we know it is supposed to be funny.  The joke is framed as a comic and for that reason we are given the cue to a certain type of behavior.  Those pathways have already been driven into our brains by a million comics that we read when we were soft, easily persuaded children at a young, easily impressed age.  As such, even by the time we get old and jaded, we can still relate to the format even if the actual joke itself is trash.

Secondly, jokes are built on the unexpected.  The joke I put up last night, the latest comic that can be found on the sidebar, is built on three unexpected results, one after another, only the last two of which are actually funny.  I'm going to spoil the comic now, so if you haven't read it, pause here.

First, we don't expect the adventure to work things out with a succubus and get married.  But the better twist is the pun based on a common phrase that parents use to describe other people's children (a cliche).  It works, because the cliche doesn't carry the joke, the pun does.  This is then followed by the double-entendre regarding baby-sitter fees.  If you don't see the entendre, think about it.  I did.  It took me an hour of patient thinking to nail down that joke.

Jokes work best when they confer fridge logic: when the joke isn't completely gotten on the first try.  This is what I aim for: a joke that has to be mulled over, where the whole joke isn't evident at once.  The British culture is brilliant at producing comedians who do this naturally, which is why I watch far more British comedy than North American.  There used to be a fair Canadian culture that produced this kind of humor, too, but that has been gone for more than a decade now.  Sadly, the best Canadian humorist working right now (obviously, in my completely non-humble opinion) is Katherine Ryan ~ and she abandoned North America for Britain.

Searching for that unexpected twist is the difficult part of writing humor.  If I have a favorite for this, it would be Jimmy Carr, who is a class by himself.  Here is the sort of classic twist he has the habit ~ meaning something he does so regularly that I am in awe ~ of producing:

"If only Africa had more mosquito nets, then every year we could save millions of mosquitos from dying needlessly of aids."

That is 21 words.  And in it he sets up the standard patter of NGOs asking for use to care and be concerned, only to slap us down.  The writing in those 21 words is so tight, most people I know won't realize it.  Look at the word groups in the one sentence:  "If only Africa" (the set up), "more mosquito nets" (the standard NGO request), "then every year" (building the immensity of the cause), "we could save" (the heart of the pitch, lulling us to expect the usual end of the sentence), "millions of mosquitos" (mid-twist, where it should be millions of people), "from dying needlessly of aids."  Bang.  A four-word punchline.

You can see Carr deliver the joke if you're willing to sit 1 minute and 10 seconds through this toxic bullshit.

I dream of writing like this.  If you haven't seen Jimmy Carr do stand-up, go look for him on you-tube and be ready to laugh very, very hard: because he is not like American comedians.  He doesn't spend three hours setting up a joke.

Time and time again, I find myself thinking up the low-hanging fruit for a comic and then I tell myself, "No, you can do better.  You can definitely do better.  Then I think for a few hours, or days, and slowly hammer out the difference in my head between what counts for low-hanging fruit and what doesn't.  And I live in fear that, in the end, after too much time, I will drift into that because I have burned out on writing things that are actually funny.  And I will know that people will smile and laugh anyway, because ~ hopefully ~ by then they will be trained to know that I'm funny, even when I am not.

That is why so many comics, both mainstream and internet, limp on for years long after they've ceased to produce anything noticeably clever.  Because, once, they did.  And as humans, if once a dry well had water in it, we will keep going back to that well over and over, hoping that one day we'll look down into the hole and water will be there.  It takes a long, long time for us to stop doing that.


Tim said...

There was a period of time when I would read a few different webcomics a week, but over time the authors posted less or phoned in on some jokes (I remember you mentioning Ctrl-Alt-Del in a blog post once, which happened to be one of them). The one I've kept reading is Zach Weiner's SMBC, which he somehow publishes every single day. There are good days and bad, and he tends not to go for a big punchline much: it's more like XKCD where some scientific concept gets toyed with for the sake of humour. I have no idea how he gets the material to post every day.

Your comics nearly always elicit a chuckle out of me: if I found them on a separate blog, they'd probably get bookmarked. Since they're here, I don't even need to go to another URL to enjoy them. I think it would also make for a good introduction to the blog, since they do tend to play with concepts that you brought up in posts at one point or another.

I commend you for keeping up with it. I'm sure most of us won't give you a hard time if you slow down on them anyways: we're accustomed to the natural flow of projects and work on the blog which keeps things interesting.

Ozymandias said...

The best media content - stories, books, movies, games, whatever - are the ones we either stumble upon randomly or have to wait for. Martin started his first novel in 1991; it went from a trilogy to seven books with the last two still unpublished (the latest was in 2011). Rothfuss published his first novel in 2007; the second in 2011; and we're still waiting on the third.

Honestly, we don't want certain authors to produce more often if doing so means a lower quality product. I've read one or two Stephen King novels that were fantastic; most of them, however, are 'blah;' mainstream, formulaic, okay for someone who hasn't read much in the first place.

In the end, I'm happy to hear that you're working on anything at all. That means that things are going well for you - or well enough, at any rate - and to some degree, demonstrates that there's always time for an artist to refine his craft.

Fuzzy Skinner said...

There's definitely something to the UK comedy tradition that tends to produce - on average - a higher volume of stuff that I enjoy. Both in stand-up comedy and sitcoms, there is a great willingness to do anything for a laugh, but not in the sense of a gross-out or pointlessly exaggerated profanity; more in the sense of absurdity. (Black Books is a great example of this, as the characters' increasingly bizarre situations are played completely straight from their point of view - no winking at the camera or blatant fourth-wall breaks.)

Also, thank you for articulating "fridge logic"; this is something I greatly enjoy in the humor I consume (even if it does work better in print than live), but I never had a name for it until now. My usual test of a new acquaintance's sense of humor is the old classic, "Did you hear the one about the cannibal who passed his brother in the woods?"

Drain said...

Your opening paragraphs, regarding the honeymoon phase and the subsequent accommodation stage, all the way into the slow-moving currents of routine have the benefit of weighty experience. And you're more stubborn than most.

What do you feel is the usual life-cycle of a blog, more specifically, to keep this close to base - despite knowing you've dabbled with other subjects - an rpg blog? And I don't mean the agonizing death throes of the very last post, I mean the point that the low-hanging fruit is reached for instinctively, with nary a second thought given.

I was once in the habit of reading Gnome Stew (I know, I know), until it became such a tepid piss puddle of family-friendly, innoccuous advice and product shilling that I couldn't go on.

Makes one wonder, if there is a connection with monetization to be made?

Alexis Smolensk said...


The life-cycle on a blog follows two direct principles, both of which tend to be ignored by those who write blogs.

1) Are you ready to write without necessarily expecting positive response, or indeed any response at all? Most persons who write blogs do not receive responses because they do not provoke response. Those who set out to provoke response by standing up for something will provoke negative response. Both of these things will tend to sap the strength from anyone starting a blog. When no response occurs, or only negative response occurs, people tend to stop writing soon after the "honeymoon period." This is typically between 3 and 20 posts. The internet is full of people who have written very little on their blogs.

2) For those ready to keep writing long enough to get noticed, and receive positive responses, or those who don't care about negative responses, the limit comes when the individual "runs out" of content to write. Everyone does. I have noticed this tends to be around the 2 to 3 year mark, typically after about 80 to 300 posts have been written.

To push past this point, bloggers have to ready themselves to REWRITE that which they have already said. They have to feel it is appropriate to pick up old subjects and address them again, hopefully having learned something in the intervening period, BUT NOT NECESSARILY. Rewriting will more firmly fix in the reader's mind the intent of the author, it will emphasize the importance of an idea and it will reach later readers who have not read through the backlog of posts.

Once the blogger is prepared to rewrite, there is no end to the process of blogging. It can continue until the writer simply changes or grows weary, most likely finding a better venue or purpose for their writing. They may acquire a certain level of fame and not have the time. They may move to video-creation or podcasts. They may have a massive change in life that requires all their energy. But they won't quit because they run out of things to say.

This is what you'll find with people like me, who have been writing steadily for nine years or more.