The Comic Strip Doctor: The Wizard of Id

that wizard, he's from id!

There’s a lot of history in the comic strip format, and a lot of good work being done. It’s a tough business to break into, but apparently it doesn’t take much to stick around, if Mell Lazarus is any indication. This column is about raising the bar of excellence, about driving tenured creators back to the cutting edge they once occupied before society moved the edge from them, leaving them idling in the plains.

The comic strip has seen its share of brilliance — Charles Schulz, Bill Watterson, and Gary Larson, to name a few who’re no longer with the medium — and its share of dreck. This column won’t pull any punches as we honor the good and eviscerate the bad in the newspaper today.

he may be your wizard but he's not my wizard
(Click the image to zoom in.)

Brant Parker’s The Wizard of Id, consistently one of the shoddiest-drawn strips in major syndication and lacking even the Down’s Syndrome charm of Ziggy, is a prime example of setting the bar at waist level. Rarely is there any depth to Id: the single joke is usually based on a broad cliché, and the drawings look like they were scratched out by a clubfooted chicken on the back of a vomit-stained napkin he found in the couch cushions of his paroled friend who owes him money because he spent his disability on Pabst Blue Ribbon instead of the light bill.

Today, Id‘s single joke revolves around “mess hall” food. (Insert “cafeteria”, or “school lunch”, or any sort of mass-produced meal providery you like.) In the first panel, Sir Rodney tells the King, seated on his magistrate’s bench, that “The jury wants to be fed.” Without any apparent malice, the King replies, rather straightforwardly, “Send them to the mess hall.”<

The job of the first panel is to set the scene for the punch line. Some especially skillful writers like to weave an extra joke in, whether a simple non sequitur or some oddball dialogue line. Id effectively wastes 1/3 of the space on nothing humorous. In fact, we’re in a courtroom talking about a jury, so we’re actively retreating from the humor threshold. There’s a lot of ground to make up here; let’s watch.

In the second panel, Rodney says “Yes, Sire,” carrying his scribble-covered clipboard towards the room imaginatively marked “Jury”. By Rodney’s foot you’ll find an Id standby: vague motion lines, that in this case seem to indicate that Rodney is walking backwards. In the third panel, Rodney pokes his head out of the jury room and tells the King, “They just reached a verdict.” The King, nonplussed, seems to entreat the audience: Well, whatta ya gonna do?

The answer, of course, is respond. A good rule of thumb is that double punch lines make for funnier comic strips. It’s a big job to cram anything funny into three-by-nine inches of newsprint, and wasting any space is an indication that the writer is simply lazy. Most funny multi-panel strips will deliver a punch line in the last panel, and then follow it up with a counter-punch line, effectively doubling the comedy. This is a factor of timing, and the way that the layout on the page shapes the rhythm in which we read. A sharp retort to the punchline can be twice as funny, since it’s absurdity building upon previously established absurdity. The gain is logarithmic.

Id goes for the easy out: breaking the fourth wall. The King stares out, in effect raising his hands in mock surrender while the rimshot sounds off-screen. The only thing worse for comedy than drawing attention to the joke would be to laugh at it.

The first stumbling block to the strip is the fact that, at first glance, it doesn’t make any sense. There’s no logic connecting the jury being hungry with them reaching a verdict. Why would they reach a verdict when they’re about to break for lunch? Don’t they want a break from deliberation? Anyone who isn’t smart enough to get out of jury duty surely would welcome a chance for free food and less work. So what, then, drives their sudden unanimity?

Perhaps the jury is testing the King, first asking for a meal, then changing their mind. Perhaps they’ve seen that the King will grant them their request for lunch, so they feel comfortable turning their decision regarding the fate of an accused criminal over to his jurisprudence. The intended joke, I believe, is that the jury is so afraid of the concept of eating at the “mess hall” that they’d rather get out of deliberations as soon as possible.

This is a risky gambit for Brant Parker. First, it assumes that the audience both (a) knows that the jury reaching a verdict would get them out of there; and (b) know that “mess halls” have a reputation for featuring bad food. Jokes based on clichés like this, as Id and its compatriots often are, increasingly run the risk of failure because (a) the older the cliché gets, the stupider it is to the audience as the basis for a joke; and (b) the older the cliché gets, the more likely that a younger generation won’t be familiar with it. It’s like at AMC movie theatres, where an on-screen advertisement for their gift card uses the slogan “Our gift certificate is quite a card.” The ad copy visibly strains to make a pun, using an archaic definition of the word “card” that’s #7 in the dictionary. The strain is more distracting than the ad is enticing.

As we’ll see as we examine more of the worst in newspaper comic strips, even poorly-conceived or badly-written strips can be saved with a revision to the last panel. If we give Brant Parker the benefit of the doubt and agree that this particular joke is clearly the best possible concept for today’s strip (and I’d hate to see what it beat out), we can add a second, funnier punch line. This makes the dumb punch line essentially a setup line for the second one, so it’s forgiven for being so dumb. Adding a second punch line often works, but only if it’s got something to build on:

Rodney: The jury wants to be fed.
King: Take them to the mess hall.
Rodney: Yes, Sire.
Rodney: They just reached a verdict.
King: I’m not going to execute the chef!

More effective is to rewrite the entire last panel:

Rodney: The jury wants to be fed.
King: Take them to the mess hall.
Rodney: Yes, Sire.
Rodney: They say they’d rather starve.
King: Then lock the door and leave the bastards!

Until next time … I’ll see you in the funny papers.

– March, 2004

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