Jim Davis (creator of Garfield comic strips) spent 30 minutes sharing his ideas on humour construction in a presentation entitled the ‘Art of the Funny’ at the NCS Fest 2020.
Davis was unique at NCS as the only practitioner who spoke frequently of the reader and that it was all about the reader (while others relayed that it was essential to write for yourself to be authentic). Davis considered the reader directly and even changed cartoons depending on the day of the week with ‘down’ gags on Mondays (many will remember that Garfield always hates Mondays) and ‘up’ gags on Fridays. Others practitioners said that they wrote only for themselves with an authentic voice and the reader was incidentally considered only, although Davis did say that ‘the secret is to have fun doing it, as this gets transmitted, and you can’t fool the readers’. Davis described his aim and intention to make people feel better with his humour and so he wanted this to be relatable, and a mirror to readers’ lives. In a way, these ideas ultimately interlink, and the practitioner is the first reader anyway, so if that reader is having fun with something that resonates this ultimately will be relatable.
He briefly described the importance of humour for tough times, to disarm, to help us relax and so on. He also showed a fascinating piece of video footage of Regan being questioned during a political debate with Mondale in 1984 on his limitations for the following presidential campaign, Regan responded:
‘I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I’m not going to exploit for political purposes the youth and inexperience of my opponent’.
In the footage, Regan got a huge laugh from the audience including Mondale, and Davis considers that this is the moment when he had won the next election.
Davis also asked the persistent question ‘what is funny?’ and replied with ‘I honestly have no idea.’ (personally I am not sure that this question can be answered satisfactorily, although discuss McGraw and Warren’s idea with Benign Violate Theory in Blog 21). However, Davis does have some good ideas on constructing gag cartoons and he relayed these usefully in gag types with clear examples (sorry that the visuals are poor quality, these are taken from iPad screenshots of Davis’ presentation):
- The Reveal Gag (where the reader asks what is going on and the answer is revealed in the last panel)
- Shared Gags (relatable feeling gags)
I see many of these ‘shared gags’ on my Instagram feed, in particular cartoons that share modern preoccupations with anxiety, sadness, and mental illness. To the extent, that I am beginning to get ‘relatability fatigue’ and have started to skip some of these.
- Funny Drawings (how much can you stretch reality, Davis uses ‘what if’ challenges to explore these ideas with practitioner friends).
There kind of gags demand considerable drawing and cartooning expertise and maybe tricky for beginner level, and these challenges make me long for a ‘funny friends’ cartooning group to experiment with ideas.
- The ‘What You Don’t See’ Gag (something significant is not in the comics panels or frames and the reader has to collaborate to figure this out and get ‘closure’ of the gag to use Scott McCloud’s term.)
- The Action-Reaction Gag
In this one Garfield has sneezed in the previous panel.
I think also the ‘action’ is often within words, such as the request here:
There are also overlaps between these gag types, as below:
This is potentially an ‘action-reaction’ gag, but also a ‘funny drawing gag’ (from panel 2) and a ‘shared gag’ for a person who is always hungry or who loves eating. Nevertheless, it might be useful to consider creating gag types with a specific idea in mind, or even exploring this ideas in breakdowns of different gag types.
Davis, J (2020) ‘The Art of the Funny’ for the National Cartooning Society Fest online available at:
https://ncsfest.com/ [accessed 15.09.2020]
Regan, R (n.d.) ‘Regan-Mondale Debate’ available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LoPu1UIBkBc [accessed 15.09.2020)