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When Punchlines Go Bad

Webcomics are no longer a laughing matter.

I think that's because few people can tell a joke anymore.

I also think even fewer people can take a joke anymore, but I'm not crazy enough to deal directly with that topic. I'm starving for humor, and seeing diminishing returns in my hunt for funny comics. A dwindling number of the comics I've been discovering are written by people who aren't applying joke theory, either by ignorance or intent. Is it that hard to tell a joke? Are the rules so complex that we can't play the game? And if so, why are some of the funniest jokes told by drunk old men in dim bars (besides the fact you're drunk too, and beer would make a tax form funny)? I think it's because the drunk men aren't worrying about the joke. They're just telling it.

A joke isn't that hard to tell. You have a setup, and a hard punchline that plays off that setup. You can have a soft punchline or two, but no more. Adding punchlines is akin to adding more links to a chain. You take the risk of one of those links being too weak to hold the chain together. If one punchline isn't funny, adding four great ones to the strip won't help it. The reader will always look to the one weak punchline and judge the whole strip on it. Instead of one weak and four great comics, you now have one weak comic that's also a chore to read.

Making your readers work for their humor is a cardinal sin, and nothing will make it harder for readers to find your comic funny than you trying too hard to make it funny. Humor is one of those indescribable emotions poets are always going on about, and more often than not ruin by talking too much about it. Keep it simple, stupid – or fail fantastically.

A good joke should make you think, but it's almost funny how many people have it backwards. I've lost track of the number of strips where I've had to wonder if I was just too stupid to get the punchline, or if it was even there. Even looking back on my old strips, I've found ones where I'had to stop and wonder exactly what joke I was trying to make. It made sense at the time, when I was more intimate with that particular strip, but having forgotten the situation that led to its creation, I had no idea what was going on.

How many of my readers thought the same thing, never having known the fine details I kept in my own head? How many potential readers did I lose because one strip was so seemingly cryptic? How many could you lose because you didn't tell your joke clearly?

Humor is wildly variant in its interpretations, and your jokes should reflect your own style. You shouldn't let over-analysis and excessive gags bog down that style, however. Step back from your strip, take a break, get away from thinking about it, and let the joke come to you. It will come, while you're playing a game, eating a taco, or sitting on the can. Don't stress about it.

It's only a laughing matter.

Joke theory's dark matter

Standard joke theory must have serious problems with Pogo, Krazy Kat, McCay's Rarebit Fiend, Flook, and probably most of Monty Python. Those weren't exactly punchline-driven, and... well, I liked them, so there. Tongue out