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The Webcomic Overlook #91: Buttersafe

LOL! Humor on the internet is sooooo random!

In saying the above phrase, I understand that I’ve invited a modicum of invites backlash. Sexy Canadian librarians and urbane, well-dressed sequential art afficianados — who, in the deep recesses of my fertile imagination, make up the bulk of readers on this site — are no doubt glaring angrily from behind their pince-nez glasses and/or spitting out their Chamomile. This is an especially egrarious faux-pas since “random humor” almost always means that, at the end, someone’s head explodes, or the world blows up, or ninjas pop up out of nowhere.

So RANDOM! Even if it means everyone else is doing it.

In reality, it’s actually more of a shock cut than random. And if it were really, truly random, then there’s very little chance it would actually be funny, since you wouldn’t have established any expectations in the first place. Hell, John Allison made a shirt about it (which I would order, if the value of the dollar was much stronger against the British pound). As stated by the venerable Urban Dictionary (your indispensable resource on funky fresh lingo), you’re probably better off if you just say it’s unexpected humor … but then teenagers everywhere will dismiss you as an anal-retentive killjoy and there’s nothing I want more than the praise and adulation of today’s youth. That’s the secret to how a grandpa like Tony Hawk can keep rolling in that phat video game loot.

So without further ado, The Webcomic Overlook reviews the latest salvo in the world of random webcomic humor. Even its title looks like something straight out of a random word generator: Buttersafe, by Raynato Castro and Alex Culang.

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Buttersafe updates every Tuesday and Thursday. Mssrs. Castro and Culang tag team on the strip. Their styles are so similar that I couldn’t tell you off hand which strips were done by which writer. Of course, it isn’t difficult to come up with similar looking comics when most of them are stick figures. Sometimes one of the guys gets a yen for detail. I call this art style “bored in class so I started doodling dragons in my Moleskine.”

Like fellow minimalist stick-figure comics Cyanide & Happiness, chainsawsuit (reviewed here), and thingpart (reviewed here), Buttersafe relies on amusing vignettes rather than any sort of continuing narrative. And like every self-respecting gag strip, the webcomic does feature a few recurring characters. Most prominent is the the depressingly pathetic Saddest Turtle, whose saving grace is that he has no idea how pathetic he is.

Fight on, Saddest Turtle!

Buttersafe’s signature humor technique is to stretch out the joke as long as possible, sometimes several panels beyond the punchline. Where have we seen this before? While it’s possible they were floating these kinds of gags back on the Borscht Belt, most readers would probably associate this kind of joke with Family Guy. You know, like when Peter seems something shocking, drawls, “Ohhhhh-kaaaaaayyyyy,” and then slowly backs out of the room. Or when Seth McFarlane tries to transform a mediocre gag into a comedy classic by stretching it past the point of awkwardness to (hopefully) comedy brilliance.

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At best, we get the extended Peter Griffin/Giant Chicken Fight.

At worst, we get Peter Griffin/Giant Chicken Fight Part II.

So, in short, it’s the type of joke that’s best when not used past its freshness date.

So how does it come off in Buttersafe? Pretty good for the most part, actually. What really works well for the comic is how it exploits the limitations of your garden-variety internet browser. Buttersafe plays with an “infinite canvas,” but more effortlessly and subtly than other attempts. Take one strip: the beloved “Love is in the air.” It features a guy, a girl, and frivolity in general. The strip is stacked vertically, so we only see a portion of the joke. The final panel is hidden conveniently off-screen. When we get to the punchline, it’s still a surprise.

Like the kids say: “I LOL’ed.”

Even when the guys stick to a more standard format, they usually end up with a fairly amusing product as well. One of my personal faves is about a string of silly coincidences which starts with a guy driving a car. The calamities and resolutions get more absurd with every panel, and, yes, it’s the kind of strip that goes from kinda mediocre to kinda awesome by the end. It helps that we’re mentally hardwired to expect the worst, and the guys continually subvert our expectations.

Unfortunately, I think the hit-miss ratio hangs somewhere just above 1 (perhaps hovering around 1.2). The worst part about trying to stretch a joke as long as possible is if the joke isn’t all that funny in the first place, it tends to make the end result terribly tedious. Even with some of the shorter strips, Buttersafe tends to spread the humor little thin, almost mirroring Saddest Turtle’s desperate need to please.

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Then we come to the second Family Guy take-away: the so-called “random humor.” (Or, as Matt Stone and Trey Parker like to put it, “manatee balls.”) Buttersafe can sometimes feel like a convergence zone of stillborn internet memes. A joke about a toothbrush ends with … well, if you’re familiar with what passes for humor online, you really shouldn’t be surprised by the denouement. I’m sure that a lot of you find this gutbustingly hilarious, and normally I’d be right up there with you… if I haven’t seen this kinda of gag retold by pretty much everyone online.

The funny thing about “random humor” is that, like the Gematria in Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, a pattern emerges if you wait long enough. A good number of strips end with either an explosion, vomiting, death, or surprise appearance by The Punch Monster. It’s this sort of predictability that makes enemies of “random humor” take up arms against those who would bend the term to their own devious ends.

And yet Buttersafe completely redeems itself by rising above the typical fare. The gags that I think falls in the “hit” column sometimes are more clever than they have any right to be.

“What?” you say. “You mean this comic that ended a joke with a surprise appearance by ninjas is more than just a collection of lame jokes told by bored teenagers?” You heard me right.

One strip plays around with depth perception, and its incredibly meta content feels downright experimental. And there’s another strip where the devotion to replicating a natural habitat takes a strange — yet not ridiculously belabored — twist. That’s one of the best things about Buttersafe: it can take some of the most random, monkeycheese ideas in the world and make it feel natural.

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I’m not saying that Buttersafe is necessarily a smart webcomic, per se. A lion’s share of the jokes are, in fact, dumb, brainless gags (yet still kinda funny at the same). It does, though, have the power to surprise you. You expect low-brow humor for the ADD set, and instead you come out with something that can make you think.

Besides, Buttersafe gave the world a priceless comic strip about a burrito fielding questions at a press conference. That counts for a lot in my book.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)