Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Comic 398: A Thoughtful Essay On "Tap That Ass"

This is a post that I've been meaning to write for a while. It concerns comic #398, which came only a few weeks before I began writing this blog. It was one of the comics where I thought, "Man, he has really lost his touch," and when it continued long enough, I felt compelled to take action. When in the course of human events, a webcomic stops being good, etc, etc.

Let's look at the comic, shall we?

So there you have it. Three panels which follow a similar pattern, and a fourth which suddenly changes the pattern, a usual formula for Laughter and other Good Times.

The joke is supposed to be that a character says, in each of the first three panels "I'd tap that ass..." which, of course, usually means "I would have sex with..." but then after a pause (and a physical break in the text) you see that they are not, in fact, talking about having sex with anyone, but rather much more mundane actions. Then, the last panel is a sort of "says what we're all thinking" panel, and the character just out and out says he wants to have sex with a tree (which we are meant, for a moment, to think the character in Panel 3 wants as well).

So what is the problem? It's actually fairly simple:

--"I'd tap that" means to have sex with, to choose (panel 1), to listen in on a phone call (panel 2) or to take a whack at/drill a hole into a tree(panel 3).

--"I'd tap that ass" means to have sex with. NOTHING ELSE.

None of the first three panels make sense. If you were, in fact, going to tap a phone, and you were, in fact, going to ruminate on it ahead of time, you would not say, "I'd tap that ass without a warrant." The only thing that that sentence means is "I would have sex with that person without a warrant." A logical sentence, perhaps, but not the one that is depicted in the picture. Same for Panels 1 and 3. In fact, it's an even worse problem in Panel 1 - because the phrase "I'd tap that ass to be the new committee chair" does, in fact make sense - it means "I would have sex with that person in order to get a promotion," which is, you must admit, a fairly common idea. Having sex with the right people to get ahead.

If he had just gotten rid of the word "ass" in all the panels it would have worked!
"I'd tap that..." ambiguous! maybe sexual! laughter! "...without a warrant." And then you see it's different from what you thought, and your brain has to jump to the new meaning, and suddenly you have a ONE WAY TICKET TO HILARITYTOWNE.

I don't know why Randall make this the way he did. I would have thought that basic comedy sense would have corrected him.

late late update: Reader Matthew photoshops the way this comic should be. You cannot tell me the original is better than this.


  1. YES

    this singular comic bugged me SO much because it was just so terribly executed

    i feel so much better now

  2. yaaaaay. I am glad I am make the world a better place. Any other comics been bugging you, I can take a look and analyze them as well.

  3. Just a two minor things in the line where you say the different meanings of tap. First, when you tap a tree you drill a hole in it and sap drips out, he didn't mean tap it like with your finger. And second, you said panel 1 and panel 3, but you said panel two instead of panel 2.

    Just nitpicking, i totally agree with you: removing ass would make it funny.

  4. I do also have to concede that, although I'd seen the comic already, your reader Matthew's version made me laugh slightly more immediately. Congratulations to both of us, and everyone else who noticed it, on our parallel senses of humour and convergent recognition of more effective employment of wording.

    HOWEVER. Upon coming across an small issue such as this in a person's work, is it not a matter of mere courtesy to flag up the issue to the author themselves rather than launch a further assault? I'm sure with a little research you could find a way.

    I found that I was able to understand, appreciate, and laugh at the original comic.

    I'd like to know, have you ever had a discrete word with Randall himself? Ever tried to?

    My main point I would like to make would be that XKCD, like many webcomics, originated as a place to vent, think visually, and share concepts be they humourous or no. It has always been the case upon reading XKCD that the comic I have been reading consists someone else's thoughts, feelings and observations put to the web. This is what it has always been, somewhere to laugh when you get it, look into a new subject when you don't, and take it as you will when you maybe don't like it.

    Regarding the superfluous use of one word, you have picked up on a point which may have tapped, er- I mean bugged me at the time as well, but only marginally, and I feel it wasn't really worth an entire post dedicated to complaining about it. Seriously.

    You'd say that XKCD is a comic scraping the bottom of a barrel for ideas; but if you find yourself stretching an entire essay (as you put it) out of the omission of a single word from a sentence, when even this did not detract overly from the comic effect, you could perhaps turn your critical gaze to yourself for a bit. All you've done here is describe at length the difference in humour bewteen to very similar sentences.

    Keep complaining all you want. It's a good exercise in written argument and creative writing.

    Sometimes, at least, all you achieve here is nothing more than that which some webcomics seek to, which is to find an outlet for frustrations and work through thoughts etc. publicly. You have found that some people agree with your thoughts, and some people don't. And so, with the way you word your publications.

    I have thusly decided that your site is no different, in this sense, to any other form of visual or textual thinking (as a blog should be, I guess).

    Think away, sir. Your thoughts are your own. But I take exception when you attack Randall personally. It just doesn't seem right. But I wonder did it cross your mind to, instead of getting angry, offer some constructive criticism alone? Without the anger and complete dismissal of the whole of XKCD as "this shitty, shitty comic" when you yourself admit you used to enjoy it the same as the rest of us. When something gets tiresome, FIND SOMETHING BETTER TO DO THAN ATTACK.

  5. A very thoughtful post.

    While I don't like to talk about it (and maybe I haven't mentioned it explicitly at all yet) I have had a brief e-mail correspondence with Mr. Munroe. He e-mailed me first, for what that's worth.

    The issue of constructive criticism as we're describing here did not come up, though I did offer a suggestion in a similar vein. Again, I told him that I wouldn't talk about this too much so I don't want to go into the details of it but basically he was extremely opposed to what I suggested, and I was being quite courteous about the whole thing.

    I would say that the "superfluous word" is actually a very important deal in this one comic: the reason I wrote a whole post about it, long after the fact, was because the one word made a very big difference, and the comic would have been much better but for that small change. I would say that while the text is similar in both sentences, the meaning (and the clarity of communication) is very different.

    Anyway, this has given me a bit to think about and I thank you for posting it.

  6. I think that the first two do in fact work. The person in question may be an ass. The tree, however, cannot.

  7. When you monitor someone's phone conversations, are you tapping them? No. You are tapping their phone line.

  8. OK anon, I'll grant that the first one may work - but given that describing someone as an "ass" is very much a non-American English thing to do (we prefer the delicate verbiage of "asshole") I can't imagine it was intended that way. Especially given the far more common meaning of "tap that ass" = "have sex with"

  9. I think the picture in the first panel is suppose to be a donkey. It's hard to tell but it does make more sense,

  10. I had never thought of that. But I don't really see it. If that was intended, the comic loses points for terrible art that does not convey what it is supposed to. I'm still not sure it's right - in a meeting of 5 people, who are looking at a donkey on a projector slide, why would the man say that the donkey should be the chair? The next two panels are obvious enough - and don't refer to asses in any sense of the word - that I think it's an unlikely explanation.

    man i think about this too hard

  11. Wouldn't "tap that ass" be appropiate because of the double meaning? The persons could be asses, and it would be funny at all if he had written "I'd tap that asshole"

  12. I remember expecting this comic to end with a donkey. I was really confused as to why he used a tree.

    Carl I realize I am sending you like eighty comment notifications and I apologize but I am feeling so damn talkative today but am stuck in class!

  13. Again, few americans use "ass" to describe people, so no, it would not be that funny (to us, at least). I'm afraid I don't totally understand your comment though - can you rephrase it? Or did you leave a word out somewhere?

  14. I agree with Anon @ April 6 10:06AM. I'm American and I've heard "ass" used to describe people. This leads to the first panel making much more sense, as the main character is going to tap (as in choose) someone he believes to be an "ass" in order to obtain a higher position. There is also a flaw in your argument about the second panel. One does not usually phone tap a phone or phone line in the English language. The word tap in this context is much more frequently applied to an individual or location (ie. They were [wire]tapped, Their meeting location was tapped.). You can see what I mean if you go to the Google news results: http://news.google.com/news?um=1&ned=us&hl=en&q=wiretap. In this case, the main character obviously despises the individual in the second panel and would [wire]tap him even without a warrant.

  15. I strongly disagree with your contention that people, rather than phones, are tapped. For example, an article I was just reading referred to "Rep. Jane Harman getting caught on a wiretapped phone call" as opposed to "Jane Harman being wiretapped" or something. In any case, the third panel still makes zero sense, so I still can't accept your explanation.

  16. Did you see the Google news articles?

  17. Dictionary definition of wiretapping:
    "the practice of connecting a listening device to a telephone line to secretly monitor a conversation."

    The verb form would be "to connect a listening device to a telephone line to secretly monitor a conversation." It is transitive, and the object it takes is the telephone line that is being tapped. You tap someone's phones; you don't just tap the person. If journalists are saying otherwise they are using it wrong.

  18. Journalists and the media largely define the usage of words, as can be seen with the word 'hacker,' which simply originally meant one who messes around with something. The media has taken this word and applied it to those who break into computer systems, who are in fact 'crackers.' As an additional point, a word and/or a meaning of a word does not have to appear in a dictionary to be correct usage, as dictionaries themselves define a word to be a sound that can be written or spoken that has a meaning. So as long as one assigns it a meeting it is in fact a 'real world' and so it would seem logical to allow individuals to assign already existing words new meaning. If we went strictly by the dictionary then I believe that what you consider to be the English language would stagnate, as it would be improper to use words not in the dictionary and the lexicographers would be reluctant if not unforgiving on the issue of adding new words. And as we go into the future we will see new words and meanings become standardized, as in the case of 'w00t' which was added to Webster's dictionary in 2007. While this arguing is all great fun, I am near certain we are both going to be relentless and unmoving in our positions and that I may cease whenever I get tired of arguing. Thanks for providing me with some great fun and forcing me to actually look things up for argument's sake XD. Always a good sign that usually indicates that the other people/person know(s) what they're talking about.


  19. Journalists and the media do not 'define' the usage of words. Words derive meaning from popular usage. The media very can and often does hijack a word or phrase and force it into the common lexicon, but it's often a freakish and unnatural phenomenon when this happens, and people are usually confused by it. See: "shovel-ready."

    We understand language based on context, and some etymological clues. To 'tap that ass without a warrant' is just weird. Wiretap: 'to tap a wire.' When a journalist says 'the NSA wiretap on a congressman,' they are actually taking advantage of the word's structure. So, I actually take it back: You tap a phoneline; you wiretap a person. To wiretap a person is the same as tapping a person's wires. Randall used the verb form 'tap,' not 'wiretap,' which has the object built in.

    Seriously though, this whole problem could have been avoided if he'd just kept it to the phrase 'I'd tap that.' This conversation would have been rendered unnecessary. People should never have to argue linguistics about whether your comic is nonsensical or just bad.

  20. Personally, I like the comic better in the original fashion. I think it is largely a matter of preference. Perhaps a survey would be beneficial? Additionally, it was in my understanding that this website was all about the technicalities and nuances of the comics, and it should seem that visitors here SHOULD argue about details such as linguistics.

  21. Well, it's a double-edged sword. On the one hand, this website thrives on XKCD sucking. On the other hand, a comic should never suck to the point that people make a website talking about how bad it sucks. Take it in what sense thou wilt. I enjoy a good linguistics discussion as much as anyone, but I don't enjoy that XKCD forced me to have it by being bad.

  22. I suspect that if Randall had followed your suggestion and left out the "ass" part, you still would find something else wrong with it. You seem to be very good at doing that.

  23. no, without "ass" it would have been a good comic. I've said comics were good before! like the lesbian experimentation one, that one was good.

  24. Think of it not as "(I'd tap that ass)...", but as "(I'd tap that) ass...".

    ie, the word "ass" can refer to a person, and not just as an insult.

  25. OK well first, that isn't really how the word is used in america (as I've said, we like the word "asshole" to describe people) and even if we did, you don't say you are tapping a person when you tap their phone, you say you are tapping their phone. Likewise, no one would describe a tree as an "ass" so panel 3 doesn't make any sense with your interpretation.

    Sorry, I really think that here he just fucked it up. Nothing more complex than that.

  26. My interpretation was that the comic was commenting on people using "I'd tap that ass" and then adding something on as a qualifier the like of which that you are so grievously annoyed at the comic.

    I have heard people use the 'i'd tap that ass' and then add on a tag phrase like the comic does. The fourth panel is supposed to be the down to earth guy who quite frankly isn't about to misuse a phrase just to sound clever or witty- he truthfully would tap that ass... if a tree had an ass. He would have sex with the tree. He wouldn't be making a clever attempt at commentary on the phrase, he'd just simply have sex with it.

    In a way I found your article entertaining... It explained the joke I saw pretty much to the letter but missed the point. The first three don't make sense, the last one avoids the broken phrase and is brutally honest.

    But thats just me.

  27. Carl said: "I'd tap that ass" means to have sex with. NOTHING ELSE.

    Only if you live in a world where 'ass' has only one meaning.

  28. I like the original better. It's not just the initial idea, and then a twist (as yours is), the inclusion of ass (definitely not an accident) gives it a nice element of the absurd. Not that the panels don't actually make sense. "Ass" is used to replace a lot of strangely disparate antecedents, the comic just adds some more.

  29. I'm not getting where everyone thinks that this was anything but a play on using "I'd tap that ass" and Carl, I don't believe you when you say that Americans only say "asshole" and not "ass" to describe someone. Now I may not actually be in the right position to argue this since I'm Canadian, but I watch lots of American programming and still know lots of American people and I have heard "ass" used in a lighter, not as serious or condescending, mood than asshole, where the person saying it is probably saying it to show they don't like that person.

    I think the new version works better for the whole "oh ho ho, you thought I was talking about sex didn't you ;D" at the beginning (then there's the punchline at the end to say "oh yeah, I guess I could've meant sex too") because with the original usage of ass, my mind automatically went to sex, and I was actually kind of confused on the first readthrough, but on the second I figured the guy was just saying it wherever he thought it could be applied, but then he realised he openly thought about having sex with a tree and had to stop to think about that.

    I dunno, they both are funny in their own way, but if we wanted a more secretive (I guess punny) version of it, I would go with the rewrite, and keep the original for audacity, but giggles for its audacity

  30. I know I'm terribly late on this, but I only just found the site, and I was wondering...

    ...since when do we not use the word "ass" sans hole to describe people in America? This is news to me. I do it regularly, preferring it over asshole. After all, if you say "x is a silly asshole," it just doesn't sound right.

    So why didn't I get the memo about not using the word "ass"?

  31. I don't know, you just sound british to me. "Silly asshole" might not sound right, but to me it sounds better than "silly ass" which is just about the pansiest insult I can think of. The best phrase, of course, is "fucking asshole"

    Consider this your memo.

  32. Which part of the country are you from, Carl? On the West Coast, I hear ass constantly to describe people who are irritating, but don't quite warrant the vulgarism asshole. You have never heard 'don't be such an ass' or the simpler 'You ass.'?

    Given the theme of xkcd's comics, it seems obvious that wordplay and the absurd twists on grammar, definitions, and expected values in this comic are intentional. The pedantic reaction of BUT YOU'RE USING THE COLLOQUIALISM WRONG is, I think, what makes it funny.

    I do think that panel three could have been improved had the tree been replaced with something that actually makes sense in the context of 'ass' -- as do the the first two panels, thus:

    I'd tap (colloquialism, have sex with) that ass (colloquialism, idiot) for a promotion.

    I'd tap (informal, wiretap -- one definition being 'to listen in on by means of a wiretap', thus 'I'd listen in on [that ass] by means of a wiretap') that ass.

    Panel three is inconsistent, however, with its wordplay, as it is one part linguistically sound (yet absurd) and one part merely absurd. I would argue that this might have been improved by swapping out a tree with the 1920s French automobile ASS. Perhaps "I'd tap that ASS to steal some gas." It would continue along the absurd (using tapping as one would a tree or keg in an unconventional way and using an obscure definition of ASS, which is indistinguishable from ass because the comics are in all capitals) and lead up to a last panel of 'I'd have sex with that car,' which is equally silly.

    I've briefly browsed over your site, and must say that I am very amused. The very act of analyzing a web comic with rigid, entirely non-humorous guidelines on what is allowed to be funny is, in and of itself, comical.

  33. Okay...Not to sound stupid, but having you explain it makes me get this comic even less. I thought it was just people mentally joking about having sex with weird metaphors semi-related to their current situation (which is not particularly funny either but it seems like something bored people would think about).

    But now I just...don't get it. Why do they say "tap that ass" when talking about a phone? Or...whatever's going on in the first panel? I thought it was a joke about "sleeping to the top", and then a joke about, I don't know, sexual harrassment by law enforcement, and then a joke about tree-philes.

    Now actually hearing that this wasn't Munroe's intent makes it confusing and completely unfunny. Not that police officers privately considering rape is amusing in the first place, but now it doesn't even make -sense-.

    Damn you Randall. The only way your comics are even slightly funny is when I miss the point and misinterpret them.

  34. On occasion, I am called an ass, and not for my rear. "Don't be an ass" or "Why did you behave like an ass?" or I may say "That ass cut me off"

    I don't think you own American English, so it's preposterous to say what is acceptable to Americans. It may be that you need to get out more.

  35. OK, I think there's a way we can settle this, actually. Pop culture - it tends to be a reflection of culture in general, no? I mean, people in movies don't usually call each other "dinglebags" because people in real life generally don't. So which examples from pop culture have people calling each other asses? I'll try to counter each one with someone calling another an asshole.


  36. The majority of you are idiots. Please close your blogspot account and move on. Thank you.

  37. Matthew (the photoshopper)April 24, 2010 at 2:59 PM

    Wow, people are pretty dumb. Coming back and reading the comments here, it's really easy to see how this blog evolved from "xkcd: Overrated" to "hate death kill kxcd bile." I don't mean that to come across as offensive as it probably does.

    In case anyone comes back to this one, the etymology of the word tap:
    1 (v) strike lightly [from Old French]
    2 (n) stopper, faucet [from Proto Germanic]
    3 (v) [from 1] put a hole in a container containing liquid, and stopper the hole with a faucet

    One can tap a beer barrel, or similarly tap a tree for its sap. By replacing "liquid" with "electrons" (or "information,") it's quite easy to understand the "wire-tap" -- i.e. knock a metaphorical hole in the telephone wire and access the magic talk juice that flows therein.

    There, now I've explained panels 2 and 3, in light of the pun. Panel 4 is the punchline because of its total lack of pun, or subtlety. I still don't get panel 1, though: I can't recognise the pun, because I don't know of a non-sexual use of "tap that" in the context of board meetings. This only leads me to assume that the comic formula is:
    1. sexy use of 'tap that'
    2. pun based on panel 1 by reproducing the linguistic formula but altering the intended meaning, introducing ambiguity
    3. pun based on panel 1 (..ditto)
    4. explanation of why 3 is a pun, by removing the ambiguity.

    It's a bit shit.

  38. i can't tell if you are trying to argue for me or against me but I think you make a good argument in my favor, namely that "tap that" would make sense but "tap that ass" wouldn't, which is what I have been trying to say.

  39. This is stupid. If you're going to make an entire website around critizing a four-panel-drawn-with_sticks comic, you're better dead.

    Really, if something, that comic is feeding your childen by allowing you making a site about it.

  40. sometimes i make an entire website around criticizing a ONE panel comic.

    anyway, what have you done with your life that allows you to proclaim death upon me?

  41. You know all those comics making fun of people who make asses of themselves to feel "smugly superior"?

    I'm looking at you.

  42. except that I'll gladly list 15 comics that make me feel woefully inferior. It's hardly superior to think that you can help improve one comic. Now, if I said ALL webcomics sucked, then yes, that would be a problem. But I'll gladly list people funnier, smarter, better than me and have no problem with it.

  43. In Panel 1 & Panel 2, the oucome of tapping is a reward. In Panel 3...the character thought of saying something brilliant but had to say "and extract delicious maple syrup" which seems to be the obvious (and boring) thing to do...so he thinks what a pervert usually thinks when he sees a hole...lol. Maple syrup becomes secondary. Does this not seem funny to you guys?