Sunday, August 2, 2009

Comic 617: Current Events Are Always Funny

Your friendly neighborhood Rob here, filling in for Carl on uploading Lompta's treatment of 617, which is an abysmal wreck of a comic that should be wiped off the face of the earth! Let's see what Lompta has to say.


This is a surprisingly difficult comic to mock, mostly because there's no joke to attack in the first place. Randall briefly recaps something that was recently in the media spotlight, throws in the fact that alcohol can lead to irresponsibility, and calls it a night. Nothing is particularly funny about either of these tactics. It's pretty well established that people can act stupid when they're sufficiently drunk. It's also pretty well established that Obama is a fancy guy for deigning to step out of his magical presidential realm to solve a high-profile conflict. The alt-text is equally disappointing, because it's yet another observation that everyone has noticed before. Yes, graduate students understand alcohol from an experiential standpoint, just like current events do in fact happen and strong drinks can get you into trouble.

I think this comic actually says a lot about where xkcd has gone. Randall often makes strips obscure enough that people will feel smart for getting them (or just for reading them anyway, because it's a thing for smart people to do), and yet he still apparently feels the compulsion to make a joke about every major current event. One of the strengths of early xkcd was that it was so random, that it made good jokes but also wasn't afraid to be surreal. Comics like this one totally undermine that. Randall doesn't even have anything to say about the beer summit, really. He's a fan of Obama, and maybe just wants to remind everyone that he did a cool thing. So he draws a parallel, I guess, except that even that fails.

The structure of the comic, as far as I can tell, is supposed to go something like this: racist accusation (based on prior knowledge of encounter) leads to jail for single black professor, just as tequila leads to jail for black professor, policeman, and president. Other than the visual of people in a cell, though, there's really no parallel at all. If anything, it trivializes the difficulty Gates faced in the whole situation. Comparing an innocent man being jailed to rampant irresponsibility being punished is insulting, and also not funny.

And while I'm at least vaguely on race, it seems like a pretty stupid topic to cover in xkcd, because you can't even tell what color anyone is. The only way a reader can understand the core issue of the beer summit is if they already know about it, so in a year or so nobody will have any idea what's going on in this comic at all. From an outsider perspective, it looks like the president randomly stepping in to mediate an argument between a mysterious man in glasses and an anonymous policeman.

Also, the structure of the weak joke makes it even weaker. The punch line (I guess) of the three men in jail should come directly after the frame of Obama facing the tequila. Our imaginations are way better than Randall's art at thinking of the trouble they could have got in, and riding in a limousine shouting out of the sunroof is kind of cliche/lame to begin with.

Also, I don't think you can't put the president in jail anyway, at least not while he's still president, so this doesn't even make sense. That's a small weakness compared to the rest of them, but worth mentioning.

I guess I can only say so much beyond the fact that there isn't even a joke worth mocking. It also doesn't make sense in general or make any point that isn't conventional wisdom, but neither of those are necessarily essential for a webcomic. There's nothing here but the hope that people will find it ridiculous and therefore funny, mostly just because it's Randall Munroe saying it. He's a smart guy, but this comic is more than enough proof that he gets away with too much.

Or maybe he doesn't. Now that I've glanced at the forums, it appears that even the fans aren't happy with this one.

That's enough for this lurker. Lompta out.


  1. Dudes on the Gunnerkrigg Court (another webcomic) forums are currently making xkcd references by seguing "Residential (the title page of the most recent chapter)" to "Presidential (Obama buying alcohol for Gunnerkrigg Court's characters)". It's hopelessly contrived.

  2. You did a really good job capturing why this comic is bad! This guest post I liked!

    In fact, you did such a good job I don't have anything to add.

  3. The structure of the joke is weak and he should have left out the limousine panel?

    Yet every time there's a comic where Randall leaves out the hilarious consequences and lets the reader imagine them, it's complained about here.

    Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

  4. Uh, no, Anon, the trend here is generally "why does he spell out the joke/punchline/silliness." Damned cause he DID.

  5. @Anon 2:40 - The limo panel is still another "insert hilariousness here" thing, but with just a touch more detail. Are we to assume drunk driving? Or did they drive somewhere and do a crazy thing, then get arrested? Like Lompta said, the whole "screaming out of a limo roof" thing is a cliche way to get people to know that shenanigans are going down.

    But to be perfectly honest... I liked this comic. I mean, I knew what was going on pretty quickly, and at the end of the comic I chuckled. But it was an honest chuckle. Randall's been shitting all over nerd humor lately, so it was nice to see a simple current events joke.

    Unfortunately, I have to agree that if you don't know what event is being joked about here, it's really hard to tell who any of these stick figures are. Someone made a comment that you should just imagine that these three people are Gordon Freeman, Barney, and G-Man and it would make the comic much better. It really does.

  6. Wooohooh, see this is what I wanted. My only other contribution is that there is probably far too much buildup towards a pretty lame joke. The first half of the comic is just recapping the events as they have already happened, there is no reason why you couldn't have knocked out the top and replace it with a caption, which is usually Randall's style.

    CAPTCHA: extrato.

  7. I have to drop in with a quick comment as a non-american reader. Here in Sweden this has brought up little to no media attention, and I had no clue whatsoever what this comic was about when I read it. Don't you think Randall would try to appeal to as many people as possible in his comic, and not alienate people outside of the US? This whole comic was just one bad move by Randall in my opinion.

    I gotta say you did a great job with this review, Lompta.

    From the cold white north with love, Cruxit.

  8. Weird thing: the issue of racism has been completely removed from the situation presented in the comic. Sure, the real-life situation is heavily racially charged, but look closely at what the Presidential figure says, combined with the lack of displayed skin color: that key point of the original situation, in addition to any identifying names, is no longer present!

    It seems to me that Randall, writing a comic that's clearly topical today, wants to also have it be a timeless one by removing any ties to almost everything that's actually important to the original event. Ultimately, this just makes the comic soulless, as I presume readers like Cruxit noticed.

  9. Made me giggle, meh.

  10. I'm a non-American reader, and the whole situation got little attention here either, but I still know exactly what it was about. I don't really feel alienated about it at all.

    Good guest-post, Lompta. To the point and no fancy comedy attempts.

  11. Lame comic, good post. My only problem is the continuity. You start out saying there's no joke to mock, then later mock the joke.

    I would like to further criticize the alt-text. I fail to see the relevance of saying that different types of alcohol have the same effect. Are there really people who think they act differently? The issue would be the alcoholic content. There's a difference between the volume of tequila that you'd need to drink to get wasted, and how much beer. Due to the volume, it's easier to accidentally drink too much of higher-concentrated alcohol. So is he implying that the President, a cop, and a guy from Harvard are all stupid enough to drink an excessive amount of tequila?

  12. sorry if this was said in the previous thread, but

    WHOO! I am definitely NOT afraid of the fucking POLICE right now!

  13. Pretty stupid to comment on race on a comic with no color? Or deeply insightful and GENIUS?! But, again, it could be stupid.

  14. @Anon 2:40 - The limo panel is still another "insert hilariousness here" thing, but with just a touch more detail. Are we to assume drunk driving? Or did they drive somewhere and do a crazy thing, then get arrested? Like Lompta said, the whole "screaming out of a limo roof" thing is a cliche way to get people to know that shenanigans are going down.

    Maybe this is kind of an uncanny valley thing. Randall can show us truly insane consequences, some Mr. Hat shit where the President rapes Sarkozy to death, or he can not show us anything at all and just let us draw the obvious conclusion that drinking tequila leads to jail. But by showing the most boring, uninteresting consequence.... Eh.

    (Okay, no, the other two things wouldn't really work EITHER, but that's really a problem with the entire rest of the strip. It's kind of hard to make "People drink tequila, get in trouble, go to jail" funny, especially with absolutely no context for the people or funny elements in the trouble.)

    I have to wonder if Randall thinks that the entire original incident is indicative of racist treatment by the policeman or not.

  15. I never heard about the Beer Summit, so this statement is accurate:

    "From an outsider perspective, it looks like the president randomly stepping in to mediate an argument between a mysterious man in glasses and an anonymous policeman."

    Then again, without any knowledge of the summit, this comic at least gave me a smile, so what does that say? I guess I just liked the idea of the president getting thrown in jail.

    "Don't you think Randall would try to appeal to as many people as possible in his comic, and not alienate people outside of the US?"

    Apparently you never read the East-West comic.

  16. Mike: yes, there are really people who think that tequila makes them behave differently than, say, beer, or wine, or whiskey, or vodka. It's very common, actually. Tequila is commonly believed to be a crazy-making drink. Biologically, there's no basis for this belief. However, it's actually very true that if you expect alcohol to have a certain effect on you, it basically will.

    I told this to my roommate once. She paused to think and said that, no, tequila totally actually has an effect on her that is different from other things.

  17. Well, you could always argue that the specific flavor or method of drinking used for an alcoholic beverage could increase its ability to get you drunk; for example, vodka has very little flavor, so its quite easy to consume large amounts of it quickly mixed with something, whereas I think most people would have a harder time doing that with something like scotch. Plus the effect of doing shots versus sipping a drink, or the fact that some alcoholic beverages are usually consumed with food - the chemistry might be the same, but culturally I think there's an important difference.

  18. Hard to mock? This is fucking EASY to mock!

    2. Obama is NOT WHITE.
    3. Where the fuck is the secret Service?
    4. You can't just throw the President into jail like that in the same cell as everyone!
    6. It trivializes the incident. A LOT. Racism? No big deal, let's have some wacky stick figure hijinks!
    7. NOT. WHITE.

  19. Yes, the social impact of something would be a psychological "you expect it to be different, therefore it is different" thing. And "how drunk you get" is not the same as "what kind of drunk you get."

    In other words, you miss the point completely.

  20. That's the problem. Randall tries to be topical and at the same time distances himself from the topic completely. It's not in the slightest bit relevant to what's going on. The only reason he used this current situation as a framework is that it makes people feel good about themselves when they read about something they know about.

    If you're gonna do topical humor, Randall, say something about the topic.

  21. My only complaint about this comic is that panels 5 and 6 are unnecessary. They're only needed to make the alt-text relevant. So, take out 5 and 6 and make it a 3 column layout. I don't have a problem with the limo panel being stereotypical since it's used to good effect. If the joke were the shenanigans (as it often is in xkcd) then perhaps we could use some particulars, but that isn't the joke. The joke is the contrast between panels 2 and 8, that panel 3 (the fix) lead to 8, and that it did sort of work (if the problem is that he was wrongfully jailed, we could fix it by rightfully jailing him). If the cliche is the story, that's bad; if the cliche is used to tell a larger story more efficiently, that's fine.

    As for the alt-text, it seems like something I'd expect more from an undergrad. A grad student would see that it's not just the quantity but the rate and you can acheive a higher rate with tequila than with beer.

  22. Also, when it comes to removing race from the equation, I think most of the jokes I've heard about the Beer Summit did just that. They tended to be more concerned with the beer side than the race side. I remember the punch-line to one talk show host's joke on it being Biden drinking out of a beer hat. Race only came into the joke in the choice of beer (I think Gates had a Red Stripe).

    Actually, I think the last five xkcd's were ok. Not great, could've been better executed, but, overall, worth a smile.

  23. The guest post was about as entertaining as watching Microsoft Windows start up, but it was pretty true and relatable, and written in a very logical and sustainable way. This is far, FAR ahead of the "look at me wow I'm so snarky and mean" comments I've seen, and so far, is one of the best guest posts in my opinion. I do think the next posts shouldn't follow this "okay, now, sit down, be quiet and listen as I explain in a straight face why this was a bad strip"; criticism is usually the best when it's funnier than the strip, and in this case, it would have been quite easy.

    (okay, one thing is funny: the actual post is so sober, well thought-out and well written that the "oh, wow, how cool I am" introduction becomes lame to the point of sad hilarity)

  24. Fernie, you never fail to entertain.

  25. "If you're gonna do topical humor, Randall, say something about the topic."

    I dunno about this...Starting with something topical and then veering off on some completely ridiculous tangent is a pretty common joke formula at Penny Arcade.

  26. It wasn't a great comic, but I can appreciate how Randal portrays the situation in a light-hearted way. I mean, what spells unity more than sitting in a jail cell together!

    As for the writeup, I think it's pretty clear what side Lompta is on, and it's pretty much bullshit. Cop gets a call about a possible burglary, finds someone in the house, asks for ID to verify claims, and the guy gets belligerent. If it weren't a black guy, and it weren't a friend of the President, it wouldn't have even made the news. For fuck's sake, if a cop asks for ID, you show him the motherfucking ID and be done with it. He was doing his job, and so he gets labeled a racist, the President makes a stupid remark, and we get a big mess out of what should have ended with Gates pulling out his ID and showing it to the cop who was, at the time, only looking out for Gates's best interests.

    That said, I didn't need a political writeup. I read these because they're funny, and if they're not funny, they're not worth reading. Anyone who looks that deep into an innocent web comic making light of stupid shit in the news is not seeking to make humor, which is what I thought this site was about.

  27. @4vector:

    PA talks about video game news. Slightly different.

    Anyways, I couldn't even tell Randall was referencing something until the third panel. Taking race out of what was basically a racial issue seems like it's trivializing the whole thing.

  28. 4Vector, this isn't PennyArcadeSucks, now is it?

  29. randall sat down at his desk, sharpened his pencil, threw his hands up and said "well I can't think of anything!"

  30. Funny, the comic didn't smell of "I'm out of ideas, folks!" to me; it in fact felt like the exact opposite. Unfortunately, it was a quite lame idea. Matter of fact, I think the execution is actually very good -- the images, the pacing, the timing and so on -- but the idea is void and full of holes, might even raise a chuckle at first glance but leaves you with that vague feeling of "... wait a minute, what WAS that?" later on. In retrospect, it's just lame; and xkcd's best strips are exactly those that remain funny no matter how many times you go back to it. I don't think Randall would *choose* going for a "it's just funny for the first five seconds, and then you forget it" joke, so I can hold this as a clear sign of decline... if I could care about that.

  31. By the way, did I make it clear enough? I think the review was extremely good. But I wonder if I should be saying "This review is horrible! Where is the joke? Where is the punchline? Isn't this blog supposed to be FUNNY?"

  32. I do not like critiques when humorous.
    I do not like critiques when serious.
    I will not take them lumpa or carl.
    I will not take them, only snarl.

    I will not take them good or bad,
    Despite a comic so damn sad.
    No fan I am of reviews at all!

  33. Microsoft Windows startup screens deeply excite me.

  34. @Asher: you know, that would have had a lot more effect if you'd posted it BEFORE he said he thought the review was extremely good.

    As a kid, I was always deeply scared of the "it is now safe to turn off your computer" screen. Bright orange on stark black... brr. Not pleasant.

  35. In all fairness, it took me a while to figure out the rhyming words, so I posted it not knowing Fernie had taken the wind out of my sails.

  36. remember guys: Randall doesn't like to talk about politics in xkcd! Only when he's desperate, I guess.

    Remember the presidential oath comic? A similar one in many ways:
    -Black people drawn as white
    -Not funny after a few months when everyone has forgotten about the meaningless incident
    -not funny to begin with, actually
    -taking a situation which could be important (high status racial profiling case, new president and new direction for country) and finding the dumbest, least interesting and least informed or intelligent way of making fun of some tiny detail.

  37. Funny, the comic didn't smell of "I'm out of ideas, folks!" to me; it in fact felt like the exact opposite. Unfortunately, it was a quite lame idea.

    I have no idea what those sentences, taken together, mean at all.

  38. @Carl: AARGH I remember a while back that I was about to complain about you complaining about "political humour" and now it all comes back and yeah. I wouldn't say this was "political humour", rather humour about a political event: it's a rather nitpicky distinction, you might think, but the point is that it (like the oath one) doesn't rely on a political viewpoint. Thus I don't think it breaks the stricture he set himself. Doesn't mean it ain't rubbish in other ways, and I appreciate it's wishy-washy, but still.

    @Asher: related: in primary school (elementary) we studied a poem of which the last three lines were "and all dad will do is slurp/and when i can't think of a rhyme/i set about making them urp"

  39. 618 felt similar to the one where the protagonists are freaked out by the windmills and Don Quijote appears in the last panel to fight them. The alt text... yeah, brings to mind another one of his fanfics that was not so well received.

  40. I cant say 618 was terribad, simply cause I had never heard of the little prince before, so the possible joke went over my head.

    It is at least not as bad as anything from the last two weeks

    The alt text is explaining the joke. and at the same time is the punch line...

  41. @9:48

    I suppose the joke is that Little Prince is a story about an adorable little boy living on an asteroid and doing wacky and cute stuff. Deep Impact is a disaster movie in which the good guys have to destroy an asteroid before it destroys the Earth. So what if those two asteroids are in fact the same asteroid?

  42. I have a friend who loves the little prince, so I hope he can point out the humor in this new comic, as I can't find it myself.

    And yeah, the alt text is just explaining the joke/reference.

  43. I would personally prefer a Deep Impact / Fresh Prince crossover.

  44. god i fucking hated that east-west comic

    very nice guest post regarding critique of the comic. but uh maybe consider a bit the first two paragraphs that anon5:21 wrote.

    Asher: I tend to skip over what Fernie has to say so your little poem had probably the same effect on me that it would have had if you were able to post a bit earlier! So I offer encouragement and my amused laughs.

  45. Yeah, even though the book was written quite some time ago, I've never heard of it, so the "joke" sailed right over my head.

    Also, Randall's not winning any points for referring to a bad movie and failing to make a joke at its expense, since the joke is "Oh my god you guys what if it was the same asteroid?" and nothing on Deep Impact itself.

    Randall would be funny if he'd take a page from Hussie's book and mock the premise of bad movies, not write fanfics of their plots.

  46. "The alt text... yeah, brings to mind another one of his fanfics that was not so well received."

    As painful as it is to remember that five part atrocity... Yes, so true.

  47. Re: referring to bad movies, well, think of the positive part. It could be worse. It could have been Armageddon.

  48. I knew what The Little Prince was, so this one made me sad. Although why didn't he cover his flower? If he's watering it, why isn't there a watering can in his hand? Also, he looks weird in stick figure form.


  49. I found the punchline annoying in the sense that I'd seen it done to death already on late night television. The consensus amoung the hosts seemed to be that if you got a police officer, a professor, and the president of the united states together and put a beer in each of them, wacky hijinks would ensue. David letterman did a night where that was basically his only joke. Stephen Colbert did a joke along the lines that they would go and take a dump on Joe Biden's lawn.

    I'm not saying that randall stole this joke from somewhere, I'm just saying that its a ridiculously easy joke to make, and he didnt even do anything with it to differentiate himself from the pack. Where he should've said "wowee, if you get beer in the president and that professor and that police officer, X will occur," X being a wacky hijink of questionable legality, he said "wowee, if you get beer in the president and that professor and that police officer, a wacky hijink of questionable legality will occur." What hijink? "I dunno, but I bet it would be something. Something bad enough to get them in jail!"

  50. It should have just been Obama and Gates in jail and the cop walking off into the sunset. White people don't go to jail..

  51. didn't you see the picture? They're all white people.

  52. Mildly, mildly amusing.

    How would Randall draw a black person, anyway?