If you grew up in a house that got the funny pages, you might remember Garfield the cat. And you might remember thinking that he was…not that funny. Well, it turns out you’re not as humorless as you might have thought. Unlike New Yorker cartoons, in which you are actually missing the joke, Garfield is not even designed to be funny.
On Quora, someone asked this question and got a surprisingly interesting response from a woman who used to be bombarded with licensing proposals from none other than Jim Davis, the creator of Garfield. She dug up this Slate article that suggests that Davis really had no intention of making the strip funny at all:
Davis makes no attempt to conceal the crass commercial motivations behind his creation of Garfield. (Davis) carefully studied the marketplace when developing Garfield. The genesis of the strip was “a conscious effort to come up with a good, marketable character,” Davis told Walter Shapiro in a 1982 interview in theWashington Post. “And primarily an animal. … Snoopy is very popular in licensing. Charlie Brown is not.” So, Davis looked around and noticed that dogs were popular in the funny papers, but there wasn’t a strip for the nation’s 15 million cat owners. Then, he consciously developed a stable of recurring, repetitive jokes for the cat. He hates Mondays. He loves lasagna. He sure is fat.
The model for Garfield was Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, but not the funny Peanuts of that strip’s early years. Rather, Davis wanted to mimic the sunny, humorless monotony of Peanuts‘ twilight years. “After 50 years, Snoopy was still laying in that dog house, and rather than getting old, it actually has the opposite effect,” Davis told the Chicago Sun-Times last year during the press blitz for Garfield‘s 25th anniversary.
Caroline Zelonka, the intrepid Quora answerer, also argues that, even without the strip, Davis could make tons of money from Garfield.* She writes:
The strip isn’t what’s important: what with the movies, plush toys, branded pet food, even the “Garfield Pizza Cafe” in Kuala Lumpur.
And it turns out the Peanuts creater Charles Schultz hated Garfield, according to one other answerer:
About 25 years ago I met a woman who worked for United Features Syndicate. UFS represented Peanuts as well as Garfield and countless other cartoons.
We got to talking and she told me a story about her early days with the syndicate. She was hired to work on Peanuts business (licensing, merchandising) and one of her first assignments was to fly out to Santa Rosa, California, where Charles Schulz lived, stay in his house for a week, and establish a good relationship. After a couple of days she was distraught because Schulz did not seem to be warming up to her. Might she lose her job? She tried harder to make him like her. Finally after another day or so he casually asked her, “What percentage of your time will be devoted to the Peanuts property?”
“One hundred percent,” she assured him. “I was hired to work only on Peanuts.”
She could see the ice cracking already. He gave her a relieved look and said, “GOOD. BECAUSE I THINK THAT CAT IS STUPID.”
By the end of the week they had a warm and trusting business relationship.
Other people on the Quora answers have different takes on why Garfield has the elements of humor, but isn’t funny. Joshua Engel cites Aristotle, saying:
The strips aren’t exactly uproariously funny, but the fundamental building blocks of humor are there. It’s kind of Aristotelian, actually. From the Poetics:
Comedy is, as we have said, an imitation of characters of a lower type—not, however, in the full sense of the word bad, the ludicrous being merely a subdivision of the ugly. It consists in some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive. To take an obvious example, the comic mask is ugly and distorted, but does not imply pain.*
We can definitely quibble with Aristotle’s definition, but it’s the essence of Garfield. Jon is both ugly and defective, but not generally in a painful way. Aristotle’s definition of comedy relied just on our feeling superior to him.
But no matter how you slice the lasagna, Garfield just isn’t that funny, and Davis is still incredibly rich—something comedians, many of whom have the first part down, could take a lesson from.
*Updated: This post originally reported, in error, that new Garfield strips were no longer being published
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