The webcomics blog about webcomics

On Webcomics Creators as Animation Directors: Jon Rosenberg

Editor’s note: Been waiting a while to write this one and no, not all webcomics creators are analogous to Warner’s animators. I got a guy in mind that reminds me of Lasseter, but that’s for another day.

There’s a fundamental rule to comedy, Chuck Jones told us: funny comes from restrictions, having a concrete set of rules and forcing characters to act logically within them. This leads to the fundamental difference between a Jones short and, say, a Disney short: the Disney gang goes off and does something wacky because it’s in the script. Chuck’s characters find themselves in a situation, and who they are dictates how they react (the clever student can also pick out these two approaches in individual episodes of Seinfeld).

Thus, nobody makes an unnamed bull knock Bugs Bunny out of a bullring — they just both happen to be there, and it leads to an escalation of conflict up to the greatest sight gag of all time (involving wooden ramps, grease, glue, sandpaper, matches, a fuse, and many, many explosives — you know the one). Thus, nothing will make that son-of-a-bitch frog sing if there are witnesses. Thus, it’s perfectly clear that the Coyote will stop getting injured if only he’d stop trying to eat the Roadrunner … but he can’t (if my memory serves me well, that’s rule #4; the other rules include the ideal number of gags in a Roadrunner cartoon is 11; the Coyote’s greatest enemy is gravity; and all materiel must come from the Acme corporation). Thus, in the ultimate expression of rule-based comedy, Sam Sheepdog and Ralph Wolf are at each other’s throats merely because it’s their job. When the whistle blows, they stop trying to defeat each other, dust off, clock out, and the night shift picks up where they left off.

The reason that rule-based comedy is so brilliant is that it forces the creator to think through characters and motivations. You can’t just throw in a bundle of wacky for random use … it’s got to be logical. It makes you a sharper writer; it forces you not to create Funny, but to find it within your creation. Jon Rosenberg not only gets it, he’s even trying to subject a journal comic to a rules-based approach. But to really see an appreciation of rules, check out the recent years of Goats (say, since the earth was destroyed). Characters fill specific roles (chaos-initiator, hapless bystander, methodical planner, disinterested observer, henchman) according to who they are on the inside. Want to make characters truly hilarious? Force them to act outside their comfort zone.

Just as importantly as the character rules are the world rules that Rosenberg has implemented; the rules were always there but they weren’t always obvious. Now we know why they’re there — Goats exists in a deterministic universe running off of a laptop. Its behavior is predictable: reality-crafting monkeys can’t create anything larger than a potato (which Oliver isn’t); Phillip will die from choking on trail mix at some time in the future (and I have to believe that Rosenberg will approach that day’s strip with particularly sadistic glee); people (human, animal, and other) in Goats bear a distinct resemblance to those in various far-flung futures … which at least seems to give us some hope that the universe won’t be ending in seven years after all. In every way, it’s far funnier and more intriguing to see what Rosenberg comes up with when he’s bound by the rules of his creation than in the anything goes days.

The flip side of this, naturally, is that it’s hard; you have to invest a lot in your characters and your world so that the readers know where the boundaries are. Your readers have to be patient, since the buildup is likely to take some time. But the payoff? Totally sweet.

Note: This post was edited to add the promised images pertaining to “various far-flung futures”

Nice work. This is a very in-depth look at comedy.

Newcomers should read this.

Maybe also oldcomers should read it. I think that both would benefit from this comedic foundation.


That was an incredible post on structured zaniness, and great reading material for beginning cartoonists. Thank you Gary! I really have anything to add, you pretty much nailed it.

(In one more of those weird coincidences, it was only a few hours ago that I was going through Wikipedia reading on most major Warner Bros. characters. I didn’t know know a real roadrunner existed, and now I get linked to it twice in a day?)


I think the “far-flung future” link actually points to a comic of Diablo’s: The universe’s future remains uncertain…

Re: the alternate universe analogs. If I guess correctly the tall blond guy is a doppleganger of Phillip, and the fish is, well, fish, so that leaves the chick. Who must be Jon? How Freudian…

New “far-flung future” graphics links to be added shortly; I was unable to include them earlier, and we’re upgrading WordPress right now.

I agree with the first premise of the article – a lot of good comedy comes from restrictions, and the justaposition of characters in situations where they find themselves having to operate within those restrictions.

However, wackiness *can* provide real funny. Linking to one of Jon’s early weak strips doesn’t disprove that.

If your assertion were a pretty good rule of thumb, we should be able to use it as a predictor – we should be able to measure readers’ estimations of the comics as rule-based or anything-goes based, and see a correlation with how funny it’s perceived. I don’t see it.

Somebody said (can’t remember who, and I’m paraphrasing), comedy comes from normal people trying to behave normally in odd situations, or from odd people behaving oddly in normal situations. I think that’s closer to true, but still doesn’t get it all.

I think comedy can be found anywhere you can manage to disarm the audience so that their expectations are successfully confounded.

Finally, I think that doing anything *well* is harder – a good joke that’s not situationally based is as hard as one that is.

Oh, *now* I see!

[…] of editorial dictates, space, declining revenues and deadlines, cartooners who know that having restrictions can result in more funny, cartooners who aren’t just phoning it in so they can make their 11:00am tee […]

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