31 July 2006

O brave new world!

See it here.

At first glance you might be tempted to dismiss this as a simplistic parody of the Verizon ad campaign. But the inclusion of an Amish gentleman is so startlingly odd that it raises this panel above such ordinary interpretation. It took an hour before I even noticed the echoes of the Verizon ad, I was so obsessed with figuring out why this Amish man had a cell phone.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am going to admit up front that my knowledge of the Amish comes entirely from watching Witness and Kingpin and has not been updated since. It's possible a subsequent Amish synod resulted in an ecclesiastical change which allows the use of cellular phones. I would not know. Nor, I suspect would almost anyone else outside of Pennsylvania Dutch country. So even if that conception of the Amish is outdated, it remains the backdrop for this panel.

The depiction of the Amish gentleman can only mean that this panel, in fact, speaks to the impact of technology on the modern condition. We live in a world where communication must be instantaneous and devices must be multi-functional. A world in which email has become antiquated in favor of IM and SMS. A world in which people will take a phone call in the middle of a movie or while using a public restroom stall. A world in which a 4-year old is equally likely to recognize a phone as a camera or a communication device.

In such a world, the role of religion in daily life is replaced by the graven image of modern convenience, even for a Luddite like this Amish gentleman. After all, who wants to drive several blocks to church to talk with their Pastor when Oprah can be viewed on TiVo at the precise moment the viewer needs moral and emotional support? Who wants to invest the time and patience to pray and wait for an answer on God's terms when 1-800-PSYCHIC is available with immediate answers to your problems, 24x7x365, and costs less than a 10% tithe?

In the path of this technological assualt against a simple way of life stand Burl and Joy (or sit, as the case may be). They are the modern day Zax, unwilling to yield an inch to the tide of technology, happy to allow the overpass to be built around them while they stand (or sit, as the case may be) in an unmoving protest.

The panel, however, makes it clear that their resistance is futile.

Although it is not visible (probably obscured by the dialog balloon), you can be sure the porch rockers on which Burl and Joy sit are surmounted by a scythe, just like the rocker on the other side of the porch. This antiquated implement, a symbol of the inevitable passage of time, hangs like a Sword of Damocles above them, threatening death and dismemberment should they remain stationery. They must move if they are to remain alive.

But in a world where technology and commerce are kin, there is an easy escape hatch. The porch rockers are for sale. They can be purchased, taken home, and positioned in a spot free from dangling implements of death. Burl and Joy can be spared the horrors of encroaching technology by a steady stream of purchases (the modern-day indulgence).

Which brings us around again to the aggressive commercialism the Verizon parody targets. This theme is further strengthened by a sign which anticipates a 45-minute wait for a meal and invites you into the gift shop while you wait. A second sign provides the final piece of the puzzle, indicating that the store is open 2 hours before the restaurant and closes 2 hours after the restaurant.

In other words: purchasing power will set you free, brothers and sisters!

Visit the gift shop for the following marginalia:
  • If you stare too long at the perspective of the rockers relative to each other, the porch, and the door, you may become dizzy. You have been warned.
  • Joy appears to be wearing fishnet slippers.

29 July 2006

Das Kompany Piknik

See it here.

Class warfare in the guise of a U-Stor-It company picnic.

U-Stor-It is a bloated organization, typical of the kind controlled by the landed gentry. A street-wise blue collar worker could run an entire storage facility with as few as 5 people to watch the site 24x7x365, while hiring janatorial/landscaping and security workers part-time. But U-Stor-It is an aristocratic corporation, with at least 2 levels of management, and dozens of workers. I assume management is playing a shell game with Cayman Island accounts while siphoning off the benefits and retirement accounts of its workers.

Until the scam is complete, the company picnic affords management the opportunity to feign solidarity with the lumpenproletariat, if only for 45 minutes. The working class must feed itself at this event, but management provides booze and entertainment, the opiate for this particular mass. Management even allows controlled expressions of class anger, in the form of carefully-packaged protest songs and the opportunity to toss a pie in the face of one's superior.

But management studiously avoids actual solidarity, interaction, and expressions of equality between the classes. They ostentatiously walk about wearing T-shirts emblazoned with institutional crests of higher education, lording their superiority over the working class drones. The fact that the T-shirt is brand-new only further highlights Mr. Sheldrake's affluence in contrast to his minions; he can afford to splurge on a brand new T-shirt for every day of the week.

Joy and Burl represent the salt-of-the-earth blue collar worker, surviving by their own wits rather than advanced education. Burl and Joy are unique among the working class, however, in that they refuse to be distracted by the beer and music. They use the picnic as an opportuity for revolution, actively seeking out confrontation with the management who dare to walk among them.

Joy is the passive-aggressive revolutionary. She refuses to recognize the affluent world of privelege to which she is not invited. She asks if Mr. Sheldrake is enrolled at Harvard, pretending to confuse Harvard with a correspondance school or a local JC offering continuing education classes.

Burl, on the other hand, is directly confrontational. He counters with his own shirt, which aggressively challenges the usefulness of a college education and openly mocks those who have paid the steep price to obtain a 4-year degree. The unspoken, but clear intimation is that an education in the school of hard knocks is just as useful.

Burl is also unwilling to play the subserviant, fawning role management envisions for him. Instead, he counters his boss' coy admission that he attended Harvard with the brusque reality that he isn't enrolled now, clearly hinting that Burl has overcome, through hard work and determination, any advantages a Harvard education may once have given Mr. Sheldrake (though, of course, his deferential addition of the word "boss" belies the truth of this belief).

Burl is so aggressive in his class pride, so antagonistic towards the over-educated management class, that it's not a stretch of the imagination to assume that, were this panel set in Vietnam, it would end with Burl fragging his college-educated Lieutenant.

The following marginalia have been approved by management:
  • Harvard's crest is a mushroom or a jellyfish, apparently.
  • The dancer whose crotch is strategically obscured by Joy's beer can is extremely limber. Either that or double-jointed.
  • Lindberger?

28 July 2006

A Body Bag and a Trial

See it here.

It's Battle-of-the-Sexes, suburbia-style, in The Dinette Set! On the surface, the offenses described here seem like petty grievances. As such the temptation is to dismiss the entire panel as an elaborate set-up for Burl's reversal of the standard toilet seat complaint. That would, after all, follow one standard Dinette Set paradigm: over-elaborate setup, disappointing punchline.

But to read this panel in that way misses what the television set is trying to tell us. The reference to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane can't be accidental. It must be the all-important subtext for these petty grievances.

In fact, the panel is begging the reader to realize that Burl and Joy's marriage (as well as that of Dale and Marlene) only appears to be suffering from something as mild as the inevitable irritations that occur when people co-habitate.

The reality is that their marriage is a hell of emotional, psychological, and physical torture.

Their marriage--which may seem ordinary on the surface and may seem much like your own--is in a death spiral with no chance of recovery. Once again we have a desperate cry for help. Once again we are forced to face the reality of Joy and Burl's marriage.

Once again we must accept that the future of The Dinette Set involves a body bag and a trial.

Tortured by marginalia:
  • I'm curious about the choice of Burt Reynolds as Baby Jane's husband. It's possible it was a belated attempt to soften the impact of the reference to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane by including a washed-up sex-symbol and perennial B-movie maker. It's equally possible Ms. Larson just thinks any reference to Burt Reynolds is funny. Either way, she would be wrong.
  • The "Impossible Manwich" gag is fairly straightforward. But the languge in that to-do list item is convoluted to an extreme degree. Am I supposed to be parsing from that sentence Impossible Manwich Sloppy Joes (which is already fairly redundant) with a side order of canned potato salad? Or am I to derive that an Impossible Manwich sandwich is made from Sloppy Joes and canned potato salad?
  • Joy's line features equally imprecise use of the English language. I keep reading it to say that Burl doesn't shut a cabinet door in the same manner that his father used to. Which is a much funnier image, in reality: his father was a championship cabinet closer and Burl just can't live up to his legacy.
  • Yet another parochial Cal-Sag gag. Barring any other information, I'll assume the joke here is that you can't ride a Wave Runner in the Calumet Sag Channel because it has no waves. Though it should be noted the shirt actually says "Wavf Runner."
  • Why is Dale smiling? In the context of the panel, I can't figure out what his facial expression is supposed to connote. I think it's creepy no matter how you try to explain it.
  • Why do you suppose Ms. Larson bothered cramming a few letters between Marlene and Joy's dialog balloons? Does she simply abhor any fragment of white space?

27 July 2006

Calumet Sag Channel

See it here.

Today's is a Dinette Set panel from Opposite World.

Start with the fact that it's actually recognizeable as humor, with two unexpected twists waiting for the astute reader. Jerry seems comfortable with the idea of buying Verl's birthday gift at a gas station. And we learn that Verl's palette is so sophisticated she can taste the difference between candy bars purchased at gas stations blocks from each other. I'm not saying it's funny, per se. But, at least you can see what Ms. Larson was getting at.

Then the panel is virtually devoid of marginalia. So devoid that it is hard to believe we're looking at a panel from the same artist who brought you this.

And yet, the one prominent piece of marginalia offers a frightening glimpse into Ms. Larson's psyche.

I was perfectly happy to believe that the location for The Dinette Set (Crustwood, Illinois) was fully fictional. But in looking for information to make sense of the reference to Cal Sag Pools and Spas I discovered that Illinois has a city called Crestwood, apparently a suburb of Chicago, with a commercial street called...wait for it...Cal Sag. There's no pool shops on that street that I could find. The closest is Pool Rx, situated on W 127th street, across the Calumet Sag Channel in neighboring Alsip.

Hard to believe, but there you have it. A joke that will be unrecognizeable to anyone who does not live near the Calumet Sag Channel. Even if we give the benefit of the doubt and assume the entire population of Chicago understand the reference, that means this is an in-joke which could be appreciated by, generously, only 3,000,000 people.

I was fairly amazed when Ms. Larson made an entire panel out a reference to an obscure bit of supernaturalism, the Bell Witch, because I felt the audience for the joke was so limited.

But this blows that reference away. It amounts to an inside joke for her neighbors, something that is basically antithetical to the purpose of a nationally-syndicated comic.

That is, if she even realizes it amounts to an inside joke.

In reality, I suspect that Ms. Larson has a level of obliviousness that borders on the narcissistic, just like her creations. It never occurs to her that the people beyond the borders of her small community may not share a common set of understandings with her and her neighbors. She may not even realize that the world extends past the border of the small Illinois community where, I can only assume, she hides away from the wider world. (I didn't go looking for a listing for her in Crestwood, because that starts to edge towards the line between good-natured criticism and stalking.)

At any rate, this new knowledge gives me the creeps.

Using the loosest possible definition of margins:
  • Sure, you've got three obese guys perched on inflatable chairs in a pool barely large enough for one of them. But it's not like this is a new visual or joke for The Dinette Set.
  • Jerry is a hairy ape-man, except for his ironic toupee. This particular two-dimensional gag is old, but no older than any of the other gags which are repeated ad nauseum.

26 July 2006

Barbarians at the Table

See it here.

Well, it finally happened. I like today's installment of The Dinette Set. Not the dialog or the joke, mind you. Those are as incomprehensible as ever.

I just love the drawing.

The people around the table are eating in an utterly animalistic fashion. It's like looking at a clan of barbarians, a pride of lions, or a pod of orcas devouring the flesh of an animal in an orgiastic frenzy because there's no knowing when the next meal will be coming. Bones litter the space in front of them, flesh and sinew dangle from their open mouths, their faces are caked with blood and gristle. It's a savage spectacle.

Burl is an exception to the tableaux in that he is the only one not shoving something directly into his mouth. But he tells the same story in an even more vivid way. His body posture clearly shields his food from the waiter who is treated as an interloper and a potential threat. The waiter is here to attack this table/clan/pride/pod and claim their food as his own. Burl will prevent that, peacefully if he can. But if the waiter pushes his luck, Burl will crack his skull open with a rock and his flesh will be added to the feast.

Then there's also the sinister shadow people which surround the table. We can only guess at their nefarious motives. But if they were up to any good, surely they wouldn't stand in the shadows. They would move into the light where they and their motives could be examined.

I have no idea what all of this has to do with Middle-American MidWestern folks. Why they should be so savage about their meal is a mystery to me. How that relates to the joke, such as it is, that Burl cannot comment on the food until every morsel is devoured is similarly unclear.

Jerry may hold the key to unlocking the puzzle. He has something pushed to his mouth, but it is a cup of coffee. Perhaps he symbolizes the small bits of civility that elevate us from total savagery?

Well, whatever the point of this panel is...damn, what a visceral image!

In the savage wildlands that are known as the margins:
  • My God, I think the waiter is Psychiatrist John in a false moustache!
  • His presence makes me wonder if this entire panel is meant as an homage to recent Garfield strips, which feature Garfield's owner Jon in a false moustache as well as shadow people in the background at a restaurant.
  • Artist Julie Larson is only barely able to distinguish shadowy people from wood paneling.

25 July 2006

Psychiatrist John and Mr Hyde

See it here.

Today's panel can't decide what it wants to be about.

It starts with a sequence of comments involving pasta which further serve to illustrate that artist Julie Larson is often not cognizant of where the line between pointless conversation and humor lies. In this case, she lands squarely on the pointless conversation side of the line. That is, unless there is something intrinsically funny about people's preferences for whole wheat versus regular pasta of which I am not aware.

Then there's Burl who seems to be part of another panel altogether, one which is, yet again, about his thriftiness. I'll grant that Burl is tied into the pasta conversation by the most gossamer of threads, the price of whole wheat pasta. But like many examples of The Dinette Set, the pasta conversation is just an excuse to get to Burl's punchline, such as it is. By the time we arrive at the end of Burl's punchline, it no longer matters if the setup had been about pasta, meat, produce, or pink elephants.

And, finally, we have the plaque-covered walls of Psychiatrist John's home, which have nothing to do with the rest of the panel. In fact, they are a pretty confusing piece to fit into the emerging puzzle that is Psychiatrist John. From what we've seen previously, Pyschiatrist John is a fitness/running nut with a penchant for volunteering for charity. But his walls tell a different story. They tell the story of his Mr. Hyde persona, that of a useful idiot for the pharmaceutical industry.

If we discount the possibility that the panel's schizophrenic nature is a deliberate mirror for Psychiatrist John's split personality (and I think it's safe to discount that possibility), the reader can be forgiven for just rolling their eyes and getting on with life. After all, when the panel itself can't decide what it is about, it's hardly fair to ask the reader to do all the heavy lifting.

Plaques in the margins:
  • As if the panel is not unfocused enough, Joy's shirt makes a reference to a type of potato. I'll be damned if I'm even going to try working that one out.
  • John has the very rare "Master of Doctorate Degree." I assume this is a swipe at ivory-tower-academic-elitism.
  • I think it's quaint that The National Pharmaceutical Award plaque has written the word MOST in bold italics. That will be helpful in distinguishing it from the plaque handed out for having written the FEWEST prescriptions.
  • It's interesting that Ms. Larson took the time to draw three pasta bowls, a lamp (with strange emissions that are probably supposed to be light), and a basket of bread. But she did not feel it was important to draw the salad Burl is carping about. Does this mean that Burl and Joy refused the request to bring a salad?
  • University of Bucharast? I think we have to assume that Ms. Larson doesn't know how to spell Bucharest and couldn't be bothered to look it up. Besides, it's one of those place with lots of foreigners.
  • I guess Ms. Larson got tired, long after her readers did, of the 26K marathon gag and has now switched to a 126-mile marathon gag. I'm already tired of the new gag.

24 July 2006

An Oldie, Not a Goodie

See it here.

The path to today's punchline (such as it is) is strewn with oddness.

We have the highly-unlikely plot device of a broken piece of lawn furniture which induces a panic in Joy if someone attempts to sit in it. This, despite the fact that the broken item is set out, conversation-corner style, just daring guests to sit down. I hate to agree with any character of The Dinette Set, because it tends to make me question my sanity. But in this case I agree with Dale...if you're that panicky, throw the damn chair out, already.

We also have a new character named Tom lurking at the edge of the panel, hands in pockets, looking smug, self-satisfied, and just a bit too-cool-for-school. Tom is a personal injury lawyer by profession, which we know because Dale makes a convoluted detour in the middle of his his rant to highlight this fact. I am assuming Dale is threatening a lawsuit against Burl and Joy. Otherwise he is randomnly mentioning Tom's profession and suggesting that Tom is an authority on when to throw out lawn furniture, which would be very weird. Though I wouldn't put it past the The Dinette Set.

At this point you can tell where the panel is heading, since Dale's out-of-place reference to Tom's profession is a clear case of Chekhov's gun.

Sure enough, your reward is the oldest joke in human civilization: the lawyer is an amoral creature, always looking for someone to sue. Cutting edge humor which is only missing a seltzer-bottle-to-the-face to make it complete.

The punchline aside, today's panel is uniquely jarring with its juxtaposition of the dynamic story and the static visual. In our story, Joy is in a panic and rushing to stop Dale. You'd expect Dale to stand up rapidly when Joy yells out that the chair is broken, in order to save himself. Dale then throws the conversation over to Tom, who carries with him the threat of a lawsuit. All of this moves the action from left-to-right.

In the one-panel format, however, Dale's ass magically hovers inches above the surface of the seat throughout the entire conversation. His awkwardly-drawn left arm apparently supports his body weight and prevents the certain disaster which would occur if his ass touched down.

And Burl is frozen in time, staring at Tom from beginning to end of the entire episode as if he knew from the moment Tom arrived that he would eventually sue him. Burl is so consumed with hating Tom it never occurred to him to warn Dale about the chair. If it were possible to read the facial expression on Burl, I would assume his expression was one of rage over the injustice at the possibility of being sued. But since all I have to go on are a pair of pupil-less eyes, two dots where his nose and mouth ought to be, and a vast expanse of white cheek and neck, I think I am projecting this onto him.

Better mention the margins, or Tom may sue:
  • Tom may be a recurring character with whom I am not familiar (like Psychiatrist John). I was not about to hunt the archives for another of his appearances, especially since that would most likely have just turned up another example of this same joke. I suspect, however, he's more likely another example of Deus ex Machina invented only to make today's joke work (in a manner of speaking).
  • Tom's shirt says Chicida, which I would guess is supposed to be the brand name, although the brand name is usually on the left side of a shirt. I have no idea what it's supposed to be a reference to no matter what side of the shirt it is on.
  • Any guesses what Tom has in his breast pocket?
  • As if on cue, Ms. Larson repeats the "On Ice" gag two days in a row. Nope, still not funny.
Sorry I didn't post yesterday. We're in the middle of a heatwave and have no air conditioning. It was over 100 degrees inside my house. I could not muster the energy to examine The Dinette Set under those conditions.

22 July 2006

Smells Like Septuagenarian Spirit

See it here.

If you're not familiar with the layout of Burl and Joy's house, you might assume they locked Ma in the garage or out of the house.

But no. It's more funny than that. They closed the door on Ma, who is using their bathroom.

Did I say more funny? I meant more revolting.

Seriously, the artist wants you to imagine what she cannot bring herself to draw: Joy's mother on the toilet, taking a crap, with the door open to the living room and next to the kitchen. To make matters worse, she also wants you to imagine the smells. The panel is layered with references to sulfur and to opening a window, in case you are attempting to resist that particular impulse.

For once, we sympathize with Burl and Joy, who simply want to close the door on someone using their toilet. They would prefer the sights, sounds, and smells be contained within the bathroom and not a public spectacle. There's simply no way this can be construed as poking fun at them. And if it is, then the attempt is seriously misguided.

The most apparent joke, instead, is at the expense of a demented old woman who refuses to close the bathroom door while having a bowel movement. An old woman with abandonment issues who lives in fear that her feckless family will use the opportunity of a closed door to slip silently away, leaving her to the mercy of the jackals. And it will be easy for the jackals to locate her in this case, because of the fresh scent of spoor.

Note to Ms. Larson...making fun of deranged old people is cruel, not funny.

Closing the door on the margins
  • I'm assuming F-1 and F-2 are references to potential activities on the toilet. We've seen this joke before. I don't quite understand the "F" in front of them, however. I suppose they could be references to keyboard function keys, and a semi-pun on "bodily function". That seems a serious stretch of the imagination, however.
  • I like the appalled look on the clown's face and his apparent attempt to flee the picture and panel frame. Too bad for him this isn't a Harry Potter story.
  • See No Evil? I understand the expression of a desire to avoid witnessing a septuagenarian use the toilet. But why pick a movie whose tagline was: Eight Teens, One Weekend, One Serial Killer?
  • See No Evil On Ice. This is another one of those running gags that Ms. Larson uses with appalling frequency. As if adding "On Ice" to any title instantly transforms it to humor. Sadly, this is not the case.
  • The panel has 5 sentences and 5 punctuation marks at the end of sentences. And yet, one sentence ends with no punctuation mark at all. Conclusion: The Dinette Set has no editor and no review process.

21 July 2006

If you have to ask...

See it here.

This is the third time this week that The Dinette Set gropes towards a joke involving Burl and Joy's thriftiness. Three swings. Three misses. Yer' out.

Admittedly, this particular effort is at least straightforward. Burl is looking to buy a boat but feels that $100 is too steep a price to pay. Not funny, mind you. But at least I'm not flailing around trying to figure out where the joke is supposed to be.

This time, however, I wonder: why a boat?

There's literally dozens of big-ticket items you could have chosen that would have worked just as well as a boat. Items whose price points readers will be more familiar with. A car, a TV, a computer, jewelry...

I suspect I am not alone in never having priced boats. So, I don't know if the $100 asking price for whatever dinghy they are (presumably) sitting aboard is too high, too low, or just right. Is the joke, once again, that the $100 would be low to you and me but is high to Burl? Or is the joke that Burl's miserly expectations are out of whack with reality? You have to assume the former since over-repetition of gags is stock-in-trade for The Dinette Set.

The point being, however, that instead of chuckling about Burl's thriftiness, this carelessly chosen detail sets the reader's mind drifting onto unrelated matters.

The only mildly satisfactory explanation for choosing a boat over another item is that the artist wanted to try her hand at drawing a Marina. The fact that a disproportionate percentage of the overall panel is devoted to a panoramic vista of the Marina, lake, and far shore tends to suggest this interpretation is correct. After all, the same joke could have been executed just as successfully (so to speak) with a picture of Joy and Burl crammed into a tiny dighy.

Given Ms. Larson's inability to render perspective, the attempt to draw the Marina was miguided. Though I will give partial credit for showing the smallest amount of Joy and Burl in any panel I have examined to date.

In fact, extra marks because if you ignore all the existing text, focus on Burl and Joy, and imagine them in a dinghy that is slowly sinking, you can invent a joke by yourself that is far funnier than what's actually here.

Maritime marginalia:
  • I'm guessing the large boat is named "RAM" or "RA" or that "RAM/RA" is the last letters of the full name. The leftmost boat in the background appears to be called "SCAB" while the rightmost is called "DUNCE." I have no explanation for any of those names, just eyestrain from squinting at them.
  • Thank goodness the name of the engine on the boat to Burl's right is included, however illegibly. Imagine how incomplete the panel would be without that critical detail.
  • I know what the inner tube is supposed to say, but couldn't Ms. Larson have erased the letter "n" in "Rent-to-Own" and re-written it so it didn't look like the letter "h" before sending this panel to her publisher? How lazy is she, exactly?
  • That said, further partial credit for the inner tube with the motor. I wish I didn't find it mildy funny, but I do.
  • The use of "Skipper" by the Marina employee could be a reference to Gilligan's Island to make a joke about Burl's weight. Or it could be Ms. Larson's approximation of nautical jargon. I like the last one better, personally.

20 July 2006

The Poppy is Used to Sedate the Reader

See it here.

My goodness...

Nothing in this panel makes sense. I recognize each word as English. I can even define each word in isolation. But strung together in this fashion, it's like The Dinette Set shifted into a foreign language and I have no idea what they are talking about.

Artist Julie Larson makes a critical assumption, believing it will be obvious to everyone why Burl and Joy have a poppy on their rearview mirror. And that everyone will know to whom the "they" and "their" in Burl's punchline refers (I use "punchline" in the loosest possible sense).

She couldn't be more wrong in her assumption.

At first, I went with the obvious assumption that it was an air freshener and tried to rationalize that Burl and Joy borrowed a friend's car and were discussing whether they could remove the air freshener. Long story short, that path leads to madness.

Next, I located a reference to a "Golden Poppy Pass" used in California parks as a parking permit.

I leapt at the possibility that the poppy indicates Burl and Joy have paid a daily admission to some sort of national park, tourist attraction, or parking lot. Presumably they are driving away and Joy is wondering how far one has to get before they will be safe from bat-weilding park rangers who menace the occupants of cars not displaying the appropriate poppy. Or perhaps safe from evil spirits warded off by the poppy.

In that context, I assume Burl's reference to changing color has to do with the poppy color indicating for what day a pass has been issued. In which case, leaving it in place is a deranged attempt to maximize the value of the price of admission. Despite the fact that, in reality, it makes no sense whatsoever and tends to paint Burl more as a crazed pack rat than a miser.

To summarize the delimma...we may (or may not) have a nonsensical example that may (or may not) hint at Burl's general thriftiness which may (or may not) hinge on the reader grasping the symbolism of a mystifyingly specific item, which may (or may not) be a parking pass.

Alternately, we have a reason to march on Ms. Larson's publisher weilding pitchforks and torches.

As if the margins matter...
  • "I Blow O's"? Am I wrong to think that's an opium/drug-related reference?
  • Joy's arm and head are at very freaky angles to her body. Especially her head. Why is she looking backwards when referring to the rear view mirror?
  • Unsuprisingly, Joy and Burl don't wear shoulderbelts. And have managed to find a car without a passive shoulderbelt restraint system. So we can hold out hope that a crash and a trip through the windshield are in their future.
  • I'm not a car person, so can anyone elighten me on what car brand Ms. Larson is mocking with the "Ameba"?

19 July 2006

Taking Stock

See it here.

If I didn't know better, I'd guess this is what passes for geo-political commentary in The Dinette Set. Burl and Joy are so concerned about escalating tensions and violence that they have taken to hoarding in anticipation of the pending apocalypse.

But the chances of The Dinette Set being topical are about as slim as the chances of it being coherent.

Besides, if you squint really hard, I think you can just make out a tornado on the televison screen. So what we have, then, is not cutting edge geo-political commentary, but a more general comment on how close we are to allowing free-floating terror to overtake our daily lives.

We're all just one more catastrophic weather event from casting aside all pretense to civilization and trampling loved ones in the rush to be first to the bomb shelter in our backyard. One more increase in the terror alert level and we will live the rest of our days in the company of canned food, defending our personal fiefdoms from armies of mutants attempting to eat our brains.

In a world such as this, it's nice to see that gentility will survive.

We may be forced to use our shotgun to splatter mutant brain matter onto the walls of the shelter. But we will have paper towels with which to clean up.

And, despite the havoc wreaked on our digestive system by a steady diet of Vienna Sausages, Hormel Chili, and SpaghettiO's, our asses will be clean and, apparently, smell of cinnamon buns.

On the other hand, we may actually just be looking at a second consecutive entry in the contest for the single most boring and pointless conversation ever published in comic form.

In the mutant margins:
  • Would it have killed Ms. Larson to take her time and spell "hoarder" correctly? It might not bug me so much if it weren't for the fact that "Stock Hoarder" isn't a recognizeable phrase or pun.
  • I find it very odd that Joy sits in a chair while doing inventory.
  • Look at the logo on the Cinnabuns Toilet Tissue. I think that is a silhouette of Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors. I don't even want to begin speculating about that connection.
  • Ms. Larson wrote out the name of the item on the top shelf 6 times (5 bottles on the shelf and at the bottom of Burl's list) and managed to make it illegible every single time. Congratulations.
  • That closet door seems much too small for the opening. But then again, the sense of perspective in the entire panel is somewhat reminiscent of M. C. Escher, though probably not deliberately so.

18 July 2006

And Then There's The Dinette Set

See it here.

I've always been fond of the tagline for the movie The Abyss: "There's everything you've ever known about adventure, and then there's The Abyss." I like it because the same sentence can be read with two polar opposite meanings, something the copy writer obviously did not consider. Depending on your inflection, you can use that sentence to suggest that The Abyss exceeds all expectations about adventure or that it falls drastically short of those expectations.

All of which brings me to today's installment of The Dinette Set.

Let start with what Ms. Larson no doubt intended, which was for the reader to follow along with a bit of logical algebra that says: Restaurant + Crowded = High Quality

If we accept this supposition, then we can roll our eyes at Burl's punchline. Verla and Jerry, Philistines to the core, miss out on the pleasure of an obviously great restaurant simply because too many other people are enjoying it at the same time.

What could be more ridiculous, I ask you, than not wanting to eat at an over-crowded restaurant?

Apparently Ms. Larson didn't take the time or effort to consider whether that underlying assumption would be obvious to everyone. It never occurred to her that a restaurant being over-crowded was, in and of itself, a viable reason for not enjoying it. It never occurred to her that a restaurant could be crowded and also suffer from low quality.

To make matters even worse, Ms. Larson included a prominent reference to McDonald's, the prototypical low-quality establishment that is, nonetheless, always crowded. In fact, almost all of the significant marginalia deals with putting up with crowds when the payoff is not worth the wait, such as purchasing stamps, visiting a themed/celebrity restaurant, or frequenting the local septuagenarian buffet.

Having critically failed to examine the underlying assumption and yet managing to undermine it at the same time, unsurprisingly she never considered that the same panel can be read in two different ways. Otherwise she certainly would have faced the same horrifying realization as her readers: that you have just peered in on the single most boring and pointless conversation ever published in comic form.

Crowding the margins:
  • What's up with the spikey Gothic torture-chamber chairs? Do you figure Burl and Joy mistakenly left them out after the previous night's S&M party?
  • I can't figure out what message I'm supposed to piece together from the coffee cups: No News, Bad News, Gossip. Please help me out.
  • 911 = Gas. That's a flatulence joke, I assume. Which means that there is some small corner of the adult world that titters at the thought of gasseous emissions from fellow humans.
  • McDonald's is missing the apostrophe. McGoon's probably should have one, but since it is a made up name, I guess we have to allow for poetic license. And, to complete the trifecta of maddening inconsistency, Boo Radley's Comedy Club correctly uses an apostrophe.
  • I wish I lived in a neighborhood where the opening of a single new restaurant was such big news that you don't need to mention the name of the restaurant for everyone to know what you are talking about.

17 July 2006

Deus ex comica

See it here.

In some ways you have to admire the steely nerve of Ms. Larson, the artist who brings us The Dinette Set. She comes up with a way in which she wants to poke fun at her characters and then constructs a one-panel world which allows her to execute on the idea. It doesn't matter if the world has to be bent into an unrecognizeable shape. Nothing will get between her and her single-minded pursuit of whatever idea she's gnawing on.

Case in point. In order to enjoy todays joke, we need to accept the following odd suppositions about the ephemeral world in which today's panel is set:
  • The DMV has a category called "special case" to which certain drivers are assigned.
  • Once designated a "special case" you have to, at minimun, pass a one-on-one test with an instructor.
  • You are allowed to have spectators or moral support inside the test room.
  • You have to place both traffic cones and traffic signs into the same category: road symbols.
It's like Bizarro Seinfeld. It's anti-observational humor in which the artist decides what joke they want to make and then twists reality to suit the joke and hopes you'll follow along. It's Deus ex machina as the basis on which an entire world operates.

And yet, also on display here is one of those things that makes The Dinette Set such an interesting knot to unravel. Mrs. Darwin identifies 6 shapes that appear, is unable to identify a 7th shape, and, for good measure, names an 8th shape that doesn't even appear on the test (the rectangle).

You have to allow for a large probability that it's simply a mistake on the part of the artist; she wrote the dialog but forgot to draw the shape. But there is also some percentage chance that Mrs. Darwin is identifying, as the rectangle, the sign containing the rest of the symbols. There's very little evidence that last interpretation is correct. In fact, given where it is named in the list, I'd say it's more likely I just wish it were the correct interpretation because it would be mildly funny.

But, then, I become as guilty as Mrs Larson of twisting the facts of this panel to suit my desire for it to have an identifiable joke. And perhaps that's the meta-comical point she is trying to make today in an incredibly subtle way. As readers, we engage in the same behavior we critique in her as the artist. We are all guilty of a desire to bend reality to our will in the search for something to make us laugh.

Then again, it's probably just a mistake.

In the anti-Mad Magazine margins (tip of the hat to commenter big bad dog):
  • Years of effort by artists to master the art of perspective seem to have been wasted. At least if the drawing of the wall signs, shelf, and Mrs Darwin are evidence.
  • I can't identify the third word in the "practical jokes" pamphlet and perhaps that last word would make sense of it all. But, in a general sense, are there a lot of driving-based practical jokes I'm not aware of?

16 July 2006

Psychosis and Schizophrenia

See it here.

The Dinette Set artist, Julie Larson, does not trust her audience. Either that or she trusts they are dimwitted mouth-breathers.

Just witness the assault on the reader's intelligence from Joy in this chestnut from 21 October 2004: "I want my dollar back for this cheap watch I just bought and broke."
  • "I want my dollar back" - apparently worried we couldn't piece together all the other evidence that we are in a dollar store and assume the price of the watch.
  • "for this cheap watch" - am I to assume there's a variety of dollar watch that is not cheap?
  • "I just bought" - is the fact that she just bought it actually important?
About the only thing of true interest is Joy's admission that she broke the watch. The watch did not simply stop working, as you'd expect from a $1.00 watch. No, Joy broke it. She admits as much. Apparently Joy and Burl go to thrift shops, buy merchandise, break it deliberately, then attempt to return it. I can't explain why they do it since there's no percentage in it. So let's just assume it's what happens when Joy goes off her medication and that Burl is an enabler.

What really caught my eye about the panel, however, is the complicated "Factory Seconds 99-Piece Zebra Puzzle" Burl wants in exchange. Burl is so emphatic that it can't break, we have to assume the puzzle is guaranteed to be defective. And yet, I have to wonder if a puzzle wouldn't qualify as an item for which you'd expect to pay no more than $1.00, even in perfect condition.

Still, we'll have to give Ms. Larson the benefit of the doubt and assume the puzzle is defective. But the myriad details we get about the puzzle are confusing in the aggregate and confusing in isolation, making it virtually impossible to accurately identify why Burl will be spending his nights trying to solve the unsolvable before Joy's psychosis demands that they return the puzzle also.
  • Is it the fact that the puzzle is a factory second? I have no idea what a factory second puzzle would be, but the number 99 is bolded, which strongly suggests the problem is that the puzzle is missing a piece (it should be a 100-piece puzzle). I have a hard time imagining a Quality Assurance process at the puzzle factory that is able to count the pieces in each box and seperate the 99-piece puzzles from the 100-piece puzzles. Though this is the most plausible explanation.
  • And yet the subject matter of the puzzle is, conspicuously and specifically, described. This is no generic puzzle; it is a "Zebra" puzzle, clearly suggesting that a puzzle of a black and white animal involves a difficulty level beyond the ordinary. Thus making it unsolvable for all but the most expert puzzleteers.
So which is it? Is the puzzle impossible to solve because it is missing a piece? Or is it just too hard for Burl?

At the end of the day, we have to face the fact that this panel is as pschizophrenic as Joy is psychotic. On the one hand, every possible detail is spoon fed until the reader is whacking their forehead in frustration. On the other, confusing details which don't add up to anything are piled on until the reader is whacking their forehead in frustration.

In the final analysis, the only thing you can be sure of is that reading The Dinette Set may cause irreversible, self-inflicted brain damage.

If we're in a store, you know the margins will be busy.
  • Is it just me, or can you imagine this same subject matter being dealt with in They'll Do it Everytime? Of course, it's a toss-up whether that serial nuisance of a panel would ask us to laugh at the couple making a stink about a $1.00 item or the store that won't give a refund.
  • I must have slept through the English composition class where the exclamation point/ellipses punctuation combo was described.
  • I am seriously disturbed to learn that the running Pong golf equipment gag has been going on since 2004.
  • I think the side of one puzzle box has the word "DIRECTIONS" printed on it. And printed so large it doesn't leave room for the actual directions.
  • $1.00 for "cling-free" Saran Wrap would be the greatest bargain in the world if such a substance existed. Although, I admit the intended joke may be that it doesn't cling to anything rather than just not clinging to itself.
  • If you're still not clear that $1.00 is too little to pay for a watch, the watch goes by the brand name No Time which is neither necessary, funny, or an identifiable play on a brand name.

15 July 2006

Burning Questions

See it here.

I think it's safe to say this panel violates a basic rule, which is "don't telegraph the joke."

After Joy's setup line, it's not strictly necessary to read Burl's response, since it's so obvious what he's about to say. In fact, I glanced at all the marginalia before I got around to actually reading what Burl had to say.

Humor often stems from the sheer unexpectedness of the punchline. There's nothing unexpected here, unless you count the unexpectedness of the fact that the panel also violates a corollary to the first rule: "If you've already telegraphed the joke, get through the punchline as quickly as possible."

Burl's response is a dissertation, containing more unecessary detail than punchline. We learn that it was two hours ago when they started watching the movie. We learn that he considered getting up for some Chips Ahoys. We learn he decided against that action.

None of which gets us any closer to the, by now, belabored joke. But all of which suggests a reader challenge, along the lines of Name that Tune.
  • I can retell that joke in 7 words: Really? Then bring me some Chips Ahoys.
  • I can retell that joke in 6 words: Really? Then bring me some cookies.
  • I can retell that joke in 5 words: Then bring me some cookies.
  • I can retell that joke in 4 words: Then bring me cookies.
  • I can retell that joke in 3 words: Then bring cookies.
  • I can retell that joke in 2 words: Bring cookies.
  • I can retell that joke in 1 words: Cookies!
About the only thing of interest in the entire panel is the video atop the television, presumably the movie they started watching 2 hours ago, The Burning Bed.

What could possibly be the thought process that ends with choosing a story about a battered woman who sets her husband on fire in order to make a pun on fat burning? If we discount the possibility the artist is unaware of the subtext suggested by including that specific movie, we'd have to assume this is a plea for help. A desperate shout. An attempt to warn us that Burl is a serial wife abuser and Joy is reaching the end of her rope.

Burl's punchline contains a chilling clue about the state of their marriage. "I coulda burned 'em off by now. Joy." There's only one way to imagine that being said aloud: with the utmost contempt, hostility, and a hint of a threat. Especially the single word "Joy" alone by itself in a sentence. (Of course, it's always possible the artist was incapable of distinguishing a comma from a period visually. But I don't even want to contemplate my future writing about this comic if the artist is that inept.)

And yet, I have to believe that things are not so bad in Burl and Joy's marriage that we will wake up one day to a panel that inolves Burl's corpse and Joy's arrest.

Rather, I choose to believe the artist is simply too lazy to look for an alternative to the first "burn" related movie that lept to mind. I suppose we should just be grateful she didn't think of Mississippi Burning first.

Fat burning in the margins:
  • Why is Patty in this panel at all? Given the suggestion of problems with Burl and Joy's marriage, she makes everything that much more uncomfortable.
  • They are watching a rented movie...with commercial interruptions for Tony Little.
  • The Burning Bed's running time is 100 minutes, yet Burl says they started the movie 2 hours ago.
  • What are those weird squiggles between "Back" and "Draft" on Burl's mug?
  • Is that a vase of flowers on top of the TV? Or is it a tree seen through the window?

14 July 2006

Next Up: Fear Factor

See it here.

Hey, it's Pyschiatrist John again! Accompanying him is the same "26K Marathon" joke the artist used 10 days ago. Apparently John is a fitness nut obsessed with charity runs, if these two panels are indicative of a larger pattern. Or the artist is running out of material. Or she believes that repeating something often enough has the alchemical ability to transform the un-funny into the funny. Take your pick.

The joke here, such as it is, revolves around obese middle-age men confusing a marathon with a buffet or a pot luck. Which qualifies as one of the least common of life's many misunderstandings.

By extension, we're supposed to wonder how far they are willing to go for free stuff. They donate blood for the free cookies and juice. They are willing to attend a lecture on accumulating wealth coupled with a free dinner. They are willing to sit through a seminar on the value of time-shares because the rest of the weekend can be spent at a luxury resort. They appear on Fear Factor.

Of course, we also have Burl, the savvy negotiator. Burl is immediately willing to capitulate on the free refreshments because all he really cares about is getting something, anything. So desperate to find hidden value that he's willing put himself through 26K of agony as long as he gets reserved seating at a picnic table.

Once his fat ass is planted on the picnic table, he will swell with pride at having gamed the system and gotten something for nothing. He won't leave that picnic table of course, not until the ambulance arrives, but that's not the point.

By the way, the trio of obese middle-age men are Burl, Jerry, and neighbor Dale. Dale, (according to The Dinette Set website) "never lets a lull in the conversation go by." Which raises the question: how exactly would a lull in the conversation be portrayed in a single panel cartoon?

Scribbled about the margins:
  • Why, dear God, why am I forced to see Dale's butt crack?
  • If you squint really hard you'll notice that the only legible parts of the entry form in Dale's hand (beyond the name of the race) are the words "Age" and "Weight." I'm glad I squinted to read those because, otherwise it may never have occurred to me that Burl, Dale, and Jerry might be too old or fat to run a marathon.
  • Is John supposed to be at a sign-up table? If so, it lacks all sense of a 3rd dimension and instead looks like the kind of screen you'd expect at a puppet show, behind which the puppeteer crouches but above which the puppets are visible.
  • Burl's shirt and pants are not funny enough to warrant wrenching the poor man's neck off. If you look at Burl in isolation, and then imagine him lying on the ground, you'd assume he'd had his neck broken by a Navy Seal.
  • If you are wondering, Lloyd J. Harris is the author of The Book of Garlic which is evidently an encyclopaedic discussion of all things garlic. If you are keeping score, our list of obscure references this week is now up to 3, including the Bell Witch and Matt Helm.

13 July 2006

Witch Detail Should I Focus On?

See it here.

Today's panel is absolutely maddening because Burl's hostile response to Joy's mother is actually funny. But the artist maniacally focuses the entire panel on a single word that is tangential to the joke and the overall effect comes to nothing.

Okay, I am willing to grant that Joy's mother could be described as a "witch", thus explaining one facet of Burl's desire to be anywhere she is not.

But who cares about the why? The why is not what makes this funny. Imagine the same basic joke in the hands of the Lockhorns, with its minimalist approach and undercurrent of deep hostility. It would have been hilarious.

Instead, we're baffled by crazy details and tenuous links to the word "witch", the first being the casual reference to the Bell Witch in the first place. I pity the poor people reading this panel in their newspaper because they don't have immediate access to Wikipedia to look up this obscure reference. I'm imagining the artist is obsessed with the supernatural and, in her mania, has forgotten that 99% of the people in the world have never heard of the Bell Witch.

Furthermore, I curse her for the fact that now I am in the 1% who have heard about it.

Next up is the existence of generic "Bell Witch attractions" that Burl and Joy will be visiting. If you can't be bothered to do some research and find out that the attraction is called the Bell Witch Cave, just make a name up:
  • Six Flags Over the Bell Witch
  • The Bell Witch Festival
  • The Bell Witch Institute of the Paranormal
  • The Bell Witch Casino of the Damned
  • The Bell Witch Petting Zoo
The rest of the witchy references are a part of today's scornful marginalia:
  • Famous cartoon witch B. Hilda = 411. No guesses about the name on the 911 post-it.
  • Burl and Joy's mugs. Ha ha, a Wizard of Oz reference. Whatever.
  • The key rack suggests that Joy is a witch. Or at least requires a securely locked broom closet, for reasons passing understanding.
  • Do you figure the first to-do is supposed to say "Ma's camera" or "Motion Camera"? I could go either way.
  • A heat sensor? Why would a ghost show up on a heat sensor? Why do they own a heat sensor in the first place?
  • Was it really necessary to mention Tennessee? Twice. Tennessee is a long word. It adds nothing to the joke. It takes up a lot of space and things are already cramped. Not all details are equally important.
  • Let me try to re-write the last to-do note so it makes sense to the English-speaking world: "Research all other witch attractions in Tennessee for price, concessions, motor tours, souvenirs." Unless the artist actually meant they wanted to specifically narrow the research on souvenirs to Tennessee.
  • Orca?
Finally, on a personal note, I want to say that I hate the artist for forcing me to write an entire entry without using the word "which" because everytime I used that word, it sounded like a bad pun. Blame her for any tortured syntax.

12 July 2006

Trapped in a Loveless Marriage

See it here.

Ahhh, sweet overindulgence. What else gives life such meaning?

Here, on full display, is the blitheness that makes The Dinette Set so special. Characters talk openly and earnestly about something they ought to be ashamed of. And we are invited to laugh knowingly at their faults along with the attractive younger couple in the background.

Did you forget to laugh, too? Oh, well.

What really sets this particular panel apart, however, is Jerry's comment. Jerry, as far as I can tell, is Burl's sister's husband. I am assuming Verl is Burl's sister despite the fact that, physically, she resembles Joy. My logic is that her name rhymes with Burl. And in the world of one-panel comics, rhyme defeats physical similarity.

Getting back on topic...Jerry is the hirsute person with the stupendous toupee to Verl's right. While Jerry agrees in principle with Joy, I'll be damned if Jerry is going to let something like a missing intermission deny him a second slurp at the concessions trough when he has a wife to fetch stuff for him. Of course, it's rude of her to want a summary of what she missed, especially when Jerry has a second tub of popcorn and 64 more ounces of Coca Cola to plow through...with just half a movie to go.

As for marginalia:
  • Jerry's first line of dialog has the most tortured punctuation of any 4 word/10 letter sentence I can imagine.
  • Is there an inconsistency in the fact that Verl and Joy are sneaking sacks of candy into the movie and yet they expect refills at the concession stand? Or is this just more indication of their gluttony?
  • Is Verl's bag meant to contain her oxygen supply? Or is it, like Joy's, making the joke that something important (oxygen, first aid) is being replaced with candy? Maybe it's a reference to the Oxygen channel? Given her subserviant relationship with Jerry, I imagine Verl spends a lot of time watching Oxygen.
  • Thanks to a helpful commenter in another post, I now understand that the Pong on Burl's shirt is a lame play on the golf equipment manufacturer Ping. I think someone could write a dissertation on the pathology that compels the artist to substitute silly mocking brand names in The Dinette Set.
  • Speaking of which, let's note the movie titles. Seven II, a reference to the psychological thriller Se7en and Porky VIII, a reference to the teen-sex film Porky's. I'm willing to forgive not correctly writing the name of the move Se7en. However, leaving off the apostrophe from Porky's was completely unecessary to the joke. And not doing 10 seconds worth of research to find that they only made 3 Porky's movies was just plain lazy.
  • Anyone who can explain Jerry's shirt should win a prize, if only I had a prize to offer. All I can find about Matt Helm is that he was a fictional U.S. government counteragent. No mention of diseases. Maybe he was a mysoginist and it's a reference to Jerry's relationship with Verl.
  • I love the way the artist crammed the price of movie tickets in as an afterthought. Better complain about that while were here since there's no knowing when Burl and Joy will get back to the movies. Of course, where I live, $8.00 for a movie ticket is a complete bargain. Unless we assume they are going to a matinee. Which is probably a safe assumption, but has forced me to think too deeply about a joke the artist could barely fit between dialog balloons.

11 July 2006


See it here.

A tour de force, worthy of a borscht belt comedian today...
Burl is so cheap...

How cheap is he?

Not only is a price that would be low to you and me outrageously high to him, but he's willing to wallow in human excrement to prove it.
You have to wonder at the fact that the artist is still not sure everyone will understand the joke as told in the dialog balloons. So she layers in multiple supporting details.
  • A little birdie in the background says "cheap cheap" to reinforce the point.
  • Their female friend's shirt insures that we understand that Burl is complaining about the price, not happy about it.
  • And, in case you're still missing all the subtle nuances of the joke, Burl and Joy's mugs reinforce the scatalogical content, with an assist from their male friend's shirt.
I'd say "thank you for the extra help" if I didn't harbor a nagging doubt that the artist included those details to insult me by implying I'm an idiot.

Some priceless marginalia today also.
  • Burl's shirt contains a predictable and groan-inducing pun, once again worthy of a borscht belt comedian.
  • I love Joy's garden. A whirligig, a scarecrow, and a large tomato cage to protect a single tiny plant. It has nothing to do with the rest of the panel, but there's something very sweet about the individual attention she gives to the one plant she's growing.
  • And, thanks to the motion lines on the whirligig, we know the wind is blowing. A crucial detail that helps tie the entire strip together.
  • It looks like the artist used cut-and-paste to duplicate the women's legs before drawing Joy's unnatural-looking hand in front of her leg. Was drawing two individual legs really that hard?
  • What is going on with the pool? I tried to convince myself I was looking at a pool cover since the surface looks nothing like water, comes much too close to the top edge, and the inner-tube is perched on top of it in an unnatural (for water) way. But, in truth, I think it's just a lame drawing of a pool.
  • Regarding the inner-tube, why does Krispy Kreme rate so highly that the artist doesn't mock their name with the standard sophomoric substitution (e.g., Adoodas, Pong). Maybe the illegible scribbling of the word "Kreme" contains a hilarious substitution I am unable to read.

My thanks to Josh over at The Comics Curmudgeon for the kind mention.

10 July 2006

The Gay Man at the Spa

See it here.

I think it should go without saying that if you need to reverse the meaning of a common phrase ("We don't look good unless you look good.") in order for a joke to work, then you need to come up with another idea. Sadly, in this case, it needed to be said before the panel was published, but no one had the courage. Or, perhaps, no one had another idea.

But as long as the artist has already done the deed...

I think Burl is being disingenuous or downright unobservant when he says that the problem is the chicken/egg thing. Burl should be more concerned that Deb, Tawny, Dot, and Babs don't have a basic grasp of the English language. Far from being afraid that the employees do not look good, Burl should be worried that Joy might ask for a perm and get a crew cut instead.

But even that pales in comparison with the obvious hygenic problems of the hair-clogged combs. Thank goodness the Spa has a box of Lice Control (or perhaps a Lice Control procedures manual?) on the shelf, because they will need it.

At this point, giving Deb, Tawny, Dot, and Babs unappealing physical attributes was really just gilding the lilly. I mean, when faced with the prospect of getting an unintended crew cut and hair lice from an unsanitary comb, what does it matter that Deb has acne, Tawny has a band-aid on her face, Dot has a 5-o'clock shadow, and Babs...hmmm.

I'm not sure what's supposed to be wrong with Babs to tell you the truth. About all I can say is she looks more like a guy in makeup than a girl. The minor evidence to the contrary is easily dismissed. Babs is a girl's name but we all know how much gay men like Barbara Streisand. And Babs does seem to have a bit of curvature in the chest area, suggesting breasts, but those could just be male breasts.

I think we're left with the obvious conclusion that Babs is a gay man with man breasts. Furthermore, Babs is the only one without a hair-encrusted comb, rather conspicuously. So, I think the subtext to today's panel is: Let the gay man at the spa do your hair.

  • Burl's shirt has no intrinsic joke and its only connection to the strip is the use of the word "egg."
  • Shouldn't the large, brightly lit sign be outside the building?
  • Check out Deb's fingernails...yikes.

09 July 2006

Tasteless in 2005

The Houston Chronicle site, from which I view The Dinette Set, doesn't carry their Sunday strip. And I'm not sure I want to stare at 3 panels worth of marginalia anyway, so instead, I'll pull something from the archives which catches my fancy.

See it here.

Way back in April of 2005, for example, The Dinette Set decided to wallow in some serious tastelessness, revolving around the taking of fish oil tablets. Burl and Joy's visitors have apparently been hearing about the benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids. But, since they don't care for fish they decide to take the tablets instead. Fair enough.

Unfortunately, this leads to a comment about Burl's digestive system which I think we could all have done without. Especially since that comment (instead of being a joke or even, say, funny) is just a description of something fairly unpleasant to either experience or imagine.

I suppose, by extension, we're supposed to be making fun of the couple taking the pills because it doesn't really eliminate the taste problems. But once you introduce the image of Burl belching, you've crossed a line and it doesn't matter what point you are trying to make.

Amazingly, however, Burt's belching isn't the most tasteless thing on display. Not by a long shot.

The heart shaped quotation not only conjures up a disgusting image, but the attribution to Karen Carpenter is in unbelievably bad taste. Plus. it shows an appalling lack of understanding of Bulimia (they don't eat their own vomit, for crying out loud). And the to-do list item regarding aphrodisiacs puts an image of Burl and Joy into one's mind which I think we could all do without.

  • In this case, the running 911/411 gag features the fairly predictable "Smells=911". But the 411 gag is hopelessly obscured by tiny, fat-lined writing. I am open to guesses from any hawk-eyed folks out there.
  • Joy's "I [heart] Cape Scrod" shirt is a needless pun, since "I [heart] Cape Cod" also contains a fish pun. Though, perhaps the artist though Scrod was a funnier fish name than Cod. She's probably right about that, but it doesn't make the shirt any funnier.
  • Between the artist not having the guts to go ahead with the homoerotic gag and yet putting the thought into our head anyway, the less said about Burl's shirt, the better. Not that there's anything wrong with that...
  • I have to assume, given the context, that the guest's mug is supposed to say "CARP", although there's no doubt that it actually says "CARQ."
  • Credit where credit is due: I like "Check ingredients in Cod Liver Oil."
  • Points scored for, once again, being aware that they are in a one panel comic and making allowances in the spacing and indenting on their to-do list. I'm especially amazed at the foresight in leaving a touch of space inside the word "list" to allow for the word balloon.
  • Points off, however, for redundancy: "Spellcheck the list for mispellings." As opposed to spellchecking it for what, exactly?

08 July 2006

A Joke in There Somewhere

See it here.

Give the artist credit this week, you know Burl is making a hilarious joke because the reaction of the backseat passenger tells you it's hilarious.

Only problem is, I have no idea what's supposed to be funny about this joke, but maybe I can puzzle it out. I think the crucial clue is the car model he's driving ("Mock 1") so the joke must be at the intersection of car washing, making fun of someone, and excessive speed. Which means that Burl is taunting the school age car washers by saying they can try to wash his car if they can do it while he's on the move and going fast. Which makes absolutely no sense since the entire concept of a car wash done by humans relies on the fact that the car is stationary. Even if we allow for Burl's possible confusion with an automated car wash, speed is not a part of the equation, and the joke still makes no sense.

Which leaves us with the conclusion that the joke is that the backseat passenger is an idiot.

Leaving all that aside, Burl's cruelty is the true story of the strip. He's taunting a group of Middle School kids who are washing cars to help pay for Little League which is probably an underfunded community program because people like Burl and Joy battle to keep local taxes low since they feel no obligation to help fund other children's activities after theirs has left home. So not only is Burl a prick for directly mocking a group of community-minded Middle School children, he's also a miserly prick at the ballot box.

Today's strip is curiously devoid of marginalia, but there are a few worth noting:
  • Adolph Hitler is the other backseat passenger.
  • Is Joy wearing earmuffs or does she have some sort of ear hair problem?
  • That is one serious "Car Wash" arrow sign the Little Leaguers have. Seems like the cost of the sign will eat away at whatever meager profit they can make charging $2.00 per car wash.
  • If the car wash is taking place behind the Crustwood Park District Building, why do the kids holding the signs directing people to it need buckets and sponges?
  • The adult holding the car wash sign looks pretty seedy in his tank top T-shirt and nefarious eyebrows. I hope Crustwood runs background checks on their Little League coaches. Though I suppose he might just be mad at Burl for being such a childish jerk towards the kids.

Plus, points off for ending the corn stories short of a trilogy.

07 July 2006

More Corn Stories

See it here.

Honestly, I probably don't need to write more than to note that this is the second of what is now a two-part series dealing with shopping for corn in the supermarket (here is the first).

Pointing out the pun in the title ("More Corn Stories") is probably unecessary, although assuming the pun was intentional may be over-reading it, since nothing in either of our "corn stories" has been really "corny" per se. But I figure it's a 50-50 chance that no pun was intended versus a pun intended even though it makes no sense. Since making no sense is the strong point of The Dinette Set, I decided a non-sensical pun is really the most likely explanation.

But what stands out about the strip is that I'm not even sure there is a joke. Shucking corn in the store is commonplace; there's usually a garbage can right next to the display for just that reason. Just as commonplace is looking for corn with flaws and then not buying it.

Now, I'm going to have to go out on a limb here and say that the joke is supposed to be in one of two places. Either we're supposed to believe that Burl is impossibly picky about his corn or that the store actually has a bin full of bad corn. Since these are fine Midwestern folk, it's not a stretch to believe that Burl is actually a bit of a snob when it comes to his corn. So I guess we're left with the joke being that the store has a bin full of bad corn, and I'm not sure what's funny about that.

I also feel like I should be making more out of the fact that Joy says they need "a dozen more" despite having a box full of corn in their cart already. Perhaps this is a comment on their obesity or rapacity, but damned if I can put my finger on what would be funny about it even if the obvious guess that they are having a BBQ with friends didn't explain the need for 2 dozen ears of corn more easily.

Maybe, with the corn at 10 for $1.00, this is all the food they can afford for the week after paying for their healthcare and heating bills? Maybe it's meant to be a tragic comment on the plight of the elderly in America? That seems like a bit of a stretch, I admit.

As for marginalia:
  • The extremely cross looks on the other shoppers' faces (presumably because all the corn is being picked over by Burl and Joy) appear to be mere pettiness since there's a vast table of corn set out before them and there should be plenty of space for them to just go get their own damn corn. Hell, Burl is even getting rid of the bad ears for them!
  • If we assume this is a continuation of yesterday's strip, Burl has apparently changed shirts. Perhaps shucking is such sweaty work that he was forced to change?
  • His shirt is mystifying in and of itself. A quote from Dirty Harry ("Make My Day") and a target on his own chest? See, when Dirty Harry says stuff like that, the target is on the other guy's chest. Perhaps the target is a subtle tie into the "daggers" the other shoppers are shooting at him with with their eyes and the slogan is meant as a warning to them that Burl is not a man to be trifled with, especially when appraising corn.
  • The fact that the artist put in movement lines to indicate frantic shucking is really quite quaint.
  • "Bawdy Paper Towels"? I think I'll just leave that one alone.

I can't even express how excited I am to find out if "corn stories" is a trilogy...

06 July 2006

Corn as Metaphor for Corporate America

See it here.
I assume the patron ahead of Burl and Joy is complaining at the invasion of his personal space based on their proximity to him. In point of fact, at first glance it appears as if Burl is rubbing something very inappropriately against this man's buttocks, though it is possible there is a gap between them that just isn't well represented by the artwork. At any rate, for our purposes, let's leave the specifics aside and just assume that the complaint is about an unspecified breech of personal space.

The patron, thus offended, requests that Burl and Joy step back a bit in a fairly standard, though oblique, manner. However, the point is missed entirely by our narcissistic couple, who take his words as a literal offer to help. Apparently the emphasis placed on the word "help" and the additional question mark are not enough to clue them into the possibility that the man may not be actually offering to help him shuck corn.

Furthermore, Burl hasn't noticed that no supermarket since 1950 has had an employee available to assist customers with tasks like this.

In the marginalia we find the following:
  • The offended patron's shorts are apparently from the clothing manfacturer "Adoodas" or "Adoodos" which is among the most childish plays on "Adidas" imagineable. And what comment is even made by mocking the man's brand-name apparel? Perhaps the mere fact that he wears brand-name apparel is the joke for our Midwestern couple? Or are we supposed to draw a nefarious parallel between the sweat-shop labor in China employed by Adidas and the missing store employee...you know, the one who would actually have been available to "help" in 1950? Either way, of course, the space and lettering are cramped, and whatever comment is being made is hardly worth the effort to notice it.
  • Burl's shirt, with it's Wal-Mart smiley face on one side and a Wal-Mart frowny face on the other is curious. Is this another comment on corporate America and the outsourcing of labor for which Wal-Mart is famous?
  • Compare the images reminding us of corporate avarice with the gentle reminder of bygone craftsmanship employed in individually lettering each and every shopping cart with a warning. The message may or may not be different on each cart (it's not clear if the word "may" is just out of frame on the patron's cart). But even if we allow for that, then the warning signs have placed the word "may" on different lines ("No one / under / two / may stand up" versus "No one /under / two may/ stand up"). Of course, the artist also reveals unwittingly the potential downfall of craftsmanship--shoddy workmanship--because the craftsman forgot to leave enough space for the word "up" in the second cart and was forced to cram it in at a weird angle.
  • And what to make of the oddity of a policy stating that it's OK for someone "under 2" to stand up in a cart? Anyone under 2 suffers from a fairly serious lack of balance and are more suceptible to falling out of the cart when standing.
  • In the category of tantalizingly incomplete detail, we are given the barest hint of what is in Burl and Joy's cart. If I had to guess, I would say it is "Scott's Bathroom Tissue" which, when coupled with the suggestion of buying corn, is a detail that probably should have been omitted.
  • In an unrelated vignette, some poor patron in the background is being doused by a sprayer above the vegetables. Note, however, that only one sprayer is activated and it is the one over the patron's head, so you have to suspect this is a novetly system designed to annoy patrons or dissuade them from pawing the produce.
  • The plaid pants on this particular shopper are reason enough to hose him down, of course, with no questions asked.
  • Whatever the story on the sprayer may be, the obvious irony in the scene cannot be ignored. A garish warning about the sprayer's tendency to "spray at any time" is juxtaposed with the fact that this sprayer is aimed outward and spraying at such volume that the floor will soon be a lawsuit waiting to happen.

05 July 2006

The Joy of Dieting

See it here.

I confess that I stared at this strip for a long time and couldn't figure out the joke. Then, just when I was ready to give up, it dawned on me that the drawing was meant to suggest Burl and Joy are picking the food off Patty's plate (Patty is their daughter). Note the tiny motion lines near Joy's hand. I also think that Burl may have some sort of food item in his right hand, perhaps a french fry, but it's proximity to the edge of the table and Patty's arm makes it indistinguishable as anything specific.

Still, armed with a good assumption of what the strip is about, I had to face the fact that getting the joke didn't make it funnier, although suddenly some of the marginalia made sense.

I mean, before I figured out what Burl and Joy were up to, I thought Patty was going to watch Invasion of the Locust after they--the locusts--left. You can imagine my confusion about that. Though, in an absurdist way it's funnier than the actual joke of comparing her dieting parents to locusts.

Or, in this case, a single locust. And I think we have a contender for least scary horror/sci fi movie of all time: Invasion of the Locust. One locust shows up, eats a bit of crop, flies away, and no one is the wiser. Unless we're talking about a mutated giant space locust, though once we start doing that, we're really drifting from the point.

  • Beyond the locust movie, there's so much to like about Joy's huge "to-do" sign. Let's start with the fact that she unabashedly displays it in the dining room despite listing several thinly-veiled bits of contempt towards her parents, such as "Lock Diary."
  • Despite its size and prominence, she obviously didn't follow all of the directions, since it clearly says she should make "(3) single size portions for dinner" yet, there's "lots more in the oven." I suppose we could give her the benefit of the doubt that she meant "plate (3) single size portions for dinner" but made enough for leftovers. At that point, however, I'm going to make fun of Patty for putting the number 3 in parenthesis needlessly.
  • Perhaps the most amazing part of the sign is that she actually had the foresight to indent items on the list so her head would not get in the way of them when viewed from the all important angle of the cartoonist. Patty, clearly, has an awareness that she is trapped in a single-panel comic and is making allowances.
  • Does Patty's "USA" shirt reflect guilt at not having been patriotic enough on July 4?
  • No idea what's going on with Burl's shirt. One sleeve says "Pong." The other sleeve has a word starting with "P." On the back is what appears to be a (dimpled) golf ball. Since the ball in the video game "Pong" was actually a square, that can't explain the shirt. And since the ball in Ping Pong is not dimpled, that can't explain the shirt. And now I am out of ideas.
  • From the post-it notes with the little joke (911=shrink 411=Mom & Dad), I think we can assume that the concentric rectangles on the wall represent Patty's phone. They qualify as the lamest drawing of a phone ever.

04 July 2006

Independence Day

See it here.

It's Independence Day in the Dinette set, which we know from the very large flag out the window and the toothpick flags on the cupcakes. But, that's as far as we're willing to go celebrating July 4 in the strip. Unless you want to count the fact that the subject matter hints at a possible root of the obesity epidemic in America and rampant consumption, both of which, I suppose, are uniquely American.

What's most surprising here is that Burl and Joy are friends with a psychiatrist. Though, perhaps, only Joy is friends with him, since Burl is conspicuously outside lounging in the pool rather than socializing. Probably afraid that his friend will psycho-analyze everything he says.

He needn't worry, it seems, as Physchiatrist John agrees with the pop-physcology notion that if one is sane enough to believe that one is crazy, one cannot actually be crazy. All I can say is that John had better keep his malpractice insurance up-to-date and that Burl should join the party because John is about as observant and inquisitive as a bag of hammers.

Despite Burl's fear of being analyzed, he is not too afraid to bellow that he is hungry through the open window and across the entire neighborhood, which forms the central joke of the strip. He is not, in fact hungry, the same as someone who says they are crazy is actually sane.

But that's a fairly tenuous comparison on which to hang a joke. I mean, the idea that if one is sane enough to believe that one is crazy, one cannot actually be crazy is the basis for the book Catch-22 where the point is that it seems to make sense, even though it really doesn't. Does it even seem to make sense to say that if one is not hungry enough to believe that one is hungry, one cannot actually be hungry? Not to me it doesn't.

As for the all-important marginalia
  • I confess to actually liking the change in Trix motto to "Trix is for me" because it ties into the theme of selfishness that pervades The Dinette Set. Although it also ties closely into a certain kid-hating aspect of this panel (the Oreos are only for adults) which is a bit creepy.
  • Is there a screen in the kitchen window or isn't there? It wouldn't be as disturbing that there is a big hole in the screen, since it makes Burl visibile, except that Burl also breaks the plane of the window frame as well, which was just laziness on the artist's part.
  • Look at Joy's lovingly-placed hand on John's shoulder. I think we can safely assume that she and John are having an affair. If we need more evidence, the smile on John's wife's face as she looks out towards Burl coupled with her "REDRUM" shirt suggest she harbors a wish to murder her husband and have a torrid affair with Burl to get back at Joy.
  • Does John's cup actually say "Wasser"? Assuming I am squinting at that correctly, why does a coffee mug say water, why in German, and what are Burl and Joy doing with it? Is it supposed to be ironic that Joy is pouring coffee into a cup marker "Wasser"? Nothing about that cup makes sense in or out of context of the panel as a whole.
  • REDRUM woman's mug is even more mystifying. "Smaller Cup"? Smaller than what?
  • The single best detail, however, is that the artist felt it was not enough to label the cookie jar with the word Oreo. No, a half-eaten Oreo is also placed strategically nearby to strengthen whatever point is being made. Perhaps she was worried that people who buy Hydrox brand cookies would be left out of the joke? Of course, all of that effort would suggest the actual type of cookie matters to the panel, and I'll be damned if I can figure out why it matters.

03 July 2006

Hello World

Inspired by The Comics Curmudgeon and by Crap Every Time, I decided to turn my attention to another strip that appears to be worthy of focused attention: The Dinette Set.

It features a seemingly MidWestern married couple, named Joy and Burl: obese, pupil-less, with some sort of cranial deformity, and a level of obliviousness that borders on the narcissistic.

According to a short biography of the artist, Julie Larson:
Julie noted a dull, repetitive lifestyle from one suburb to the next. But when she took a closer look, she saw it was only monotonous on the outside. Underneath, she observed a lively hustle and bustle of people who truly enjoyed every moment of belonging to the masses. Mass consumerism was exciting and colorful! Julie embraced it and saw it as a theater filled with stars whose favorite ride was "The Rat Wheel." She "got it." Julie began writing The Dinette Set comic in 1990, then called Suburban Torture, offering a satire on middle class culture.
Suburban Torture, for what it is worth, was a much better title.

Each panel feature a density of information, both background and foreground, that makes one suspect the cartoonist is never sure if the main thrust is quite funny enough, so marginalia jokes are crammed into every inch of white space in the desperate hope that everyone will find something to chuckle at.

Sadly, this is rarely the case.