Anatomy of a Gag

I haven't been getting much work lately, but I try to keep productive. Twice a week, I create a panel cartoon and post it on various social networks. It doesn't pay anything, but it gives me an audience, keeps me from getting (too) lazy, and I have something to collect in book form later.

Believe it or not, I sometimes do more than one draft of these things. A recent gag proved especially hard to execute properly.

This one began like most gags start. I keep a sketchbook next to my bed so that if I wake up in the middle of the night with an idea I can write it down and remember it the next morning. In my partial sleep haze, it seems like the most brilliant idea ever thought of by anyone; when I look at it later, half the time it doesn't make much sense. Like, for example:

Here's a sketch of something I woke up and scribbled one recent night:

It's a twist on a famous gag. Probably the most famous I Love Lucy bit of all time. I'm sure you've seen it. Lucy and Ethel get a job working on an assembly line wrapping candy. When the conveyer belt goes too fast they start eating the candy. Their supervisor comes to check on them and they're too ashamed to admit they can't handle the job and when asked if they're doing well, they nod yes, unable to talk because their mouths are full of candy. The supervisor yells to the operator, “Speed it up!” I forget what happens next, but if my forty-two years on Earth have taught me anything, it's that hi-jinx ensue.

Looking at this sketch of a gag later, what first occurred to me is that the dogs should be facing the other way. And maybe there should be two people working on the factory assembly line. I made a few notes telling me to use those things in the final drawing.

First thing I do is draw the gag in blue pencil. Not to ink (i.e. trace) later, but to block it all out and make sure it reads. I decided to scrap the note of a second line worker because it would be too distracting.

I didn't like this version. Maybe there should be more dogs. The way I had it, there weren't enough. In the original Lucy scene, there are too many candies and the line is backed up. Doing this gag without motion, I can't show the movement of the conveyor belt. Having more dogs might help show that the belt is going too fast. More chaos would also help draw attention to the speed. Besides, chaos is funny. And with so many more figures in the drawing, including the supervisor might be too distracting, so maybe he should be yelling from off-panel.

After making these changes, I decided the new version was too cluttered. I also went back to my original idea of two people working on the line, so it would read more quickly as a twist on the Lucy gag. And the sign was too distracting. The supervisor was still in the way, so I kept the idea of him being off-camera.

There seemed to be something wrong with the wording. I don't go into as much verbal detail as most of my contemporaries, but I still spend as much time getting the words right as others seem to normally spend on their drawing. I feel guilty about this sometimes, and go back and forth wondering whether my work is cartoons, or comedy in cartoon form.

When the supervisor is yelling, “SPEED IT UP,” it implies that he's yelling at the workers rather than the conveyer belt operator, and thus aware that they're stuffing dogs in their mouths. If I added “OKAY!” it might make the meaning clearer. I rewrote the speech balloon on a separate piece of paper and decided to paste it in when I touched everything up on the computer.

Before coloring, I touched up the art in bitmap. I blow it up to 200% so I can erase any stray marks that show up on the scanner. After doing that, I commenced coloring. The coloring's the quickest part. If it's a gag with just two people talking, I just need a few colors and it only takes seconds.

Now to convert everything to CMYK. Since the art is minimal, the color should be too, so I just use the palette that comes with Photoshop. I use my mouse to make the blobby background so it looks like torn paper.

Now the cartoon is finished.

Still don't get it? Then fuck you.

Postscript: The week I posted this cartoon on the internet, the same Lucy gag was parodied on Family Guy. I got a few messages from people who thought I was ripping that show off, even though I did this cartoon a few weeks before the episode aired. I've gotten this before. Sometimes people don't know the original cultural object the Family Guy writers are parodying, and they just assume it's something the Family Guy people made up from scratch. I wonder how often when a comedy show quotes or parodies something, the viewers think it's something original.


31 Responses to Anatomy of a Gag

  1. Iain Ramsay says:

    You probably should have made the workers look more uncomfortable and also had them moving some other dogs down the assembly line. The workers don’t look like they’re working at all. Overall the gag isn’t too clear. I guess there’s a reason why they can’t all be zingers.

  2. Iain Ramsay says:

    For further reading, James Thurber gives a few good explanation of the process of making a gag cartoon in “A MILE AND A HALF OF LINES: Thurber on His Drawings” section from his anthology “COLLECTING HIMSELF: James Thurber on Writing and Writers, Humor and Himself”.

  3. Yeah, the clipboard and wheels really sold the assembly line. You could capture more laughter share by referencing Laverne & Shirley here. I want to see 10 more versions.

  4. rgms says:

    I’m sorry, but I really DONT get it. (“Fuck me,” I guess?) ..Why do the workers appear to be naked? Why is the conveyor belt covered with chocolates, or whatever that is. why are there dogs on an assembly line at all?

  5. patrick ford says:

    Really tough to make this work as a one panel gag. Showing the workers are doing something (putting on the noses) helps sell the idea. The noses maybe should be in a bin in front of the workers rather than scattered on the belt where they could be mistaken for something else. Also a dog is too large an animal which pushes the gag into an absurdist arena. For slapstick a toy mouse would work better.

  6. patrick ford says:

    Well, it could be a dog cause it’s stuffed animals, a small scale stuffed animal dog would maybe work better.

  7. The problem with Sam Henderson’s work is that it’s too fucking good, and most assholes just can’t appreciate it because of that.

  8. Tim Hodler says:

    I think you’re a lot closer to “getting” it than you realize. Those are all good questions! (Though those aren’t chocolates, they’re noses. Duh.)

  9. Tim Hodler says:

    Yeah, cartoonists should avoid straying into absurdist arenas if they can. Seriously, sometimes “getting” a gag is almost beside the point.

  10. Frank Santoro says:

    Word up.

  11. patrick ford says:

    I’m all in favor of absurdist humor. It just seemed Sam was working hard to make the gag work on the same level as the Lucy skit. All the drawings are funny though, and I think it was Charles Schulz who said the first thing you need is a funny drawing.

  12. Sam Henderson says:

    I’ve been told in the past “some people are never gonna like your stuff”. I can accept that. There will also be people trying to dissect something they’re obviously not familiar with. Here are some other examples you’ll either like or not.


  13. patrick ford says:

    I thought this was a perfect companion piece to the R.C. Harvey story on Bushmiller. NANCY is sort of the GRAY’S ANNATOMY of gag strips.

  14. R. Maheras says:

    Most of your cartoons make me laugh before I even read the captions — which is a perfect way to tee off a cartoon. The set-up already has me in a laughing mood, and the captions are just the icing on the cake.

  15. Shaenon says:

    The best part is that this is a factory that puts noses on dogs. Once you understand this, you will understand comedy.

  16. KenParille says:

    Does the pink guy have a nose in his hand — should it be colored brown?

  17. Sam Henderson says:

    It’s like when someone forgets to color the corner of a panel and they only notice in retrospect.

  18. Kim Thompson says:

    I think I missed the noses aspect because the first three drawings don’t make the “nose-adding” aspect clear and the fourth drawing actively contradicts it (there are dogs with noses on them on both sides of the workers). The last drawing has noseless dogs coming down the line and dogs with noses after they pass the workers, yes, but one of the two dogs Sam positioned so the nose is kind of lost in the line between the worker’s arm and body. I admit it: I thought the noses were all turds (the color didn’t help). But I think I actually might have gotten “noses” easier if I HADN’T read all the versions in order.

    Also, why is the pink worker holding a WHITE nose? Color coordinating the noses might have made that link better.

    If I was Sam’s editor I’d have told him to make the noses slightly bigger and color them all black, and move the next to last dog so his nose was more visible.

    Also, wouldn’t it have made more sense for the noses to be in a bin between the two workers rather than coming down the belt, in quantities far exceeding the quantity of dogs? Very nasally wasteful.

    Also, is this really the best job for amputees?

  19. Derik Badman says:

    And here we see why Kim’s been a successful editor.

  20. Frank Santoro says:

    No, he just worked at the dog nose factory before Fanta.

  21. Derik Badman says:

    Better add that to his Wikipedia page!

  22. michael L says:

    im normally really down with your stretchy, playful contours, but here i feel the premise would have been served a bit better were the dogs more uniform

  23. patrick ford says:

    I’m just pleased to see Kim dissect the cartoon in such great detail. I was engaging with what I thought Sam was doing in the article, and started feeling like I was being a slapdick, which wasn’t remotely my intent.

  24. Kim brings up a good point. This would be way funnier if these guys were placed the other way around and the one arm they each still had kept bumping into each other, thus causing the chaos..

  25. patrick ford says:

    The gag is a high mountain to climb in one panel. This isn’t to say Sam’s cartoon isn’t funny.
    Here is a panel which is funny and very straightforward. No mystery about it. A child would get this. Anyone would.
    This is an example of something which is funny, but absurd, and hard to define.

  26. Sam Henderson says:

    Not one person is a bigger critic than myself. I’ve been doing this professionally half my life and there’s not a single thing I’ve done that I don’t think of ten ways it could have been better after it’s been printed, including the text here.

    I’ve worked with Kim as an editor and known Marc for almost 25 years so I completely respect what they have to say. Most people understand what I was going for so I have no problem with anyone saying how hey think an idea should have been communicated. There’s no hope if somebody doesn’t understand a particular sense of humor. You may as well ask “Why are animals talking?” or “Why are they fine after a heavy object fell on them?”

    In short: I’ve learned from my mistakes the past 20 years, and will for the next 20. If the problem is in the legibility, I’m not too proud to accept feedback, even when I disagree. If it’s the situation, well… god bless you.

  27. Lee-Roy says:

    I enjoy checking out other artists’ processes, so thanks for sharing this! To me, this reads as insight into the madness of the self-editor/critic that I myself can identify with, which sometimes causes us to lose sight of the initial spark that made a gag work in our seemingly feeble mid-dream minds. I think the cartoon that works best of any of the drafts you’ve posted is your first one! The supervisor character with the clipboard, the conveyor belt being more obviously a conveyor belt with its gears/wheels (I’m afraid your final version looks more like a sidewalk), and the little opening which the belt leads from, all really sell the location and thus, the situation and the gag. If you took your original sketch and just shifted the worker character to the left, so that there are a couple of dogs between him and the supervisor, and had the belt come to an end at the left, with a bunch of dogs piling up on the floor, I think you might have a more successful gag and something that is truer to your original inspiration. I hesitate to put in my 2¢ here, as I respect your regimen, which I have thought about doing myself far more than I have actually done anything about. And I admire your willingness to put this out there for all to see and to criticize. My apologies for being another critic, but hopefully you feel my criticism is constructive.

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  29. Too complicated. If only 0,1% of readers “get the gag”, there’s something wrong with the gag. Personally, I am more inclined to the good old clear jokes (if possible, not trivial), that have an intrinsic critique of the society, than to overly absurd ones. Although, even those may be very good. This cartoon has some good points. The problem is that the causality that leads to the punch line is not clear.

  30. Mike Hunter says:

    For all of Henderson’s degree of talent, trying to tweak this cartoon is as hopeless as trying to make a house built upside-down “work” better by changing the walls from brick to stucco, varying the amount of windows.

    We start with several major flaws:

    Sam Henderson says:

    It’s a twist on a famous gag. Probably the most famous I Love Lucy bit of all time. I’m sure you’ve seen it. Lucy and Ethel get a job working on an assembly line wrapping candy. When the conveyer belt goes too fast they start eating the candy. Their supervisor comes to check on them and they’re too ashamed to admit they can’t handle the job and when asked if they’re doing well, they nod yes, unable to talk because their mouths are full of candy.

    There’s the assumption that people (a) know about, (b) think about that “I Love Lucy” gag.

    Moreover, that “putting candy in your mouth” bit is perfectly understandable, while “putting dogs in your mouth” makes no sense.

    Putting noses on the dogs — which should be the whole point of the assembly line, the equivalent of Lucy and Ethel wrapping candy — gets added at the very end, and is not even mentioned in the descriptions of the working process.

    Other factors further louse it up: as has been noted, without wheels the conveyor belt doesn’t look like what it is, more like a raised sidewalk; the workers distractingly look like mutants. ( http://pic.twitter.com/MYl3d5h2 shows it’s a Henderson schtick, but for those unfamiliar with his work, it’s another “get in the way of the gag” item.)

    In short, this cartoon should have been consigned to the wastebasket…

  31. Oliver_C says:

    I’m sure this is a hoot if you’re familiar with one particular episode of a half-century-old US TV show. For the rest of us, it’s the equivalent of commenting on Matt Smith’s woodenness as an actor by drawing him inside the secondary control room of the TARDIS.

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