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.