This question originally appeared on Quora.
Answer by Caroline Zelonka, creative director:
Garfield was created to fill a marketing niche, not to be funny.
In the mid-90s, I worked on advertising for Petsmart stores, during a time when Jim Davis (or rather, his agent) spent a lot of time pitching and generally pestering the company for licensing deals.
I get the feeling he was trying to pave the way for retirement, or passive income from his fading Garfield brand. However, in researching this answer, I found out a rather mind-blowing Garfield backstory, courtesy of Slate.
Davis makes no attempt to conceal the crass commercial motivations behind his creation of Garfield. … [Davis] carefully studied the marketplace when developing Garfield. The genesis of the strip was “a conscious effort to come up with a good, marketable character,” Davis told Walter Shapiro in a 1982 interview in the Washington Post. “And primarily an animal. … Snoopy is very popular in licensing. Charlie Brown is not.” So, Davis looked around and noticed that dogs were popular in the funny papers, but there wasn’t a strip for the nation’s 15 million cat owners. Then, he consciously developed a stable of recurring, repetitive jokes for the cat. He hates Mondays. He loves lasagna. He sure is fat.
Davis comes right out and admits that Garfield, from the get-go, was not meant to be funny.
The model for Garfield was Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, but not the funny Peanuts of that strip’s early years. Rather, Davis wanted to mimic the sunny, humorless monotony of Peanuts’ twilight years. “After 50 years, Snoopy was still laying in that dog house, and rather than getting old, it actually has the opposite effect,” Davis told the Chicago Sun-Times.
Three years after the strip debuted, Davis set in motion plans to license his character. In the same interview, Davis admitted to Shapiro that he spent much 13 or 14 hours a week writing and drawing the strip, compared with 60 hours a week on promotion and licensing.
Garfield was never intended to be humorous. The joke’s always the same because it follows a bland humor formula well-known to anyone in advertising: enough to put a smile on someone’s face, but take care never to offend. And if the humor has to suffer for it, fine.
The character was created to fill a niche among cat people, just as Snoopy had with dog owners. And, in my opinion, to make Jim Davis rich. No, he doesn’t write the strip anymore, but the strip isn’t what’s important: what with the movies, plush toys, branded pet food, even the “Garfield Pizza Cafe” in Kuala Lumpur.
The strip serves to keep Garfield in the public eye as a creative character, but the public eye isn’t really on print newspapers that much any more, and the daily newspaper comics section is probably one of the most moribund elements of popular culture in existence today. Good for Davis in maximizing the potential of his creation, but as a humor, it has dubious roots. Peanuts and The Family Circle were actually funny, once upon a time. Garfield, not so much.
Answer by Joshua Engel:
The strips aren’t exactly uproariously funny, but the fundamental building blocks of humor are there. It’s kind of Aristotelian, actually. From the Poetics:
Comedy is, as we have said, an imitation of characters of a lower type- not, however, in the full sense of the word bad, the ludicrous being merely a subdivision of the ugly. It consists in some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive. To take an obvious example, the comic mask is ugly and distorted, but does not imply pain.*
We can definitely quibble with Aristotle’s definition, but it’s the essence of Garfield. Jon is both ugly and defective, but not generally in a painful way. Aristotle’s definition of comedy relied just on our feeling superior to him.
Modern theories of comedy are a bit more abstract, where it’s the breaking of a pattern that gives rise to the humor. That’s the essence of a basic joke: the mathematician says X, the physicist says X, the engineer says Y. The rabbi says X, the politician says X, the bartender says Y. The three-panel strip relies on the same thing, using the third panel to conflict with the first two (Jon doesn’t actually have the mastery of the cat he’s claiming, ordinary events of life contrast with an unexpected one).
I’m not trying to defend any of this as great comedy, mind you. It’s so-so stuff at best, made kind of irritating by the fact that it’s been repeating the same three jokes (or even really just one joke) for 35 years now. It doesn’t grow. It’s a very simplistic, juvenile kind of humor, one adults grow tired of after a few repetitions and children grow out of.
Perhaps it’s best to say that while you keep getting older, the 5 year olds always stay the same age. The strip isn’t really aimed at you, unless you’ve got a sense of nostalgia and really want some comforting retellings of the same joke over breakfast with your dead-tree edition of the paper. The fact that the newspaper is still paying somebody to rewrite that joke, rather than re-running the old ones (which are essentially identical), is a bit puzzling.
After all, that’s what they did with Charles Schultz, whose (excellent and admirable) Peanuts strip is taking up space in my newspaper that could perhaps be filled by a younger artist with new ideas. That said, every time they run a contest for a new strip, it appears that there aren’t actually any talented new artists out there, since the new ones actually manage to suck worse than Peanuts reruns.
More questions on comic strips: