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Eric: Of course, with my luck this is all a dream

User Friendly
(From User Friendly! Click on the thumbnail for full sized cumulative action!)

I've been reading User Friendly since... well, ever, as near as I can tell. Certainly since early 1998, and I want to say I was reading it in December of 1997, among that very first wave of readers of what was for a time the most popular webcomic on the web, and what continues to be one of the biggest.

Which, no doubt, is why I kept reading it, even though it went on my "Why do I read this webcomic, again?" list before the launch of Websnark.

The reasoning was simple enough. Illiad focuses on gag-a-day, which is easy to hold onto. If you smile at one out of three strips on a seven strip a week comic, there's no real reason to stop reading. But his occasional forays into character development have generally left me a little flat. And top of the list on that was the relationship of A.J. and Miranda.

Clearly, A.J. and Miranda both being into each other but with coincidences always keeping them from out and out admitting it to one another has meant to be a running joke. However, as running jokes go, this one was a wash. Just enough tension was generated that false start after false start served to irritate rather than amuse. This wasn't Charlie Brown's football--

Oh wow. It's a new lexicon term! Another new lexicon term! Right!

Charlie Brown's Football is relatively self explanatory. It refers to a humor strip using a familiar setup and a familiar ending as a springboard for a variety of subtly different jokes. The strip itself was classic: Lucy invites Charlie Brown to place-kick a football. Charlie Brown expresses doubt, given her clear track record in the past. Lucy offers assurances. Charlie Brown believes them, and makes a running start for a kick that will send the football to the moon. Lucy pulls the football away, causing Charlie Brown to go flying, landing painfully on his back. Lucy then points out the fallacy, loophole or other logical point which permitted her to do such an act without violating the earlier assurances.

Charles Schulz got about forty-seven years of strips out of that setup. He performed amazing variations. (Not the least of which was the time that Lucy didn't pull the football away, but Charlie Brown missed, kicking Lucy and breaking her arm.) It's certainly possible some readers got sick of it, but for the most part, people accepted the ritual on face value. Certainly, the running gag worked in the fifties and it worked in the nineties.

Lots of comic strips -- particularly four panel gag-a-day strips -- develop their own examples of Charlie Brown's Football. It's not simply that it's a running gag. Ignatz throwing a brick at Krazy Kat is a running gag, but it's not the same kind of ritual that the football is. Probably the clearest webcomic example comes from PvP. The strips where a panda mauls Brent fulfill the requirement. Some topic is raised. Brent expresses interest, and asks for clarification. The person clarifies in some way that evokes a panda, bamboo or the like. A panda savages Brent. It's not just a panda coming and eating Brent's head. It's the whole ritual.

The A.J./Miranda near-misses had the element of the ritualized about them. However, there was always a sense that the only reason these two weren't getting together was because the artist didn't want them to. Miranda is too self-confident for us to believe she wouldn't walk up and say point blank "are you into me?" to A.J. And if A.J.'s social paralysis was so profound that he couldn't respond to it, then it didn't end up being funny. It was just kind of sad and pathetic, and there was no good reason for Miranda to be attracted to him.

So, whenever the relationship reared its head, I kind of groaned. This isn't going to go anywhere, I would think, and sure enough I'd be right. Once again -- there was no tension, only a sense of annoyance.

And so I went through the last week with a sense of resignation. Here we go again, I thought.

And then on Thursday, there was a nag-strip designed to delay the strip for thirty seconds. And three different times I went through that series of safari tabs, and three different times I lost patience or just needed to do something else, so I never actually saw the strip where A.J. finally said something to Miranda. So it didn't register until yesterday, when I went back and holy shit they're kissing.

So I went back. And I realized I was floored. Illiad was actually resolving it. However many years later, kind of out of nowhere, there was actual movement.

Now... the thing is... it wasn't worth the buildup. Six months to this moment would have rocked. However many years it's been before this kiss made it all kind of meh. And yet, I'm actively interested in seeing what happens next, and that hasn't happened with User Friendly since the missile silo storyline was sidelined because of 9/11.

So, good on Illiad. From here, there's possibility, and that's a cool thing.

Posted by Eric Burns-White at September 17, 2005 6:02 PM


Comment from: TheNintenGenius posted at September 17, 2005 6:32 PM

I've personally never, ever liked User Friendly, but hey, if it's the source of inspiration for yet another lexicon term, I guess I can't complain.

Assuming the lexicon updates some time next century, at least. :P

Comment from: Paul Gadzikowski posted at September 17, 2005 6:54 PM

I dunno. This storyline has had a feel to me all along that A.J. was really going to do it this time. At least it has since he actually got up from his desk and left his room.

But, dude. This is not the snark I've been refreshing Websnark since lunchtime to see. According to the (year-old) trawl lists, Narbonic's an afternoon read, so what gives?

Comment from: Montykins posted at September 17, 2005 7:07 PM

I think the reason the football working in Peanuts for so long is that it happened once a year (right around Thanksgiving). It's hard to get sick of something that happens that rarely, and Schulz only had to think of about fifty variations.

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at September 17, 2005 7:15 PM

Paul -- as you can tell from the date on the linked post, I'm operating on something of a delay.

Comment from: arscott posted at September 17, 2005 7:27 PM

I'm with Paul.

Give us our Narbonic Snark or face the Crushing Robotic Foot of DOOM!!!!!
(And BAD GRAMMAR!!!!!!)

Comment from: thok posted at September 17, 2005 8:20 PM

Oh, you silly Narbonic fans.

So, by extension of the notation, should we call today an "Invisible Charlie Brown" moment? (Referring, of course, to when Charlie Brown does kick the football while invisible in the "It's Magic, Charlie Brown".)

Comment from: Michael Nehora posted at September 17, 2005 8:24 PM

A new piece of Websnark jargon! Wiigii!

I wonder: would Questionable Content be another case of Charlie Brown's Football? The sexual tension between Marten and Faye is of course a pervasive theme in this comic. Now, generally in reading QC I assume that the two will never act on their feelings because (a) Marten is hopelessly awkward romance-wise and (b) Faye has intimacy issues up the wazoo. Nevertheless, there have been a few instances where there was, arguably, a window of opportunity that either Marten or Faye failed to exploit.

On the question of resolving vs. not resolving romantic tension in ongoing comics, tv series, and such, my feeling is: don't resolve. Yes, I do get attached to such characters as Marten and Faye. However, as we see from Frasier, Moonlighting, and other examples, it's extremely difficult for the writer to sustain interest post-consummation, given that so much of what makes the serial in question work is precisely that tension. If it's a limited, one-shot work we're talking about, then the writer can more easily go with either option. To use examples from literature, consider Jane Austen's Emma, where the romantic tension between the two protagonists is happily resolved, and, conversely, Kazuo Ishiguro's Remains of the Day, where the tension tragically remains unresolved.

Comment from: JSW posted at September 17, 2005 9:12 PM

There's also the problem in QC that Marten and Faye really aren't all that compatible. Marten's whole crush on her started mostly out of circumstance (she was the only woman in his life during a period in which he was somewhat depressed at the beginning of the comic) and was maintained just because Marten doesn't like to let go of that sort of thing before it's "played out" (as he said to his mother in a recent strip.) Personally, I think that the strip will end with Marten hooking up with Dora while Faye rides off into the sunset with Pintsize, but that's just me.

Comment from: Kris@WLP posted at September 17, 2005 9:48 PM

The Marten-Faye thing is not a set-piece gag. It is not formulaic. It's an ongoing, you might even say continuous, plot point in QC.

As I read Eric's definition, Charlie Brown's Football is a set-piece joke. It's a single joke with subtle but meaningful variations which keep it fresh.

"Panda Attack" is kept funny because Kurtz keeps finding new ways to twist it- my favorite came at the end of "Furry Week."

AJ and Miranda, on the other hand, fail to be Charlie Brown's Football because the twists Iliad applies aren't new. They're hackneyed sitcom recycled plot devices, and that's being kind about it.

There's also the question of whether a situation that takes multiple strips to play out can be counted as a single gag anyway...

Comment from: Michael Nehora posted at September 17, 2005 11:25 PM

JSW: Faye and Pintsize? Hehehe! Well, maybe if our favorite AnthroPC gets tired of mistaking his "male" counterparts for "female." As for Faye, I don't even want to speculate on what would make her go AI...

Kris: good point on set-piece gags vs. plot elements. Now although I can't think of any other webcomic examples of Charlie Brown's Football, there's no doubt Kenny's repeated deaths in South Park (at least until Stone and Parker got tired of them) would fit the bill. For several seasons, Kenny reliably died nearly every episode, but in a gruesomely different way each time. (My favorite was him getting hurled into a microwave which automatically turns on.)

Comment from: Prodigal posted at September 18, 2005 12:19 AM

My favorite Charlie Brown's Football moment was the last one Schulz did for the comic: Lucy asks Linus to hold the football for her, then goes home. Next, we see Linus come inside, and when Lucy asks him what happened, he refuses to tell her.

It was a beautiful conclusion to the gag that had been running for all those decades: Those who wanted to keep the status quo could decide that it had been business as usual, and those who wanted to have Charlie finally kick the damn ball could go with that.

Comment from: Kris@WLP posted at September 18, 2005 1:41 AM

Come to look through my queue, the only other comic which might have a running gag that fits the Charlie Brown's Football definition (besides PvP's Panda Attack) is El Goonish Shive's Demonic Duck.

This is important: Charlie Brown's Football is a subset of the Running Gag. Running Gags become funny and enjoyable through repetition; the theory is, they become funny because they are familiar. Charlie Brown's Football is familiar, but each iteration has the special twist which makes it amusing on its own merits.

The Demonic Duck may not qualify because, to the best of my memory, it's only been used four times total, the first two times in essentially identical fashion for humor purposes. On the other hand, El Goonish Shive has been going for four, five years tops? That'd be no more frequent than the actual football gag in Peanuts...

It's something for more webcomic-literate people than me to consider, I think.

Comment from: nifboy posted at September 18, 2005 2:14 AM

You know what happens when you do Charlie Brown's Football every day of every week of every year, cycling through maybe a half dozen different jokes?

You get Garfield.

User Friendly fell off my bookmarks list sometime around the same time Bruno the Bandit did, about two months ago. At that point the only days I even liked it were the Sundays, which the main cast wasn't even involved in 90% of the time. Every other day it was talking heads I neither cared for nor were amused at.

Comment from: gwalla posted at September 18, 2005 2:19 AM

Wow, UF. The first webcomic I ever followed. Found it through the university bookstore ("O'Reilly puts out a book of cartoons? WTF?"), through it got hooked on Sluggy (via the rather dire crossover), through Sluggy found Plan 9, through Plan 9 found the universe.

I don't think I've read that comic in 5 years.

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at September 18, 2005 2:32 AM


You haven't missed much. Oh, AJ and Miranda finally kissed.

Comment from: John Lynch posted at September 18, 2005 4:55 AM

Another comic that did the "Miranda and AJ" relationship was GPF with Nick and Ki. Although thankfully that didn't get dragged out for years and years.

Userfriendly made it to my "Why do I read this again?" list to my "I'm taking a break from this for a while" quite a while ago. And to be honest, I'm not that particularly excited over AJ and Miranda.

It's great Illiad has been able to be so successful with UF, but somewhere along the line he just got... boring for me.

Comment from: Zaq posted at September 18, 2005 5:08 AM

Bob and George (a severe "Why Am I Reading This, Again?" strip for me, but not because of this) is, in my circles, the king of running gags. In the past year or so he's slackened them up a bit (which was probably wise), but a big part of the strip's charm is its heavy use of running gags with just the right amount of metahumor (arguably a hair too much, but honestly, I don't mind metahumor now and again). You have the Behind The Back joke, the "Yoink", the "Dammit, I hate time travel!", the ice cream, and a few more I can't think of right off... I can see where this would fail to win the affections of a lot of people, but they are used infrequently enough that it never smells of lasagna. Very few of them would qualify as Charlie Brown's Football, though the Behind The Back might (wherein Wily or another villain is announcing their plans, failing to realize that someone else is standing right behind them to hear it). It's debatable, I suppose.

Oh, and I'm almost positive that "I'm like Charlie Brown and his damn football" was a Questionable Content punchline, but I'm not about to go archive digging to find the link.

Comment from: Archon Divinus posted at September 18, 2005 2:31 PM

You would be quite correct in thinking that was a QC Punchline

Comment from: Shaenon posted at September 18, 2005 3:11 PM

Noooo! Not another lexicon term! And I've tried so hard to wean you off "First and Ten"! NOOOOOO! *sob*

Interestingly, if you read the first Peanuts strip with Charlie Brown and the football, it's clear that Lucy pulls the football away not because she's a dick (although she is), but because she gets scared and chickens out when she sees Charlie Brown running at her. Later, I suppose she acts out of a combination of fear and dickishness. This is called Depth of Character.

Comment from: Michael Nehora posted at September 18, 2005 4:42 PM

Actually, it was Violet who first pulled the football away back in late 1951, and it was she who was scared ("He'll kick my hand! I just know he will! I can't go through with it!") When Lucy, a year later, pulls the ball away for the first time, her excuse is that she didn't want Charlie Brown's shoes dirtying up her new football. Then, because it's a Sunday strip, Charlie Brown gets another shot, but Lucy holds the ball too tightly, sending Chuck into a backflip. In perhaps the first hint of his famous world-weary attitude, he says, "I'm not going to get up...I'm going to lie here for the rest of the day..."

(Huh. I knew that investment in the Complete Peanuts volumes would be worth it.)

Comment from: sqbr posted at September 18, 2005 8:58 PM

See I've found Charlie Brown's football annoying for as long as I can remember. And I went off Peanuts as a whole completely when I realised that Charlie Brown would never kick the football, or talk to the little red-headed girl, or be anything other than a miserable neurotic kid.(Similarly for the other characters) The fact that it took til late childhood for me to realise this about a strip that had been running since before my parents were born...ah well :)

Personally I think that if a story can't sustain itself after two characters get together, then maybe it was time to stop anyway. As Eric pointed out, Narbonic seems to be doing ok, so it's not always the kiss of death. And I'd rather a complete, rounded story with a satisfying ending than romantic tension dragging on till you can't suspend disbelief any more and just don't care.

But I still like (or at least don't mind) the pvp pandas :)

Comment from: Rothul posted at September 19, 2005 12:04 AM

Order of the Stick Example: Situation requires something be put down in written form by Varsuvius. Supporting character reads thing written, finding it to be the phrase "Explosive Runes." Explosion occurs. Hilarity ensues.

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