« Jazz, LEGO and forlorn robots: the New Fall Season, Modern Tales style. | Main | Omnipedia: Meta'd »

Eric: Also, stick figures are cool.

Sandwich

(From xkcd! Click on the thumbnail for full sized shell script!)

There is a theory of comics creation that says that all comics must be accessible to all readers. This theory says that if your webcomic isn't accessible to all readers, you are somehow failing in your mission. It's not that everyone needs to find it funny, mind. This theory (barely) acknowledges that tastes may be different from one reader to the next. However, the strip must be universal enough for everyone to potentially find it funny, or the strip hits failure condition and we all go home.

I do not subscribe to this theory. In fact, I find this theory stupid. And it always surprises me when someone else subscribes to this theory. But I get a non-trivial amount of mail complaining about other peoples' webcomics because they fail this theoretical universality test.

See, the problem with that concept goes back to a very subjective idea. It actually highlights the problems that places like Wikipedia is going through. It highlights a very human problem. Namely, it goes back to the core human response "if something is not important to me, that something is not actually important." On wikipedia, it means that a person who knows nothing about a subject still feels he can render opinions as to what is significant or insignificant, on the theory that if it were actually significant, he would have heard about it. In humor, it goes back to the idea that if you do not "get" the joke, the joke is not actually funny.

However, this is all a fallacy. If you don't know a subject, you don't know what's significant about it. If you don't "get" the joke, the joke may or may not be funny to those who do get it. And so there is this vague sense that somehow you are stupid, because other people find a joke funny and you don't even understand it.

Thus, the idea that humor is supposed to be universal. You see how it all ties together.

The thing is, humor isn't universal. Humor only works in context. No matter how rip roaringly funny you think Larry the Cable Guy is, have a group of Maasai watch it and they're going to look at you like you're insane. "Is the joke that he is clearly mentally challenged?" they will ask, politely. After a while, they will leave you to your ridiculous 'humor.

In its heyday, Mystery Science Theater 3000 jumped on this concept. Joel Hodgson was interviewed for one of those "This is MST3K" shows they did at the time, and he laid it out. (I'm paraphrasing slightly.) "We're not worried about whether or not people will get our jokes," he said. "We trust the right people will get them." And he was right -- there was such a rapid fire shotgun of references, quips and jokes that the Proust jokes I found funny ran up alongside Robert Frost poems which ran up alongside Baywatch references and silly voices.

And that brings us to xkcd. Randall Munroe clearly doesn't care if you 'get' the jokes or not. He's doing the doodles and jokes he finds funny. If you get them, great. If not, well, maybe you'll get tomorrow's joke. Or maybe this just isn't for you.

Today's strip is only funny if you get it. If you don't know what the above means (not just what 'sudo' is, but the behavior of the person asking for the sandwich and the responses he gets from the other guy), you're just going to stare at it. And if I were to explain it to you, it wouldn't be funny. Explaining jokes is almost never funny.

But if you get it, it's hysterical. At least, I think it is. I laughed for a good minute.

And I'm okay with that.

Posted by Eric Burns-White at August 28, 2006 1:54 PM

Comments

Comment from: Abby L. [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 28, 2006 3:15 PM

I was directed to this by an incredibly smart friend of mine. (Full scholarship, now studying in India) He said that even he had to sometimes look up the terms in wikipedia to get the joke, but that that was the fun part of it. I just made assumptions, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Comment from: The Gneech [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 28, 2006 3:20 PM

I had to look it up, myself. Obscure!

On the other hand, I like looking stuff up ... and making people look stuff up, for that matter. I got lots of comments from people who had to look up "cargo cult" after the term appeared in SJ...

-The Gneech

Comment from: Darth Paradox [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 28, 2006 3:29 PM

I work with Linux boxes for a living. I found it hilarious.

I also find myself wondering whether the guy in the armchair had recently provided his password to use sudo, because it didn't appear that he was prompted for it there. But then, I'm overthinking it.

Comment from: Ford Dent [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 28, 2006 3:31 PM

Damn Eric, you've been on a roll recently. Another comic is added to my list of things to remember.

I'd add it to my bookmarks, but my computer has been purloined by ruffians and I haven't gotten a replacement yet.

Oh well.

Comment from: Ford Dent [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 28, 2006 3:33 PM

Damn Eric, you've been on a roll recently. Another comic is added to my list of things to remember.

I'd add it to my bookmarks, but my computer has been purloined by ruffians and I haven't gotten a replacement yet.

Oh well.

Comment from: Ford Dent [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 28, 2006 3:38 PM

It's okay, you can shoot me.

Bloody double posts.

Comment from: Will "Scifantasy" Frank [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 28, 2006 3:39 PM

You're the second person I've seen to comment on xkcd today. And I find myself giving the same comment.

Don't forget about the alt text; it's the icing on the cake.

Comment from: Abby L. [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 28, 2006 3:59 PM

Now I have to read the archives for the alt text, thanks. :P

Comment from: 32_footsteps [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 28, 2006 4:15 PM

Personally, I don't think anyone who has ever laughed at an in-joke can honestly say that humor should be universal.

I'd look up this joke, but I've got enough to do. I'll just assume that this is sufficiently funny if you're in on it.

Comment from: LNick [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 28, 2006 4:17 PM

I have to recommend using the Popup ALT Attribute extension to all Firefox users.

I know I hated having to read the page sources for the longer alt texts when I read the archives.

Comment from: Darrin_Bright [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 28, 2006 4:26 PM

Oh.

I thought it was a joke about Sudoku.

Now that I know what sudo is, I think I like the Sudoku joke better... that one I don't feel quite so stupid about.

Comment from: 32_footsteps [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 28, 2006 4:43 PM

I'm just trying to think what it means that I was clicking through the archives and saw a screw-up on a video game joke. I think it means that I should be barred from ever talking about video games in relation to webcomics ever again.

Comment from: Dave Van Domelen [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 28, 2006 4:52 PM

And for those who are annoyed about all the "I know what it means" or "I looked it up and now know what it means" posts that don't actually EXPLAIN it:

Sudo - Superuser Do, a *Nix command that lets an admin do stuff on someone else's account. Kind of like "Simon Says" with feeling.

Yes, yes...explaining humor is like dissecting a frog, yadda yadda. But only LIKE that. Not exactly that. Sometimes, when all that stands in the way of getting a joke is a short definition, it's polite to provide that to puzzled audiences. :)

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 28, 2006 4:58 PM

Only that's not the best part of the joke, for my money. The best part of the joke is the change of attitude of the respondent. See, the respondent opened with as complete a rejection as possible, which is a nice derivation of a permissions error in speech. After being sudoed into it, the respondent doesn't even acknowledge the earlier rejection -- it was a simple, clear acknowledgment that the order was received and will now be executed.

None of which changes my thesis one iota. ;)

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 28, 2006 5:03 PM

Oh, and the implicit attitude of the operator. He issued a command, got denied, and without breaking stride reissued the command at the superuser level. That's part of it too.

Comment from: xkcd [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 28, 2006 5:15 PM

"Only that's not the best part of the joke, for my money. The best part of the joke is the change of attitude of the respondent."

I really do think that when properly applied, "Okay." is the best punchline in the English language.

Comment from: Thomas Blight [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 28, 2006 5:46 PM

I don't understand half of the mathematics going on in xkcd yet I still got the jokes. For instance this one is not funny because of the the Riemann-Zeta function so much as it is funny because of the unexpected herpes comment.

Which video game joke, 32? The Mario Kart Double Dash / Fast and the Furious Tokyo Drift one?

Comment from: Elizabeth McCoy [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 28, 2006 5:48 PM

I remember when I was trying to mess with my friend's Mac. I opened terminal mode. I remembered there was a "oh, you say 'no' to me, impudent machine? ha!" command, and googled it up.

So the thing made me giggle on many levels!

Comment from: Plaid Phantom [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 28, 2006 6:29 PM

I found this comic a couple weeks ago, and was immediately hooked. I even took the time to type the binary heart into an ASCII-to-text converter.

Comment from: Plaid Phantom [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 28, 2006 6:31 PM

Oh, and this had me laughing for five minutes.

Comment from: Kate Sith [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 28, 2006 7:29 PM

Yeah, yeah. This still doesn't get him out of being mailed to Guam.

Comment from: David Morgan-Mar [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 28, 2006 7:30 PM

Dave Van Domelan:
Yes, yes...explaining humor is like dissecting a frog, yadda yadda.
But but... dissecting frogs is fun!
Also, Eric, You gotta know I agree with your thesis here. I reckon the more obscure the joke and the smaller the audience that gets it, the funnier it is to that audience. Conservation of humour and all. (This is a pseudo-opinion, based on the fact that the opinion is itself funny, not necessarily actually held by me.)

Comment from: Bo Lindbergh [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 28, 2006 8:22 PM

I really do think that when properly applied, "Okay." is the best punchline in the English language.

Most definitely. There's a certain SF novel (title omitted for anti-spoiling reasons) by Michael Swanwick that uses it to excellent effect; the final result is up there right next to Skaffen-Amtiskaw's convalescence gift to Zakalwe....

Comment from: Egak [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 28, 2006 11:17 PM

...and once again, I have active webcomics starting with each letter of the alphabet in my bookmarks. This is either the first or second time this has ever happened to me (completely blanking on whether Xamera was ever actually active while I had it bookmarked).

Comment from: Egak [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 29, 2006 12:11 AM

Xeinith! I ment to say Xeinith! Aeire's first webcomic! Where did I get Xamera from?

Comment from: Egak [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 29, 2006 12:13 AM

And I noticed seconds after sending that I misspelled Xenith.

Comment from: 32_footsteps [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 29, 2006 12:33 AM

Actually, no, the Penny Arcade/Seiken Densetsu joke. As I'm sure the PA guys (at least one of them) would know, Seiken Densetsu has only been released on the Game Boy, with a rerelease on the Game Boy Advance (originally called Final Fantasy Adventure in the US, rereleased as Sword of Mana). Seiken Densetsu 2 (US release: Secret of Mana) and 3 (not released here) were the ones on the Super Nintendo.

Actually, part of the reason I avoid video game webcomics is because I have a bad habit of nitpicking any comic they show up in. The other part is, despite being the theoretical target audience for most of them, I can barely stand any of them.

And right now, I'm trying not to think of the Riemann-zeta function, thank you very much.

Comment from: Bertson [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 29, 2006 1:08 AM

Punchlines can lead you to all sorts of new things. I know most of what I know about Situationism, Robert Moses and 20th Century Art from trying to figure out various Cat And Girl comics.

Comment from: Robotech_Master [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 29, 2006 2:15 AM

After I read this one, I couldn't help thinking, "You know, after Dungeons & Dragons and The Time Machine, that might cost less than you would imagine."

Comment from: Doug [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 29, 2006 2:32 AM

I will only say this about that: Funny is the root of all /humor.

I do hope his sandwich compiles.

- Doug, Who Almost Fell Off His Chair

Comment from: Matt Buchwald [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 29, 2006 7:13 AM

I enjoy this comic way too much. I have the 'I suck at this game, can you give me some pointers" (to paraphrase) comic taped to the side of my desk at work. People walk past, pause, and then laugh. Then talk about how their wives never get the geeky jokes they laugh at.

Comment from: Thomas Blight [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 29, 2006 10:58 AM

32: I had forgotten about SD1/FFA/Sword of Mana, and usually count Secret of Mana as the first one, even though it's SD2. I counted that one as a webcomic joke anyway, since well, Tycho.

And I'd argue you're not the target audience. You're of the expert minority. Most videogame jokes appeal to people who just play them.

Comment from: 32_footsteps [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 29, 2006 4:13 PM

When I said I'm the target audience, I meant of video gaming webcomics, not a webcomic that happened to mention a particular game (off the top of my head, Candy, Megatokyo, PvP, Sluggy Freelance, Kevin & Kell, and Something Positive all did the latter either directly or through obvious reference). I know that the particular xkcd is more meant for the general reader, not the video gaming geeks.

No, I'm noting that I'm generally not at all fond of comics that are directed towards video game geeks. Penny Arcade, Control-Alt-Delete, 8-Bit Theater, Kid Radd, Dragon Tails, VG Cats, Fanboys Online, Press Start to Play, Digital Unrest, Little Gamers (despite the fact that I've been in one)... this is a short list of the comics catering to the video game geek that I can't stand. I still read Adventurers! partly because of inertia and partly because Mark Swallow is *finally* done with the final boss battle, and I occasionally get a chuckle out of Dueling Analogs. Beyond that, I don't touch video gaming webcomics.

Comment from: William_G [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 29, 2006 11:41 PM

It highlights a very human problem. Namely, it goes back to the core human response "if something is not important to me, that something is not actually important." ...In humor, it goes back to the idea that if you do not "get" the joke, the joke is not actually funny.
Intersting defense for social elitism...

Comment from: webrunner [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 30, 2006 3:41 PM

Mark Swallow
That's Shallow, but that's okay, a lot of people make that mistake.

Comment from: Aerin [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at August 30, 2006 9:02 PM

You know, it's funny. A friend of mine linked this very same comic in his AIM away message; I checked it out and promptly devoured the archives. I was about to e-mail you and point it out, only to poke my head over here and find out it had already been snarked.

This one is the one that made me fall in love with the comic, though the alt-text does sort of explain the joke. However, this one is my all-time favorite.

Post a comment

Thanks for signing in, . Now you can comment. (sign out)

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)


Remember me?