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Eric: State of the Web(cartoonists): Ryan Sohmer and Lar deSouza

20080220

The Webcartoonists: Ryan Sohmer and Lar deSouza

Current Webcomics: Least I Could Do, Looking for Group

You May Remember Them From Such Online Projects As: Blind Ferret Entertainment, Ctrl+Alt+Del The Series, PvP the Series

Enthusiasm: (Least I Could Do): Happily Reading, (Looking for Group): The Hoi Polloi

How Frequently Read: (Least I Could Do): Regularly Checked, (Looking For Group): Occasionally Checked

Once upon a time, I described Least I Could Do as Guy Humor. I stick with that definition, because... well, because that's what it is, but there's more to be said here than that. I think I've gotten my brain fully around just what Least I Could Do is, in a way that makes the most sense to me, and so I'll pass it along to you.

Least I Could Do is a sitcom named after its lead actor.

You know the ones I mean. The Dick Van Dyke Show. The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The Bob Newhart Show. Stuff like that, including one or two that weren't produced by MtM productions or involved Mary Tyler Moore in any way. (Though Seinfeld doesn't count for these purposes. I'll try to remember to touch on why later on.)

Now, some of you are staring at me like I'm nuts. Least I Could Do has a logo with a condom. Comparing that to Mary Tyler Moore, arguably one of the most nuanced and best written sitcoms in television history would seem disingenuous at best. But you're focusing on the wrong aspect of my statement. In the world of television, you have sitcoms that are very story driven, and some that are very humor driven, but in almost every case they're driven by the internal logic of the series. Family Ties might have made Michael J. Fox a star, but it put Alex P. Keaton at the center, along with his family. Cheers centered on Sam, Diane, Norm, Cliff, Carla, et al -- not Ted. Shelley, George, John and Rhea. (Which is one reason Ted Danson and Shelley Long, to take a couple of examples, have had trouble establishing their post-Cheers careers at the same level. People didn't bring their affection for Cheers to their new projects.)

However, when you have a show named after its star, you aren't centering that show around internal logic. Not first and foremost. You're centering it around the personality of its lead, and the expectations people bring to the table before they ever see the show. Bob Newhart was a well established comedian before he was on The Bob Newhart Show, and people who were familiar with his act figured they knew what to expect from his show. And they were right. The Mary Tyler Moore Show was groundbreaking television, but it was trading as much on Laura Petrie and what people expected of Mary Tyler Moore as anything else. And as deep and nuanced as that show became, it also didn't disappoint in that regard. Mary Richards was as sweet and nice and attractive as Laura Petrie would be had she dumped her husband and fed her son into a woodchipper, then moved to Minneapolis and thrown her hat despite the cold weather.

As a side note -- when the lead character shares a first name or a variation of their whole name with the lead actor portraying him? You're in the territory I'm discussing. The producers of the show want you to think of the actor and his personality, so they stick really close to his name so you don't have to deal with the change. "Mary Richards" or "Bob Hartley" are meant to stick close to "Mary Tyler Moore" or "Bob Newhart" for a reason. (As a side note, Bob Newhart did this successfully twice, with The Bob Newhart Show and Newhart, and it's a testament to the vision of putting Bob Newhart front and center and letting his personality shine through -- despite his not being named Bob -- that on the last episode of Newhart they could credibly claim the whole series was a nightmare Bob Hartley had.)

Seinfeld doesn't really count, for the record, because while the core of the show does rest upon audience expectation, Jerry Seinfeld was playing a satirical version of himself for the show -- in effect subverting the trope. Which is possibly why it's the most successful sitcom of all time.

Anyway, getting back on track... if Least I Could Do were a television sitcom, by rights it should be called The Ryan Sohmer Show. It would star Ryan Sohmer as "Rayne Summers" (thus, we have the variation of the lead's name option), a young, funny guy who's obsessed with sex, as much a boy as a man. Various foils and straight men would surround him, from the unbelievably hot girl he doesn't have sex with to one of the two best friends he has in the strip to the brunt of his jokes. It would be mostly a surface show, and you would know exactly what you were getting into with it, because hey -- it's The Ryan Sohmer Show!

As further proof, I give you a youtube video -- the opening credits to the upcoming Least I Could Do animated series (Blind Ferret -- probably the most successful webcomics-to-web-animation studio on the web -- was cofounded by Sohmer. That both of Sohmer and deSouza's webcomics have had animation built around them is unsurprising to say the least).

Now, thanks to Wednesday, I have a massive love for Great Big Sea -- the band that plays "Consequence Free," which is used as the theme music here (and if they actually have permission to use it, I'm jealous). But the video is interesting, I think -- because while it's a travelogue of the characters, it's perfectly clear that Rayne is the centerpiece. When we say "least I can do," the 'I' is Summers, period. The rare strips that focus on other characters tend to do so through the filter of Rayne.

The opening credits also highlight one of the side issues with Least I Can Do, though. Midway through, they run one of the running jokes of the series past us -- a prostitute (who, if her caricatured face is any indicator, is perhaps not so bright or potentially even developmentally disabled) who charges inexpensive prices for oral gratification. She is affectionately known as the "Suck for a Buck" chick. And that's sometimes the issue with Least I Can Do as a whole -- let me 'splain.

See, I really enjoy Least I Can Do. It's a sex romp, but it's fun and almost always perfectly harmless. But every so often we edge close to uncomfortable areas. And sometimes, edging into the uncomfortable is exactly the job that a comedian is supposed to do -- the jester is the one who can tell the Emperor he has no clothes. But it's a fine line sometimes and sometimes they move over it. Having the Suck for a Buck chick in the animation makes me feel a little dirty linking it, like I'm not sure that it's right or appropriate that I'm pointing people to the video.

Which is a strange thing for what is, after all, a centerpiece video not only for Least I Could Do but the whole animation studio itself.

Now, the last I talked about Least I Could Do at any length, I had actual fans of the strip complain that I spent way too long thinking about it -- which makes some sense. It's a surface strip. They're not going for depth, they're going for fast gag-a-day gag. But in the last block of time they've challenged that a little bit. There was an extended sequence where Rayne, having had a Red Bull induced heart attack, does the whole Christmas Carol thing. Hand in hand with that, there was a strip last year where they officially declared the cast members would age, which was followed by one of the finest For Better or For Worse parodies I've seen. Things have been a little less madcap on the edges since then, but still. Pretty well gag o'the day.

I understand why the cast had to stop being eternally 24, by the by. I just recently hit forty. Now, a lot of my stories used to deal with 25-30 year old protagonists. These days, they seem to be at least 33 and sometimes as old as 45. When you actually get older, the appeal of 24 in your wish fulfillment lessens.

Before we get on to the metrics, I should make mention of their other webcomic, Looking for Group. It's a different sort of project for Sohmer and deSouza (of whom I have said tragically little, so far) -- a webcomic made in echo of games like World of Warcraft, though it's not set in any truly existing universe. It's a fantasy webcomic that brings the story more than, say, Least I Could Do, and it's... well, way more PG-13. (I can't think of any sex jokes up until now, though there have been a few fabulous babes).

Looking For Group is well done, though it doesn't have the same consistency of voice or tone as their other work. It's a high fantasy, but it isn't quite sure if it's a light but essentially straight high fantasy or if it's a satirical and comedic high fantasy with serious overtones. Certainly, the early days were entirely more devoted to humor, which may have been the pair finding their voice. In more recent times the innocence of the strip (and the lead) have passed, leading to drama and sometimes even horror or tragedy. On the other hand, so long as Richard is a member of the cast, it won't be entirely serious.

(That's not why it gets ranked lower than Least I Could Do, for the record. Looking for Group is a good strip, but it hasn't 100% found its voice, and it lacks the sheer force of character that some strips like that use to hook you. When it settles a bit more, it will likely draw more closely.)

Right. On to the metrics. It's just a little more than a quart, people:

Strengths

Sohmer has a sense of humor, and deSouza's very good at rendering it. Least I Could Do manages to (mostly) stay true to its sitcom roots, which in this case is a good thing. The art is very clean and visually appealing. Looking For Group also shows that while Sohmer and deSouza don't have the same polish over there yet, they are capable of doing longform story and PG (or, well, PG-13 in places) humor, which gets better all the time.

Their sites are well laid out and chock full of value-adds, including desktops, full on animation (they've taken to doing music videos), a good archive system, a solidly up to date calendar and storyline archive, and a robust community which sometimes posts photographs of attractive women in its boards. So, you know. Win-win.

I also want to highlight some of the character evolution we've seen. The introduction of Rayne's half-sister and (most particularly) his niece Ashley were welcome moments, and some of the best strips have involved Unca and his niece. While it has stayed close to its original form throughout, there are nuances that keep the strip from getting stale.

Weaknesses

Jesus Christ, I know it's wish fulfillment, but tone it down, okay? Yes, Rayne is amazingly handsome, does ridiculous and actionable things all day long and not only doesn't get fired eight times a week but actually makes his company money. Yes, he can expose himself to his secretary and get oral sex from his boss and no one lodges a lawsuit. But honestly, just how ridiculously eternally successful are you going to make this guy?

Put another way? Conflict is a good thing. Conflict is your friend. And while we can grin and high-five when Rayne succeeds, we're much more likely to laugh when he fails. And that's a side of Rayne we don't see very often these days, and that's a sad thing. (In part, because it's really funny to see Rayne underneath his blanket, whimpering to his mother.)

There's lots of little plot points that got intro'd a while back and never paid off. Issa's almost a nonentity these days because the core tension points -- will they have sex? Is she really into Rayne even though she claims otherwise? Why are her boyfriends so close to Rayne in appearance? -- just sort of went away. Now that we've brought John back into the strip, it might be nice to reform Issa at the same time.

deSouza's art is great, but I have to admit, even all this time later I miss Chad Wm. Porter. Porter's art conveyed action better, where deSouza's art looks more like posed set pieces. Also, Porter was more of a cartoonist and less given to caricature. However, I have to admit the classic deSouza shot of Rayne looking into the camera with that shit-eating grin captures the character perfectly. (And thanks to the above piece of animation, whenever I see it I hear Great Big Sea sing "nah nah nah nahnanayah nah nah", so it can't possibly be really bad.)

Finally, while they haven't gone overboard with the serious moments -- we're in no danger of a Cerebus attempt or a First and Ten here -- they can be disruptive to the rhythm, and should be very carefully managed.

Oh, and as a postscript after the "finally," the Suck for a Buck chick? Yeah, either retire her or make her look less like she's got some kind of cognitive disability. Because, you know, kinda creepy.

On the Whole

The Ryan Sohmer Show probably wouldn't win any Emmys. At the same time, they'd almost certainly have the lead actor present an award and write his own material for it. In the end, Sohmer and deSouza hit the mark they're aiming for almost every time, and the strip's a lot of fun as a result. And sometimes "a lot of fun" is more than enough for a comic.

I honestly do hit the random number generator at the end of these essays, so it's always interesting to see what comes up next. That roll comes... now!

Oh.

I don't know if this is going to be trouble or not. So let's assume not! Yay! Easter is saved!

Posted by Eric Burns-White at February 25, 2008 8:00 AM

Comments

Comment from: Doug Wykstra [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 25, 2008 1:03 PM

Is it just me, or does the theoretical Ryan Sohmer Show you mention sound a lot like Two and a Half Men, right down to the hot friend that the lead doesn't sleep with and the cute little kid that belongs to the lead's more straitlaced brother. Two and a Half Men, of course, is another one of those shows you mention where the main character's personality is based on public perception of the actor's. Or maybe I just see this connection because in the few times I've read the cartoon, Rayne looks and acts a lot like Charlie Sheen's character.

Comment from: Doug Wykstra [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 25, 2008 1:03 PM

Is it just me, or does the theoretical Ryan Sohmer Show you mention sound a lot like Two and a Half Men, right down to the hot friend that the lead doesn't sleep with and the cute little kid that belongs to the lead's more straitlaced brother. Two and a Half Men, of course, is another one of those shows you mention where the main character's personality is based on public perception of the actor's. Or maybe I just see this connection because in the few times I've read the comic, Rayne looks and acts a lot like Charlie Sheen's character.

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 25, 2008 1:08 PM

Doug -- I can totally see that. And yeah, Charlie Sheen could do a passable Rayne, and Jon Crier (sp?) does a passable John, so...;.

Comment from: 32_footsteps [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 25, 2008 4:17 PM

Huh... And here, I thought you were going to say that Seinfeld was different because it's increasingly obvious as time goes on that Larry David had a huge amount of influence on the show, at times even greater than Jerry Seinfeld (as Curb Your Enthusiasm has shown).

I like this interpretation of the comic because it finally answers why I couldn't get into LICD - I'm not really into the traditional sitcom anymore. I don't know; they just don't do it for me these days. I wonder if it's because the situations aren't as good, or if it's that there hasn't been any incredible ones for a while, or if I just moved past them.

Also, now I'm really bitter, because I've been planning on using "Consequence Free" (I like GBS because Josh Phillips got me into them) for something like that for ages, and someone beat me to it. Damn you, Sohmer!

Comment from: vark [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 25, 2008 6:21 PM

I had just caught up on the last week of LICD before coming here, so nice timing. As always good analysis. Agree Charlie Sheen could play Rayne. LICD reminds me of Tucker Max or Filthy Lies. There's something funny about characters who are unbound by social convention.

Comment from: vark [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 25, 2008 6:22 PM

I had just caught up on the last week of LICD before coming here, so nice timing. As always good analysis. Agree Charlie Sheen could play Rayne. LICD reminds me of Tucker Max or Filthy Lies, maybe PA. There's something funny about characters who are unbound by social convention.

Comment from: vark [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 26, 2008 12:20 AM

i'm confident i didn't double post. could be a software glitch.

Comment from: The Kea [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 26, 2008 2:00 AM

Thank you so much. I had Least I Could Do as a comic I stopped in and giggled at from time to time.

But Looking For Group... I am in love. I've read about half the archive so far and I'd say it's overall a high minded fantasy that's willing to be humourous, but with the best comic foil I've seen in ages.

Seriously. Richard is phenomanal. Everything is a setting for his fun. Kinda like Stewie before they decided to make him a main character and he lost heaps of threat.

I wanna see a cage match between Belkar and Richard. Or just the two of them off dancing among the corpses of a burning village together.

Belkar/Richard OTP

Comment from: LurkerWithout [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 26, 2008 9:23 AM

What in the world did you mean by "Easter is saved"? Is it a reference to some Holiday Claymation special involving the Easter Bunny I've somehow forgotten?

Comment from: Dave Van Domelen [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 26, 2008 9:30 AM

At least I can say that when I was 24, I did one thing that Rayne does.

...

Okay, I had a huge Autobot symbol on the hood of my car.

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 26, 2008 9:40 AM

What in the world did you mean by "Easter is saved"?

It's a very old reference in Sluggy Freelance.

Comment from: nemryn [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 28, 2008 5:15 PM

Fun fact: Before Least I Could Do, Mr. deSouza was known primarily for his Darkwing Duck fanart.

Comment from: Robert Hutchinson [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at February 28, 2008 11:07 PM

Eric, I still remain befuddled at some of the stuff about LICD that you rank as either good or middling. (Specifically, the "guy" stuff.) I only read your description of the prostitute character, and even that was enough to summon up, for me, a dull revulsion.

But de gustibus etc.

Comment from: Sean Duggan [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at May 12, 2008 12:14 PM

^_^ And now, Rayne is happily skewering webcomics, or at the very least invoking Sturgeon's Law, condemning 90% of them for being uninspired work done by people living in their parents' basements and never updating on time (the gag where he proposes to buy every single bit of merchandise on the table of one of the artists IFF the artist can show that he has not missed in update in the last five years... priceless). For some reason, it just doesn't feel like lampshading when Rayne turns towards the camera and states "Webcomics suck" to the viewer.

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