Garfield Isn’t Funny and Was Never Supposed to Be
Well, two can play at that game. Okay, three. Four?
Anyway, this is from Chris Suellentrop’s 2004 original:
Davis’s genius is that he’s created the most widely syndicated comic strip in history—with the attendant profusion of plush toys, T-shirts, and themed Caribbean cruises—and yet, through careful brand management, he’s largely managed to deflate the naturally occurring cultural counterattack.
Davis makes no attempt to conceal the crass commercial motivations behind his creation of Garfield. Davis has the soul of an adman—his first job after dropping out of Ball State, where he majored in business and art, was in advertising—and he 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.
The model for Garfieldwas Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, but not the funny Peanuts of that strip’s early years. Rather, Davis wanted to mimic the sunny, humorless monotony ofPeanuts‘ 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 last year during the press blitz for Garfield‘s 25th anniversary. “It says to all of us, some things in life can be counted on, they’re consistent.” In In Dog Years I’d Be Dead, a book to commemorate Garfield‘s 25th anniversary, Davis calls the Peanuts licensing machine “a template that I could apply to Garfield.” In his very first week, Garfield aped Snoopy by declaring, “Happiness is a warm television set.”
From the beginning, Davis put as much energy into the marketing of the strip as he did into creating it. (It’s telling that he’s been inducted into the Licensing Merchandiser’s Hall of Fame but not the hall of fame hosted by the International Museum of Cartoon Art.) In 1981, only three years after the strip’s debut, he set up Paws, Inc., a privately held company to handle the licensing of Garfield products. Originally, Paws did only the creative work needed for product design, while Davis’ syndicate managed the business side, but in 1994 Davis purchased the rights to license Garfield products from the syndicate for a reported $15 to $20 million. Even before that, Davis took an active role in the selling of his creation. Before agreeing to a deal with Alpo to put Garfield’s face on a new line of cat food, Davis visited the company’s plant, talked to its employees, and spoke with the grocery industry about the company’s reputation. In his 1982 interview with Shapiro, Davis admitted to spending only 13 or 14 hours a week writing and drawing the strip, compared to 60 hours a week doing promotion and licensing.
Garfield’s origins were so mercantile that it’s fair to say he never sold out—he never had any integrity to put on the auction block to begin with. But today Davis spends even less time on the strip than he used to—between three days and a week each month. During that time, he collaborates with another cartoonist to generate ideas and rough sketches, then hands them over to Paws employees to be illustrated.
Quora informationista Caroline Zelonka adds this insight:
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.
So, now you know. Or have been reminded. Or whatever.