The Funnies of the Internet


Back in the dark ages before the Internet existed, getting your comic published took hard work and talent. Now, it requires an internet connection and MS Paint.Webcomics consist mostly of unfunny and badly drawn comics; anyone who makes a comic and can upload it to the Internet creates a webcomic, similar to those who upload prose and create a blog. While many webcomics are terrible, there are some who still amass a rather large fan base.

One good example of this is the xkcd webcomic. Created by Randall Munroe in 2005, its tagline reads “a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language.” Made of stick characters, the comic often carries a theme of math and computer jokes, although some panels have nothing to do with either. Recurring characters and jokes include hat guy, Wikipedia, raptor attacks, and Joss Whedon’s television series Firefly. The site started as scanned doodles from Munroe’s school notebooks, but after coming moving on to a stand alone site with merchandise, xkcd had become one of the few successful webcomics.

The success of xkcd could possibly be explained by its humor. Scientific and Internet-related humor has a unique audience, and webcomics which cater to that will be assured of followers. Much of the humor is of a more high-brow category. However, the comics are not all the same, and their variety is reflected in their style of humor.

For example, take this first comic, entitled “Newton and Leibniz:”

This one’s got a math joke, a pun, and a CSI: Miami reference all in one. Let’s start with the pun, which should automatically set off the “Incongruity Theory” alarms. Wordplay just for the sake of cleverness almost always falls under the Incongruity Theory, since there is no real winner or loser in a pun (although some may argue that the audience loses, since it has to suffer through it). A math joke can fall under Superiority Theory, since the smart ones who get the joke can laugh at those who don’t. The CSI: Miami reference could even be Relief Theory, especially with the inclusion of the pause in dialogue and ellipses, with the punchline giving relief to the buildup. All these separate features can be different types of humor, but what about putting them all together? The humor of the comic comes from the combination of these three features, which are all included in the last frame. The final punchline is not only unexpected (a Horatio Caine reference within a math pun? Really?), but relieves us of the tension built up in the middle of the panel as well as pokes fun at Leibniz for being late getting on the math-theory-discovering bandwagon.

The majority of xkcd comics rest on jokes that aren’t pure intellectualism, but do rely on the reader knowing certain things before the joke becomes funny. For example:
“Centrifugal Force”
You spin me right round, baby, right round, in a manner depriving me of an inertial reference frame. Baby.
and “Upcoming Hurricanes”
In each of these, the humor of the comic rests on previous knowledge on the part of the reader: the confusion between centrifugal and centripetal force, James Bondquotes, the difference between correlation and causation, Sigmund Freud’s academic focus (hint: cigar), graphs of trigonometric functions, and the general behavior ofhurricanes. Behind all that lies the Incongruity Theory. In each comic, the unexpected surprise causes the humor.
The best xkcd comics come from a combination of standard humor that can be explained by a theory and the reader having the “I can totally relate to that” feeling, such as the comic “F*****g Blue Shells.”  The standard humor comes from the incongruity that our profanity would be most spent on an innocent video game, but the people who love it are the ones who have actually played Mario Kart with enough intensity to understand the title of this particular comic. I don’t know what segfaults are, but I can still find this comic hilarious because that’s not the main focus of the comic.
Unfortunately, some of xkcd’s comics rely too heavily on intellectual in-jokes. Encyclopedia Dramatica actually accuses xkcd of not using real humor, but just pandering to the computer geek crowd with in-jokes. While ED’s ragging on Munroe is a little extreme, they do have a point. More than once an xkcd comic that I initially loved has become less funny as I realize it was never that funny to begin with. Take, for example, “YouTube Parties.”  True, I chuckled, but more because I can relate to this happening than to any actual humor in the comic. There is no standard humor here. It’s observational humor, only it’s just the observation. No witty or clever take on it. Just a straight observation. Then there’s “Grownups.” It’s en enjoyable comic, but is it really funny? If anything, a reader would find it funny because they relate with the characters in the strip. Other than that relatedness, there doesn’t seem to be anything that fits under the theories.

Let’s look at a webcomic with a little less romance and little more sarcasm.

I am, of course, talking about Cyanide and Happiness. C&H has the stereotypical creation story of a webcomic: a 16-year-old Kris Wilson, while at home sick, draws comics to entertain himself. he then creates a website and posts his comics on a few forums. The website currently hosts the webcomic, with 3 other artist contributing on a frequent basis. The webcomic has gained notoriety with its treatment of controversial topics such as suicide, murder, cancer, rape, pedophilia, terrorism, and self-harm. However, there is still a large fan base who enjoy the comic.

Time for some examples.

These first examples deal with poisoning, accidental slaughter, and unwanted abortion. However, they all have incongruity, although that incongruity creates an extremely black type of humor. For the Incongruity Theory to work, the unexpected has to be enjoyed for there to be humor. In Cyanide and Happiness, those who find the comics humorous are those with a darker sense of humor. 

A few more comics that employ the “bait and switch punchline” technique, albeit in a disturbing manner:

And, of course, the good old fashioned pun:

Up until this point, I have generalized the Incongruity Theory as a classier style of humor than the Superiority Theory, which can have a meaner edge. C&H has given me a new perspective. These comics are definitely a darker humor, but still rely on incongruities for laughs. Rather than letting me continue to stereotype meaner humor as automatically Superiority theory, Cyanide and Happiness comics are a good example that humor is not easily generalized.However, the controversial natures of many of the comics certainly adds to their draw.

Lastly, I’ll discuss a webcomic where the disturbing parts are those missing. Garfield Minus Garfield is exactly what it sounds like: classic Garfield strips with Garfield removed. What results is “a journey deep into the mind of an isolated young everyman as he fights a losing battle against loneliness and depression in a quiet American suburb,” as described by the website. Many of us are familiar with Garfield, a comic strip that’s not particularly funny: a lazy cat who eats lasagna. Hysterical. Garfield Minus Garfield takes out the famous cats a leaves an awkward, highly unsettling silence.

The pure and simple humor in this strip is the incongruity of the main character of a comic strip suddenly removed with no explanation. Its beauty is in its strangeness, and we laugh at Jon Arbuckle’s now weird and sometimes creepy reactions to nonexistent things. The huge incongruity  in the missing Garfield puts the webcomic under the Incongruity Theory, but Jon certainly becomes the butt of the joke as he does strange things, giving it a part of the Superiority Theory.

To summarize: xkcd employs a combination of types of humor, as well as how the comics are presented (as intellectual or everyday). Cyanide and Happiness panders to the dark comedy loving crowd, and Garfield Minus Garfield gest us laughing to fill the awkward emptiness that we don’t know how to react to. All in all, a good day.

Next time: I conquer the YouTube front. It will be a long, arduous battle. Expect casualties.


  1. jeffrohde says:

    I love your post! I have been following your blogs this summer and I enjoy your analysis of the different types of internet humor that seem to play such a significant role in modern culture. I had never really read into why things are funny; your discussion of humor types theory really opened my eyes to the way that I interpret humor. I am looking forward to your Youtube post. You have a lot of material to work with there!

  2. This is a really great look into what I accept under the generalised label of humor. It was interesting to read your note on the ‘YouTube Parties” comic, for example. Yes, it’s only observing and I’m only relating, but it’s still funny isn’t it? It’s an observation that I may have intuited but never so plainly voiced, and perhaps I hadn’t attributed that situation to others, so to me it’s funny to take the time and laugh at ourselves. It doesn’t seem to make it less humorous that it’s an observation and not a constructed joke.
    Then again, maybe I just have low standards :p

  3. I think the extent to which the internet has influenced various aspects of our lives is very interesting and you are exactly right when you talk about how incredibly simple it is for anyone with the means to a computer to post a comic for the world to see. As is the case with other things, in order to gain a significant fan base, the creator must be able to connect with the audience. Once they find that “it” factor, the amount of followers seems to grow exponentially in this technological era mainly due to the ease at which we can all share information. I agree that it seems as though the “I can totally relate” effect is probably one of the most essential components to a successful webcomic, because if the reader has no way of truly understanding due to a lack of experience or knowledge, it is unlikely that they will find it to be humorous.

    I rarely stop to ponder why I find one webcomic to be more or less hilarious than other, so I think that it’s fascinating that you are analyzing this. Can’t wait to read more of your posts!