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Wednesday, December 14th, 2011

Comedy's Love/Hate Relationship with Garfield

When I was younger, there was no greater pairing than the holiday season and Garfield. I’d watch wide-eyed as he'd float down 5th Avenue in the Thanksgiving Parade; I’d pop in our VHS recording of A Garfield Christmas, and I’d adorn our tree with Keepsake ornaments of that lovable fat cat dishing out Christmas cheer. But this love affair with Garfield was over as quickly as it began, and soon I was off to bigger things like Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side, and Webelos.  But I never forgot about Jim Davis’ cartoon cat, and considering the rise of strange, dark, and incredibly funny material the internet has created about Garfield, neither have many talented artists and comedians.

For the last few years, jokes at the expense of Garfield have been finding an eager audience. Take the popularity of Garfield Minus Garfield, a webcomic where Garfield has been removed from older strips completely, leaving only Jon Arbuckle to mope around his home, talking to no one. This concept struck such a chord with readers that a book was published in 2008 forwarded by Jim Davis himself. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg: there is a blog dedicated to academic dissections of Davis’ comic, a Twitter account so pro-Garfield it must be a joke, and a series of live-action reenactments of Garfield strips accompanied by bizarre music videos. Garfield, it appears, is ripe for parody.

Cartoonist KC Green, who has often revisited Garfield in his own comics, isn’t surprised. “[Garfield] was there when we were growing up,” he says, “and as we grew up, we started to realize that we didn’t really get it like we used to.” This sentiment is echoed by Zach and Jeffrey of Fatal Farm, creators of Lasagna Cat, although with a little more vitriol; “You love to hate it because at one point you really did love it even though it’s not worth loving. Basically, Garfield is an abusive husband.”

While a mixture of nostalgia and diminished expectations may bring people to the table of Garfield jokes, what keeps them there? Chicago comedian and Garfield enthusiast Joe Kwaczala thinks a shared confusion may help.  “With an adult brain, [Garfield] makes no sense. He hates Monday but he’s an advocate for reading? What?” Using Davis’ cartoon as a punch line makes us all share in our own embarrassment. “It forces the audience to reflect on their past behavior,” says Kwaczala, “and people were WAY into Garfield.”

Another factor may be Jim Davis’ notoriously lazy writing. Garfield, despite being published since 1978, has changed little. KC Green recalls the oft-repeated jokes of Garfield as “Mondays, coffee, spiders, lasagna, kicking Odie off the table, etc etc.” But the faults of the original can become strengths of a parody. “[Y]ou can play with those,” says KC, “and go super far out with the character but bring it all back with a joke about how it’s Monday and he gets a pie in his face.” Fatal Farms' Zach and Jeffrey agree that Davis’ writing contributes to such a comedic backlash. “The comic is just so limp and tired and devoid of any meaning,” the duo states, “Yet, despite having no real reason to exist, there’s a new, pointless strip every day, and if you think about it…that’s hilarious.”

With no signs of stopping, Jim Davis and his staff will likely keep making new Garfield strips every day for years to come.  Another generation will fall in love with the lazy orange cat before realizing the error of their ways.  But maybe what attracts someone to Garfield in the first place is what later makes them joke about it.  “There's just something about Garfield, in both design and attitude, that is weirdly likeable and people are just drawn to it,” says Kwazcala, “There might be no explanation to it, but there's a mystery about it that's engaging in a weird way.”

Stephen Winchell is a writer, performer, and cartoonist in Chicago. His comic strip Phil's Adventures will never sell half as many suction-cupped plushies as Garfield.

  • http://twitter.com/savvy_veteran Savvy Veteran

    It's totally true! In second and third grade, I was SUCH a huge Garfield fan—I literally checked out every single collection at the library several times, had multiple Garfield stuffed toys, and even tried to write my own Garfield books—and now I can't quite understand why. I still read it, along with the rest of the comics page, everyday, but mostly just for nostalgic reasons and because I'm a completist. There must just be something about it that strikes a chord with young people, and maybe that's okay, even if it *is* really funny to parody and belittle now.

  • Chady

    I had no idea that Garfield was such a topic of parody and derision. That said, Garfield does hold a place in my childhood. We'd spend every summer in Illinois at my Great Aunt's house and one of my strongest memories is sitting in her living room next to the bookshelf endlessly re-reading the first twelve or so volumes of the Garfield comics. And Nermal still sucks.

  • Tasty Pete

    Well, isn't it nice that they feel comfortable abusing Jim Davis with such unconcealed scorn. Yes, Garfield is fairly bland and has no particular moral statement to make, but I don't see why that alone justifies openly making spiteful remarks about it/