Notes On Comic Humor: 2

I've been thinking a lot about tension in humor, and particularly in comics. I once heard somewhere Louis CK talk about how a joke works. He said, in essence, that it's about tension and release. The person telling the joke first builds tension, and the punchline allows the listener to release that tension, resulting in a laugh. This isn't what makes something funny, per se, but describes the mechanics of a joke. These are the elements, the basic ingredients: tension and release.

In the early days of Malcontent I tried to adhere to a two-panel format as best I could. The first panel was the setup, the second panel the punchline — or, in comic strip parlance, the gag panel. This is a weird format to work in. You rarely see two-panel strips. Comic strips of today are almost always three or four panels long. But until recently I never understood why. 

I realize I've already projected the answer to this riddle in my opening paragraph, but let's take it apart anyway.

The very first Malcontents were simple: setup, punchline, in essentially equal parts. That was it. Over time I started realizing that it made the punchline funnier — or at least punchier — if the setup was longer. So I started making the first panel an extended monologue, and then making the punchline short and sweet. Now I realize that by making the setup longer I was doing that comedic thing that humorists — or, hell, all storytellers — have been doing for centuries, and that Louis CK described so well: I was building tension.

I didn't really realize what was going on, though, until I tried my hand at some three-panel Malcontents. These were not necessarily my greatest work, but making them was instructive nonetheless. They showed me how tension and release work in the context of Malcontent, and since then I've thought a lot about it and feel I have a much better understanding of how and why these things are constructed. 

Not long ago I also began dabbling in the single-panel cartoon, which is a beast unto itself. And lately I've been doing more free-form work. I can't say I fully understand the mechanics of these newer works yet. For now let's just say there is an element of simultaneity. I'll leave the rest for another article and another time.