The other night I watched some TV sitcoms and took note of the dialogue, and the situations the characters found themselves in. I was completely jealous of what the writers were able to get away with. They got to say “gay” (and not to describe someone who’s happy), “crap”, and “Oh, my God”. They also got to freely put their characters in situations that acknowledged the existence of sex, racial differences, and religion. You might think I’d been watching something new. Nope. I was watching vintage family television programming from the 70s and 80s. I was watching, in other words, the often lame humor of yesterday’s entertainment.
Sometimes when I’m writing Tina’s Groove I envy those writers’ freedom to be as genuine as possible. The reason syndicated cartoonists aren’t allowed the same freedoms as TV writers is because our comic strips are created for the family friendly newspaper audience. I should say super family friendly because even the family entertainment on television gets away with a lot more than what a cartoonist can say on the comics page. A lot more. Watch some prime time family TV tonight and note the number of times you hear the expression “this sucks”, “damn”, and “Hell”. And how many times do the characters acknowledge — in the most innocent way — the existence of sex, contraceptives, and same sex marriage? These things are strictly off limits to cartoonists with syndicated strips. The accepted norm on Television — and in life — is taboo on the comics page.
This brings to mind the notion that comics — especially the ones in newspapers — are for kids. That is a crazy idea that only two types of people can entertain: those who are ignorant of comics, and those who are just plain ignorant. I think most kids aren’t bothering with tame newspaper comic humor — they’re watching TV and YouTube where they can find stuff that’s edgier. (I swear I’ve seen billboards say things that would be a no-no on the comics page.) The truth is a large portion of comic strip readers are adults, and a large portion of comic strips are written for adults, and so I find it unfortunate that these strips can’t seem to get out of the “Father Knows Best” realm and keep up with the rest of the entertainment world. I’m not saying that comic strips ought to be as racy as the raciest thing on TV. Not at all. I’m saying that there’s room enough on the page to push the envelope just enough to allow the comics to better compete with other popular forms of entertainment. I’m saying that Tina, Carlos and Suzanne — to use my own characters as an example — should be able to use accepted forms of speech, like “Oh my God”, “this sucks”, and “What the hell?”
I think you can see why writing for syndicated comic strips is extra hard. It’s challenging to get the attention of an HBO audience with “Leave It To Beaver” humor. But here’s the flip side (and isn’t there always a flip side?): constraint nurtures discipline. Creators of syndicated strips are often forced to find novel and creative ways around these restrictions, with sometimes wonderful results. Even without the fairness of a level playing field, I believe quite a bit of newspaper comic strips are better written, sharper, and more entertaining than most of what’s offered on Television. I think you’ll agree.
Still, I would love to hear Tina say, “Oh, my God, this sucks.” Please? Just once? Gosh, no, someone might get hurt.