Saturday, November 21, 2015

I tried to fix 'The Dinette Set,' and it defeated me.

(left) Julie Larson's original Dinette Set panel; (right) My "corrected" version.

Julie Larson's The Dinette Set, a single-panel cartoon feature, is somehow celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2015. It started in the Los Angeles Reader under the title Suburban Torture back in 1990 and became nationally syndicated under the name The Dinette Set seven years later. The feature's appeal and longevity baffle me. It's a domestic comedy focused on the adventures of two middle-aged sisters, Verla Darwin and Joy Penny, and their respective spouses and friends. It's supposed to be a gentle satire of middle class life, but it comes off as condescending and snide, and the characters are interchangeable and dull.

What really bugs me about The Dinette Set, though, is that it's a humor strip that doesn't know how to tell a joke properly. Each panel is saturated with unfunny, superfluous textual gags: T-shirt slogans, posters and signs, product labels, etc. All of this extraneous text is handwritten in the exact same style. Larson tries to distinguish each panel's primary, dialogue-based joke by writing it in larger letters, but the words push right up against the edges of the balloons, rendering them only semi-legible. The strip is a difficult-to-read eyesore.

Part of the reality of doing a syndicated newspaper comic is that each installment will contain a certain amount of clutter: the artist's signature, a date, a plug for the syndicate, and probably some mention of a promotional website, too. As distracting as these can be, they're a necessary evil. I firmly believe that jokes, at least when presented in the form of comic strips or cartoon panels, need a little breathing room. A certain amount of negative space helps. Charles Schulz, one of the masters of the form, used tons of negative space in Peanuts. But Julie Larson clutters up every square inch of her panels with unnecessary verbiage. Her jokes are suffocating. And they weren't too strong to begin with!

So I took a typical Dinette Set panel and tried to "fix" it. First, I eliminated as many props and background actors as I could without sacrificing the integrity of the scene, i.e. a baby shower with numerous guests and presents. I wanted to focus the reader's attention on the two primary characters, the ones who are actually talking to each other. I especially wanted to remove any distracting details around those characters' faces. When you're drawing a cartoon like this, you're like a director working with actors. I wanted to make sure their faces were the focal point of this scene. I also reduced the dialogue in size so that it had some air around it, while removing some redundant words in Mrs. Darwin's response. I didn't see any reason for both women to say the words "a Clapper for the baby's overhead light." Once was enough.

But my efforts were in vain. This stubborn Dinette Set panel was still pretty bad, even after my so-called "corrections." I think my version is a slight visual improvement, but the cartoon is still stifling and uninspired, and the joke still doesn't land the way it should. In desperation, I tried to convert this into a New Yorker-style cartoon with no word balloons and the dialogue rendered as a caption below the picture.

Nah. Still sucks.