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Interview With Zach Weiner
Interview With Zach Weiner
Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal is an eclectic nexus of buttery fun sauce. In this interview, Zach delves into the structure of humor itself. We discover whether or not he gets any sleep and that he is apparently very rough with his homemade female andriods.
What is discrete math and why is it so cool? Don't forget, I have the intelligence of a drunken six year old.
Ha, wow. You're asking the wrong guy. I started learning yesterday. So far I just know a little symbolic logic. The intriguing idea is that you can use rigor and symbols to start with concepts and then manipulate them algebraically. Also, you get sentences like "The basis of all mathematics is eventually tautology, so you should familiarize yourself with tautology." It's this close to magic.
You know what they say - sufficiently advanced mathematics is indistinguishable from magic. Do you ever find yourself with a hilarious math joke that you have to toss because you realize that 99% of people will raise one eyebrow and walk away?
Horrible truth: If there's a joke 99% of people would hate, it's probably not actually funny. It's probably an inside joke or a bad pun. Here, try an etymology joke: Did you hear the story about the goat? It was a tragedy!
Joke explanation (copied from dictionary.com): tragedy
late 14c., "play or other serious literary work with an unhappyending," from O.Fr. tragedie (14c.), from L. tragedia "a tragedy,"from Gk. tragodia "a dramatic poem or play in formal language andhaving an unhappy resolution," apparently lit. "goat song," fromtragos "goat" + oide "song." The connection may be via satyricdrama, from which tragedy later developed, in which actors orsingers were dressed in goatskins to represent satyrs. But manyother theories have been made (including "singer who competes fora goat as a prize"), and even the "goat" connection is at timesquestioned. Meaning "any unhappy event, disaster" is from c.1500.
Now that you get the joke, is it funny?
That's not to say a confusing joke couldn't be funny. It's just usually the case that a confusing joke is mainly funny because nobody will get it - not because of intrinsic humor.
Please do not ever tell that joke again. If not for me, for the children.
I've learned that humor is relative to belief. There is no absolute funny, because there is no single belief shared by all. The most commonly held belief is probably that living and avoiding dangerous obstacles is good, which is why people (especially children) respond so well to physical humor. I think a lot of great jokes slip under the radar simply because of perspective issues.
Because my beliefs are so different than most people, jokes that I find hilarious tend to send most people in search of the nearest cliff to jump off of. I agree that inside jokes and puns are usually lame, but my grandma cracks up at puns and one of my favorite webcomics (and possibly the most popular webcomic on the Internet), xkcd, is half inside jokes. Do you really believe there's an "actual funny" or is it all random subjective contextual madness?
You're correct to a degree, but I don't think you're entirely right. The logical extension of your view would be that you could culturally condition an individual to find anything funny if you got them early enough. However, we can even today look at very old jokes, or jokes from different cultures (say, Japanese Rakugo) and still find the humor. Whether we laugh out loud may be culturally dependent, but we still see the same joke structure.
From a more scientific perspective, laugh-like behavior has been observed in a number of mammals under certain conditions that seem to relate to the passing away of perceived danger. So, there may in fact be a more innate quality to humor.
Lastly, I think we can probably pick out a general case that describes all or most humor, and it is this: humor nearly always takes the form of something reasonable paired with something unreasonable. Pretty much any joke, from longform story jokes, to cheesy puns follows this formula. Present the audience with something sensible that turns out to be silly. Why did the chicken cross the road (reasonable question) To get to the other side (absurd response). I think you could argue parody is basically the synthesis of sensible and absurd. If I do a President Bush impression, I'm combining a real person with an absurd stereotype. If it's pure absurd or pure reality, it's not funny.
So, yes, humor of course has a cultural component. But, I think you'd be wrong to take a postmodernist approach to it. Humor is a real thing that has at least a few non-contextual real qualities.
There is always an element of mystery surrounding humor. I like this, because it gives funny people a minor superpower. Do you think humorists will always be rare, or will there ever be a funny kryptonite - a complete theory of humor?
I think professional humorists are rare mostly because of the economics of the system. Being a pretty good cartoonist won't get you a career unless you're really willing to hustle for it. In order to make a good living, you need to excel. This is the difference between humor writing and, say, writing software. In software, you get a lot of money if you're great, but you also do pretty well for yourself if you're just okay. A just okay artist will probably struggle his whole life.
In "Freakonomics" the authors described the economics of gang life as a "tournament," in order to explain why people risked their lives and freedom for minimum wage work (say, selling crack or protecting turf with a gun). The basic idea is this: if the prize at the top is big enough, and everyone can in theory get it, you'll have a system in which lots of people are willing to eat a lot of crow in hope of the top slot. Notwithstanding that your average webcartoonist is scared to leave the house (much less be in a gang), I think the situation is essentially analogous.
I'm referring here to "professional" humorists rather than to just "humorists" because by a certain definition, they are not rare at all. If you go to comicgenesis and drunk duck you'll find something like 50,000 people making jokes.
Mozzarella sticks or jalapeno poppers?
Jalapeno poppers.
Zooey Deschanel or Scarlett Johansson?
Carrie Fisher.
SMBC spans many different topics. Do you do any math to keep topics distributed or you simply upload whatever you feel like each day?
I wish! It's really catch as catch can. I'm lucky to have more than a day's worth of joke at any time, and 95% of comics are drawn the night they go up.
You seem to force yourself to constantly experiment with your humor style to the point where it's hard to say what exactly SMBC is. You can't even call it a single panel comic anymore, as you've been peppering in multi-panel comics for some time now. Is this constant change intentional?
It's not intentional so much as necessary. I hate the feeling that I'm treading too much on old ground. To some degree this is inevitable, but changing things up helps a bit. That said, as you may note, the change is always gradual, never planned. But yeah, SMBC changes on a fairly regular basis, and I've been very lucky to maintain my audience over that span.
Actually, perhaps it'd be better to say the palette grows. Like, I'm not sure I've necessarily given up on any stuff I used to do. I just have more possibilities. Like, first it was just single panels. Then multipanels. Then I added things like very long multipanels, stories, graph/chart jokes, and recently did a card game for an update.
Most comics don't mind treading on old ground. In fact, many of them just build a road. I suspect these comics worry that they'll lose their readership if they change too much. Your audience has followed you, but now that SMBC pays your bills, what gives you the confidence to continue trying new things?
I suppose I'm just terrified of the alternative. Whenever I start feeling like I'm doing the same thing over and over, I worry that's what will kill my audience. If you're doing a character driven strip, repeated themes aren't a problem - they're a good thing. But if you're doing one-offs, you need to surprise your audience. So, I don't worry too much about trying new things. Also, when I do something very new (like a while back I did some very math-centered comics), I usually follow it up with less experimental stuff.
It appears that you were one of the first webcomics to post regular updates. You've been a firsthand witness to the evolution of new frontier. How do you think webcomics have changed in the past 10 years, if at all?
Oh, I was nowhere near the first. I was in high school when things were really starting, though I did have a comic back then.
I could go into more depth here, but the two big changes I've seen are these: 1) The talent pool has grown profoundly. This is partly because the stigma of being on the Internet is basically gone, and partly because there's more money available through merchandising and advertising. Ten years ago, there really weren't any really well-made comics. There were many who would become great - Goats, Penny Arcade, PvP, etc., but none of them were really pros back then. 2) A lot of bad old ideas have been stripped away (micropayments, paywalls, the infinite canvas etc.), and certain design elements have been formalized. That is, webcomics sites are pretty much all the same now: Comic, first-back-forth-last style navigation buttons, an archive and a store.
Are micropayments really such a bad idea? Randall Munroe seems to feel the same way. What would be wrong with a system like flattr where content creators don't pay money, and can set a price or allow readers to choose a price on the fly?
It's a fine idea, but it's never worked in all the different versions that have been tried. More importantly, it doesn't need to work. There are already more effective ways to get artists money - donation drives, merchandising, and ad revenue.
And let's think about ad revenue a sec. If I run ads, I'm effectively getting a micropayment from every single reader.
I admit the numbers are enticing. Say I have 100,000 readers a day. If ten percent of them pay ten cents a day, I get a thousand bucks a day! The problem is there's no way I'll pull that much money. People are nice, but they rarely pay money for free content. So, it's more likely 1% will use flatter half the time, every other day, at a rate of 25 cents. So, your 100,000 readers gets you 100,000*.01*.5*.5*.25 = 62.5 bucks. Not bad, but that's for a top tier comic. It wouldn't do much for a typical readership level.
Bottomline, even if this did work, it'd really only stand to benefit the people who don't really need it.
SMBC Theater seems to have original concepts and jokes, not found in the comics. Is this the case? If it is, how did you decide not to create straightforward video versions of the existing SMBC comics?
Oh, because that wouldn't be much fun would it? Also, I co-write SMBC Theater with James Ashby, so the sense of humor is a bit different.
Btw, I've been pleased to see more Weiner in the videos recently. Wait, that didn't sound right. What are the main differences between your sense of humor and James Ashby's?
Oh, it's not all that different. I'd say the main thing is I'm more into ultrageek humor - math/physics jokes and such. So, the jokes tend to be a bit more general audience. Though, to be fair, that's also partly because we only update once a week. So, it's a little harder to take risks.
I've always wondered, where does the SMBC Theater intro sound come from?
I'm not sure the exact set, but it's just from one of our sound effects kits.
How do you judge your own humor? By cleverness? Peer review? Mass appeal? Resistance to plaque? Or are you one of those crazy normal guys who just does what he finds funny and is lucky enough that lots of people agree?
I read a lot, then write jokes pretty much every day. After that, I pass them onto my "joke congress." This is a group of about half a dozen friends who give me letter grades on ideas. I usually go with their recommendations, though often there's disagreement. Additionally, sometimes I won't do an idea everyone liked or will do an idea nobody liked. In the former case, it's usually because I worry it's derivative or pandering. In the latter case, it's because I'm being stubborn or because the idea is one I love or because it's something I think will come out better once the visuals are in. Occasionally, if a bunch of people really liked it, I'll do a joke I don't think is that funny. I've only done this a few times, but oddly enough, it usually goes well :)
I understand that one's interests change as they grow and their life experiences change, but I feel like I've basically had the same sense of humor all of my life. Do you feel the same way about yourself?
"Sense of humor" is vague enough that I can kind of go either way. But, strictly speaking, I think my sense of humor has changed over time as I've incorporated more ideas. Like, from PBF you learn silent comics, from XKCD dork humor, etc. etc. So, I do different types of humor, but whether my "sense of humor" (if such a thing exists) has changed, I'm not sure.
And, bear in mind, how you feel about yourself is not a good measure of what's true. If you can find an essay you wrote 5 years ago, give it a read. I bet you'll be surprised.
It appears that you cut your hair. Do you spend a lot of time feeling the back of your head?
Usually I do, but this time I didn't get a buzz. They only wanted the ponytail, and I figured it'd be wasteful to cut more :)
Abstruse Goose was wondering, do you ever sleep?
I shoot for 8 hours a night. Otherwise, I get sloppy. The only way I get a decent amount of work done is managing my brain and scheduling my days. (Also, tell Abstruse Goose I like him. Like, like like him.)
Whenever a male character needs to be addressed in SMBC, Steve seems to be the goto name. Of course, I don't mind this - except #69 makes me a bit uncomfortable - but I must ask, what is the origin of this?
I'm not sure. There was a kind of quirky guy in my high school named Steve, and maybe that was where it started, though that's very speculative.
I think in generally, male monosyllabic names are funnier.
Are there any future Zach Weiner projects you can talk about?
I'm bringing back the blog and working on a choose your own adventure book.
In the reddit interview, Kelly appears to be frozen in time. Will you confirm the rumor that this was indeed a robotic version of Kelly which you have constructed to handle the more meticulous household chores?
That's Kelly-bot-4. So far, none of them stick around very long...
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