What the fucking hell is up with PvP?
Look, I’m not so naive as to think that the strip is as good as it was three or four years ago, when Kurtz was arguably at his peak, and when the comic was genuinely good. The art’s gotten worse, Kurtz has gotten lazier, and nowadays it’s actually funny maybe one strip in five, if that. But over the last few months, the comic has just cratered. It has entered that special realm we in the Comic Strip Lookin’ At profession call “worse than Garfield.”
I mean, seriously: “The Jade Fontaine Mysteries?” Really. Let’s just take a look at this in detail for a second: it’s a two-and-a-half-week-long storyline. With not one, but three introductory strips (four if you count the “he’s dead” strip). Half of the strips don’t even have punchlines, which last I heard is kind of important in a gag-a-day strip. (Unless this sort-of-alternate-Rockford Files-reality where Jade is a hobbyist detective is something you find innately funny. Kurtz might. I don’t think most people do.) Most of the punchlines that are there aren’t that good (the CSI gag is worth a chuckle, but the rest… yeah, you’d have to be really generous to call this warmed-over 80s-sitcom hackwork “funny”). The storyline isn’t even particularly clever: it’s predictable and just plain dull.
“Bing, bang, bing, popcorn” is not a fucking punchline.
This is terrible, terrible stuff, and it’s all the more disappointing because this is a comic that at one point was reliably entertaining – not Schulz or Watterson or Kelly, but usually pretty witty and clever (even if Kurtz’ grammar and punctuation were never and have never been, ahem, airtight).
Let me say, firmly, that this isn’t the “why isn’t PvP a gaming comic any more” rant that’s been blustered out a million times. There is no reason that Kurtz has to do a gaming comic. (Indeed, I read his Wedlock strip that he did on Modern Tales a few years ago, and it was better than most of his work on PvP by a country mile, and again, this is when PvP didn’t suck.) There are tons of shitty gaming comics out there, and even a few good ones like Penny Arcade and… uh… okay, there’s Penny Arcade, I guess. If Kurtz doesn’t want to make XBox jokes, there’s no reason he should feel obligated to make XBox jokes.
But when PvP was a dedicated gaming comic, as opposed to the generic kinda-geek culture comic it’s become, it had focus. Not everybody would get the gamer jokes, but those who would could appreciate the quality thereof.
One of the most basic lessons any comedian can tell you is this: the wider you spread your sights, the better you have to be. Comedy is hard, and in order to avoid being banal you have to be able to bring a fresh observation to the table. There’s a reason comics idolize guys like Bill Cosby. If you haven’t seen the documentary Comedian (which is worth a watch), there’s one segment where Chris Rock, in complete awe, recounts to other comedians how he watched Cosby kill two sets, back-to-back, “with no repeats” – meaning Bill Cosby did two killer ninety-minute sets without repeating a single joke, gag or story. I’ve done standup, a few times back in the day, and after doing one five-minute set a half-dozen times got it to the point where I could – well, not kill, but at least entertain reasonably. I cold-opened a few beginner’s shows and managed to successfully warm up the crowd, and I was happy with that – but that was the same set every time, refined over the course of a month or so. That’s not three hours of material, you know?
I’m getting away from my point here, which is that someone like Cosby – or Bob Newhart, or Woody Allen (who did legendary standup back in the day), or Bill Hicks, these guys can/could rock out fresh material in a heartbeat about anything, because they were just that good that they could find a fresh, original take on any subject that crossed their mind. Other people, on the other hand, aren’t quite at that level – so they find themselves a niche that’s unoccupied. Jeff Foxworthy does redneck jokes and good ol’ boy humour. Denis Leary does “common-sense” rants. Sarah Silverman has her “cute Jewish girl who says absolutely dreadful things” shtick. Dane Cook goes up on stage and spazzes out like a fucknut.
And all of this is fine (well, except for Dane Cook), because it’s better, in the world of professional laughery, to be funny about something than unfunny about everything. You winnow down until you hit that sweet spot, where you’re as funny as possible with as broad an appeal as possible. Scott Kurtz used to be in that zone, and he sure as hell isn’t now. I can’t help but suspect that it’s because he wants to widen PvP‘s commercial appeal. (Remember when he offered PvP to newspapers for free and pretty much everybody passed? That had to sting, and I wonder if it in turn affected his creative mindset.)
Anyway. Moral of story: “Bing, bang, bing, popcorn” is sucky and I would please like less of that. Thank you.