This past Sunday Barney & Clyde managed to do two things simultaneously – deconstruct humor and deliver a visual pun in the process. That’s actually a neat trick, and a little above the average gag-a-day writing of most strips.
As the strip proceeds, the character describes each element of a joke. The setup, the delivery. And then comes… the punchline. Which in this case, is literally a punch line.
Visual puns are tough to pull off. A pun has to have two meanings, one obvious and one unexpected. The unexpected meaning provides the humor. But while it might be unexpected, it can’t be obscure (or else no one gets the joke). So the setup is crucial. It has to prepare the context for the pun, without telegraphing it. Few things are worse than getting the punchline before it’s delivered – that’s why I have little patience with sitcoms. A visual pun can’t be a rebus – it has to be a graphic representation of something that also can be something else.
Barney & Clyde’s creative team pull this off brilliantly. The context of the party is established, so when we get to the last panel we’re ready. If that panel had been first, I might have thought “refreshment table” (although notice that there’s only one thing pictured on the table). But after the setup, I see the punch bowl, the people in a queue, and I know that this is a punch line.
And thankfully, the team assumes a certain amount of reader intelligence and lets the pun go unlabeled. I got it. (Although the rimshot at the far right of the panel is a nice touch.)