Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Entry 66: Please Listen to Me

There are a few elements that I find usually make good comedy. Insight into common experiences. The ability to reframe those experiences into recognizable forms, manipulated into extreme or absurd versions of familiar events. A bit of social commentary. Just enough detachment from humanity to cut through artifice and provide an honest assessment of difficult topics without descending into vitriol or contempt. All of these elements come together, in skillful combination, to create Please Listen to Me.

Part of me regrets writing about Please Listen to Me so hot on the heels of my post about Robot Hugs, because the things I like about Please Listen to Me and the things I like about Robot Hugs overlap in so many areas. I don’t want this post to turn into a compare-and-contrast, though, so I’ll refrain from drawing direct parallels between the two comics and stick to describing Please Listen to Me and failing to acknowledge Robot Hugs’ existence, except in this here paragraph, which is ending… now.

Please Listen to Me is a grab-bag of pithy punchlines, bizarre images, and illuminating observations on the human condition. The author has a way of presenting circumstances and dialog I don’t think anyone else would be quite capable of putting together. For the reader, the result is a comic that is eminently relatable while also consistently surprising.

"I'm gonna remove my pants and also the pants I keep under my pants" makes me giggle every time I think about it.

I find Please Listen to Me almost entirely unpredictable, one of the rarest and most precious qualities for any work of art. Humor arises by manipulating expectations, after all; the simplest joke formula is simply leading the audience to expect one thing and then saying something different. Audiences these days are pretty familiar with how jokes work, so subverting their expectations is more challenging. A lot of jokes, even effective, funny ones, don’t really surprise most audience members anymore, because there are a few common ways to subvert expectations and a clever reader can usually figure out where any given comic installment is likely to go.

Please Listen to Me pretty much always goes somewhere I hadn’t even realized existed, let alone would have expected to end up for a punchline. Trying to form predictions or understand the path I’m being taken on before I get to the end of it is futile, so I have to just let go of my preconceived notions and enjoy the ride.

Subject matter is varied, ranging from events in the author’s life to generalities of human life to topical humor. Just as the reader can never predict where an individual installment will end up, one can never quite predict where any given installment will begin.

Please Listen to Me frequently covers themes of alienation or otherwise having a hard time getting along with others. I relate to those themes a lot, partly because I’m a specific person who specifically has trouble getting along with others and feels alienated in many circumstances. But, as I’ve said before in regards to other comics that hit upon similar ideas, I think some of those feelings are more universal than is typically acknowledged in public. Almost everyone has experienced social anxiety at some point. Most people, even if they consider themselves perfectly normal and have an easy time conversing with strangers, have some point of disagreement with the arbitrary rules that we set for human behavior.

I think the key to representing a universal truth about human experience is to simply represent one’s own experience as honestly as possible. A big part of getting along in social situations is filtering one’s thoughts so that the “socially acceptable” ones are the only ones expressed. A big part of creating impactful art is partially opening that filter and allowing some of those ideas to escape into the world, where other people can find them and go “Now why doesn’t anybody just come out and say this stuff?!”

Every so often, Please Listen to Me will deal with whatever matter is currently all over the news sites or flying around everybody’s Twitter feeds. These topical comics usually feel perfectly molded to the current news cycle, apt commentary that fits perfectly into the conversation surrounding a specific event. When I re-read Please Listen to Me, I see those installments and remember the precise moment I first read them, and the news issue of the day that has now slid out of the public consciousness. My instinct is then to pass them by, because in my mind they are inextricably tied to something that no longer feels relevant.

However, these topical comics do one very important thing: They strip the issue of all specifics, all the aspects of the story that make it part of today’s news instead of yesterday’s or tomorrows, and leave just the heart of the matter, the universal quirk of human behavior that expresses itself in periodic outrages or scandals. Please Listen to Me presents the part of the story that will always be relevant. Weeding out the specifics and speaking right to the heart of the matter makes Please Listen to Me timeless, as long as human nature sticks to a few basic tendencies.

Another advantage to reducing topical conversations to their eternal essences is that it allows for cleaner commentary. All celebrities, politicians, and public figures are human, and that means that all controversies are messy and complicated. Someone may be a bad person, but on the “right” side of an issue. Or they may be a good person who holds some unpopular opinions. Or, most likely, a mix of good and bad qualities, with political opinions that you personally agree with and some that you disagree with, who has done some good things but also done some bad things, and whose detractors are also complicated humans with a mixture of positive and negative qualities stewing in their biased and fallible minds.

For a cartoonist with a specific message, tying that message to specific people/arguments/movements, with all the baggage that goes along with a real-world context, can bury the meaning in a pile of unrelated, but inescapable, implications. Please Listen to Me consistently finds ways to express a clear opinion without bogging it down in movements and personalities.

I like Please Listen to Me because it expresses clear and nuanced views on complex issues in wonderfully brief and simple comics. I like it because it constantly surprises me. I like it because I still can’t stop giggling about “my pants and also the pants I keep under my pants.”

Each installment stands on its own, and there’s no continuing plot to worry about, so don’t worry about catching up on the archive if that’s not your thing. If it is your thing, though, you’re in for a treat, because Please Listen to Me contains far too many gems for me to point them all out to you. It’s possible to read through the archive pretty quickly, but I actually recommend stretching it out a bit, because once you’re through then you have to wait around for your next dose of Please Listen to Me with the rest of us chumps.

Please Listen to Me is written and drawn by Matt Lubchansky. It’s fun and thoughtful and everything that I want when I’m looking for something to take my mind off the bad things that pervade our world. Even when Please Listen to Me expresses sadness or outrage, the emotion that I take away from it is almost always positive. Sometimes that’s a sense of relief because someone is finally pointing out some terrible thing and bringing it to life. Sometimes it’s just a feeling of camaraderie that someone else is bothered by the same things that bother me. Either way, I usually feel better after reading Please Listen to Me than I did before, and for a comic that expresses as much discontent with the world at large as it does, that’s quite an achievement.

"You know, skeleton food" is second only to "My pants and also the pants I keep under my pants" in my heart.

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