The Tough Question: Why Do People Like Fred Basset?
Fred Basset is one of those comic strips that doesn’t seem interested in telling jokes, capturing poignant moments, or displaying anything but the most incidental observation.
Ever since debuting in Britain’s Daily Mail on 8 July, 1963, it has basically chronicled an ordinary dog eating, sleeping, interacting with other dogs and misbehaving in the mildest and most predictable way. Its creator, Alex Graham, died in 1991, and the strip is now being drawn by Michael Martin.
I happened to see a recent Fred Basset strip in the Herald Sun. It just about broke me.
It’s a three-frame Basset. “Would you like a piece of my birthday cake, Fred?” asks his owner in the first frame.
“You bet!” replies the titular hound in his trademark thought bubble.
The second frame shows Fred eagerly eating the cake.
In the third frame, Fred has finished the cake. He thinks, “Yummy Scrummy!”
The only time Fred Basset is ever funny is unintentionally. It seems impossible for anyone to enjoy it, yet the strip regularly attracts fond comments. These fall into two broad genres, the more dispiriting of which is when people address their remarks directly to the characters: “You made Fred’s day!”, “Such loyalty Fred!” and “Gee Fred, you look so shiny and new.”
More understandably, Fred’s mild antics also remind many readers of their own pets. “I bet you blink before I do Fred lad. I used to stare down my beagle. She would growl at me softly but she always lost. She made me sleep alone that night.”
“I had a cat who joined our household afer eating a peice of poptart (I couldn’t stand it, I had to feed him some of our cats’ food and then we were his), and a dog who didn’t mind eating a peice of broccoli for my salad.”
The Tough Question of what attracts people to Fred Basset taps into a larger mystery: why almost every newspaper comic strip continues to be published despite being really, really terrible. Hagar the Horrible has triumphantly managed to make Vikings boring, while Bristow is the ultimate antidote to Mad Men in its determination to drain the glamour from 1960s office culture. Closer to home, Snake Tales inspires the kind of smile often mistaken for a grimace of indigestion, as it mines the idea that a snake struggles with human tasks because it doesn’t have arms or legs. Yet a female snake has boobs.
However, it’s Fred Basset that Hamish Blake and Andy Lee singled out for a recurrent segment in their self-titled radio show. To finish the show each Friday, Blake would describe the day’s Fred Basset strip on air, while Lee tried to sabotage him through various strategies of distraction, blackmail and torture. If Blake succeeded in getting through to the ‘punchline’, the strip was usually declared to be a “platinum Basset“.
The comedy of the segment is twofold. First, and most obviously, humour arises from the obstacles that Lee throws in Blake’s path. One of the funniest segments – it has quite a long set-up, but a great payoff – involves Blake attempting to read Fred Basset with a mouthful of dental numbing gel.
But more importantly for this Tough Question, Blake injects humour into Fred Basset by giving very dedicated, detailed descriptions of a strip in which not very much actually happens. Listeners say they hate the strip itself, but love Blake’s readings.
This is the humour of deadpan over-explanation. We all know that attempting to tell a visual joke verbally is ridiculous, and the fact that some people persist in describing cartoons has become a genre of humour akin to the ‘dad joke’ because a) it’s associated with being daggy and out of touch; b) it’s something our parents might actually have done.
So why hasn’t Marmaduke been cancelled yet? Does it matter that it is bad? Does it matter that every day it is published is a day that a better cartoon is kept out of that day’s paper? Does having a cartoon in a newspaper matter? Is nostalgia the single reason Marmaduke is still in newspapers? Is nostalgia a reason to like something? Does it matter?
Nostalgia is certainly a powerful engine of taste (especially when it comes to these long-running strips, which have featured in several generations’ childhoods), but perhaps the appeal of Fred Basset comes from the way its determined blandness invites metacommentary – and actually seems to require it.
But this doesn’t account for the comments from people who sincerely seem to like Fred Basset. Perhaps for them, the strip speaks reassuringly of everyday life, which – let’s face it – is not especially exciting or witty.
Josh Fruhlinger, the self-styled Comics Curmudgeon, has been ridiculing a wide range of syndicated comic strips since 2004. He says, “I can’t remember ever laughing out loud at Fred Basset, but I nearly always smile. It’s something about Fred’s expressions, the comfortable way he gets along with his human family and canine friends, and his array of British virtues — mostly pluck. I’m a sucker for pluck. … It’s sweet, and sweetness lasts.”
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