If you have followed me on any social media account at any point in the past decade, you will realize how much I love Garfield. I talk about the Garf a LOT. Specifically, I have a tendency to retweet just about everything the official account pushes out on Twitter. But I only do this because it’s amazing (and only became more amazing during the pandemic). Daily, @garfield sends out perfect distillations of the comic in tweet form with just enough internet culture to make it somehow less relevant. Here’s a personal favorite:
Jon Arbuckle is a lifestyle
— Garfield (@Garfield) April 10, 2020
I don’t actually know what this means. I can sort of guess what it’s referring too, but at best it’s an approximation of a joke. A reference to a reference to a joke that never really had a punch line in the first place. This is why I love Garfield. This is the content I crave.
However, there’s a lot of Garf content on the internet that I find completely uninteresting. Garfield in itself has become a sort of meme, with people riffing off of the original in ways that bastardize, distort, and generally undermine the overwhelmingly inoffensive nature of the original comic. This neural network reinterpretation of the comic strip is a great example of this:
While it’s definitely a jarring experience seeing the comic morph into this fever dream, the video removes the thing I find fascinating about Garfield: the fact that it has never changed. The comic has ran for 42 years at this point and, with the exception of some character design and minor narrative details (i.e. Jon and Liz finally becoming a couple), Garfield is exactly the same as it was on day one. Turning Garfield into a meme, a process where people build on and alter the initial cultural touchstone, destroys that aspect of the comic. And that’s when I lose interest.
But let’s focus on that number for a second. Garfield has been running for 42 years. If we make a conservative estimate that the big man Jim Davis pumps out 300 new comics a year, that’s around 12,600 Garfield comics total. And if we assume comic has one joke in it (some have more, but let’s keep it simple), that’s 12,600 jokes written by Jim Davis.
But what are those 12,600 jokes about?
This is where the epic nature of Garfield as a cultural institution begins to form. As anyone who has read a Garfield comic collection knows, the strip only has about 10 jokes total (Garfield hates Mondays! Garfield loves lasagna!). Continuing with the back of a napkin math and assuming the jokes are evenly distributed, Jim Davis has written approximately 1,260 different versions of the “Garfield loves lasagna!” joke. Same for the other nine jokes in his arsenal.
That is absolutely insane. And also way more interesting that some shitposters take on the Garf.
With this assertion in mind, I’m going to use this blog post to begin the process of establishing a Garfield canon. This has nothing to do with the narrative of the comic. We’ve all seen people arguing about whether Jon drank semen or murdered his roommate to obtain Odie, but I don’t care about that. Instead, I want to establish a joke canon, focusing exclusively on the jokes that have appeared in comic strip. That way we can weed out all of these internet tricksters trying to riff on perfection. If it doesn’t have a joke on the list, then it’s not Garfield.
While a comprehensive analysis of all Garfield comics is necessary at some point, and outliers will inevitably emerge through this close reading, I hope that by proposing some general categories here that this process, when it happens, will be much more efficient.
So here is my stab at the Garfield canon. Sound off in the comments if you have other ideas. Let’s engage in the discourse.
- Garfield loves food
While everyone knows their preferred food (lasagna), the fact remains that Garfield loves a lot of other kinds of food. Mostly this involves foods that are generally considered unhealthy, preferring carb and calorie dense meals over lighter options. We see this in their hatred of salads, often garnishing their leafy greens with non-vegetable options like ham or chocolate cake.
- Garfield hates Mondays/mornings
Another classic. Mondays are Garfield’s least favorite day of the week. Why is anyone’s guess. But Garfield is also not a fan of mornings in general, often feeding an overwhelming caffeine addiction to get through the early hours. Yet despite their 42-year habit, hot brown seems to intermittently still have an incredibly potent effect on the cat.
- Garfield is lazy
The fact that Garfield is a cat that has absolutely no responsibilities beyond being a cat does not stop the character from constantly thinking about and commenting on their own laziness. Jon often initiates these conversations and the dialogue always ends with the same conclusion: Garfield is lazy and they do not care to change that fact.
- Garfield loves to complain about being uncomfortable
Another thing that the orange one hates? Being uncomfortable. Any time Garf is feeling out of sorts, they complain about it incessantly but also never do anything about it. This indicates that Garfield’s love of complaining about things far outweighs their hatred of being uncomfortable, a character trait that ties back into their overwhelming laziness. Probably not the healthiest lifestyle, but a great avenue for sarcastic quips.
- Jon Arbuckle is completely incompetent/overwhelmingly uncool
The jokes are not always about Garfield! The rotating cast of characters also have their own moments to shine, providing opportunities for Garfield’s snide commentary. Jon’s complete ineptitude at just about everything (romance, work, clothing himself) threads itself throughout the comic. Even when Jon and his long-time crush Dr. Liz Wilson finally become a couple, its really only because Liz finds Jon’s incompetence endearing.
- Odie is a fucking moron
This one is pretty simple: Odie is a dumb fuck and Garfield takes advantage of that by harassing the dog in various ways, table kicking being high on the list.
- Garfield hates Nermal
The relationship between Garfield and Nermal is pretty straight forward and, at times, downright Shakespearean: Nermal is cuter than Garfield and Garfield is very jealous of that. The constant threats to send Nermal to Abu Dhabi and the reoccurring practice of throwing Nermal through a wall all stem from the fact that Nermal gets way more attention than Garfield anytime the cute lil’ bugger shows up. Nermal, on the other hand, remains unphased and lovingly cracks wise at Garfield.
- Arlene is a better cat than Garfield
With all of this negativity and snark, a foil becomes necessary. Luckily, Arlene is here to provide a counter. As Garfield’s romantic partner, Arlene provides the moral grounding that Garfield so desperately needs. Without her checking the orange one, Garf would go off the rails and into a deep spiral of hatred and misanthropy. Arlene is the anchor to this ship, and checking Garfield provides its own share of laughs.
- Garfield doesn’t give a shit about mice
Another possible sub-theme of the “Garfield is Lazy” category, but this category of joke also points to the fact that Garfield is totally cool with mice. Garfield generally leaves them alone, letting them go about their business while the mice extend the same courtesy to Garfield. Surprising, considering how judgmental Garfield is, but there are some complexities buried underneath that orange fur that come out in moments like this.
- Garfield will straight up murder a spider
The only time the snark goes to far is when it comes to spiders. Garfield has a murderous hatred for this creature, going so far as to torment them beyond the pains of death. There was never really a back story to this one, but we can only assume that a spider murdered Garfield’s parents. No other action would justify Garfield’s vengeful nature. Sure, they crack wise, but so does almost everyone else around Garfield. Spiders, however, are the only one’s to suffer Garfield’s wrath.
- Technology hates Garfield
They may be inanimate objects, but the devices in Garfield’s life seem to straight up hate this cat. The two main offenders are Garfield’s scale and the TV. The latter just seems to be snarky, passively highlighting Garfield’s/Jon’s character flaws. The scale, on the other hand, is a straight up passive aggressive and fatphobic asshole who needs to learn its place. Fuck that scale.
- Deep down, Garfield is a sweetheart.
This usually ties into another joke category, but every once and a while Garfield lets the guard down and pulls at the heart strings. Every time it happens, it’s a powerful moment that hits you in the feels. They may be sarcastic, but the cat cares. They really do.
Considering that each of these jokes has thousands of iterations, a clever play on the comic via some anonymous stranger seems far less interesting to me in this light. Sure, Garfield Minus Garfield produces its own sort of strange absurdity and Lasagna Cat’s interpretations often knock it out of the park, but how can that possibly compare to the Sisyphean task of creating thousands of iterations on each one of these jokes? I don’t think it can.
While an individual strip may not be that valuable, the enormity and power of the cultural institution that is the Garfield canon cannot be understated. Taken as a whole, Garfield is an absolutely wild and awe-inspiring concept. Here’s hoping for 42 more years of the exact same thing.
This is the content I’ve been looking for. Garfield is as much representative of American culture (hates work, doesn’t get technology, is lazy and self-centered) as Jon represents the opposite of what we consider “manly”(pushover, can’t talk to girls, does therapy, owns a cat). These characters speak to the culture. And while that may account for it’s lasting endurance, you can also ignore all that and just see it as safe and reliable.
Like any marketable character over time, Garfield has been pushed in all sorts of directions to appeal to a wide range of audiences from children to adults. I think one of the strongest and wide-reaching examples is the TV special: Garfield: His Nine Lives, which differed considerably from the prints version. I think about it a lot. After reading this, I’m seeing it’s stories in a whole new light because now I’m asking myself, “IS IT CANON???”