While comedians and humorists working in virtually every other medium in 2016 have a substantial amount of creative liberty, those who do daily syndicated comic strips still have to keep things as inoffensive as humanly possible. Apparently, newspaper readers are extraordinarily delicate and must be treated with the utmost care. Cartoonist Stephan Pastis learned this lesson the hard way this week when an installment of his Pearls Before Swine was nixed by Universal Uclick, the company that also distributes Garfield, Ziggy, and Dear Abby.
The strip in question features one of Pastis’ main characters, the naive, good-natured Pig, correcting his sister’s grammar during a telephone conversation. In so doing, he inadvertently says something that merely sounds like ISIS, thus alerting the NSA, who have been listening in on the call. For this, he is arrested by a pair of grim-faced FBI men, their eyes hidden behind sunglasses. Pretty innocent stuff, really. It’s a classic misunderstanding. But the strip was nixed anyway, and an unscheduled rerun appeared in its place. Luckily, Pastis shared the suppressed strip with his fans via Twitter. The cartoonist clearly had not foreseen that this joke would present a problem.
What’s interesting here is that Universal Uclick also distributes Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury, which routinely runs satirical material much harsher than this, as well as a syndicated column by Ann Coulter, whose very job depends on regularly offending half the country. Since all of these features are running in the same newspapers, it may not be immediately obvious what the big deal is with Pastis’ strip. The difference, however, is context. Coulter’s columns run on the editorial page, which is where many newspapers also choose to put Trudeau’s comics. But Pastis is writing for the comics section, which has its very own set of strict standards. Even a passing, punning mention of ISIS is too much for the funny pages. Besides, at only 14 years old, Pearls Before Swine is still a relative newcomer, not yet old enough to start testing the rules.