A newspaper comic drawn by former lawyer Stephan Pastis about the lives of Rat, Pig, Zebra and Goat, anthropomorphic suburbanites operating freely in a human world just slightly off-plumb from our own. They are, naturally, a rat, a pig, a zebra, and a goat. The strip serves partly as a chronicle of their amusingly surreal adventures, partly as a satire of modern American society, partly as a meta-commentary on the state of the modern American comic strip (not surprisingly, it isn't impressed)...and partly—some suspect mostly—as an excuse to let off really, really awful puns.Pig is a perpetually cheerful innocent who sails through life just barely aware enough to survive. His best friend and roomie Rat, a wannabe author, is a cynical, totally unrepentant Jerkass and Deadpan Snarker constantly on the lookout for a quick buck. Their neighbor Goat is much more intelligent and well-read than the other characters; thus his default expression tends to be "Why do I put up with these morons?"Another neighbor, gentle, sensitive Zebra, was originally intended to be a one-shot character but was soon elevated to star status. He was originally determined to save his herd from becoming prey to lions, either through schemes to thwart them (such as dressing in costumes...unfortunately, they dressed up as gazelle) or attempts to communicate with them (but the lions tend to respond to his moving letters with "Yu taste gud!")Later in the strip, crocodile fraternity Zeeba Zeeba Eata moved in next to Zebra, and their idiotic attempts to capture and eat him have become one of the most popular aspects of the strip. The crocs' horrible grammar is about the most offensive thing about them.Peripheral characters include Pig's pet Guard Duck, who calls his master "Sir," patrols the neighborhood with a rocket launcher and occasionally declares war on Venezuela; Zebra's cat Snuffles, a truly evil little ball of cute fluff who among many other things hid the WMDs for Saddam Hussein; Pigita, Pig's sometime girlfriend - "sometime" because he takes romantic advice from Rat; Wee Bear, the strip's resident social issue obsessed male Soap Box Sadie; Farina, Pig's sister, who lives inside a plastic bubble and is the only person Rat ever loved; Junior, the young vegetarian crocodile; and Andy the creatively optimistic little dog across the way, who never fails to make the best of being chained up in his yard and forgotten.Pastis himself makes frequent appearances in the strip, usually to announce/explain changes in the strip or be chewed out by Rat - or both.Has a developing character sheet.
Affectionate Parody: Pastis often cameos characters from other comic strips, particularly Family Circus, subjecting them to Pearls' dark humor. Commentary in the anthologies reveals that he would let them know beforehand, and that Bil Keane asked for originals of some of the strips.
Amusing Injuries: Pig suffers these in the last panel of many strips, usually at Rat's hands.
Quite a few involving the Zeeba Zeeba Fraternity's futile zebra eating attempts.
Animal Jingoism: Partly subverted by Zebra's conciliatory attitude toward his predators...used in full when he gets shot down at every turn.
The Annotated Edition: The treasury collections contain annotations from Pastis which try to elaborate on where ideas came from and detail reactions to the more controversial strips. And tell us which things he found impossible to draw.
Anvil On Head: Rat stopped a pun strip by bringing this trope upon Pastis.
In one of the treasuries, Pastis makes a reference to Goat's antlers. Goats have horns, not antlers.
Attending Your Own Funeral: In the strip for 1-29-13, Larry the crocodile (who was thought to be dead) attends a memorial dinner for him. He told the guests that he was a ghost and that if they didn't give him food he'd haunt them forever.
Author Filibuster: When Pastis isn't punning on Sundays, he's using the extended format to really lash out at whatever bugs him.
Bad Humor Truck: One Sunday strip has Pig getting hit by an ice cream truck. Rat explains to Goat that this happens every Sunday, and that when Pig comes to he just tells him that he won the Super Bowl.
Black Comedy: And how; Pastis comments in his treasuries that even he underestimates just how "dark" his material is. He recounts the story of a telephone call between himself and fellow cartoonist Darby Conley (Get Fuzzy) about an idea for a strip wherein Pig falls in love with a doomed female pig at a slaughterhouse. Darby's side of the conversation was mostly long silences.
In another he tells a story about his family going for a hike at a ranch and being thrilled at finding a cow skull that still had some bloodstains on it. They ended up taking it home "Because that's the kind of family I have."
Break the Cutie: Pastis once said in a treasury that if a character expouses unbridled optimism and faith in humanity, something bad will happen to them.
Characterization Marches On: Pastis acknowledged this in an arc where Rat starts selling "Beef Babies," and Pig decides to one-up him by selling "Tuna Babies." He admitted that he wrote the arc in 2001 before the characters were as defined, and ended up using this notably Out of Character moment for Pig when the arc finally printed in 2004.
Chuck Cunningham Syndrome: Rat and Pig's roommate Leonard. Several other characters come and go, in part because Pastis simply runs out of good material for them. He acknowledged that this is why he got rid of Leonard.
Eventually, we get a strip in which Stephan phones Pig to tell him he's writing Leonard out of the strip, adding that "I'm a little busy right now, so I asked Rat to look into some scenarios that are final, yet dignified and respectful". Rat then comes in to announce that Leonard got his head stuck in the toilet and drowned.
Angry Bob has been gone since 2009, Elly Elephant and Danny Donkey both still have stories but are just barely still in the strip.
On July 28, 2011 PBS crossed both ways with Dennis The Menace (US). The DTM strip took place in a comic book convention. After his father tells Dennis that Pastis "draws a famous comic strip", Dennis says, "But what does he do for a living?" The PBS strip had Pastis invite Dennis over to help make Pearls into a family friendly strip, only to find him pouring gas into Pastis's office saying "Hope you have insurance on this @+#$@#+ dump". As Pastis's office starts to go up in flames, Rat observes that Dennis "looks like he's past the slingshot phase".
Dennis the Menace: And Remember, Blame those @+#@;#+ Family Circus Kids!
In acknowledgment of the author of Cathy retiring, there was a one-week arc when Cathy's soul gets stuck in the Pearls Before Swine diner. Instead of going straight to Comic Strip Heaven, she eats...cheesecake.
In the June 12, 2013 strip, Steve Dallas show's up as the lawyer to bail most of the gang out of jail (who were put in for various contrived reasons).
Death as Comedy: All the freaking time. Countless crocs have died off, and then there're Hy and Hy, the hyena brothers that operate a funeral home... just to get the dead animals that hyenas feed on.
Digging to China: Pig digs a hole to "Kukistan." This was originally going to be a literal dig to China, but he changed it to a fictional country to avoid offending anyone. Anyone not speaking Swedish, at least.
Dinner Order Flub: One strip had Guard Duck on a date with Maura, ordering "The chateaubriand, cooked medium well, and a glass of your finest pinot noir". Although the actual strip wasn't an example, Stephan Pastis said this about the strip in the Pearls Sells Out commentary:
"I really don't know what chateaubriand is. It just sounded like something fancy you'd order in an expensive restaurant. I'm hoping it is actually a type of food." (For the record, chateaubriand is a type of food. It's a kind of steak.)
Family-Unfriendly Aesop: In-universe. The children's books Rat writes usually have morals like "luck and timing are more important than hard work" and "if you can't improve yourself, make everyone else worse".
Fluffy Cloud Heaven: Seen in one arc in which Pastis decides he needs to kill off major characters to boost circulation...namely, himself and Rat. It's OK, though; turns out God is the head of their syndicate, and there are stuffed animal sales at stake.
Fourth Wall Mail Slot: Rat reads letters from readers on occasion. The letters are mostly fakes, although some are based on actual fanmail.
Fourth Wall Portrait: In answer to a fan question, Pig was once shown as an actual pig, with Rat saying he needed hours of "cartoon makeup" each day.
Funetik Aksent: The male crocs. Although it's not entirely clear what their accent is supposed to be. Creator Stephan Pastis says that he hears the crocs' standard opening line ("Hullo, zeeba neighba...leesten...") as Russian, but finds his own belief strange: "You wouldn't expect to find many crocodiles in Russia. Mostly, they're meant to sound dumb." Albeit, although Junior is a very smart little croc and thus speaks normally, he still refers to Zebra as "zeeba neighba."
Furry Confusion: Maura the non-anthropomorphic duck. Oddly enough, she starts acting more humanlike later. There are also the recurring cameos by Chuckie the Non-Anthropomorphic Sheep, who for some bizarre reason stands on his hind legs.
Game Show Appearance: One of the crocs manages to get on Jeopardy! and amazingly does well due to subconsciously absorbing information from TV shows in his sleep. Unfortunately for him, they don't accept "Zeeba" as a final Jeopardy! response, which he put all his winnings on...
Hurricane of Puns: The Sunday strips, famously, often consist of nothing more than long, elaborate setups for some Incredibly Lame Pun, usually delivered by one of the innocent characters to Rat, who usually then appears in the last panel insulting (or, in extreme cases threatening) Pastis. The reader comments the strip receives on comics.com often result in this as well.
Hyperspace Mallet: Rat once had a "Mallet o' Understanding" which he used on the other characters.
Hypocritical Humor: Zebra is pursued by two different sets of predators but still enjoys a good lobster.
Idea Bulb: Parodied. Rat pretends to come up with an idea when a real bulb burns out and he's all out.
Incredibly Lame Pun: Suspected by many of being Pastis' favorite type of gag. Frequently lampshaded.
Rat has also dated Farina, Pig's germophobe sister.
Pigita one went on a date with Donny the Dung Beetle, though he'd claimed he was a scarab. And also apparently slept with Tiger Woods.
Ironic Echo: In one arc, Pig's tiny ego gets physically stepped on by Rat's much larger ego, who says "I think I just stepped on a doody." Later on, Rat's ego withers to a minimal size after Farina dumps him; Pig steps on the shrunken ego and says, of course, "I think I just stepped on a doody."
Goat: Well, guys, I'm off. Today is my family's annual potato sack race. It's sort of a tradition. Pig: What's 'tradition'? Rat: Tradition is the reason for doing something you can no longer think of a reason for doing. Goat: I hate it when I agree with you.
Lopsided Dichotomy: In "Pearls Freaks The #%*# Out", one strip taking place in a supermarket had about three box-things lying on a shelf in the background. Pastis comments "Either the store had a huge run on that particular item, or a cartoonist I know got tired of drawing them.".
Massive Multiplayer Crossover: a week of strips in which Rat is hired as the babysitter for the MacPherson family of Baby Blues, a decision the family ends up regretting by the end of the strip for obvious reasons. He makes Zoe (age 9) and Hammie (age 6) drive to a convenience store to buy him more beer, and the two accidentally run over Jeremy Duncan, the main character of Zits. (Both strips are partnerships involving author Jerry Scott, which is how Pastis got permission to pull it off.)
There were also a fair number of crossovers during the week of Blondie's 75th birthday party, involving Pig and Rat slumming with those other comic-strip characters who hadn't been invited. And when FoxTrot went to Sundays-only, members of the Fox family made a few cameos on weekdays, looking worse for wear from being "unemployed."
Medium Awareness: The characters are very conscious of living in a comic strip and play with its conventions constantly, at one point ending up with misprinted strips due to Rat's "feud with the layout guy," and at another experimenting with "panel-walking" along the tops of the segments (leading to hilariously tragic results over on The Family Circus). One strip was (deliberately) printed upside down, with Rat claiming he could see upBlondie's dress from there.
Misanthrope Supreme: Danny Donkey, one of Rat's creations, hates people. All 6,000,000,000 of them.
Missing Episode: Many books feature comic strips that were never printed as they were deemed too offensive or simply not funny.
Mistaken for Gay: Played for laughs at the conclusion of an arc that finds Rat in bed, planning to just stay there because he's tired of the world. Eventually Pig decides to join him. Before Rat can get Pig to leave and avert this trope...
Goat: Hi Rat the door was open so I.... ohhhhhhhhh myyyyyyyyyyyyy.
Pig: Oh my...
Rat: NO NO NO! NO 'OH MY'S! THIS IS NOT AN 'OH MY' SITUATION!!
Negative Continuity: In the treasuries, Pastis mentions that the Rule of Funny is much more important to him than continuity, leading to characters getting jobs that are never mentioned again, or a character's Unexplained Recovery. This last was lampshaded during a softball arc, in which Rat asked Pastis how a deceased character could be playing outfield: "Uh...he un-died."
Possibly also a nod at the Running Gag of Rat's "Angry Bob" series of novels, that always end with the titular character's horrible death just as he had found happiness, only for the next novel to begin with "Angry Bob un-died..." Pastis claims to want credit if "un-died" ever goes into the dictionary.
Another combination lampshade-hanging and fourth-wall destruction, with a dash of Shrug of God: When Zebra asks a croc what dialect they speak, the croc answers, "We ees speeking (white blob)." Cut to Pastis at his desk, saying, "Stupid Liquid Paper."
No Name Given: This has been the most common approach to the constant deaths of the crocodiles.
Pintsized Powerhouse: Guard Duck tends to become one of these when angered. Rat sort of fits this trope too, as does Dickie the Cockroach in Rat's comic strips.
The Pollyanna: Pig. Making him the perfect foil for Rat, of course. Though he occasionally mentions feeling like a total failure and desires to be somebody else.
Rage Against the Author: Rat once held the strip hostage to his demands, and as noted once led a general strike. More often he's just displaying generic hostility towards Pastis, usually due to the did-we-mention-they-are-really-bad puns.
The strip often points out how people in real life consider comic strips to be Serious Business.
Shameful Shrinking:An arc had Rat and Pig discussing the differences between their egos. Pig's ego was as tiny as a mouse, while Rat's ego was even bigger than any of the characters, showing that Rat has a Small Name, Big Ego. However, at the end of the arc, Pig's germophobic sister Fantina shows up and tells Rat that she's leaving him for Dilbert because he's a much better man than Rat. This causes Rat's ego to shrink down to the same size as Pig's ego, as Pig steps on it.
Shout-Out / Homage: Lampshades are often shown having the same zigzag pattern as Charlie Brown's trademark shirt from Peanuts. Pastis has said that this is an intentional tribute to Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, whom he actually met and was able to show some of his early work to before Schulz' death. (In 2011, Pastis co-wrote the Direct-to-Video film Happiness Is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown.)
Several of his strips also use the style of some of his favorite strips, like The Far Side, as an homage to them.
The second panel of the Dennis The Menace (US) Double Cross Over mentioned above was drawn smaller than the other two to imitate DTM's one panel format, with Dennis's lines written under the panel instead of in a speech bubble.
Shown Their Work: In a sense, anyway. Pastis frequently references species characteristics he learned about from watching Animal Planet. Notably, the orca character attempts to fool his prey by covering the spots on his face, only to be caught when the seals are aware those aren't his eyes.
With the occasional slide towards idealism, especially in Pig strips.
The Smart Guy: Goat, albeit nobody ever listens to him, least of all Rat.
Surprisingly Larry, who went on Jeopardy! and got every question right. He says that this is because he uses various educational channels to put himself to sleep, thus gaining knowledge unconsciously. Unfortunately for him, "zeeba" does not count as an answer on the last round. Which he put all his winnings on.
Small Name, Big Ego: The Crocodile fraternity and Larry think they're excellent predators, but they're just morons
Played with in a Sunday strip in which Pig assumes a fellow dinner guest will be wowed by his basic Internet user skills: "Yeah... I'm the guy that writes that blog."
Something Completely Different: The strip of December 28, 2003 dispenses with the characters, and the comedy, to show a television set from which a news report is airing about a bus bomb that went off in Jerusalem, killing six children. That one's also a Tear Jerker.
The strip from Memorial Day 2003 has a detailed rendering of Pig visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.
A Sunday strip from Memorial Day 2006 shows various places (a living room, a wall, etc.), empty of characters and shrouded in darkness; the last panel features a caption reading, "A moment of silence in honor of the American men and women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan."
Sorry Billy, But You Just Don't Have Legs: Reccuring character Andy, who tries to frequently fulfill his dreams of seeing the world, despite being a dog on a chain attached to a stake in his owner's backyard.
Also, Goat is said to be using a "stage name." His real name is Paris.
Sphere Eyes: The human characters and even some animal characters.
Also, most of the main animal characters would have these eyes when excited or surprised.
Spoof Aesop: At one point, Rat dies (the first of four times) and is notified by Saint Peter that he isn't allowed in Heaven due to his various misdeeds and selfishness. After he manages to be brought back to life, he concludes that death is something to be avoided.
Or almost any of Rat's "Angry Bob" stories. For example, in one, Bob is reading a woman's magazine, only for a really beautiful woman to happen to stop and talk to him. Embarrassed to be seen reading it, he tries to eat it but chokes and dies, but then it turns out the woman in question was related to the publisher and would have been overjoyed to find out that men had started reading it. Rat's moral? "Always chew your food carefully."
Staying Alive: Pastis's approach to the frequent deaths of his characters. (In Pearls Sells Out, Pastis says he used to keep a list of the dead crocs, but once it got to 40, he gave up.)
Sustained Misunderstanding: In one anthology, Pastis wrote that Pig "is rather easy to write for. He just needs to misunderstand everything said to him, and then when it's explained to him, he needs to misunderstand that too." The strip he referenced had this exchange:
Pig: If this player can win a World Series, he'll finally get the donkey off his back.
Pig: Get the donkey off his monkey... that's one strong monkey.
Averted when a character said the word "crappy". How did that get through?
Take That: Usually against "legacy" strips, the ones that have been going on for decades only because the writer has changed (Family Circus is probably the most frequent target). Garfield and Cathy are also prime targets, on grounds of just not being that funny anymore. Or possibly, y'know, ever. One notable arc showed the aforementioned family as so out of touch with modern America that they treated Osama Bin Laden as a house-guest. This would later get them sent to Guantanamo Bay.
Another strip featured a Slylock Fox parody with the following trivia question: "Which one of these comics was around when Hitler invaded Poland? a) Blondie, b) Barney Google, c) Prince Valiant, d) Mary Worth or e) All of the above? Answer: e)" Although the Slylock Fox parody was definitely more of a Shout-Out than a Take That, as Bob Weber not only gave his approval, but has used Rat and Pig in his own strip.
In yet another strip, Pastis reproduced a Jumble puzzle, with the final-word clue being, "What the comics are since Calvin and Hobbes ended." The answer: N-O L-A-U-G-H-I-N-G M-A-T-T-E-R.
On the other hand, there was a Sunday strip where Rat had a nightmare about all forms of entertainment closing down because nothing new has been made for at least fifty years. When he wakes up, Pig tries to cheer him up by giving him the newspaper's funny page section...with predictable results.
Averted once; Rat was playing the role of a pied piper, luring stupid people out to a lake to drown them. Obviously, the crocs were dumb enough to do this, but once Rat began to gloat about this, one of the crocs angrily pointed out "We can sweem." See it here.
True Art Is Angsty: invoked Uh-huh! Stephan Pastis knows it! One set of episodes makes a Parody out of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, with Rat as Mister Rogers. First the trolley to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe comes in, carrying the beer bottles that Rat likes so much. Then at the NOMB, Rat witnesses a Muslim terrorist puppet named Jihad Jerry pump King Friday XIII full of lead, and then tell Queen Sara Saturday to wear a burka, despite Rat urging Jerry to be as democratic as possible. Finally, Rat appears wearing a burka himself, explaining that JJ has taken over the show, but things will stay the same...only for a mooing camel to appear in place of the trolley, which Rat makes sell oil at ridiculous prices. Pastis is just that kind of guy!
Who Even Needs a Brain?: The storyline where Pig's brain gets tired of him and takes off. It's implied that this has happened to a lot of people. ("Explains a lot, doesn't it?") Strangely enough, while Pig is dumb, his brain is quite smart and makes a living winning Jeopardy!.
In another strip, Rat bought two parrots to keep him company, "Anika" and "Peev" resulting in a lot of confusion when Rat tells Pig not to eat a donut because "It's one of my pet Peev's" (say that out loud).
Why Don't You Just Shoot Him?: Subverted, the Larry and another croc did try to just shoot Zebra once. Unfortunately Larry wound up killing the other crocodile. After that, they went back to their more outlandish plots.