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Most elitist humour ever.
On the whole, there are very few people who know anything about String Theory, or Schrodinger's Cat, so much of XKCD's science, maths and computer-programming based humour will make no sense whatsoever to much of the uneducated masses. The enjoyment people get from XKCD is not from finding the jokes actually funny (they often aren't), but from understanding the jokes at all. Reading XKCD, you sort of give yourself a congradulatory chuckle everytime you actually understand a joke, as though this is your reward for all those years, learning the in and outs of programmer languages:
"Damn, I knew all that time spent learning about the properties of Strontium would come in handy!"
XKCD is a celebration of all that is nerdy and obscure, so despite the jokes being relatively shit, I still think it is worth perusing for that reason alone.

EDIT: In reaction to the overwhelmingly negative feedback this review is getting, I'd like to make a few general points.
  • I am not trying to suggest that elitism is bad.
  • I am not even condemning XKCD for being elitist. I actually praised it for being so.
  • By pointing out that the humour is elitist, I am merely trying to suggest that some will not get the more sophisticated jokes which cater to specific niches. I am treating the term "elitist" as partly synonymous with "niche" in that both terms apply to smaller, specific groups.
  • Regardless of whether or not the jokes are elitist, (admittedly, many of XKCD's jokes are simple and straightforward), the major criticism I am making of XKCD is that I don't find the jokes funny, and that the only humour I could exact from the site was the self-congratulatory kind I have mentioned earlier. This is a personal case of YMMV, but of course, that goes without saying in a subjective review.

Most elitist ever? I doubt it. I'd say the humor is a combination of the self-congratulatory part you mention and a good deal of laughing at oneself for being so much of a nerd that one recognizes the situation and the joke.

comment #239 Morven 15th May 09
When did the word 'elite' become bad?...

XKCD is genius, but as the warning states on the bottom of the pages, its made to be found hilarious by math/physics/computer nerds. Claiming its only humor is in 'getting' it is... iffy, to say the least.
comment #242 Lemur 15th May 09
Err, I didn't say elitism is bad. In fact, it is the elitist, complex nature of XKCD's humour that saves it. Hence my conclusion; "XKCD is a celebration of all that is nerdy...it is worth perusing for that reason alone." Getting the joke is not the same as actually finding it funny. I certainly wasn't rolling in the aisles, even when I was "getting it".
comment #243 maninahat 15th May 09
When did the word 'elite' become bad?...

My guess? The 2000 US Presidential election, where it was "Regular guy you could have a beer with" George W. Bush vs. "Snooty elitist know-it-all" Al Gore. And we all know how that worked out.
comment #247 HeartBurnKid 15th May 09
Anti-elitism is much, much older than that. Look at the way that almost every US president campaigns as a "man of the people" and plays down his intelligence and intellectualism. Started at the latest with Jackson in the early nineteenth century. And it goes older than that, too.
comment #248 Morven 15th May 09
There is a bit of a "hey, I get that!" aspect to XKCD, but really, I get that tingle from all sorts of places. Terry Pratchett, for example, is consistently side-splitting when you don't catch the references, but even better when you do. However, nothing works on references alone, and XKCD is not "just the tingle". It has a very unique brand of humour which is very... raw. XKCD isn't afraid to record the strange things floating through its author's mind without polishing and tweaking them, which means that occasionally it just makes no sense, but it usually has a hilariously whimsical quality. I, for one, object to the word "shit".

Anyway, everyone knows Schroedingers Cat nowadays, and the last string theory joke required absolutely no knowledge of string theory. You just had to wiki the scientist. The delayed punchline, couched in dry Wikipedian style, ("Brian Greene (born February 9, 1963) is a theoretical physicist and one of the best-known string theorists.") actually made it better for me.

Finally, why is it "elitist" to have a comic which unabashedly caters to nerds generally and science-and-maths nerds in particular? The comic never suggests that people ignorant of String Theory are inferior. It never uses the term "uneducated masses". Write what you know. Would it be elitist if I were to write a comic in which, to pick three of my attributes, only British people, history nerds, and males got the jokes?
comment #252 I Blame Communism 16th May 09
"Would it be elitist if I were to write a comic in which, to pick three of my attributes, only British people, history nerds, and males got the jokes?" To a degree yes. But you would still be alienating less of your readership then XKCD. Perhaps if you wrote your jokes in latin.... An elitist joke by definition means that only a small portion of people are going to appreciate it. This would be perfectly fine in my eyes if the jokes I did get where actually funny. Suggesting that I resort to an encyclopaedia just to understand the jokes of a simple webcomic doesn't sound like a good defence at all.
comment #253 maninahat 16th May 09
Whiskey. Tango. Foxtrot. First of all, I don't think xkcd is elitist - intentionally, anyway. Second, he was obviously trying to make jokes with punchlines couched in physics and mathematics specifically because that was the only group he ever thought would read them. They weren't self-congratulatory, they were simply based upon the experience and understanding of the author and his nerd buddies, because the jokes would be funnier since they were closer to reality. Now that the entire internet loves his work, he has cut down on the science puns and made the humor more accessible - his loss, in my opinion.
comment #255 Mr Etaoin Shrdlu 16th May 09
maninahat, that is simply not what elitism is. By your definition, everything in the world is elitist. All webcomics written in English are elitist against the inhabitants of non-Anglophone countries. All Churches are elitist against Muslims. British citizenship is elitist against people who aren't British, history textbooks are elitist against people who aren't interested in history, and hell, condoms are elitist against women. Yeah, it turns out that in our society, pretty much everything is aimed at one specific group of people and not at others. Now, if I were to go around saying "Hah, I'm sure thoe historically unaware American bitches won't get my jokes, and good thing too!", that's elitism. When I imply that the groups I don't belong to are inferior and their not appreciating them is actually proof of the quality of my work, that's elitism. When the hell did XKCD do that, except in an obviously tongue-in-cheek way with the disclaimer?

You just don't like this comic, seemingly because you don't appreciate its unique brand of humour, and there's nothing wrong with that. However, there is something wrong with slandering it by calling it "elitist" simply because you don't like it.
comment #260 I Blame Communism 18th May 09
I think your the one with the uncertain definition of "elitism". You seem to be getting it confused with snobbery. At no point did I say XKCD was snobbish or condescending. The term "elitist" doesn't necessarily carry negative connotations, and I haven't even suggested that elitism is a bad thing. In fact, if you read my review more carefully, you'd realise the reason for me being critical of XKCD was not because of the eltism itself, but the unfunny jokes. Also you might have noticed that I actually ENCOURAGED PEOPLE TO CHECK THE WEBSITE OUT, which suggests my review wasn't that negative at all.

comment #266 maninahat 20th May 09
Maybe your review was intended as negatively as it came across, but for one thing I still find XKCD's humour to be, while prone to falling flat, mostly hilarious. For another thing, the Great Holy O(Concise)ED back me up on elitism: "advocacy or reliance on leadership or dominance by a select group, a sense of belonging to an elite". Elitism could be said to be politicised snobbery, with snobbery being a feeling of superiority because of belonging to some group, and elitism a belief that that group should actually run the country.

What XKCD is is "niche".
comment #268 I Blame Communism 20th May 09
I'm not sure how related this is, but Hype Aversion against the comic is beginning to set in due to seeing it shoehorned everywhere possible on this wiki.
comment #270 Cliche 20th May 09
Your review says xkcd's appeal comes from just getting the joke. That's awfully cynical. Though his humor does hew nerdy, it rarely mines the technical depths; in fact, many of his gags have nothing to do with math, science, or computers. For instance, today's strip, 586. Or my favorite strip, 59.

I share I Blame Communism's general response: Munroe's greatest quality is unearthing those fragments of mind we'd never say. And these thoughts can range from absurd to primal to just sweet. Getting the obscure references is only a bonus.
comment #273 Longfellow 21st May 09
I'd have to admit that Niche was probably the more appropriate term in hindsight, though that doesn't detract from my original point at all: that only a small niche of people are going to fully appreciate XKCD.

I looked at strips 586 and 59, and whilst it is true that like a large number of XKCD's strips they are non-science related, it is also true that I found neither of them the slightest bit funny.

comment #275 86.26.236.117 21st May 09
there's no accounting for taste, after all. I wouldn't say it's a small niche. Perhaps it's pretty much only well-known in certain demographics, but I'd hardly say it's obscure. Now if it were only aimed at classics geeks, then it probably would be only a very very small niche of people. But as it is, it seems pretty well known among the kind of people that visit this site, and grad students, and people employed (or studying) in technology fields, etc.
comment #276 novium 21st May 09
There are actually quite a number of jokes that don't take a Ph D to get. 574, 336 and 418 aren't math-centered, and are quite funny; similarly, strips like 69 have a math-related punchline, but it's not necessary to get the joke.
comment #288 71.223.251.131 24th May 09
Catering to a niche audience is the entire point of xkcd. Randall Munroe has gone on record as stating that it's the very core of his business plan. With the advent of the internet, barriers to creating your own works became low enough that it became possible to target very small demographics. As Randall pointed out himself, you can be successful with a work that only appeals to one percent of the population, as long as it really appeals to that one percent. In my opinion, on the occasions when the appeal of an xkcd strip really does boil down to knowing you got the joke, that's a strip that fell flat. He has a fair few, but the reason Randall Munroe became so successful despite deliberately targeting a niche audience is because he's generally quite good at the kind of humor he delivers.
comment #294 Desertopa 25th May 09
I find most of them hilarious, and sometimes I'll find out something later that makes me go "oh!" about one I've read before. I'm not easy to please, Penny Arcade has never made me literally laugh out loud. xkcd just does it for me.

I think it comes with being an omnipresent nerd. I'm not university educated, but I'm aware of the vast majority of the maths stuff, plus I scrape extra tidbits; I know why Madagascar was mentioned in #574, for example.

And I'm prepared for when he makes a Buffalo^8 joke. That sort of thing.
comment #296 Kester 25th May 09
What? If anything, xkcd's not nerdy and obscure enough. There's way too many comics about relationships, of all things.
comment #329 Cosmic Osmo 31st May 09
This is like dissing Eddie Izzard's Dress To Kill because you actually have to know a little bit of history to get some of his jokes. I don't find it elitist. I find the fact people think it isn't funny because it's aimed at people with some knowledge of a subject to be more a sad commentary on the state of the universe. I guess some people will always prefer fart jokes.
comment #350 99.2.46.106 3rd Jun 09
"I find the fact people think it isn't funny because it's aimed at people with some knowledge of a subject to be more a sad commentary on the state of the universe."

You know, I hate it when people abuse "universe". Hyperbole abusers have no sense of scale.
comment #351 Cliche 3rd Jun 09
I find xkcd hilarious on the few occasions I actually get it. The more obscure the joke, the funnier it is to the people who understand why.
comment #366 Excel-2009 5th Jun 09
xkcd is basically one big nerd fanwank filled with Firefly references, incoherent jokes (593), and the Jerkass Stu that is Randall. All the characters are literally interchangeable. "My Hobby" is just another chance to show how much of a jackass (Randall) is supposed to be, which is supposed to be BHG's job.

And no, it is not a niche comic. Memes are not niche. We know all Randall loves 4chan. Of the few math/science jokes recently, how many weren't funny and/or did the meme thing again?

The Fan Dumb doesn't help. Those Other Wiki vandals...

It was good until around 6 or 7 months ago.
comment #374 Mr. Lostman 7th Jun 09
The point of a review is not to be subjective. Inevitably, there will be a measure of subjectivity, but the main function of a review is to analyze what is done right and wrong, generally while presenting the author's own opinions as well, in such a way that the readers of the review will have a good idea whether or not they will like the thing that's being reviewed.

I think it's a bad review, not because it seemed likely to repel prospective readers (although it probably was, regardless of your intentions, since almost all of the responders considered it a negative review,) but because it's unlikely to help anyone formulate an accurate opinion of whether they are actually likely to enjoy the comic.
comment #411 Desertopa 13th Jun 09
Fair point Desertopa. Most of the people who have criticised my review are already well aquainted with XKCD, so most of the criticism I have recieved has been about me getting XKCD all wrong, rather then whether my review was unhelpful for those unfamiliar to the comic. I'll keep that in mind.
comment #416 maninahat 13th Jun 09
Desertopia: You may right, but I've rarely seen other fan "reviews" on this site that fit your criteria. Heck, I've rarely seen them in general.
comment #429 BigT 15th Jun 09
2 years later...

I think the reason why so many people have responded negatively negatively to this review is because "elitism" is generally associated with the idea of "self-proclaimed superiority" or at worst "facism" (thankyou Hitler). From what I can see, it's used here in the sense of definition rather than associated ideology, saying that xkcd caters or restricts its understanding to a certain group of people with an investment in the field of computer science or physics. This is a valid point, as others have said before me.

I disagree that it's unaccessible, though. My field is medicine, my computer routinely tries to kill me, I'm not smart, and haven't even finished my degree yet (my deal with Satan still hasn't come through on that one) and I still find the vast majority of the jokes hilarious (courtesy of my recent Archive Binge). If I can understand it, then I'm pretty sure this webcomic reaches an audience far beyond it's intended demographic. Yeah, I may have had to look up some things about programming languages, but honestly that's generally about it. However, like anything humor-related, you always have to count on the YMMV factor, because what may be funny to one person may be boring as shit to the next, and I can see where many complaints have risen from with regards to this comic. Looking at the comic from this point now in 2011, it looks like xkcd has moved into a long-term format where the recipe isn't changing, and the ingredients are probably the same, so I think anyone who doesn't like it but is hoping for it to morph into something else should quit now, because I can't see it changing any time soon.

Thankyou for the review. It was insightful and stimulated some really funny responses and some interesting conversation.
comment #7651 13secondspastmidnight 11th May 11
Looking at this strip, here is a good example of what I'm complaining about. It isn't all that niche, but it does rely on people to understand the relationships between the sciences and the kind of one upmanship these guys tend to have. The real problem I'm trying to point out though is that there isn't a joke. There is no punch line to this, other than the observation that maths is the most pure. If you understand his meaning, you might afford yourself a chuckle, but it won't be because he actually set up a gag. Compare that to one of his funnier ones, where he actually does have a joke; a defiance of expectations based on a clever twist.
comment #7659 maninahat 12th May 11 (edited by: maninahat)
I hate to add another comment, but the Purity strip pretty much drives home what everyone else is saying: the humor isn't bad, it's just not for you. That's really about it. For a lot of science and math people, including myself, I find the joke hilariously because it is true. And to say that there's no humor in truth would pretty much ignore the fact most humor is grounded in pointing out (perceived) truths anyways, although massive YMMV on what is consider the truth. The Atheist comic uses the exact same tactic, since it's ultimately pointing out how people feel superior to another group by saying that other group itself feels superior to other people—doing so twice for a punchline, but even so, it's fundamentally the same approach, just different context.
comment #13133 ZoraPrime 9th Mar 12
The alternative is lowest common denominator humour. Why should I have my enjoyment curtailed just because it isn't for everyone?
comment #17014 LastHussar 29th Nov 12
XKCD may be prone to the Genius Bonus, but most of the strips are pretty easy to get, and while there are crappy ones I find most of them very funny. I don't get many of the science/math references but I am still able to enjoy most of the comics. It may be slightly elitist, but it's far from the "most elitist humour ever", certainly no more so than, say, MST3K or Matt Groening's cartoons (although I wouldn't consider any of those I mentioned "elitist" to begin with).
comment #21385 ading 6th Oct 13
Schrodinger's Cat? That's your example? Really?
comment #22622 ading 29th Dec 13
@lasthussar I don't think that's the only alternative. You can find a happy medium in going for small retrench pools, or you could make jokes about esoteric subjects that are actual jokes.
comment #22623 Maninahat 29th Dec 13
  • that's meant to say reference pools

comment #22624 Maninahat 29th Dec 13
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