Doonesbury

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The cast, circa 1976.

Doonesbury is an American newspaper comic strip written and drawn by Gary Trudeau which mixes political satire with college satire and later soap opera plots. A long runner (43 years, 45 years if you don't count the two-year hiatus), the series involves a cast of hundreds.

The series began as a college satire (featuring nerdy Mike Doonesbury and his perpetual helmet wearing jock roommate B.D.) in 1970; within a couple of years the main cast expanded to feature Zonker Harris (a hippie slacker), Mark Slackmeyer (left-wing radical), JJ Caucus and Barbara Ann "Boopsie" Boopstein (Mike and B.D.'s respective girlfriends), and Zonker's uncle Duke (who was a stand-in for writer Hunter S. Thompson). While it had its genesis mocking Ivy League college life, the series found its footing when the strip expanded into full-blown political satire. B.D. joined the military (to escape having to write a term paper) and Uncle Duke got himself an ambassadorship to China, which led to him getting his own sidekick, the long-suffering Honey Huan.

Despite the expanded scope of the series, the characters remained college students for about 13 years, with the only real change being the group moving off campus into a commune. This changed with a two-year Series Hiatus in 1983-1984; Gary Trudeau came up with the idea of doing a musical based upon the strip which centered around the graduation of the characters from college. After the musical's brief run on Broadway, the strip returned, now moving in real time as the characters grew older, married, had kids, divorced, and died. The strip also became more biting with its political satire, with new characters like Roland Hedley (who was introduced prior to the hiatus) and surrealistic storylines like Hedley's tour of Ronald Reagan's brain and Mr. Butts, a life-sized talking cigarette who shills for the tobacco industry.

This strip won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975, and is generally considered liberal on the Strawman Political scale. It's so well-known for its political content that some papers choose to run it on the editorial pages rather than the comics pages, sometimes opposite Mallard Fillmore. (And for some inexplicable reason, the Washington Post runs the strip on its gossip page.)

In Britain the strip is carried in The Guardian, which tried to drop it in 2005. This did not go down well.


Tropes used in Doonesbury include:
  • Aborted Arc: In 1990, Trudeau decided to celebrate the strip's 20th anniversary by doing an arc where all of the strip's gigantic cast all met and interacted; something which hadn't happened since at least the late 70's. One by one, everyone gathers by chance in Mike's apartment and...don't do a whole lot except bicker at each other. Trudeau realized these characters were funnier in their separate spheres than they were thrown together, so he undid the entire storyline by having it be a nightmare Mike was having.
    • The most recent Red Rascal storyline ended this way: as after being being abandoned during a rescue mission and taken hostage by the Taliban, the whole thing ended with a Sunday strip where Jeff's mom finds out that the Taliban successfully ransomed Jeff back to the US consulate FOR $90 (a fee that they paid simply because it was so cheap).
  • Alien Geometries: Donald Trump's hair, which conveniently obscures his face.
  • All Just a Dream: A number of the more surreal strips are explained this way. A recurring series during the 90s had a talking cigarette named Mr. Butts, who represented the tobacco industry, trying to sell kids on smoking (and always succeeding). These were recurring nightmares of Mike Doonesbury. The strips would usually end with Mike lying awake in bed making an exasperated remark.
  • And I Must Scream: Toggle shortly after his accident, being unable to speak at all and then only in short bursts. He's gotten better with time though.
  • Animated Adaptation: A rarely seen Doonesbury primetime cartoon special was made and aired in 1977.
  • Anyone Can Die: Doonesbury was the first mainstream humor comic strip to kill off a character, which caused quite a stir at the time (1986) and landed it on the cover of Time magazine. The deceased, Dick Davenport, was an elderly birdwatcher who had been a recurring character for years. He suffered a massive heart attack while birding but managed to stay alive just long enough to fulfill his life's dream of photographing an extremely rare bird (his last word, spoken right after snapping the picture, was "Immortality.")
    • Andrew, a college friend of Joanie's, died of AIDS just after hearing the CD of The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds.
    • Later, Dick's wife Lacey joined him in the hereafter. We get to see her death from her point of view, as she's ushered into heaven by an angel. Her first impression of the place is to say "What horrid drapes", to which the angel replies "Quiet! Mrs. God picked them out!"
    • Averted with Uncle Duke, even after he was buried six feet under in a coffin. Turns out he was zombified for a while. Considering the man never ages with the rest of the cast, even after Hunter S. Thompson died, you have to wonder.
      • When Duke read Thompson's obituary, his (Duke's) head exploded and he spent a week in a sort of hallucinatory fugue state. Appropriate, all things considered.
  • Archive Trawl: Not quite, but a rare example in print comics in that you can read today's strip from 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, and 35 years ago.
    • Which thankfully counterbalances the fact that the print collections for the strips routinely go out of print.
  • The Artifact: B.D.'s signature headgear was a helmet which he never, ever took off (though its type could vary between football player's, police patrolman's, and soldier's). Trudeau finally found a way to justify dropping the gimmick when B.D. was seriously wounded in an ambush while deployed in Iraq; since then he has been depicted bare-headed.
  • Artificial Limbs: Played realistically with B.D., who lost a leg in the Iraq War and has been wearing a prosthesis since then.
  • Asexuality: Zonker has repeatedly disavowed any interest in romance. This has been variously explained as the unfortunate outcome of a crush he had at the age of ten, or (more likely) a manifestation of his general discomfort with the nature of adult reality.
  • Asian Gal with White Guy: Mike is married to the much younger Kim, who was a one-year-old Vietnamese war orphan when Mike was in college. Played with in the case of Honey Huan's strictly one-sided infatuation with Duke.
  • Author Filibuster: Played straight, averted and subverted multiple times over the years.
  • Author Tract: One Sunday strip had Trudeau use an Author Avatar to rant at Americans for their opinions on France and Canada... in French.
  • Babies Make Everything Better: Discussed, but it works. Sorta.
  • Bluff the Eavesdropper: While Zonker is being kept in a hotel awaiting trial for possession of marijuana, Mike finds a bug under a lamp. The two start very obviously acting, talking about how completely sober Zonker is in order to tip off the prosecutors that yes, they know there's a bug in the room. It gets the case thrown out of court.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: Done often. Most recently with the line, "Pretty good, actually. It's a comic strip" when he lampshaded the One Degree of Separation.
    • Even more recently with, "You'd get confused. We're in them," discussing Newspaper Comics.
  • Bunny Ears Lawyer: B.D.'s [formerly] ever-present helmet, which he wore even in bed.
  • Captain Ersatz: Uncle Duke is a reference to Raoul Duke, one of Hunter S. Thompson's aliases. Thompson was not pleased.
  • Characterization Marches On: JJ was originally a normal, sweet girl who seemed to take Joanie's leaving in stride and Zonker once complained about hippie surfers all over the beaches.
    • Several, but most notably Boopsie; she started out as a rather dim-witted blond who constantly giggled and who only seemed to care about fawning over B.D. Thankfully, she grew out of it and became (after the hiatus) a well-adjusted adult who is quite intelligent and willing to give B.D. hell when he screws up.
    • B.D. also counts; while he started out as a jerk-ass jock who was selfish and ultra-conservative, he ends up maturing into a reasonable adult after the hiatus and while he has his moments of jerk-ass conservativism, he has mellowed out a good deal.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Zonker and Zipper/Jeff Redfern. Boopsie was one too when she first appeared, but quickly outgrew it when she married B.D.
    • Alex now has the crown, given how over the top her fantasies about life with Toggle are.
  • Comic Book Time: Played straight, then averted since the 1983-84 hiatus.
    • Strangely enough, while everyone else has aged normally since 1984, Uncle Duke does not age, appearing to be constantly in his late 40's since he first appeared more than 30 years ago. This means that his nephew Zonker, who was a college student when he first met Duke, is now about the same age as him. No one appears to have noticed.
      • Roland Hedley, the amoral TV news reporter, has never aged either, perhaps because he's more of a representation of the media itself than a character in his own right.
      • Duke's erstwhile business associate Jim Andrews also hasn't aged in about 30 years...and he was clearly in his fifties when he first appeared.
  • Comically Missing the Point: Toggle's reaction to Zipper's tour of Walden College -- since Zipper is basically Zonker Junior, his tours are focused on the slacker-friendliness of "America's safety school". Toggle is a wounded Iraq vet from a working-class family who actually wants an education.
  • Continuity Nod: In the 1970s, Duke is appointed governor of American Samoa. His mere presence (compounded with an unfortunately timed, sudden shortage of virgin sacrifices) causes disasters, such as volcanoes and tidal waves, which his assistant MacArthur claims is the work of angry gods. Duke dismisses these claims until it actually starts to snow on the tropical paradise: "I'm a reasonable man, MacArthur, so I know this isn't snow". Three decades later, Mark Slackmeyer and his lover Chase are looking to get married. They travel to Samoa in the hope that their love will be accepted there. MacArthur agrees to sanction the gay wedding, but as they prepare their vows everything starts to go wrong...including volcanoes and tidal waves. MacArthur decides the gods are a little too conservative to be comfortable with this after all, and asks the couple to leave, even mentioning that nothing like this has happened since Duke was governor. Mark and Chase protest until guess what happens. "We're reasonable men, MacArthur, so we know this isn't snow."
    • Over an even wider period of time, Zonker is told of a connection between marijuana and communism- and there's even a flashback. It's (*sob*) so beautiful...
    • Kim was introduced around 1975 as "the last Vietnam war orphan," as a baby. Decades later, when she was a young woman, she reappeared and ended up marrying Mike.
  • Demoted to Extra: Sort of. While Mike's still part of the main cast, since the mid-2000's Alex has taken over this position, with most of Mike's appearances based around her (with the exception of his mother moving in.)
    • J.J. and Honey Huan have been demoted to extra, rarely appearing anymore. Same with Mark, as far as the fact that Mark only shows up in the occasional Sunday strip or whenever the strip needs a non-Hedley related media talking head and pretty much only contacts the others via phone.
    • A byproduct of Loads and Loads of Characters. With Trudeau continuing to create new characters all the time, it's inevitable that some old ones will find their roles scaled down or eliminated.
  • Disabled Love Interest: Alex's boyfriend Toggle, a young Iraq war vet with PTSD and some brain damage.
  • The Ditz: Boopsie, though she outgrew it upon getting married.
  • Dumb Blonde: Boopsie. See The Ditz.
  • Early Installment Weirdness: The series started out as a generic college-themed comic strip with the main characters being archtypes: Mike was the nerd, BD the jock, Zonkers was the hippie/slacker, and Mark was the resident rabble-rousing activist. The shift towards the political consciousness didn't occur until BD dropped out of college to fight in Vietnam (in order to escape having to take a class with a term paper final) and Duke was introduced. Even still, it wasn't until 1983 and the hiatus that the strip dumped the college status quo and moved the kids into the real world (as well as to move towards a real time format of the characters aging and such.
  • Expy, several: Rick Redfern and Duke started out as these.
  • Fake Ultimate Hero: Jeff Redfern as the Red Rascal.
  • Fourth Wall Mail Slot: Either in the Sunday strips or in the yearly "Mailbag Week"
  • Freudian Excuse: J.J. was "raised" by an absentee mother Joan, who was constantly abandoning her and emotionally abusing her via letting her know that she wasn't that important compared to her mom's career.
  • From Nobody to Nightmare: Jeff Redfern; the son of supporting cast member Rick Redfern, Jeff went from little kid to Zipper's sidekick who ultimately got tired of the slacker lifestyle and (to Zipper's anger) actually graduated from college. Then he went on to become a horribly incompetent CIA agent who was ultimately fired for his screw-ups, which led to the Red Rascal fraud, and in the process becoming a completely unlikable asshole willing to say or do anything for fame and a chance to live out his fantasies of being a black ops agent.
  • Funny Background Event
  • Gay Conservative: Chase Talbott III, Mark's radio co-host and former partner.
  • Godwin's Law: Deconstructed in reference to Obama's health care plans.
  • Goofy Print Underwear: Skye tries to prove she isn’t evil by mentioning she wears Hello Kitty underwear.
  • Granola Girl: Several. After all, the cast lived in a commune for a while. JJ and Boopsie head the list, however.
  • Hulk Smash: Boopsie, when channeling Hunk-Ra.
  • Hypercompetent Sidekick: Honey Huan to Duke. Word of God says: "Ms. Huan is the only person standing between Duke and permanent incarceration, having devoted her considerable talents to the thankless task of protecting her imagined paramour from himself."
  • I Have No Son: The actual title of a 1970s collection of strips, which includes the line being spoken by Mark Slackmeyer's father.
  • Immune to Drugs: Again, DUKE!
  • In the Blood: Duke and his son Earl.
    • Deconstructed with Joanie and her children: her emotional abuse/neglect of J.J. turned her into a self-absorbed wreck that ultimately abandoned her daughter and husband for a slimeball biker. Yet when it came to her son Jeff, who she did her best to raise properly and avoid the mistakes she made with her daughter, she created an evil bigger monster.
  • Informed Judaism: In one of the older strips Daddy Slackmeyer tops off a rant at his son/disgrace with, "I bet you're even seeing some Jewish girl.." but Mark cuts in, "Dad, we're Jewish!!"
  • Invisible President: Various icons have been used over the years:
  • Kent Brockman News: Roland Hedley.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Mike Doonesbury's mother burns her Medicare card to protest Obama's health care reform and hurts her hand because of it; the karma comes when she can't get treatment without the Medicare card she burned.
    • Recently, one of the murderous dictators that Duke has been keeping in power has decided that he'll be living with Duke after he was deposed by his people and had to flee the country (against his will, as he remained ignorant until he was literally dragged out of the palace by the Red Rascal). So now Duke is forced to play slave for the dictator, simply so that he can get the money from the dictator to pay off the mercenary company that rescued him, lest he get stuck with the insanely expensive bill for said rescue.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: So many that occasionally they devote an entire Sunday strip to a chart which lets readers know how everyone is related to each other. To new readers, it may seem the show's huge cast has nothing in common, as they come from all walks of life, ages, races and even different countries. But every last character (except for caricatures of real people such as the President) is connected somehow to title character Mike Doonesbury, making him the strip's resident Kevin Bacon.
    • One of the chart strips had Zonker ask the reader "aren't you tired of keeping track of the gigantic number of characters in this feature? Aren't most 19th century Russian novels more intelligible?"
      • To the point where recently, two characters met for the first time on the internet.
    • When Jason Fox of FoxTrot "drafted" a website for the strip, it allowed the viewer to download a list of characters, but suggested a 56k or better connection. (It was the 90s.)
  • Long Runner: For those keeping count, Doonesbury is now into its eighth presidency.
    • Mike is now married to a character who first appeared as an infant in strips from the early 1970s.
  • Lysistrata Gambit: Inverted (Zeke threatens to freeze out JJ) and subverted ("Do you even know how blackmail works?").
  • Mirror Monologue
  • Morality Chain: Bopsie to B.D.
  • The Musical: Trudeau spent the hiatus writing a musical adaptation of the strip (with Elizabeth Swados) that had a short run on Broadway. The plot takes place before and during the core characters' graduation from Walden, thus setting up the post-hiatus aging of the characters.
  • Never Bareheaded: For many years, B.D. was never seen without his football helmet. When he was called up from the Army reserves for the Gulf War in 1991 he wore a military helmet instead. For decades he wore a helmet until it finally came off on April 21, 2004, when B.D. lost a leg while serving in Iraq. His only reflection on losing the helmet was on July 31, 2004, when he thought to himself: "Oh yeah, my helmet. What the hell was THAT all about?"
    • Also, Elmont and Zeke.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Politicians, mainly Presidents, routinely appear in this strip, but are either depicted as meaningful icons (such as a waffle, a cartoon bomb, or a floating feather), or simply represented as speech balloons coming out of the Capitol or the White House.
    • Also Duke is a thinly disguised and parodied and totally distorted Hunter S. Thompson. When Thompson died Duke experienced some strange things (well, not too strange for him).
    • John Negroponte was called by his nickname "Proconsul" and portrayed as a guy dressing in Roman attire.
  • No Name Given: The initials B.D. don't appear to stand for anything.
    • That's because he's another of the expies, for old Yale football hero Brian Downing. They've diverged a lot over the years.
    • When B.D. is about to get married, and somebody asks for his last name, he says just: "D". His wife is later sometimes referred/addressed as "Mrs. D".
    • We also don't know Duke's surname.
      • Duke is his last name. He's Raoul Duke.
      • According to Duke, he has no last name. On his first day of school, he was dropped off by his mother with a nametag that said "Duke" and never picked him up.
      • Of course, this is coming from Duke.
  • One Degree of Separation: Seen most recently where Toggle meets Alex over the internet.
    • It's also lampshaded. BD, on discovering that Toggle is dating Alex, says, "She's my college roommate's kid! That's crazy! What are the odds?" The narration replies, "Pretty good, actually. It's a comic strip."
  • One-Two Punchline: Doonesbury was the first newspaper comic strip to regularly use this, and was directly or indirectly the inspiration for most modern uses.
  • Precision F-Strike: B.D. on learning he lost a leg.

B.D.: Son of a bitch!

  • OOC Is Serious Business: The only time Zeke is ever seen with his hat off and eyes showing is when his car is run off a cliff and lands upside down, making the hat fall off.
  • Real Life: When Joanie graduated from Yale University, the real Yale actually had her picture appear in the yearbook, and Trudeau himself got to give a speech at the graduation (as well as pick up her diploma).
    • Alex Doonesbury appears in the real-life MIT email directory.
  • Refuge in Audacity: A comparatively subtle example, if such a thing can be imagined. Jeff's fantasies as "The Red Rascal" aren't taken seriously even within the context of the strip, so it might take the reader a while to fully grasp that in one of them, printed in family-friendly newspapers across America, he disemboweled a Mook in full color.
  • Series Hiatus: See above.
  • Sexual Extortion: Melissa, a female soldier teased as B.D.'s love interest, turns out to be in therapy after having been forced into sex by a senior officer. The strip goes surprisingly in-depth on the various conflicts she feels ("I suffered sexual assault for my country?").
  • Shady Real Estate Agent: What Duke becomes in the musical as he buys Walden intending to knock it down to build condos. He tries to talk Zonker into joining him.

Zonker/Duke Is it easy?/Hard to hate!/Is it sleasy?/Just partake!/Can I hack it?/Piece of cake!/(Both) What a racket!

  • The Slacker: Zonker Harris, and in more recent years, his nephew Zipper as well.
  • Soapbox Sadie: Alex and Kim.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: When the two gay radio commentators get married on an airplane, they're serenaded by a gay men's choir singing "I Want It That Way" by The Backstreet Boys -- a break up song. Sure enough, the two get divorced a few years later. They still work together, though.
  • Stopped Caring: President King of Walden after the early nineties.
  • Straight Man: For Mike, it should be written as Painfully Straight Man.
    • Rick Redfern to his son Jeff.
  • Strawman Political: Somewhat unavoidable by the nature of the strip, and rarely avoided.
  • Suddenly Sexuality: Mark Slackmeyer was written as a girl chaser in the strip's first two decades.
  • Sunday Strip
  • Tactful Translation: Honey Huan's original purpose was translating and "softening" Duke's speeches and words during his stint as ambassador to China.
    • Her previous assignment was as translator to Mao himself. She revealed to Duke that she was one of the few people who still understood him with his rural dialect and health problems, and even she wasn't sure what he said sometimes. Specifically, she's afraid that she might have caused the Cultural Revolution by mistranslating a lunch order.
      • Not to mention her having to take Mao's indecisive nature into account when she translated for him. One occasion had him tell her to send word for the Great Wall of China to be destroyed. The next day, he told her that he changed his mind and that he wanted the entire Wall rebuilt exactly as it was. Honey reveals that she gave neither order and ends the story with "He thinks I'm a genius" (to which Duke replies "In a way, Honey, you are.")
  • Take That: In the 00s, there were many strips that took a negative view on Zonker; from Zonker being yelled at by his illegal immigrant co-worker at a fast food restaurant over the fact that Zonker was a burnt out hippie working a minimum wage job while all of his friends were successful professionals (which was what said co-worker longed to be), to his disdain at being asked to help his best friend BD (who was letting him live rent free with his family on the condition that he babysit for them from time to time) to help out after BD lost his leg during the Iraq war.
  • T-Word Euphemism: Played with when Lacey Davenport's political opponent challenged her to mutual drug tests -- "Any time! Any place! I will fill any bottle!". When Lacey's husband commented dryly, "It would appear the contest has turned into a p---ing match," Davenport replied, "A what? You know I can't understand you when you use hyphens, dear."
  • The Unfair Sex: Inverted: JJ left dependable nice guy Mike for complete loser Zeke, and is portrayed as a fool for doing so.
  • The Unpronounceable: The leader of Berzerkistan, Trff Bmzklfrpz.
  • Wham! Episode: Several over the years; most recently, the loss of B.D.'s leg in Iraq.
    • Mother Doonesbury's recent and sudden death.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Zipper is noticeably disturbed by Jeff's plan to hold Trff Bmzklfrpz hostage after they airlift him out of Berzerkistan and murder him if their demands aren't met.
  • Xanatos Roulette: Uncle Duke runs these routinely. Results vary wildly; sometimes he succeeds beyond all expectations (Duke sends a letter to the White House and somehow ends up getting appointed ambassador to China) sometimes he fails spectacularly (Duke tries to finance a movie by selling a huge shipment of cocaine... to an undercover FBI agent.)