For 15 years, “The Far Side” added a dash of irreverence to the funny pages. Offbeat, macabre, and sometimes controversial, Gary Larson’s trailblazing cartoon was a gigantic success that ran in nearly 2000 newspapers at the height of its popularity. It also gave an entire generation of humorists a renewed appreciation for cow jokes.
Here are 11 things you should know about this highly-evolved comic strip.
A native of Tacoma, Washington, Gary Larson was born on August 14, 1950. At a very young age, he developed the passion for wildlife that would give “The Far Side” its unique flavor. In his early years, Larson spent countless hours chasing amphibians and nurturing pet snakes. So when he enrolled at Washington State University, his decision to major in biology surprised no one. But halfway through college, Larson’s focus shifted. “I didn’t want to go to school for more than four years, and I didn’t know what you did with a bachelor’s degree in biology, so I switched over and got my degree in communications,” he told The New York Times. “It was one of the most idiotic things I ever did.” Had he pursued a scientific career, Larson says that he’d want to become an entomologist.
After graduating, he landed a job at a record store. Dissatisfied with the gig, Larson began to draw bizarre, single-panel cartoons in his spare time. One day in 1976, he presented six of these to the editor of the popular Seattle magazine Pacific Search. The half-dozen comics were swiftly bought up (for $3 apiece) and published under the title “Nature’s Way.” Following his print debut, Larson took a three-year hiatus from cartooning. Then, in 1979, The Seattle Times agreed to revive “Nature’s Way” as a weekly comic strip. Riding high on newfound success, Larson decided to see if any other publications might be interested in his work. The quest began—and ended—with a visit to the San Francisco Chronicle’s headquarters. Editor Stan Arnold took an immediate liking to Larson’s comic strip and successfully got it syndicated nationwide.
Early on in the process, Larson was asked if he’d mind changing the titlefrom “Nature’s Way” to “The Far Side.” Mildly put, this wasn’t a problem; Larson once joked that for all he cared, “They could have called it ‘Revenge of the Zucchini People.’” “The Far Side” that we all know and love made its grand debut in newspapers across America in January, 1980.
2. FROM THE GET-GO, GARY LARSON DIDN’T WANT “THE FAR SIDE” TO INCLUDE RECURRING CHARACTERS.
Chronicle Features syndicated “The Far Side” and asked Larson to embrace at least one aspect of the standard comic strip formula before it was distributed nationally. “They… wanted me to develop characters like Charlie Brown or something [who] would always come back,” the cartoonist said in a 1998 NPR interview. At the time, he explains, it was widely believed that every strip needed a cast in order to be successful. Larson felt otherwise.
“I instinctively thought of that as very limiting,” Larson explained. “And I also just didn’t see humor as something that had to be confined to one particular character. To me, what was exciting was trying to do something that would crack someone up. And I didn’t see how characters or a particular character enhanced that. In fact, I think it would work against it in some cases. A certain face on a character would work in one instance but not in another. Although admittedly, as the years went by, all my stuff got boiled down to about six faces.”
3. AN ODD CHILDREN’S BOOK WAS ONE OF LARSON’S BIGGEST INSPIRATIONS.
You need a fairly warped imagination to come up with things like teenage dragons lighting their sneezes. “The Far Side” brand of comedy took some of its cues from Larson’s family and what he has described as their “morbid sense of humor.” Older brother Dan Larson left a particularly big impact on his developing mind: When the two weren’t out collecting tadpoles or salamanders together, Dan would pull all sorts of pranks on his younger sibling. “[He’d] scare the hell out of me,” the cartoonist said.
Another influence was the picture book Mr. Bear Squash-You-All-Flat by Morrell Gipson. True to its title, the story is about a large bear who goes around sitting on other animals’ houses. In 1986, the TV program 20/20ran a feature on Larson. Halfway through the interview, he was visibly delighted when Lynn Sherr surprised him with a copy of the then-out-of-print book. “There was something so mesmerizing about the image of this big bear going through the forest and squashing the homes of these little animals,” Larson said. “I just thought that was the coolest thing in the world.”
4. ONE EARLY STRIP CONFUSED SO MANY READERS THAT LARSON HAD TO EXPLAIN ITS MEANING IN A PRESS RELEASE.
With “The Far Side,” Larson turned bovine jokes into a real cash cow. From gags about vacationing cattle to the exploits of a bloodthirsty vampcow, the strip was loaded with heifer hilarity. “I’ve always thought the word cow was funny,” Larson said. “And cows are sort of tragic figures. Cows blur the line between tragedy and humor.”
Every so often, though, this affinity for the hoofed mammals got him into trouble. In 1982, Larson drew a cartoon that was supposed to satirize the outdated anthropological belief that, of all creatures, only Homo sapiens makes tools. The strip in question shows a cow presenting an assortment of low-tech gadgets she’s built. Larson’s caption reads, simply, “Cow Tools.” Some people didn’t get the joke. In fact, hardly anyone did. Chronicle Features was bombarded with letters and phone calls from confused readers begging for an explanation. Within 24 hours of the strip’s publication, Larson was asked to write a press release explaining its significance to the masses.
That October, his official statement appeared in newspapers throughout the U.S. “The cartoon was meant to be an exercise in silliness,” it claims. Larson goes on to say “I regret that my fondness for cows, combined with an overactive imagination, may have carried me beyond what is comprehensible to the average ‘Far Side’ reader.” Embarrassing as this incident was, Larson got the last laugh. On more than one occasion, he’s credited the “Cow Tools” debacle with boosting the popularity of “The Far Side.”
5. “THE FAR SIDE” GAVE BIRTH TO A WIDELY-USED PALEONTOLOGY TERM.
Stegosaurus is world-famous for its lime-sized brain and the quartet of nasty-looking spikes on its tail. A 1982 “Far Side” strip decided to have a little fun with the latter attribute. In that cartoon, we find an early human anachronistically lecturing his fellow cavemen about dinosaur-related hazards. Pointing at the rear end of a Stegosaurus diagram, he says “Now this end is called the thagomizer … after the late Thag Simmons.” Without meaning to, Larson’s strip plugged a gap in the scientific lexicon. Previously, nobody had ever given a name to the unique arrangement of tail spikes found on Stegosaurus and its relatives. But today, many paleontologists use the word “thagomizer” when describing this apparatus, even in scientific journals.
6. FANS OF THE STRIP HAVE NAMED THREE DIFFERENT INSECTS AFTER GARY LARSON.
In 1989, entomologist Dale Clayton discovered a brand new species of biting louse that exclusively targets owls. When the time came to name it, his first choice was Strigiphilus garylarsoni. Clayton wrote the cartoonist to ask for his blessing. This proposed insect name, he explained, was the scientist’s way of recognizing the “enormous contribution that my colleagues and I feel you have made to biology through your cartoons.” Larson happily gave Clayton the green light. “I considered this an extreme honor,” the “Far Side” creator said in retrospect. “Besides, I knew that nobody was going to write and ask to name a new species of swan after me.”
Indeed, scientific nomenclature has yet to give us a “Larson’s swan.” However, in addition to Strigiphilus garylarsoni, there’s now a beetle called Garylarsonus and a butterfly known as Serratoterga larsoni.
7. ONE COMIC TOOK SOME HEAT FROM THE JANE GOODALL INSTITUTE.
“Well, well—another blonde hair … Conducting a little more ‘research’ with that Jane Goodall tramp?” A sassy chimpanzee makes this remark while grooming her mate in a 1987 “Far Side” comic. The one-liner started a controversy that erupted and then vanished in record time. Shortly after the cartoon ran, Larson’s syndicate received an angry letter from the Jane Goodall Institute’s executive director. Its author minced no words. “To refer to Dr. Goodall as a tramp is inexcusable—even by a self-described ‘loony’ such as Larson,” read the dispatch.
“I was horrified,” Larson wrote in The Prehistory of The Far Side: A 10thAnniversary Collection. “Not so much from a fear of being sued … but because of my deep respect for Jane Goodall and her well-known contributions to primatology. The last thing in the world I would have intentionally done was offend Dr. Goodall in any way.”
But in a stunning turn of events, it turns out that Goodall herself loved the comic. “I thought it was very funny. And I think if you make a Gary Larson cartoon, boy you’ve made it,” she said. The chimpanzee expert claimed that she was away in Africa when the director lashed out at Larson’s syndicate without her knowledge. Later, the “offending” cartoon appeared on special T-shirts that generated cash for the Institute. Also, Larson got the chance to visit one of Goodall’s research facilities in 1988. Here, he met a chimp named Frodo—who apparently wasn’t a “Far Side” fan. Without warning, Frodo pounced on an unsuspecting Larson, leaving the artist with a patchwork of scrapes and bruises.
8. AN OHIO NEWSPAPER SWITCHED THE CAPTIONS FROM “DENNIS THE MENACE” AND “THE FAR SIDE”—TWICE.
The Dayton Daily News committed an unforgettable funny page blunder in August, 1981. Back then, the paper would run “The Far Side” right next to the more traditional “Dennis the Menace.” On that fateful August day, their captions were switched. “The Far Side” strip now showed a young snake who kvetches at the family dinner table by saying “Lucky I learned to make peanut butter sandwiches or we woulda starved to death by now.” Elsewhere, Dennis Mitchell—who’s munching on a sandwich of his own—groans “Oh brother … Not hamsters again!”
“What’s most embarrassing about this is how immensely improved both cartoons turned out to be,” Larson opined in The Prehistory of The Far Side. Somebody at the Dayton Daily News made the same mistake two years later. This time, readers were confronted with a psychic cavewoman asking “If I get as big as Dad, won’t my skin be too TIGHT?” Dennis Mitchell, meanwhile, casually looked his mother in the eye and said “I see your little, petrified skull … labeled and resting on a shelf somewhere.”
9. TWO ANIMATED “FAR SIDE” SHORTS EXIST.
CBS aired a 20-minute program called Gary Larson’s Tales From the Far Side in 1994. Conceived as a Halloween special, the film was essentially an animated reinterpretation of several classic “Far Side” cartoons. Marv Newland—an animator whose best-known work is the Larson-esque short film Bambi Meets Godzilla (1969)—directed Tales, which won a Grand Prix award at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival. The year 1997 brought with it a sequel, Gary Larson’s Tales From the Far Side II. By then, the comic strip which inspired both movies had been laid to rest, as Larson retired in 1995. He has said that the two animated projects presented an interesting challenge because he “didn’t want any dialogue” in the finished products.
10. A “FAR SIDE” MUSEUM EXHIBIT OPENED IN 1985.
Natural History Magazine once called Gary Larson “the unofficial cartoonist laureate of the scientific community.” For physicists, biologists, and naturalists around the world, his work is the subject of near-universal admiration. By the mid-1980s, numerous hallways in the San Francisco-based California Academy of Sciences had basically been wallpapered with “Far Side” cartoons. Inspired by this décor, the facility got the bright idea to set up a special exhibit in Larson’s honor. Dubbed “The Far Side of Science,” it featured some 600 individual cartoons. The display first opened at the CAS in December, 1985 then traveled through such cities as Los Angeles, Denver, and Orlando—often breaking attendance records along the way.
11. LARSON HAS LIKENED HIS OTHER BIG PASSION—MUSIC—TO CARTOONING.
A lifelong jazz fan, Larson would frequently listen to the work of genre maestros when he needed to generate ideas for “Far Side” comics. He ranks legendary guitarist Herb Ellis among his favorite musicians. In 1989, Ellis asked Larson if he’d design the cover of his next album, which was to be named “Doggin’ Around.” The humorist took the job—in exchange for a guitar lesson. Nowadays, with “The Far Side” (mostly) in his rear view mirror, Larson dedicates a portion of each day to honing his skills as a jazz guitarist.
This new pursuit, he says, isn’t all that different from drawing comics. “It has some parallels to cartooning because it’s improvisational—you never know exactly how something is going to turn out,” Larson told the Associated Press. “Taking a solo on a tune is always a little bit scary. Yet it has structure, there are certain rules to follow, and you try to create something with those rules.”