In celebration of Gary Larson on his birthday, August 14, take a deep, dark dive into the life of the beloved creator of ‘The Far Side’ cartoons.
The Far Side. The recognizable rectangle cartoon that donned so many high school biology teachers’ doors and probably still does. In 2003 Gary Larson, the cartoon’s creator, told Time, “I’m not into cartoons. That’s the irony of it.” He’s said his true love is jazz guitar, but it was his cartoons that gained enormous fandom that continues to this day.
Larson’s cartoons were in over 1,900 newspapers. His work is on T-shirts, calendars and mugs. There’s an active Facebook page with over 60,000 followers.
In 1986 20/20 interviewed him and had his mother read his favorite childhood book about a mean bear that inspired his work.
But what else do we know about Larson? What’s he up to nowadays? Visit his website and you’ll feel like you’re still on dial-up in 1997.
Gary Larson is one of those not-famous famous people. I imagine a cashier in a Seattle health food store ringing him out for a jar of pickles (I don’t know if Gary Larson likes pickles) with no idea of who he is. Or maybe the neighborhood kids are dared to ring his doorbell at Halloween because they hear a famous cartoonist lives there but no one’s ever seen him.
His heyday was 30 years ago. When 20/20 interviewed him while he fed penguins, they asked if he really did like animals more than humans, to which he nonchalantly responded, “Yes.”
A self-proclaimed shy guy who’s long retired and likes animals more than humans isn’t especially interested in chatting about his legacy, so I’ve tried to take every version of getting to know Gary Larson, outside of talking to him, and use it to better understand the man behind cartoons that still tell some universal joke about the world as we know it.
Why do I care? Honestly, because I’d sure love to see a Larson take on 2017. I like to think he’d appreciate the following creepy look into the tunnels of his life, amid sludge and rodents, where we explore by flashlight…
Gary Larson Tunnel 1: From the Mouths of Accomplished Admirers
“His work — like superior humor and music the world over — is capable of blowing the lid off of some hidden, weeded-over, back-alley regions of ourselves,” wrote Al Young, on a back-cover review for Night of the Crash-Test Dummies.
Al Young is an influential poet laureate, novelist and professor. And you can’t help but ask: A cartoonist, more specifically, Gary Larson — the one who made the weird cow and controversial Jane Goodall jokes — blowing the lid off the back-alley regions of ourselves? Whoa, really? How did Gary Larson impact people on this level? What was it about a vampire watching infomercials about blood types, and dogs talking to psychologists about their fear of mailmen, that revealed these hidden regions of ourselves?
Well, it seemed these characters spoke to something and to lots of someones.
Stephen Jay Gould studied land snails. He was a paleontologist and taxonomist. In the foreword to The Far Side Gallery 3, he wrote, “I know something remarkable (and worthy of sharing) about Gary Larson… Gary Larson is a virus spreading through our country… I think that 80% of my colleagues’ doors now sport a Larson cartoon… But simple chuckles do not explain why we have spontaneously chosen Gary Larson as national humorist of natural history. He has won informal acclamation because he understands science so well… I refer to the subtle nuances and insights, sometimes several per cartoon — showing that Gary Larson knows the intimate details of our daily lives and practices.”
A cartoonist that could capture the life of renowned scientists, poets and average Joes. Part of this stemmed from his childhood fascination with the natural world. He regretted being a communications major and used his cartoons as a vehicle for accessing his love for science, while still playing with universal themes.
He also simply appealed to a niche audience who didn’t have their own humorist yet.
The world’s leading expert on myrmecology (the study of ants) Edward Osborne Wilson called Larson “America’s Aesop.” In his foreword for There’s a Hair in My Dirt, Wilson says Larson helps us (through a primal response called laughter) to better understand nature and treat it with respect. In fact, sharing scientists’ great concern for the environment, Larson has donated a significant amount of earnings from his cartoons to conservation efforts.
A whole scientific community named a biting louse (yeah, it’s a type of lice that feeds on only owls) and a butterfly after him.
Gary Larson Tunnel 2: The Cosmos
Larson was born on August 14, which makes him a Leo, a group of people who are often described as blunt, sincere, courageous. Okay, check.
He was born in 1950, the Year of the Tiger in the Chinese Zodiac. The people born in these years are known to boldly express themselves. They’re known to be respected by others and often have careers as writers, artists, comedians and chauffeurs. Chills? Me too. Yeah, the chauffeur thing is weird.
Tigers in the Chinese Zodiac aren’t particularly eager to communicate with others, either.
Side note: Does being a Leo and being born in the Year of the Tiger make you a real-deal Liger?
Gary Larson Tunnel 3: In His Words
Gary Larson does lend subtle insight about himself throughout his books. In Last Chapter and Worse Larson compiles the cartoons taken from his final six months of newspaper syndication, plus a few added bonuses of never-before-published work.
In the final section called “…and Worse,” Gary explains “the seminal moment when I discovered the wonder and magic of art.” He redraws the same thing his father drew for him as a child: an illustrated story that ends with an ambigram punch line that reveals an image of a woman leaning over to put on her girdle.
Gary concludes: “Yes, not unlike my friends’ parents who were dragging them to museums, flashing multiplication cards in their faces, and driving them to piano lessons, my dad was my bystander when it came to his own kids’ development.” He implies his father gave him his introduction to the world of humor, and it’s been said that his brothers helped amplify his fear of monsters in the basement.
The PreHistory of The Far Side gives readers the closest look into Larson’s life. He decided to leave his job at a record store, where he described angels coming down to sing, “You haaate your job.” He writes about the interesting success story of becoming syndicated by the San Francisco Chronicle, which changed the name of his strip from Nature’s Way to The Far Side.
The PreHistory shows Larson’s initial sketches and polished revisions. He reveals missteps in captions and drawings. He emphasizes accuracy, detail and wording.
He talks about some of his controversial cartoons and the public response. One such cartoon was called “Cow tools”: “For the first time ‘Cow Tools’ awakened me to the fact that my profession was not just an isolated exercise in the corner of my apartment… Everyone, it seemed, wanted to know what in the world this cartoon meant!”
Although he thought his career was over after having to clarify this toon, he only grew in popularity and better understood the meaning he created for others.
“So, in summary,” he wrote, “I drew a really weird, obtuse cartoon that no one understood and wasn’t funny and therefore I went on to even greater success and recognition. Yeah — I like this country.”
Which Gary Larson cartoon is your favorite?