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Summary

  • Gary Larson’s
    The Far Side
    comics are marked by some characteristic obsessions.
  • Larson often uses cavemen and cows in his work, believing they blur the line between humor and tragedy. Aliens, evil ducks, and sad-sack scientists also appear often.
  • Larson has a command of language and a love of storytelling, however he’s not afraid to go for outright slapstick humor.

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Gary Larson’s The Far Side has more than earned its place as the ultimate newspaper gag strip. From comics parodying iconic movies to strips detailing the unseen lives of insects and fish, there’s a Larson comic for every subject and occasion. However, there’s a difference between the average Far Side entry and those which perfectly capture the soul of the franchise.

Here, then, are 20 comics which perfectly capture Gary Larson’s favorite settings, recurring characters, and inimitable sense of humor. From cows to cavemen, science to slapstick, these are the comics that any Far Side fan would immediately identify as the result of Larson’s trademark humor – as well as some of his best of all time. Stick around to the end of the article for our reader poll on which of these comics is really the funniest.

20 “Car!”

It Isn’t The Far Side Without Larson’s Cows

THE FAR SIDE COMIC WHERE COWS SEE A CAR COMING AND STAND ON ALL FOUR, THEN GO BACK TO HAVING A HUMAN LIKE CONVERSATION

While Gary Larson long avoided specific recurring characters, he does have archetypal subjects who come back again and again in different circumstances, and different contexts – none more recognizable to Far Side fans than the humble cow. This comic combines Larson’s bovine muse with his favorite concept – animals secretly acting like humans.

There’s even a hint of The Far Side‘s barely perceptible air of menace – after all, why are the cows having secret meetings they don’t want humans to see? Larson explained his obsession with cows to The New York Times, saying he uses the animals so often because:

I’ve always thought the word cow was funny, and cows are sort of tragic figures. Cows blur the line between tragedy and humor.

19 Who Is The Real Sucker Here?

Nature Always Wins In The Far Side

Far Side, frog drives off happy as realtor says "another sucker just bought 20 acres of swamp land"

Another sucker just bought twenty acres of swampland,” the realtor says, meaning readers know he’s pulled this scam before. However, the reader can see the buyer driving away – and it is a frog.

This panel deftly manages to be one of Gary Larson’s most absurd, while at the same time being one of its most socially relevant. The humor centers on a shady realtor who thinks he got the better of a client – but the joke is, in fact, at his expense.

Another sucker just bought twenty acres of swampland,” the realtor says, meaning readers know he’s pulled this scam before. However, the reader can see the buyer driving away – and it is a frog. Ridiculous as is, this cartoon also reflects Larson’s underlying perspective on the unfortunate ills of commerce.

18 Roy Dooms the Earth

First Contact Is Classic Far Side Fodder

the far side roys shakes an alien's hand only to realize that's its head

As with all the recurring elements in the Far Side, his extraterrestrials exemplified Larson’s unique perspective on humanity.

While they can’t compare to Larson’s cows, aliens often appear in The Far Side, usually as agents of planetary destruction. The Far Side is special because its best jokes leave space for the reader to complete the joke – many other newspaper comics wouldn’t be able to help explaining why Roy felt the need to grab an alien’s head, but Larson completes the joke in the reader’s head rather than on the page.

As with all the recurring elements in the Far Side, his extraterrestrials exemplified Larson’s unique perspective on humanity, which treated humanity as utterly alien and bizarre as creatures from another world.

17 Witch Babysitter

Larson Stands by This Controversial Comic

the far side witch babysitter eats the children

Despite all the controversy, in The Pre-History of The Far Side, Gary Larson names this strip “one of [his] personal favorites.” As the creator explained, it’s so patently ludicrous he fails to see how someone could take genuine offense.

While The Far Side is seen as family fare, it has a morbid streak a mile wide, and plays with the idea of harm coming to children and/or animals surprisingly often. These are the strips that generated most controversy, with Larson admitting that he can understand the hate resulting from some of his darkest work.

Reflecting on this Far Side panel, Larson explained the detail that makes him love this strip’s humor even today – “they’re especially upset that the witch ate both their kids – as if to suggest one would have been pretty bad, but both is really unacceptable.”

16 Pinocchio Gets His Wish

Far Side Has a Major Grudge Against the Little Wooden Boy

Pinocchio may seem like an unusual target for Gary Larson to fixate on, but the little wooden boy gets brutalized more often than any other figure in The Far Side history. The idea of a puppet suddenly turning into flesh and blood is tailor-made for Gary Larson’s humor – it’s a set-up that introduces a change in the situation’s ‘rules’ that everyone instantly recognizes, allowing Larson the space to build on that juxtaposition rather than needing to create it.

Scratched by cats, savaged by beavers, and attacked by woodpeckers, it’s Pinocchio’s safari that nails Larson’s repeated gag the best. However, of the many times Gary Larson took on Disney, drowning Jiminy Cricket is undoubtedly the darkest.

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15 Cro-Magnon vs Neanderthal

Far Side’s Cavepeople Are as Ubiquitous as Its Cows

the far side caveman can't start a fire as a rival neanderthal offers a lighter

Larson often credits his readers with some knowledge of the natural world, and this Neanderthal/Cro-Magnon rivalry is an example of his respect for his fans’ intelligence. Larson’s minimalist faces are worth a thousand words – from the Cro-Magnon’s smarmy smile to Theena’s glee to Thak’s intense concentration – while a cave painting in the place of wall art is a painfully smart detail that doesn’t feel the need to draw attention.

Next to cows, cavepeople are The Far Side‘s biggest recurring stars, and this strip makes it clear why. By using humans at their most primitive, Gary Larson was able to highlight how far civilization has come – and how silly it has gotten.

14 The Future Comes Too Quickly Sometimes

Some Things Never Change In The Far Side

The Far Side, cavewoman fortune-teller: "I see your little petrified skull labeled and sitting on a shelf somewhere."

In another Far Side with a prehistoric premise, Gary Larson depicted the timeless art of prognostication – in which an unwitting Neanderthal gets an all-too-accurate glimpse at the future. There is also a subtle undercurrent of terror to this panel, as the character getting his fortune told would have zero context for what a museum is.

I see your little petrified skill…labeled and resting on a shelf somewhere,” the fortune-teller says. The humor comes from the familiar use of the crystal ball, this far back in time, her matter-of-fact delivery, and most of all, the look on her companion’s face, as he fails to comprehend what any of it means.

13 A Big Swing, A Bigger Miss

Something That Can’t Be Said Of Gary Larson’s Humor

Far Side, cymbal auditions

As this comic made clear for readers at the time, there was nothing too simple for Gary Larson to make into an ordeal.

In one of Gary Larson’s earliest Far Side installments, its absurdist streak was firmly established, as he depicted a man failing wildly at a “Cymbal Audition.” While it takes more precision to play the cymbals than some might realize, few novices would even fail to connect as spectacularly as this man does.

Hilariously, his hat flies off his head, and the lines drawn around the symbols evokes a “whoosing” of air, as he’s summarily dismissed with: “Next!” As this comic made clear for readers at the time, there was nothing too simple for Gary Larson to make into an ordeal.

12 His Collie, Shep

Larson Pushes the Boundaries of What a Single Image Can Do

the far side comic shephard discovers his collie shep is helping wolves steal sheep

Again, Larson tells a story that begins on the page and ends in the reader’s head, yet the defining detail here is setting the story within the boundaries of Farmer MacDougal’s binoculars. A less talented cartoonist could tell the same joke with a similar image of Shep chatting with the wolves.

However, by witnessing this moment through the eyes of an unseen character, suddenly the ‘story’ takes on a whole new layer of characterization, and the actual image becomes an integral moment in MacDougal’s realization. As a cartoonist, Gary Larson excelled at maximizing the potential of the limited space he worked within day-to-day.

Typically using only a single panel, The Far Side is a masterclass in using different elements to expand the information on offer – Larson loads the foreground and background with extra context wherever possible, or in this case makes even the perspective part of the joke.

11 Thagomizer

Larson’s Made-Up Term Is Now Scientific Reality

the far side comic that named the stegosaurus' tail spikes the thagomizer

Because of the insight and appreciation for nature that infuses his work, Gary Larson is beloved by scientists the world over – to the point he’s had multiple species of insect named in his honor. For all the appreciation Far Side’s Gary Larson got from the science community, he paid his science-loving readers back for their support by accidentally gifting them a new term, with the spikes on a stegosaurus’ tail now officially known as the ‘Thagomizer’ because of this comic.

A large fandom among scientists plus the lack of an existing term for the feature led to the term being adopted, although of course the conceptual joke at the heart of the comic is what really makes it something fans would want to reference.

10 “Does Someone Have a Hammer?”

Larson’s Slapstick Shouldn’t Be Ignored

the far side comic woman gets her head trapped in a martini glass

Easily the least famous comic on this list, this scene from an unfortunate dinner showcases an aspect of Larson’s humor that can’t be ignored – pure slapstick. While Larson is the master of the surreal situation and amusing animal gag, The Far Side alsoindulges in Tom and Jerry-style slapstick violence that warps the human (or animal) body past all limits.

However, the woman with her head trapped in her glass is the best of the bunch – both because of how outright funny the visual is and the calm, collected, almost certainly unearned confidence of the helpful diner who has apparently seen this situation several times before.

9 “You’ve Met Someone Else?”

Far Side Made the Desert Island Comic Famous

Gary Larson didn’t invent the cartoon desert island, but the concept has nevertheless become synonymous with his comics.

All Larson’s Far Side comics take place in a microcosmic universe; a single moment in a single location that tells the whole story. The desert island boils that truth down to its essence, trapping the characters in the one place where they’ll ever really ‘exist.’

While it’s too hard to choose Larson’s best desert island comic, ‘You’ve Met Someone Else?’ is up there – not just because the aggrieved man has somehow failed to notice his partner straying, but because of the genius detail that he never actually bothered to learn the name of the one other man on the island.

8 One Of The Far Side’s Most Tasteless Jokes

Hard To Swallow

Far Side, man stranded on island is tricked by Acme plastic fruit

This stands out as a prominent example of Gary Larson’s affinity for capturing a moment in which what is going to happen in the next moment is clear – and often, as is the case in this cartoon, going to be devastating. Gary Larson loved the “stranded on a desert island” trope, which appeared time and again in The Far Side, but this instance ranks among the most cruel.

Here, a presumably starving survivor raises his arms in exaltation as he cracks the lid on a box that has floated ashore, and finds produce. Only the side of the box reads, “ACME PLASTIC FRUIT,” meaning this unnamed character is just seconds from a crushing realization.

7 The Cartoon Symbol for Glass

The Far Side Has No Respect for the Fourth Wall

To its comedic benefit, The Far Side plays with its own form and ‘rules’ constantly, always using a single panel to explore the unseen past or future of a situation. However, Larson takes this further with multiple comics that break the fourth wall. In the first strip, above, Larson even makes himself the villain of the piece, as two explorers find themselves thwarted by “the international cartoon symbol for glass.”

While the strip where a boss reads his employee’s thought balloon may be funnier, Larson’s fondness for jungle explorers wandering into trouble makes this initial strip the most faithful to his recurring themes.

6 The Far Side Got People’s Attention By Paying Attention To People

Ever Notice How…

Far Side, cartoonist looking out the window at a building full of Far Side characters making faces at him

Building on the way Gary Larson played with the fourth wall, it is important to note that The Far Side is a product of observational humor. Just like the sitcom Seinfeld – which became a hit during the later years of Far Side’s run in publication – the absurdities and inanities of life were always Larson’s comedic focus.

This strip exemplifies that, as a creator of some kind – not explicitly a cartoonist like Larson, but certainly a writer – looks out the window and sees various people, all drawn in familiar Larson-esque style, making faces at him from their own windows.

5 Professor Schnabel’s Cleaning Lady

This Famous Far Side Comic Deserves the Hype

far side comic where cleaning lady goes back in time and is eaten by dinosaurs 2

One of The Far Side‘s most famous comics, the misadventures of Professor Schnabel’s cleaning lady utilizes several Larsonisms – from the name of the unseen professor to the inclusion of dinosaurs as humans’ natural predators, to the presence of his trademark beehive-haired woman.

The comic also showcases Larson’s perfect sense of framing – a nonplussed T-Rex, angry diplodocus and disinterested pteradon all make it clear that the human star of the panel is totally surrounded. The comic also brings in The Far Side‘s dark side, making it clear that this comic can only end in a grisly death, something all-too familiar to the frequently doomed denizens of the Far Side universe.

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4 “So, Professor Jenkins!”

Gary Larson Imagined Some Truly Evil Ducks

A return to the Far Side desert island may seem like cheating, but the focus of this entry is actually Larson’s preoccupation with evil ducks. Ducks star in some of the hands-down best Far Side comics – and ‘Anatidaephobia’ is a legitimate classic – however the combination of a mean-spirited mallard, a down-on-his-luck scientist, and two characters marooned on a desert island means poor Professor Jenkins is the obvious choice here.

My old nemesis!” the duck says to the dripping wet professor, “We meet again, but this time the advantage is mine!” As always, the pure of this Far Side scenario made it truly delightful.

Throughout Far Side, Gary Larson used ducks like he used everything else – to draw the crucial, and usually hilarious, distinction between humans and the rest of the world. Although, unlike some of his other favorite animals, ducks seemed to be particularly nefarious.

3 Missile Prank

Larson’s Best Comics Barely Need Words

the far side missile

Larson has plenty of comics which show scientists playing pranks on each other, but this one reigns supreme because of its mastery of physical comedy, as well as the pairing of twin ‘bangs’ which are likely to play out at very different scales.

Though Larson’s scientists may have certainly been hapless at times – as all his human characters were prone to be – he had a particular fondness for the field, and many hilarious Far Side strips relied on real science over the years. If there’s a criticism to be made of this near-perfect single-panel comic, it’s that readers could probably have been trusted to get the gag without the giant word ‘MISSILE’ printed across the weapon in question.

2 “Anyone See What Happened?”

Larson’s Chickens Are Perpetual Victims

Chickens tend to do badly in The Far Side, but only as a reflection of their often disappointing lot in real life.Inherently undignified, Gary Larson likes to put the humble chickens in loser situations, though like any of his animals, there are strips where they win out over humanity. One rare ‘draw’ sees a sheriff step into the middle of a cowboy vs chicken shootout, asking if anyone saw what happened.

The gag shows Larson’s deep understanding of his own skill at telling a story – he couldn’t have made it any clearer what just happened, which makes the sheriff’s confusion even funnier than the surreal ‘fight.’

1 The Penguin

Larson’s Purest Comic Is a Masterclass

the far side comic penguin slips on a banana peel

Perhaps the perfect Far Side comic, this strip is an obvious, immediate gag that only gets more satisfying with time. Drawing on a classic pratfall laugh, the comic also has fun with the visual idea of a penguin somehow missing a banana skin laid out on a vast expanse of snow. Larson frames the moment perfectly – with distance making it more feel more ludicrous – and gets the most out of his minimal art style, as the penguin’s vaguely furrowed brow invites the reader to imagine its reaction.

Fascinated with animals and characterized by a surreal whimsy and a dark preoccupation with unseen consequences, The Far Side‘s best comics remain as funny today as when they were created – precisely because they so perfectly communicate Gary Larson’s unique sense of humor.

Source: Natalie Angier, The New York Times; The Pre-History of The Far Side



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