From the Far Side

Larson-0Those with a life-long interest in what is now called STEM are almost universally fans of cartoonist Gary Larson. It is almost unheard of to walk into the work space of any science or technology worker and not find a few of Larson’s cartoons posted.

For me, Larson is up there with people like Terry Pratchett as being brilliant observers of the human condition and also brilliant in their ability to express their observations. Some of Larson’s work is just plain funny (really funny), but a lot of it is philosophical and extremely insightful.

For some Friday Fun, I thought I’d show you some of my all-time favorites.

The God at His computer one is an old favorite that is more on the really funny side than the incredibly insightful side (which are both on The Far Side). I love the use of the old piano cliché. (I suppose they really do use cranes to haul pianos to upper floors of buildings, but it is a cliché that goes way back.)

And ya just gotta love the [Smite] button!

Larson-1The one that inspired this post is this one (to the right). It sums up, in a single-panel cartoon, one of the key things that distinguishes humans.

In the short-hand of my mind, I’ve always called both the cartoon and the process “Remember that spot.”

On some level, this is what science is all about. Remember that spot!

Or the other side of that coin: Don’t do that again! We remember what works, and we remember what doesn’t.

More importantly, we build on those things. Animals learn and remember. Some animals even use tools. What they don’t do is make significant improvements over time. That’s actually the more important part — the really human part — of Remember that spot!

Larson-2I’ve referred to this next one (both as a student and as a teacher) at least as often as the one above.

It takes the idea of a full bladder, for which you might well need to be excused, and applies it in a really funny way.

And also in an insightful true way (which, at the risk of hyperbole) is the brilliance of Gary Larson. Funny and insightful. (Likewise Pratchett.)

There is also that their underlying sensibility allows me to feel like I’m not entirely alone, that others see the same world I do.

Given that I frequently feel like I’m locked in an insane asylum with folks that have gotten a little too much ECT, that’s an important gift in my eyes.

Larson-3Many of Larson’s cartoons involve animals, and in particular, the relationship with humans as well as the contrasts between animals and humans.

This next one suggests exactly what I’ve long suspected. I’ll bet most dog owners will agree!

If I didn’t like the ones above so much, as a dog-lover, this (or possibly the next) one would be my top favorite. As it is, they’re all in my Top Five.

[I’ve mentioned before that I’m terrible at picking Top Favorites of just about anything. I always have to resort to Top Five or Top Ten (or sometimes Top Twenty).

And when it comes to music, the best I can do is, like, Top Hundred, and I’m not sure even that’s enough. With movies, I can sort of keep it down to the Top Twenty-Five (or so).]

Larson-4Here’s one that’s so good it’s a greeting card.

And, again, it’s probably something any dog-lover will recognize.

Among the Larson cognoscenti one only needs to say, “Blah, blah, blah, Ginger!” to invoke a knowing smile.

It doesn’t appear on that many cubical walls, but it’s on an awful lot of home refrigerators! (I personally know of at least two.)

There is a version for cats.

As I recall, in that one, the cat just hears “blah, blah, blah.” I get the impression Larson is more a “dog person” than a “cat person” (another reason to love him — cats are nasty, feral, and soulless).

If you’re familiar with his Cat Fud (“food”) cartoon, you know what I mean (a friend of mine once sent that one as a greeting card).

Larson-5This next one is a bit of a classic and epitomizes how Larson contrasts humans and animals.

And also how a lot of his cartoons involve cows (well, you have to admit, cows are funny).

I’ve been unable to find any posted version of another favorite of mine that I’ll mention now that we’re in the barnyard zone of The Far Side.

That’s the one with a farmer giving a physics lecture to his animals. The caption reads, “Imagine a spherical cow.”

It’s a reference to how, in physics, scientists often simplify a situation in order to examine certain aspects without needing to bother with ones that don’t really apply.

The problem, of course, is that no simplified system is quite the same as the original, so one always has to be aware that “toy” simulations may not give entirely valid results.

Larson-6Now we leave the barnyard for the woods, although we’ll stick with animal subjects. In this case, deer.

A lot of Larson’s work involves wild animals as well as domesticated ones. (The guy is clearly an animal lover!)

The key thing about deer is that they’re prey. They’re hunted (and not just by humans). I call them “tree cows.” Most of Larson’s deer cartoons do involve hunting.

I have a hunting buddy (who calls them “woods cows”) who especially loves this one. Just say, “Bummer of a birthmark, Hal!” to him and watch him crack up (but it’s not his favorite — see below).

Larson-7This next one is very similar to the last one. It’s the strange idea that animals know (on a very human level) that they’re being hunted.

I almost used another one here except that I already had one involving deer.

In this other one, a deer (standing upright, of course) is hiding behind a tree while a hunter lurks in the trees in the background.

The deer is thinking to itself, “He’s trying to shoot me, all right… Do I know this guy? I’ve got to think!”

How many movies have you seen where a hero suddenly finds himself (or herself) fleeing from killers without knowing exactly why? Hitchcock’s North by Northwest might be a canonical example here.

Larson-8Larson has also done a number of cartoons involving polar bears. This is probably the most classic of those.

The caption always cracks me up just a little! It’s just so perfect!

There’s another where one bear has tilted the igloo up nearly to 90 degrees while the other stands near where the entrance was. We see a trail of foot prints leading away to a fleeing Eskimo.

The caption reads, “I lift, you grab. … Was that concept just a little too complex, Carl?”

How do you not just love wild animals named Hal and Carl?

I think that’s part of Larson’s charm. The animals often get their own strokes in. It’s not all on the side of the humans. (In reality, many of Larson’s animal cartoons are indictments of human behavior.)

Larson-9Just to set up the last one, here’s one where the humans lose big time and the cockroaches win.

We’ve all heard since grade school about how cockroaches will outlive nuclear war (and they very likely would). Leave it to Larson to make a cartoon of it!

As with much of his work, no caption is necessary. That’s pure visual storytelling, and Larson is very good at it!

I should mention that, obviously, these are all copyrighted works by Gary Larson. Further, Larson has asked his fans to not re-post his work on the internet. (Oops.)

I’m claiming fair use and hopefully making the ‘toons themselves small enough to qualify as “low resolution” (I realize they’re a little big to be “thumbnails”).

In compensation, let me urge you to go buy at least one of Gary Larson’s 23 The Far Side books. Do it right now! I own seven, myself. (I’d own more, but when I’m in the bookstore, I can never remember which ones I already have.)

It would be a close call between Gary Larson, Walt Kelly (Pogo), Berke Breathed, (Bloom County) or Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes) as to which cartoonist’s works I’d take to that proverbial desert isle, but I think Larson would win (if just by a nose).



My buddy, who is even more into fishing than he is hunting, just loves this one! It’s every fisherman’s dream. Well, sorta. The nuclear war part… that’s a bit of a bummer, Hal.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

6 responses to “From the Far Side

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    It was a sad day when Larson retired. Unfortunately his work is slipping over the horizon. Many of the younger tech workers aren’t familiar with it anymore.

    I think the God one is both hilarious and insightful. It makes you think about the very concept of God. (Or at least, it made me think about it.)

    Here’s my all time favorite.

    Caption: “Say…What’s a mountain goat doing up here in a cloud bank?”

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yeah, 1995 was also the year Bill Watterson stopped drawing Calvin and Hobbes. Reminds me vaguely of how we’ve lost Colbert, Letterman, and Stewart, in short succession. It’s sad that 20 years puts his work over the horizon, but it taps into exactly what we were talking about recently: The impermanence of mainstream art in the interweb era.

      I’ve said it often: The interweb river is broad and deep, but it’s also fast. Today’s Big Things are swept downriver rapidly and by tomorrow are largely forgotten. People protest that “it was ever thus,” but I am increasingly of the opinion those people are ostriches. Here’s just one tiny example of how the world has changed: Even among those deeply prone to revere his work, a mere 20 years sweeps it away.

      Call me Cassandra, but I think our society is in big, big trouble. (I’m kind of glad I never had kids. It’s possible we’ll get through it, but it’s also possible we won’t.)

      The goat cartoon is good. What makes it an all-time favorite?

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Or to put it another way, I still love the work of Charles Addams and Gahan Wilson! I wonder how many people today could even tell you who they are (even with the huge “Addams” name hint), let alone remember their seminal work.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        This seems like a variation of our discussion on another thread. I think the most notable samples of art will be preserved, but a lot will be forgotten. I do think it was ever thus. Who remembers all the penny dreadfuls from the 19th century, or the pulp stories of the 20s-50s, except a few of the very best of them?

        On the plus side, if you do hear about any of these things, you have a better chance today of finding a copy of it than ever before. I don’t know if Larson’s books are in any of my local bookstores anymore, but I’m confident I could get a copy from Amazon, B&N online, or Ebay. When I was a boy, a comic that hadn’t been produced in 20 years would have been out of print and probably forgotten.

        What makes that one an all time favorite? Well, it’s darkly funny (like all of his cartoons), but there’s also something about the pilot’s question which has the answer inherent in it, but that he’s refusing to see, I find representative of a pretty basic human tendency: to believe what we want to believe, and to be blind to what we don’t want to believe.

        I have to admit to not knowing who Gahan Wilson is, but I do know Charles Addams, though it’s only through articles about the origins of the Addams Family.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “I do think it was ever thus.”

        So I gather. 😀

        It’s probably best to just file this under topics we don’t see similarly. (There’s always chaff; it’s the quality of the wheat that I’m talking about.)

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