50 Reasons to Subscribe to mental_floss (#45, Gary Larson)

Image credit: 

Gary Larson is a huge hero of mine. We begged and begged his handlers to ask him to draw a mental_floss cover for us, and though he refused, the Far Works group agreed to let us run a bio on him, and they were happy to fact check it for us. (Apparently, most of the other major bios on him on the web are filled with inaccuracies, including the piece I really loved from salon.) In any case, I figured there'd be a few of you out there who might enjoy this delicious work by Kelly Ferguson. Just in case you're unsure whether to read on, though, I've attached one of the two sidebars from the text here...

gary2.jpg

SIDEBAR 1: My Bologna Has a First Name
Picture 2.png Believe it or not, the Dayton Daily News has managed to switch the captions for "The Far Side" and "Dennis the Menace"—TWICE. In the more hilarious mix-up, both cartoons featured "kids" complaining about their food, but— because of the typo — "The Far Side" panel featured a young snake griping to his parents with the line: "Lucky thing I learned to make peanut butter samwiches or we woulda starved to death by now." Meanwhile, Dennis complained, "Oh, brother! ... Not hamsters again!" Larson was the first to note that both cartoons were vastly improved.

Gary Larson's full story, after the break.

From the boneless chicken farm to the poodles of the Serengeti, no one does comics like Gary Larson. So, strap on your lab coat, tease that beehive hairdo, and tape up those thick glasses—we're about to probe the warped mind of one of America's finest cartoonists.From the beginning, Gary Larson's "The Far Side®" inspired both great loyalty and great derision. While devoted fans wallpapered their workplaces with the comic, others penned angry letters decrying its "demented" humor. Larson, meanwhile, always seemed a bit baffled by the controversy, maintaining it was "just a cartoon." But whether you loved it, hated it, or just didn't get it, you have to admit: "The Far Side" was a place only Larson could have gone.

From the Primordial Suburban Ooze
As a kid growing up in Tacoma, Wash., Gary Larson never dreamed that a knack for doodling amoebas would one day score him a place in history. After all, he was merely a simple life form, born into a working-class family. His father, Vern, worked as a car salesman, and his mother, Doris, was a secretary—but both moonlighted as the Best Parents Ever. From an early age, Gary spent a lot of time studying nature, reading science books, and drawing dinosaurs and whales. Fortunately, his folks kept their son's crayon caddy well stocked. And when Larson wanted a pet snake instead of a beagle? Well, that was OK, too.

All evidence points to a childhood of nerdy bliss, but many of Larson's cartoons have caused people to think, "That boy ain't right." So what about the creatures that go bump in the night? If fans want to credit someone for tweaking the artist's brain, thanks go to Larson's older brother, Dan. Knowing Gary had a crippling fear of monsters under the bed, Dan was the kind of brother who hid in Gary's closet for hours, just waiting for the golden opportunity to scare his sibling sick. Indeed, Larson would later claim that Dan's continuous series of pranks contributed to his "unusual" world perspective.

Of course, Larson also acknowledges Dan as having inspired his wacky investigative spirit and love for science. Growing up, the brothers used the family basement to build elaborate terrariums for all the animals they caught around Puget Sound. They even took over one of the rooms and turned it into a miniature desert ecosystem. Instead of freaking out, however, Mr. and Mrs. Larson reportedly invited the neighbors to join them in gawking.

In 1968, Larson left his terrariums behind and headed to Washington State University. To nobody's surprise, he started out as a biology major, but then switched to communications because he "didn't know what you did with a biology degree." At the time, he wanted to bring humor to the world of advertising—an idea he later regretted. When graduation rolled around in 1972, Larson rejected the briefcase and tie, opting instead to follow the well-blazed trail of disenchanted youth. In other words, he played guitar and banjo in a duo called Tom & Gary and worked at a retail music shop.

From High Fidelity to High Finance
Larson's transformation from music store clerk to internationally famous cartoonist follows a sequence of random decisions, sporadic efforts, and lucky breaks. At least, that's how Larson tells it. Ask the newspaper editors who first discovered Larson, and you're more likely to hear a tale about finally finding cartoon work that stood out from the drudgery of "Mary Worth."

Either way, the story of "The Far Side" begins in 1976. One day, after a long afternoon of hawking instruments, Larson realized just how much he hated his job, so he took a weekend off to "find himself." After wracking his brain for 48 hours straight, he entered that special mental zone that exists somewhere between breakdown and epiphany. And in that zone, Larson drew six single-panel cartoons.

Fortunately, the reticent Larson mustered up enough pluck to submit them to a few area newspapers. Not only was he able to sell them (with ease) to a regional science magazine called Pacific Search, he also earned a quick 90 bucks in the process. Suddenly, the lightbulb dinged: Maybe it was possible to make a living doing something he actually enjoyed! And just like that, Larson quit his job, moved back home, and began drawing full time. (Thanks again, Vern and Doris.)

Pretty soon, he was raking in the dough—$5 a week—from a Tacoma suburb paper called The Summer News Review. But things changed in 1979, after a reporter he'd met convinced him to approach The Seattle Times. To Larson's astonishment, they bit, and he soon began earning a whopping $15 a week for a quirky cartoon he called "Nature's Way."
In "Nature's Way," the basics of Larson's work emerged. He had his cast of characters (the mad scientists, the aliens, and the bovines), and he had a point to his punch lines. Larson always derived great joy from humbling Homo sapiens, and he reveled in reminding audiences that we're just another species. One cartoon, for instance, simply showed a rabbit wearing a human foot on a necklace for good luck.

Humor like this, while becoming Larson's trademark, also made "Nature's Way" a quick source of controversy. Strangely, the cartoon ran adjacent to the paper's "Junior Jumble," a puzzle aimed at children. Undoubtedly, when kids came to their parents with questions like, "Why do spider mommies eat their babies?" some parents weren't thrilled, and angry letters ensued.

A few disgruntled readers aside, Larson enjoyed moderate success. Still, full-time drawing hadn't translated into full-time cash, and in 1979, he decided to embark on a cartoon job quest in San Francisco. Mustering up his nerve, he squared his round shoulders, pushed his glasses up his nose, and stalwartly puttered south in his Plymouth Duster.
Larson had a list of papers to target in the area, but after getting lost a few times, he found himself on Market Street, home of The San Francisco Chronicle. He didn't have an appointment, but he went ahead and left his portfolio with the secretary, who was less than encouraging. The thing is, Larson hadn't thought to bring multiple copies of said portfolio, so The Chronicle shaped up to be his one lottery ticket to cartoon success.
Several days later, the prospects weren't looking good. Larson had heard nothing, and he felt like he was irritating the secretary with his calls. But, just as his Rice-a-Roni stash was running low, he got a call from the paper's editor. He told Larson he was sick—but in a good way. Then he offered him a spot in the paper and worked out a syndication deal to boot.

It was a cartoonist's equivalent of Charlie Brown making contact with the football.

Editors renamed Larson's comic "The Far Side," and the panel started running in 30 papers nationwide. Ironically, just days after Larson received the news from The Chronicle, he returned to Seattle to find a letter from The Seattle Times saying they were dropping him from the paper.

SIDEBAR: Tramp in the Midst
While Gary Larson wasn't exactly a stranger to controversy, one of his greatest brouhahas concerned a cartoon that parodied Jane Goodall. The panel in question shows one chimpanzee picking a blond hair off of another, with a caption that reads: "Conducting a little more "˜research' with that Jane Goodall tramp?" In response, the director of the Jane Goodall Institute wrote an indignant letter filled with statements such as, "To refer to Dr. Goodall as a tramp is inexcusable—even by a self described "˜loony' such as Larson." The bad vibes continued until it was discovered that a certain primatologist thought the cartoon was hilarious—namely, Jane Goodall. Soon, Larson and Goodall were seen fondly picking nits off of one another's backs. Larson went on a safari trip with Goodall to the famed Gombe National Park in Tanzania, and Goodall wrote an introduction to one of Larson's books. In fact, Larson ultimately allowed the cartoon to appear on T-shirts, the sales of which have been used to raise money for the Jane Goodall Institute.

Survival of The Fittest
While Larson eventually became the page-a-day-calendar king, success wasn't instantaneous. After all, it took time for audiences raised on "Marmaduke" to appreciate a world where squids say the darnedest things. Not everyone related to cartoon panels where the end of the world is nigh, people do aerobics in hell, and there are definitely, always, monsters in every closet.

Interestingly, while Larson's "sick" humor riled, what really worked the public into a lather was when they didn't get the joke. Lightning rod in point: a seemingly innocuous 1982 edition of "The Far Side" that featured a cow standing behind an assortment of amorphous objects on a table. The caption: "Cow tools." Larson's intent was to parody the tools used by early man, and more specifically, how even archaeologists are often baffled by their
purpose.

Admittedly, the cartoon was a bit esoteric. But was it worth a national outcry? Apparently so. For reasons unknown, a population comfortable with being baffled by "Hi and Lois" day after day just couldn't handle a tool-wielding cow. Letters poured in from readers across the country, reporters and radio stations called with inquiries, and newspaper columnists had a field day.

The media barrage overwhelmed Larson, who, after all, had only gotten into this line of work to escape a dead-end retail job. Now, here he was, faced yet again with cranky customers. All the hoopla made him cringe with embarrassment, and he became convinced "The Far Side" would be canned. Yet, as mail continued to deluge his desk, he came upon a realization: People cared. Actually, lots of people cared. If this many readers felt the need to write, maybe he didn't just have a job; he had a career.
Larson was right. "The Far Side" contingency grew, and by 1983, the panel appeared in 80 papers nationwide. By 1985, it was in 200. Before all was said and done, the cartoon would run in 1,900 newspapers and be translated into 17 languages—lest we forget the book series, the calendars, the animated films, and the greeting cards.

Lab Partners
While denouncers found "The Far Side" base, devotees (especially scientists and researchers) loved its highbrow humor. After all, getting a Larson joke sometimes required knowledge of praying mantis mating habits, or a basic understanding of evolutionary theory. And when Larson made heroes out of ichthyologists and found humor in the antics of dung beetles? Well, it sent the white coats into fits of egghead bliss. They gleefully snorted and wheezed, smothering their office doors and metal file cabinets, one panel at a time.

Of course, the same fan base that loved Larson for his scientific accuracy also felt the need to point out his occasional blooper—like when he featured a male mosquito coming home from work (it's the female who does the biting) or when he committed the zoological faux pas of commingling polar bears and penguins (they live on separate poles). According to interviews with Larson, these sorts of errors drove him crazy. A perfectionist—and a scientist—by nature, he did not take his gaffes lightly.
Whether or not Larson has ever forgiven himself, the scientists haven't been able to stay mad at him for long. In fact, one time, out of love, they turned Larson's comedic fiction into scientific fact. While it's common knowledge that dinosaurs and cavemen never co-existed, Larson blatantly disregarded this fact in a cartoon that showed a primitive hominid pointing to a picture of the spiky tail of a Stegosaurus. In it, the caveman explains, "Now this end is called the thagomizer ... after the late Thag Simmons." Well, these days, paleontologists actually recognize that "spiky thingy" as a Thagomizer.
In 1989, scientists decided to honor Larson in an even more special way. The Committee on Evolutionary Biology at The University of Chicago named a newly discovered species after him—the Strigiphilus garylarsoni, a louse found only on owls. Later, Larson's name was also given to a butterfly—the Serratoterga larsoni, a native of the Ecuadorian rain forest. Quite the hallmark of success for a man who once described entomology as the "fantasy road not taken."

Extinction

While we might prefer to believe that Gary Larson exists for the sole purpose of drawing us cartoons, he has decided otherwise. In 1988, he went on sabbatical for 14 months, then put the pen down at the beginning of 1995. And because it's been over a decade now, we might have to consider that he really means it this time. Irritatingly, he seems perfectly content enjoying his royalties, rather than sitting at his desk six days a week in a panic, trying to finish his next panel before the Federal Express truck arrives.
"The Far Side" withdrawal is undoubtedly a bummer, but admittedly, it would have been more depressing to watch the cartoon devolve into the realm of the "unfunnies," or as Larson termed it, the "Graveyard of Mediocre Cartoons." Larson felt he was starting to repeat himself and wanted to quit while he thought the panel held up. For this, we might consider forgiving him for retiring wealthy at the age of 44.

These days, Larson enjoys the spoils of his success with his wife, anthropologist Toni Carmichael, while pursuing his love of jazz guitar. There are rumors he moonlights as a wedding crasher—only, in true nerd fashion, he doesn't pick up bridesmaids but jams with the band. On a tragic note, his brother Dan died of a sudden heart attack at the age of 46. That is, unless he's just lying in the dirt, waiting to grab his little brother's ankle.
Since his retirement, Larson has tossed us a few crumbs. In 1998, he published There's a Hair in My Dirt!: A Worm's Story, a naturalist morality tale told in an illustrated book. And in 2003, he released The Complete Far Side, a massive collection of his work containing all 4,337 of his panels. To promote the effort, Larson also gave a few promotional interviews, and pointed out that the two-volume set doubles neatly as a murder weapon. But other than that, he's managed to keep out of the public eye. Meanwhile, we imagine his fans will simply have to wait, hoping one day Larson will emerge from retirement—just long enough to draw a python that strangles "The Family Circus."

>>Like this piece? Then subscribe to mental_floss and make our editors happy! Oh, and be sure to come back for tomorrow's featured article.

More from mental_floss...

November 12, 2007 - 4:12am
webby
submit to reddit