Gary Larson’s iconic comic strip, The Far Side, always kept its heart close to the path set by its cartoon forebearers, even if it quite frequently turned around and mocked those that tread the same trail previously. Frequently paying an idiosyncratic kind of half-heartening, half-horrifying homage to classic cartoons from Disney, Warner Bros. and its fellow periodical strips, The Far Side helped keep the medium’s legacy in reader’s minds.
Classic cartoon and comic strip humor share a certain kind of childish absurdism. Always keen on oblique cultural commentary, Larson took this absurdist mentality and managed to bring out the twisted meta-comedy at the heart of these older animated inspirations, often with riotous results. Here are the ten best examples of how The Far Side paid homage to its influences and fellow cartoonists: usually with a shot across the bow.
In a classic infusion of realism-induced humor, a witness of a barroom fracas describes what can only be interpreted as a typical scene from the hit cartoon/comic strip Popeye. Often the end result of Popeye’s adventures, the panel portrays in unflinching detail the cost of the sailorman’s untempered rage, as his cowering, terrified victims lay strewn around the establishment in various states of brutalization. Though the scene from Popeye’s perspective would usually carry with it an upwelling of glee from its youthful audience watching the cartoon, The Far Side depicts a different perspective. Popeye was known for using violence to turn the tables on ruffians and other evildoers; The Far Side instead depicts such a character as an inherent menace to society.
In a thinly veiled reference to the iconic Disney character Goofy, a humanoid dog-man, apparently having earned his wings as a pilot, boards a commercial airliner, to the consternation and despair of his passengers. Though the mistrust aimed at the pilot, named “Captain Ruru” – according to his suitcase – may simply be a case of judging a book by its cover, his lack of a persistent gaze, and overly casual manner may indeed indicate the possibility that this flight may end with doom for all souls aboard. A brilliant use of blunt humor by Larson, with the dog-man’s silly vacant face proving to be the real punchline.
A wistful, if obviously completely mad, entomologist sings a familiar song to himself, as the body of a “field cricket” closely resembling Disney character Jiminy Cricket, floats submerged in a jar. The “fridge humor” of this particular panel is what holds it together. The scientist is singing a song to himself seemingly to him by his victim. More pressingly perhaps, is the question of why Jiminy would have taught his eventual murderer the same song used to summon the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio. Clearly, Jiminy’s capacity to act as this entomologist’s conscience proved deficient in this situation. Generating a surprising amount of speculation for a Far Side panel, this entry will surely leave readers with lingering uncertainties
Three potentially lucky bachelor snakes are asked by a female contestant which beloved rodent character of children’s cartoon fame they would like to eat: Mickey Mouse, Speedy Gonzalez, or Rocky from Rocky and Bullwinkle. A truly terrifying question for those who hold such characters close to their heart; this horrifying concept is then reconstructed into sublimely glib humor, in the context of being enunciated by the stereotypical winsome game show bachelorette. After all, while humans may not find them palatable, such topics might say a lot about a contestant on a “Dating Game” for snakes – a commonly featured creature in Far Side strips – at least in the search for a prospective romantic partner.
Rebellion is a relative phrase, and, in the fast-paced world of professional cartoonists and animators, sometimes even minor acts of anti-authoritarianism can have heavy repercussions. So it is with Higgins, a cartoonist in a Disney-esque cartoon department, who daydreams of being a physicist. One day, fate delivers a catalyst moment for him, when he is discovered by his crusty, elderly manager and pilloried with a withering lecture in front of his colleagues. The reader can’t help but sympathize with the lowly Higgins, whose inner-life dreams of escaping the dreary world of cartoons, so he might follow his passions for science, are brought to bear in confrontation with his close-minded superior.
In a brilliant twist of meta-humor, Larson reveals that his cartoon creations actually serve a darker purpose: spying upon their competitors. In the background, a bevy of well-known characters – from rival strips such as Peanuts, Bloom County, Doonesbury and Cathy – appear on television monitors, going about their daily lives, ignorant of their unwitting placement under the watch of the stoic men, women, cows and chickens of The Far Side. Larson seems to suggest that this surveillance captures hidden moments of emotional and moral compromise from the cartoon crew, with Charlie Brown apparently just getting done threatening to put his dog Snoopy to sleep, and what appears to be the character Nancy holding a tommy gun.