It was a dark day a few years ago when Gary Larson decided to stop doing his cartoons. I see him as the quintessential conveyor of delightfully delicious – and overtly outrageous – humor.
To many, Larson is an acquired taste, and some see The Far Side as simply too Far Out for their taste. Even the cartoonist acknowledges that in the book "The PreHistory of The Far Side."
In the foreword, Larson warns: "Some of the material contained in these pages is not for the humoristically squeamish. If your refrigerator is currently covered with Family Circus or Nancy cartoons, it is suggested that you put this book down now. Many of these cartoons are ones my editors refused to run – others are ones I wish they hadn't. Either way, most people (with the exception of maybe a couple guys on Death Row) are bound to utter 'Oh, my God' at least a few times during the course of this book."
"As for the people who absolutely hate The Far Side," he concludes, "I have one thing to say: Your mother is a cow."
Any Larsonologist knows that cows are a favorite Larson topic. And it was his "cow tools" syndicated cartoon that befuddled everyone who saw it and made him "want to crawl into a hole somewhere and die" shortly after it appeared in 1982.
The catalyst for the cartoon was his memory of a college anthropology course in which he learned that man is "the only animal that made and shaped tools." So Larson got to wondering what cows' tools would look like if – despite the beasts' having no opposable thumbs – they were fortunate enough to acquire some.
So "I imagined, and subsequently drew, a cow standing next to her workbench, proudly displaying her handiwork (hoofiwork?). The 'cow tools' were supposed to be just meaningless artifacts – only the cow or a cowthropologist is supposed to know what they're used for."
But "the first mistake I made was in thinking this was funny. The second was making one of the tools resemble a crude handsaw – which made already confused people decide that their only hope in understanding the cartoon meant deciphering what the other tools were as well. Of course, they didn't have a chance in hell."
Not even the most astute cartoon analysts could figure the thing out. Larson got a whole bunch of letters and phone calls from head-scratchers nationwide. Typical was this inquiry from a reader in Texas:
"Enclosed is a copy of the 'Cow Tools' cartoon. I have passed it around. I have posted it on the wall. Conservatively, some 40-odd professionals with doctoral degrees in disparate disciplines have examined it. No one understands it. Even my 6-year-old cannot figure it out. We are going bonkers. Please help. What is the meaning of 'Cow Tools'? What is the meaning of life?"
Good questions, of course, both of which are unanswerable.
But before straying too far from the cow scene, I'd like to sign off with one of my all-time favorite Far Sides. It shows a cowboy sitting by a corral, looking gleeful as he heats up his branding iron. Now, the iron isn't your standard "XLT" or some such. Naw, instead it reads: "THIS COW BELONGS TO DARYL JONES SO HANDS OFF".
If you think that's funny, you should see the looks on the faces of those ol' cows in the corral…
Contact Jerry Jackson at firstname.lastname@example.org.