"And yet you are sad. I had rather have a fool to make me merry than experience to make me sad; and to travel for it too!"
When I splurged on the luxuriant two-volume Complete Far Side five years ago, my then five-year old took an interest for some reason. She was accustomed to seeing me reading (a lot), but the sight of my laughing out loud at a tome nearly as large as her was irresistible I suppose. So we developed a regular habit of reading "the funny book," as she always called it. We enjoyed it on two levels--I enjoyed her company and Gary Larson's sublime sense of the absurd, while she enjoyed all of the funny-looking animals and people. She always tried to get me to explain the joke, and it was a good reminder of all the cultural foundation beneath a simple witticism.
The other night we retrieved the book for the first time in a long while. She is ten now, but dry wit, like puberty I guess, is still (fortunately) for her a ways off. Analysis of humor is notoriously unfunny, and none of my explanations leads to hilarity--I'm sure Larson could have done a great panel on some solemn-looking kid cramming to become a comedian or a cartoonist (and it probably would have involved a duck somehow).
The sight of any Far Side cartoon takes me instantly back a quarter century. Larson's strip ran from 1980 to 1995, but it was pre-eminently a creature of the 1980's; tellingly, he took a year-long sabbatical in 1989, and the last five years of the series seemed tired and plodding in comparison to its heyday. Even genius runs its course. To me The Far Side is one of the very few great cultural products from that benighted time; before Seinfeld was the "show about nothing" in the following decade, Larson's work was the cartoon strip about nothing--except raw wit and the unabashed depiction of ludicrous but pitiable humanity.
I like my humor in lightning flashes: the devastating turn of phrase or sight gag. The best visual humor, whether in the old-fashioned pen and paper cartoon or in a digital concoction on The Daily Show, bursts upon us in an instant. I always liked Larson's style because it was so simple, even archaic; its visual directness contrasted with its extreme semantic shrewdness.
Far Side kids were always chubby, naive, and incredibly dorky--they were wide-eyed in a crazy world. The men tended to be of two types, either nerdy and vulnerable (and therefore paired with a strong-minded woman), or oafish and slovenly, but in a complacent, bachelor, devil-may-care sort of way. The women were matronly and, it must be said, homely in the extreme.
Of course the strip was dominated by animals, but they, like all the clowns, scientists, aliens, and cavemen, were really ways of accentuating our own very peculiar propensities in an unfamiliar host (witness the praying mantis kids having breakfast: "Mom, Edgar's making that clicking sound again!"). I have no idea what Larson's views on animals is, but his cartoons often implied the mayhem that humans are continually creating in the natural world (one of my favorites shows a suburban dude's consternation as some bears direct their sewage pipeline into his living room).
Looking back now, nuclear holocaust was a surprisingly frequent theme (it's not easy explaining to a ten-year old how that's funny), as are scientists shown as careless and as clueless as the rest of us. Compared to, say, New Yorker cartoons, shrinks were a rare subject (although one of his best shows a hapless "Mr. Fenton" perching in the office coatrack); Larson was writing for a less thoroughly therapized readership. But I can't imagine any cartoonist having more fun with hell (nerds in hell ("Hot enough for ya?"), distributing accordions in hell, video racks full of nothing but Ishtar in hell, pizzas being delivered to hell).
Far Side humor is frequently satirical of course, but never witheringly so. The animals were counterpoised to people as if to remind us that we, too, are animals, with our own limited needs, visions and repertoires. People are more often greedy, selfish, and short-sighted than truly malicious (yes, that's a compliment). And if Larson took aim at the most self-important among us (as groups, that is, and without naming names), that is as it should be. An artist in the deepest sense, he delighted and instructed, showing us how contingent, ridiculous, and yes, cruel and unjust human and non-human worlds can be, and doing so while being, well, funny as hell.