During a third-season episode of IFC's Documentary Now! series, Fred Armisen slipped into another unflattering hairpiece to play Bradley Adams, a myopically enthusiastic first-time filmmaker. Over the course of 21 minutes, Adams harasses strangers, ambushes insurance salesmen, and gets cockblocked by a PBS crew as he tries to find Gary Larson, the famously reclusive creator of The Far Side comics.
Adams' documentary, "Searching for Mr. Larson: A Love Letter from the Far Side," obviously doesn't exist, but the details it presented about the cartoonist's life were (mostly) true. Larson imagined and illustrated The Far Side for 15 years, publishing around 4,300 cartoons that appeared in more than 1,900 daily newspapers. Those gloriously bizarre, frequently dark, and always entertaining single-panel drawings were spun off into 23 books—22 of which became New York Times bestsellers—and several hundred of his most scientifically minded strips were eventually turned into a traveling museum exhibition. And now, amid the chaos of 2020, we're finally getting a pleasant surprise: Larson's making cartoons again.
Earlier this week, Larson shared three of semi-experimental drawings made on a digital tablet—his first new material since his retirement (or perhaps very long sabbatical) from the cartoon world 25 years ago. "[L]ike the proverbial tiger and its stripes, I’m pretty much stuck with my sense of humor," he wrote. "Aren't we all?"
In October 1994, then-44-year-old Larson decided that he was ready to cap his pens and retire from the cartoon business for good. In a letter announcing his decision, he attributed it to "simple fatigue and a fear that if I continue for many more years my work will begin to suffer, or at the very least ease into the Graveyard of Mediocre Cartoons.” The final Far Side—a full-color homage to the closing scenes of The Wizard of Oz—was published on January 1, 1995.
And that was it. Larson disappeared into his private life, emerging like a periodical insect every four or five years to illustrate a New Yorker cover or to voice himself on The Simpsons. He isn't on social media, hasn't picked up a part-time gig as an Internet Dick like the Dilbert guy did, and hasn't had much of a web presence at all: as late as 2008, one of the only features on TheFarSide.com was an order form for a set of Far Side videos that had to be printed out, placed in an envelope with a check or money order, and sent through the U.S. mail. (That document will eventually be hailed as some kind of Rosetta Stone of what we consider the most major inconveniences in the 21st century.)
The Far Side wasn't available anywhere online—at least not officially—and Larson was known to send well-mannered cease-and-desist letters to anyone who posted his work. But last December, Larson finally gave his website its first makeover in more than a decade; he added a daily selection of Far Side strips, and he hinted that there could eventually be a new cartoon or two. “I’m not ‘back,’ at least in the sense I think you’re asking,” he told The New York Times just before the site relaunched. “Returning to the world of deadlines isn’t exactly on my to-do list.”
There has never been a better time for Gary Larson and his unparalleled sense of humor to reappear—and there's no better cartoon than The Far Side to help us endure however more months we'll be balancing on the threshold of hell. Its usefulness as a mid-pandemic coping device is partially because of its single-panel format: there is no exposition and no resolution, and being stuck in what feels like an eternal present is the perfect representation of how so many of us have felt during these periods of quarantine and isolation.
The majority of Far Side cartoons capture the moment just before a moderate disaster or unexpected mishap occurs… which, again, seems like the perfect representation of how we've felt during quarantine. (Also, the idea that a bearded deity is sitting at a desktop computer, joylessly mashing the 'SMITE' button on his keyboard has never seemed more like a possibility than it has this year.)
In his book Gary Larson and the Far Side, author Kerry D. Soper writes that the Far Side cartoons "articulate a set of consistent satiric ideas about the absurdity of the universe, the chronic myopia of individuals in civilized society, and the dangers of anthropocentric world views"—and there's legitimately nothing more 2020 than that.
"I don’t find The Far Side to be cynical. It’s more darkly realistic," Soper told VICE in an email. "Cartoon after cartoon gives bracing reminders about our animal natures and the unromantic laws of nature and the universe. So maybe it’s more of a playful antidote to our belief in a lot of comforting, romantic myths about the way the world works—or our own sense of importance at the center of it."
In the days since Larson published those three new strips, I've felt an overwhelming nostalgia for the mid-1990s, when I'd spend hours thumbing through the copy of The Far Side Gallery 4 that my mom bought so I'd stop being a little shit at Sam's Club. I'm just as sentimental to be able to go back to my parents' house—right now, in 2020—where I know that there are still two faded Far Side cartoons taped on the back of my bedroom door. (Of course, I'd also like to be able to handle things in a big box store without feeling like an inadvertent disease vector.)
"In some of my research on current fan uses of The Far Side, I found that people going through difficult illnesses or recovering from trauma are often attracted to, and comforted by, the humor in The Far Side," Soper said. "So maybe it speaks to a lot of us in an especially resonant way at this time. I do feel that my worldview was shaped by Larson’s work since I was so steeped in it during my formative years. I think it has made me more skeptical and better able to find humor in the tough things that happen in life."
Humor has been at a premium lately, and even though Larson wrote that he's currently just "exploring, experimenting, and trying stuff," I don't think I'd be alone in saying that I hope he tries (and shares) much more stuff. I could really go for a few more misguided scientists, sentient cows, or enterprising cavemen right about now.