farside

With ‘The Far Side,’ Gary Larson Pioneered the Art of the Meme

There couldn’t be a ‘Is This a Pigeon?’ without a ‘Beware of Doug’

In the late 1980s, it seemed like every self-proclaimed budding suburban middle-school intellectual worth their salt had Far Side books crammed into every nook and cranny of their bedroom bookshelf. If you were a serious fan with some extra babysitting scratch you might have had the yearly Off-The-Wall calendar, too, made up of 365 individual squares of paper that you’d tear away each day to reveal a new comic (and possibly tape along the wall above your bed like some sort of shrine-to-cartoon-absurdism headboard — don’t judge me). 

The Far Side, created by Gary Larson, seemed less like the product of a single mind and more like an endlessly expanding universe that would never stop churning out delightfully off-beat comic content. Then, in 1995, Larson suddenly, in Willy Wonka fashion (Gene Wilder, not Johnny Depp, obvs), shuttered the proverbial doors of his operation. But though he stopped publishing new material in the mid-1990s, Larson’s comedic influence didn’t wane. People who grew up on his comics still referenced them to each other as a sort of shared cultural language and pored through his book collections revisiting old favorites, and their senses of humor, forever stamped by Larson’s style, looked for new outlets of expression.

The internet could barely have been said to be a “thing” when Larson drew his last syndicated comic. But after a few floundering years where it mostly consisted of government websites and porn, the digital landscape finally spread its wings, and we figured out how instant communication with those across campus (and the world) could fundamentally change the way humans shared ideas. Once we did, we collectively unleashed one of the most powerful forms of social media communication around: the meme. 

And though Larson was nowhere to be found at the birth of that essential mainstay of internet culture (perhaps he was hiding among a flock of sheep or stranded on a desert island with his duck-nemesis), The Far Side is arguably one of the strongest influences, conscious or unconscious, on the meme’s single-image, multi-layered comedic cultural critique.

The most popular forms of memes, the captioned-image macro and the object-labeled macro, didn’t appear in a vacuum. “The format has existed within comics and comic strips forever,” says Matt Schimkowitz, senior editor at Know Your Meme. “It’s pretty well-worn territory, but that’s also what makes it so easily spreadable.” Unlike TikToks or Vines (RIP), the single-image caption or label format is recognizable across platforms and generations — not just among those born into the digital age — making these types of memes something that can be universally sharable and understandable to the widest range of people.

A particularly powerful element of these memes is their ability to carry multiple layers of meanings, their original intent and context interacting with the collective culturally imposed valence to create a dense meaning-conveying object. Generally, this process occurs by way of an iterative reimagining of an original object (the thousands of versions of the “Is This a Pigeon?” meme with all their various re-labelings, for example), but Larson seemed to manage to load those layers onto his comics all by himself. 

There’s a notable limitation to that individual creative power: For all of Larson’s grand imaginings, his protagonists — when they are human — are nearly always white, and his depictions of certain groups, notably native peoples, often fall back into unseemly stereotypes. The range of his representations aside, though, what he does succeed at, better than perhaps any other single comic author in history, is finding the sweet spot of clarity, complexity and specificity wherein the best memes thrive.

The moment of mental effort required to “get” a meme that carries a strong specific meaning (like the increasingly esoteric labels on the Distracted Boyfriend meme) are already baked into many Far Side cartoons. Take the famous one of a door-to-door salesman approaching a house with a sign on the fence. The salesman’s eyes are drawn to the sign, as are ours, so it’s only after a few moments that we notice the nervous man hiding behind a tree on the lawn. Our eyes are then drawn back to the sign, which we now realize reads not “Beware of Dog,” but “Beware of Doug.” (I tried this out on my teenage daughter to confirm that even for someone steeped in the multi-layered world of meme culture, the joke takes a second to process.) 

According to Schimkowitz, the requirement to “unpack” a joke can actually be a key indicator of a meme’s success. “The more creative ways people can find into the memes to maintain the overall meaning of the format but to creatively express it are the best because it actually requires the meme’s author to get in there, figure out what this meme is trying to say and find a new way to say it.” 

But that’s also why, while comics tend to be common source material for memes (your “Spider-Man Pointing at Spider-Man,” your ubiquitous “This Is Fine” dog), you won’t find many based on The Far Side itself, and fewer still that succeed in making meaning worthy of the effort. “If you were gonna use a Far Side cartoon for your own meme,” says Schimkowitz, “you really gotta work hard to make something funnier than what was already there. It’s like trying to improve upon Picasso or something.” 

The Far Side format helps it resist meme-ification, too. Its dense, one-panel, image-and-word construction creates a unit of expression that’s already well-saturated with comedic meaning. As Larson has said about his cartooning mentors and inspirations, “There was something almost organic going on between the humor and the art that conveyed it.” But Larson seemed to go one step further, turning that natural connection into an essential one. Try topping that with a big block of words (actually don’t: Larson is very sensitive about copyright infringement).

Although Larson himself is currently 69 (nice!), The Far Side, which was born in 1979, is a classic cusp Gen Xer/early millennial, which makes total sense. Far Side comics are equal parts nihilistic, playful and socially conscious — a worldview befitting a generation of people who grew up between the cracks of Boomer culture. And despite a sense that the internet is a young person’s game, it’s these very people who are responsible for much of the meme-creation online. “The sense of humor found in Far Side is very ingrained in the generation that memes,” Schimkowitz says.

It’s not just memers that reflect Larson’s comedic legacy either. The recent sketch comedy sensation I Think You Should Leave, co-created by xennial Tim Robinson, is full of both broad and specific echoes of Larson’s quotidian absurdism. In the cold open of the series, Robinson plays a character who, after having just completed what seemed to have been a perfectly nice job interview at a coffee shop, completely doubles down on a throwaway moment where he tries to pull, rather than correctly push, the front door open. The image may call to mind for viewers around Robinson’s own age the famous Far Side cartoon wherein a young boy in a striped T-shirt and glasses pushes with all his might against a door marked “Pull” at the entrance of the Midvale School for the Gifted

And now, after an almost 25 year hiatus, The Far Side is back. That’s right, nerds, last fall, Larson reopened the doors to his bizarro little comic factory with an open letter to his fans posted on a brand spankin’ new website. He notes in the letter his complicated relationship with the internet, in particular his discomfort with how digital media increased the ease of the copyright infringement of his work. And part of his stated reason in launching the website is to try to tamp down on the stealing by showing that he is, in fact, out there watching us. 

But the other argument he makes for jumping back into the fray is an artistic one. He gives the example of a specific image he might want to conjure — a glass eye found on a corpse in the desert (sounds about right) — that he wants to get just right. “I already know there’s a lot to capture in this scene, while trying not to overcomplicate it,” he considers. “As for seeing it on an old computer screen? Fuhgeddaboudit. But things have changed. On today’s computers and devices, voilà!” 

Yet the core of his comedic genius isn’t something technology can augment. As Schimkowitz points out, about any form of comedy: “The best jokes are the ones that really speak to the human experience in a direct and relatable way.” That so much current humor can be traced back to The Far Side but has also grown to encompass a compellingly democratic, collective comedic spirit is something Larson himself probably never could have anticipated. Seeing what he will create both with the new technology available to him and through the lens of this new comedic sensibility will be, I’m betting, worth the wait. 

In fact, I might even need to clear up some space on the wall above my bed.