Remember “The Far Side” cartoons? They were at their peak when I was in grade school, plastering calendars and t-shirts with an offbeat humor that left fans clutching their sides with laughter.
Given their popularity, there was palpable disappointment when their creator, Gary Larson, put down his pen in 1995.
But there’s good news. “The Far Side” is on its way to a revival.
A recent New York Times interview with Gary Larson confirms that the cartoonist is emerging from the seclusion of his retirement with a “Far Side” website. Although the site will mostly feature old cartoons, Larson revealed that his site will also contain new drawings.
Having been known to page through “Far Side” calendars and card racks at various stores, I thought this was great news! Then a disturbing thought crossed my mind.
Gary Larson has been out of the public cartooning world for nearly a quarter century. A lot has changed since then, especially in the world of humor. People can’t take a joke anymore. Will Larson’s humor still be appreciated, or will he unintentionally poke at the sacred cows of political correctness and mortally offend the nation?
Just scrolling through some of Larson’s cartoons makes me fear the latter. Take this one:
It’s innocent, right? But will the mention of “Indians” and “Mexicans” cause the PC police to cry “racist”?
Or how about this one? Given the outcry over Cecil the Lion's killing a few years ago, and the intense fervor for animal rights in general, I have a hard time believing that it would pass muster today:
Larson is no stranger to controversy. In his NYT interview he states:
Man, controversy never seemed too far away from me, especially during my first year of syndication. I truly thought my career may have ended a number of times.
I remember one I did of a couple dogs that were playing this game, where they were smacking around a cat hanging from a long rope attached to a pole. I called it ‘Tethercat.’ To me, and I assume my editor, it didn’t cross any line because this was just a game dogs might play. But that one got people stirred up. Especially cat people.
But stirring up trouble is not Larson’s goal. He simply enjoys sharing his quirky sense of humor with his audience:
Doing something controversial was never my intention. This was just my sense of humor, and the kind of humor in my family. I never drew anything my mom wouldn’t have laughed at. Of course, my mom was insane. I’m kidding! Well, maybe a little.
Unfortunately, Larson could be in for a very rude awakening as his humor resurfaces in a generation that has forgotten how to laugh.
The loss of laughter is a subject addressed in an essay by G. K. Chesterton. Even in his day, Chesterton saw the “tendency… to tolerate the smile but discourage the laugh” for three reasons:
First, that the smile can unobtrusively turn into the sneer; second, that the smile is always individual and even secretive (especially if it is a little mad), while the laugh can be social and gregarious, and is perhaps the one genuine surviving form of the General Will; and third, that laughing lays itself open to criticism, is innocent and unguarded, has the sort of humanity which has always something of humility.
In essence, the smile can be a sign of superiority, while the laugh is self-effacing. Chesterton continues by saying that laughter forms a sort of camaraderie and goodwill amongst humans:
The chief fact we have to face today is the absence of even that amount of democratic comradeship which was involved in coarse laughter or merely conventional ridicule. The men of the older fellowship may have sometimes unjustly disliked a scapegoat or an alien, but they liked each other much more than a good many literary men now like each other. … Therefore, in this modern conflict between the Smile and the Laugh, I am all in favour of laughing. Laughter has something in it in common with the ancient winds of faith and inspiration; it unfreezes pride and unwinds secrecy; it makes men forget themselves in the presence of something greater than themselves; something (as the common phrase goes about a joke) that they cannot resist.
Perhaps our culture will begin to realize this, ditch the superior smile, and begin to appreciate humor once more. Otherwise, Gary Larson may be the next victim to be tortured by the PC crowd.
Annie Holmquist is editor of Intellectual Takeout, an online magazine and sister publication of Chronicles.