Far Out! : Shy Cartoonist of ‘Far Side’ Is Receiving Rare Tribute From Scientists--an Exhibit

Times Staff Writer

Picture this: A jam-packed courtroom with a dour-looking judge presiding. An aggressive prosecutor glares at the defendant, who sits in the dock, testifying in his own defense.

“Well, of course I did it in cold blood, you idiot,” snaps the accused, who happens to be an alligator. “I’m a reptile!”

Next scene: Two birds perch on the handle of a baby carriage, studying the grinning tot inside. “It’s still hungry,” says one perplexed bird to the other, “and I’ve been stuffing worms into it all day.”


Flashback: A bunch of tough-guy dinosaurs stand around, sneering, looking cool--and smoking cigarettes. Below is a startling and ominous caption, “The real reason dinosaurs are extinct.”

Biologists and other researchers, not to mention an army of lay people, have for years delighted in the screwball scientific insights of cartoonist Gary Larson, whose daily “Far Side” panels are published in more than 260 newspapers, including The Times. Yellowing, well-worn copies of his oddball drawings decorate file cabinets, bulletin boards and desk tops in research labs from Berkeley to Boston. But despite this informal underground homage to the shy Seattle cartoonist, Larson, 34, never expected much formal recognition for his work, and he never got it. Until now.

The California Academy of Sciences here has afforded Larson a rare tribute, organizing an exhibit of 405 Far Side cartoons, together with a selection of Larsonesque props--isolated phone booth, stuffed wart hog and a human-sized butterfly net. Even before the show opened, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History quickly lined up to take the show on the road. Several other museums have also inquired about hosting the show. A Los Angeles show date has not been set, and it is scheduled to be here through June 22.

On opening day, Dec. 1, nearly 11,000 Far Side fanciers jammed the exhibit, museum spokeswoman Pam Wing said. That is more than three times the number of visitors on the first Saturday in December last year, she said.

“Gee, I feel like I should be dead to deserve something like this,” the artist deadpanned in a telephone interview from his souvenir-stuffed Seattle studio. He said he was taken aback by all the attention his show is receiving, and is still amazed by the legion of biologists, his heroes, who faithfully follow his curious cartoon wonderland, where science and the bizarre side of human nature are lovingly, and accurately, lampooned.

‘Very Isolated’

“This is a very isolated kind of work,” he said, somewhat bashfully. “I just sit in the corner, drawing, and once a week I mail ‘em off. I wasn’t only not sure if people liked them, I was not sure if somebody was going to come in and take me away.”

It is difficult to talk about Larson without describing his work.

Many of his cartoons can be appreciated by non-scientists. Example: A cat is dragged out of a house to a waiting squad car by two police officers, one of whom has drawn his gun. Inside the house, a woman admonishes her pet dog: “And I suppose YOU think this is a dream come true!”

Others, however, remain the domain of scientists. Such as: A pith-helmeted scientist sitting amid a dense jungle, trying to eat. But there is a problem, and he asks aloud: “What’s this Drosophila melanogaster doing in my soup?”

“That just cracks me up,” one biologist confesses.

Poking a Little Fun

Despite his affection for scientists, Larson is not above occasionally poking a little fun in their direction. In one cartoon, a pack of paleontologists argue childishly over who gets the next ride atop a mounted dinosaur skeleton. In another, some herpetologists carrying a huge snake teasingly chase after a panicked woman, while their boss instructs a secretary: “Take another memo, Miss Wilkins. I want to see all the reptile personnel in my office first thing in the morning.”

Snakes are Larson’s personal favorite, both in his cartoons and as pets. He also is partial to dinosaurs and cows in his drawings, though he is said to shun these creatures at home.

Larson said he has always been fascinated with biology, but said he was not sure there was a career in it. So he focused his studies at Washington State University on communications with an eye toward advertising. But his early interest in bugs and creepy-crawlies stuck with him, and this helped shape his sense of humor.

“I was so intrigued by insects and things that crawled or flew--I could spend hours by myself in a vacant lot,” he told one interviewer. “I remember one time watching a bird snatch a dragonfly out of midair and thinking, ‘Gee, life can come to an end--crunch!--just like that.’ ”

Sometimes Lunch

Indeed, people in his cartoons are usually not so much the protagonists as the foils, and sometimes lunch, for animals.

“It’s a great balance of humor and science, and you can’t help but osmose some of the science just by reading,” said John McCosker, director of the academy’s Steinhardt Aquarium and a dedicated Far Side collector. “People can look at, say, ‘The real reason dinosaurs became extinct,’ and it’s ha, ha. But then they think, ‘Well, dinosaurs are extinct, and there is some controversy how it happened’ and maybe they’ll investigate in other parts of the museum.”

Still, Wing said there was some initial resistance from museum executives when public relations staff members first advanced the idea of a Far Side show.

“The exhibits people looked at us and said, ‘Sure, he’s popular . . . but what would scientists think?’ ” she recalled.

McCosker jumped in to convince them:

‘Are You Kidding?’

“We said, ‘What? Are you kidding? Let’s go upstairs to the museum laboratories.’ We had to show them that he is displayed on at least as many lab files as kitchen refrigerators.”

“I don’t know where the ideas come from,” Larson said. “I just sit down and let myself get silly. After that, I don’t want to think about it: It is all smoke--and hard work.”

He paused a moment, then allowed himself a subdued chuckle:

“It’s a pretty strange job, don’t you think? I guess someone’s gotta be sick for a living.”