The hottest ticket for family entertainment this holiday season is "The Far Side of Science," an exhibit of 600 original cartoons from Gary Larson's hilarious newspaper comic strip, at the County Museum of Natural History.

Since its debut in 1979, "The Far Side" has become one of the most popular comic strips in America: It appears in 550 newspapers, and the eight collections of Larson's cartoons have made the best-seller lists.

This exhibit offers readers a rare opportunity to see original drawings from some of their favorite strips, unmarred by the vagaries of commercial printing.

The drawings are deceptively simple: Larson communicates a great deal of information in a few simple ink lines. The expressions on his characters are vivid and immediately recognizable, unlike the unreadable faces in strips like "Cathy" and "Mr. Boffo." These drawings are also very effectively staged: The composition of the elements in each panel subtly leads the viewer's eye to the source of the joke. And with just a strand of beads and a pair of harlequin glasses, he can somehow transform any animal--a shark, a bug, a cow, a warthog--into a dowdy, suburban hausfrau.

Much of humor in Larson's cartoons derives from his juxtaposition of the bizarre and the mundane. Murderous fish don sunglasses and tasteless sport shirts to become "Shark nerds." A chicken serves her bed-ridden mate a bowl of broth and announces, "Number one, chicken soup is good for the flu, and number two, it's not anybody we know."

When a snake looks in the mirror and discovers he's getting love handles, the setting is overwhelmingly ordinary--the mirror even matches the bedroom set. It's the absurdity of a snake living in such a relentlessly bourgeois environment that makes the situation seem so funny.

An enthusiastic amateur biologist, Larson often pokes fun at science in his strip, such as the cartoon of a group of paleontologists quarreling over who gets the next "ride" on a dinosaur skeleton.

These cartoons delight scientists: At recent sessions of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in Philadelphia, Larson's cartoon of "The real reason dinosaurs became extinct," which showed a Tyrannosaurus rex sneaking a cigarette, attracted more attention than the latest theories about a meteor striking the Earth. While many cartoons get put up in homes and offices, no strip appears in more laboratories and science classrooms than "The Far Side."

In fact, the exceptional popularity of his work among scientists led to the creation of this show. The directors of the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco realized that there were so many "Far Side" cartoons taped to office and laboratory doors in the building that walking down the hall was like strolling through an exhibition of the strip--so they decided to organize one.

Most of the cartoons focus on Larson's wonderfully skewed visions of science, scientists and animal behavior. Two anthropologists crack open fossil hominid skulls--and discover little slips of paper with fortunes inside. Male and female jellyfish use separate, undersea outhouses ("Only they can tell the difference"). A cheetah laces on a pair of running shoes before pursuing a herd of antelope.

In one of Larsons's best-known panels, an alligator furiously replies to the prosecuting attorney, "Well, of course, I did it in cold blood, you idiot, I'm a reptile!"

Obviously, the exhibit is great fun, although 600 "Far Side" cartoons are almost too many. Viewers leave "The Far Side of Science" alternately giggling and complaining of aching sides. (At the press preview, normally blase media cameramen were guffawing and pointing out their favorites to co-workers.)

In addition to the cartoons themselves, the exhibition features color artwork from the "Far Side" calendars and huge cutouts of characteristic Larson fauna, including a snake who committed suicide by making his body into a noose and hanging himself. In a nest above the viewers' heads, a vulture looks up from the phone and says to its mate, "It's the Websters. They say some poor, pitiful creature is dying of thirst out their way, and would we like to come over."

This exhibit provides family entertainment in the truest sense of the word: Adults, teen-agers and children can enjoy Larsons's singular brand of insanity together. (The special poster--a monster and a frowsy blonde in a convertible with an "I 8 LA" bumper sticker--is sure to become a favorite for dorm rooms and labs at local colleges.) The "Far Side" show broke attendance records in San Francisco and Denver, and museum officials expect it to do the same here, so be prepared for crowds.

"The Far Side of Science" continues, 10 a.m. through 5 p.m., Tuesdays through Sundays at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, 900 Exposition Blvd., through Feb. 15. Admission is $1.50 for adults; 75 cents for students, seniors and children 5-17; children under 5 are free. Information: (213) 744-DINO.

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