11 Twisted Facts About ‘The Far Side’

For 15 years, "The Far Side" added a dash of irreverence to the funny pages. Offbeat, macabre, and sometimes controversial, Gary Larson’s trailblazing cartoon was a gigantic success that ran in nearly 2000 newspapers at the height of its popularity. It also gave an entire generation of humorists a renewed appreciation for cow jokes.

Here are 11 things you should know about this highly-evolved comic strip.

1. IT EVOLVED FROM AN EARLIER STRIP CALLED NATURE’S WAY.

A native of Tacoma, Washington, Gary Larson was born on August 14, 1950. At a very young age, he developed the passion for wildlife that would give "The Far Side" its unique flavor. In his early years, Larson spent countless hours chasing amphibians and nurturing pet snakes. So when he enrolled at Washington State University, his decision to major in biology surprised no one. But halfway through college, Larson’s focus shifted. “I didn’t want to go to school for more than four years, and I didn’t know what you did with a bachelor’s degree in biology, so I switched over and got my degree in communications,” he told The New York Times. “It was one of the most idiotic things I ever did.” Had he pursued a scientific career, Larson says that he’d want to become an entomologist.

After graduating, he landed a job at a record store. Dissatisfied with the gig, Larson began to draw bizarre, single-panel cartoons in his spare time. One day in 1976, he presented six of these to the editor of the popular Seattle magazine Pacific Search. The half-dozen comics were swiftly bought up (for $3 apiece) and published under the title "Nature’s Way." Following his print debut, Larson took a three-year hiatus from cartooning. Then, in 1979, The Seattle Times agreed to revive "Nature’s Way" as a weekly comic strip. Riding high on newfound success, Larson decided to see if any other publications might be interested in his work. The quest began—and ended—with a visit to the San Francisco Chronicle’s headquarters. Editor Stan Arnold took an immediate liking to Larson’s comic strip and successfully got it syndicated nationwide.

Early on in the process, Larson was asked if he’d mind changing the title from "Nature’s Way" to "The Far Side." Mildly put, this wasn’t a problem; Larson once joked that for all he cared, “They could have called it ‘Revenge of the Zucchini People.’” "The Far Side" that we all know and love made its grand debut in newspapers across America in January, 1980.

2. FROM THE GET-GO, GARY LARSON DIDN’T WANT "THE FAR SIDE" TO INCLUDE RECURRING CHARACTERS.

Chronicle Features syndicated "The Far Side" and asked Larson to embrace at least one aspect of the standard comic strip formula before it was distributed nationally. “They… wanted me to develop characters like Charlie Brown or something [who] would always come back,” the cartoonist said in a 1998 NPR interview. At the time, he explains, it was widely believed that every strip needed a cast in order to be successful. Larson felt otherwise.

“I instinctively thought of that as very limiting,” Larson explained. “And I also just didn’t see humor as something that had to be confined to one particular character. To me, what was exciting was trying to do something that would crack someone up. And I didn’t see how characters or a particular character enhanced that. In fact, I think it would work against it in some cases. A certain face on a character would work in one instance but not in another. Although admittedly, as the years went by, all my stuff got boiled down to about six faces.”

3. AN ODD CHILDREN’S BOOK WAS ONE OF LARSON’S BIGGEST INSPIRATIONS.

You need a fairly warped imagination to come up with things like teenage dragons lighting their sneezes. "The Far Side" brand of comedy took some of its cues from Larson’s family and what he has described as their “morbid sense of humor.” Older brother Dan Larson left a particularly big impact on his developing mind: When the two weren’t out collecting tadpoles or salamanders together, Dan would pull all sorts of pranks on his younger sibling. “[He’d] scare the hell out of me,” the cartoonist said.

Another influence was the picture book Mr. Bear Squash-You-All-Flat by Morrell Gipson. True to its title, the story is about a large bear who goes around sitting on other animals' houses. In 1986, the TV program 20/20 ran a feature on Larson. Halfway through the interview, he was visibly delighted when Lynn Sherr surprised him with a copy of the then-out-of-print book. “There was something so mesmerizing about the image of this big bear going through the forest and squashing the homes of these little animals,” Larson said. “I just thought that was the coolest thing in the world.”

4. ONE EARLY STRIP CONFUSED SO MANY READERS THAT LARSON HAD TO EXPLAIN ITS MEANING IN A PRESS RELEASE. 

With "The Far Side," Larson turned bovine jokes into a real cash cow. From gags about vacationing cattle to the exploits of a bloodthirsty vampcow, the strip was loaded with heifer hilarity. “I’ve always thought the word cow was funny,” Larson said. “And cows are sort of tragic figures. Cows blur the line between tragedy and humor.”

Every so often, though, this affinity for the hoofed mammals got him into trouble. In 1982, Larson drew a cartoon that was supposed to satirize the outdated anthropological belief that, of all creatures, only Homo sapiens makes tools. The strip in question shows a cow presenting an assortment of low-tech gadgets she’s built. Larson’s caption reads, simply, “Cow Tools.” Some people didn’t get the joke. In fact, hardly anyone did. Chronicle Features was bombarded with letters and phone calls from confused readers begging for an explanation. Within 24 hours of the strip's publication, Larson was asked to write a press release explaining its significance to the masses.

That October, his official statement appeared in newspapers throughout the U.S. “The cartoon was meant to be an exercise in silliness,” it claims. Larson goes on to say “I regret that my fondness for cows, combined with an overactive imagination, may have carried me beyond what is comprehensible to the average ‘Far Side’ reader.” Embarrassing as this incident was, Larson got the last laugh. On more than one occasion, he’s credited the "Cow Tools" debacle with boosting the popularity of "The Far Side."

5. "THE FAR SIDE" GAVE BIRTH TO A WIDELY-USED PALEONTOLOGY TERM.

Stegosaurus is world-famous for its lime-sized brain and the quartet of nasty-looking spikes on its tail. A 1982 "Far Side" strip decided to have a little fun with the latter attribute. In that cartoon, we find an early human anachronistically lecturing his fellow cavemen about dinosaur-related hazards. Pointing at the rear end of a Stegosaurus diagram, he says “Now this end is called the thagomizer … after the late Thag Simmons.” Without meaning to, Larson’s strip plugged a gap in the scientific lexicon. Previously, nobody had ever given a name to the unique arrangement of tail spikes found on Stegosaurus and its relatives. But today, many paleontologists use the word “thagomizer” when describing this apparatus, even in scientific journals.

6. FANS OF THE STRIP HAVE NAMED THREE DIFFERENT INSECTS AFTER GARY LARSON.

In 1989, entomologist Dale Clayton discovered a brand new species of biting louse that exclusively targets owls. When the time came to name it, his first choice was Strigiphilus garylarsoni. Clayton wrote the cartoonist to ask for his blessing. This proposed insect name, he explained, was the scientist’s way of recognizing the “enormous contribution that my colleagues and I feel you have made to biology through your cartoons.” Larson happily gave Clayton the green light. “I considered this an extreme honor,” the "Far Side" creator said in retrospect. “Besides, I knew that nobody was going to write and ask to name a new species of swan after me.”

Indeed, scientific nomenclature has yet to give us a “Larson’s swan.” However, in addition to Strigiphilus garylarsoni, there’s now a beetle called Garylarsonus and a butterfly known as Serratoterga larsoni.

7. ONE COMIC TOOK SOME HEAT FROM THE JANE GOODALL INSTITUTE.  

“Well, well—another blonde hair … Conducting a little more ‘research’ with that Jane Goodall tramp?” A sassy chimpanzee makes this remark while grooming her mate in a 1987 "Far Side" comic. The one-liner started a controversy that erupted and then vanished in record time. Shortly after the cartoon ran, Larson’s syndicate received an angry letter from the Jane Goodall Institute’s executive director. Its author minced no words. “To refer to Dr. Goodall as a tramp is inexcusable—even by a self-described ‘loony’ such as Larson,” read the dispatch.

“I was horrified,” Larson wrote in The Prehistory of The Far Side: A 10th Anniversary Collection. “Not so much from a fear of being sued … but because of my deep respect for Jane Goodall and her well-known contributions to primatology. The last thing in the world I would have intentionally done was offend Dr. Goodall in any way.”

But in a stunning turn of events, it turns out that Goodall herself loved the comic. “I thought it was very funny. And I think if you make a Gary Larson cartoon, boy you’ve made it,” she said. The chimpanzee expert claimed that she was away in Africa when the director lashed out at Larson’s syndicate without her knowledge. Later, the “offending” cartoon appeared on special T-shirts that generated cash for the Institute. Also, Larson got the chance to visit one of Goodall’s research facilities in 1988. Here, he met a chimp named Frodo—who apparently wasn’t a "Far Side" fan. Without warning, Frodo pounced on an unsuspecting Larson, leaving the artist with a patchwork of scrapes and bruises.  

8. AN OHIO NEWSPAPER SWITCHED THE CAPTIONS FROM "DENNIS THE MENACE" AND "THE FAR SIDE"—TWICE.

The Dayton Daily News committed an unforgettable funny page blunder in August, 1981. Back then, the paper would run "The Far Side" right next to the more traditional "Dennis the Menace." On that fateful August day, their captions were switched. "The Far Side" strip now showed a young snake who kvetches at the family dinner table by saying “Lucky I learned to make peanut butter sandwiches or we woulda starved to death by now.” Elsewhere, Dennis Mitchell—who’s munching on a sandwich of his own—groans “Oh brother … Not hamsters again!”

“What’s most embarrassing about this is how immensely improved both cartoons turned out to be,” Larson opined in The Prehistory of The Far Side. Somebody at the Dayton Daily News made the same mistake two years later. This time, readers were confronted with a psychic cavewoman asking “If I get as big as Dad, won’t my skin be too TIGHT?” Dennis Mitchell, meanwhile, casually looked his mother in the eye and said “I see your little, petrified skull … labeled and resting on a shelf somewhere.”

9. TWO ANIMATED "FAR SIDE" SHORTS EXIST.

CBS aired a 20-minute program called Gary Larson’s Tales From the Far Side in 1994. Conceived as a Halloween special, the film was essentially an animated reinterpretation of several classic "Far Side" cartoons. Marv Newland—an animator whose best-known work is the Larson-esque short film Bambi Meets Godzilla (1969)—directed Tales, which won a Grand Prix award at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival. The year 1997 brought with it a sequel, Gary Larson’s Tales From the Far Side II. By then, the comic strip which inspired both movies had been laid to rest, as Larson retired in 1995. He has said that the two animated projects presented an interesting challenge because he “didn’t want any dialogue” in the finished products.

10. A "FAR SIDE" MUSEUM EXHIBIT OPENED IN 1985.

Natural History Magazine once called Gary Larson “the unofficial cartoonist laureate of the scientific community.” For physicists, biologists, and naturalists around the world, his work is the subject of near-universal admiration. By the mid-1980s, numerous hallways in the San Francisco-based California Academy of Sciences had basically been wallpapered with "Far Side" cartoons. Inspired by this décor, the facility got the bright idea to set up a special exhibit in Larson’s honor. Dubbed "The Far Side of Science," it featured some 600 individual cartoons. The display first opened at the CAS in December, 1985 then traveled through such cities as Los Angeles, Denver, and Orlando—often breaking attendance records along the way.

11. LARSON HAS LIKENED HIS OTHER BIG PASSION—MUSIC—TO CARTOONING.

A lifelong jazz fan, Larson would frequently listen to the work of genre maestros when he needed to generate ideas for "Far Side" comics. He ranks legendary guitarist Herb Ellis among his favorite musicians. In 1989, Ellis asked Larson if he’d design the cover of his next album, which was to be named “Doggin’ Around.” The humorist took the job—in exchange for a guitar lesson. Nowadays, with "The Far Side" (mostly) in his rear view mirror, Larson dedicates a portion of each day to honing his skills as a jazz guitarist.

This new pursuit, he says, isn’t all that different from drawing comics. “It has some parallels to cartooning because it’s improvisational—you never know exactly how something is going to turn out,” Larson told the Associated Press. “Taking a solo on a tune is always a little bit scary. Yet it has structure, there are certain rules to follow, and you try to create something with those rules.”

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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10 Facts About Real Genius On Its 35th Anniversary

Val Kilmer stars in Martha Coolidge's Real Genius (1985).
Val Kilmer stars in Martha Coolidge's Real Genius (1985).
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

In an era where nerd is a nickname given by and to people who have pretty much any passing interest in popular culture, it’s hard to imagine the way old-school nerds—people with serious and socially-debilitating obsessions—were once ostracized. Computers, progressive rock, and role-playing games (among a handful of other 1970s- early '80s developments) created a path from which far too many of the lonely, awkward, and conventionally undateable would never return. But in the 1980s, movies transformed these oddballs into underdogs and antiheroes, pitting them against attractive, moneyed, successful adversaries for the fate of handsome boys and pretty girls, cushy jobs, and first-place trophies.

The 1985 film Real Genius ranked first among equals from that decade for its stellar cast, sensitive direction, and genuine nerd bona fides. Perhaps fittingly, it sometimes feels overshadowed, and even forgotten, next to broader, bawdier (and certainly now, more problematic) films from the era like Revenge of the Nerds and Weird Science. But director Martha Coolidge delivered a classic slobs-versus-snobs adventure that manages to view the academically gifted and socially maladjusted with a greater degree of understanding and compassion while still delivering plenty of good-natured humor.

As the movie commemorates its 35th anniversary, we're looking back at the little details and painstaking efforts that make it such an enduring portrait not just of ‘80s comedy, but of nerdom itself.

1. Producer Brian Grazer wanted Valley Girl director Martha Coolidge to direct Real Genius. She wasn’t sure she wanted to.

Following the commercial success of 1984’s Revenge of the Nerds, there was an influx of bawdy scripts that played upon the same idea, and Real Genius was one of them. In 2011, Coolidge told Kickin’ It Old School that the original script for Real Genius "had a lot of penis and scatological jokes," and she wasn't interested in directing a raunchy Nerds knock-off. So producer Brian Grazer enlisted PJ Torokvei (SCTV) and writing partners Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz (Splash, City Slickers) to refine the original screenplay, and then gave Coolidge herself an opportunity to polish it before production started. “Brian's original goal, and mine, was to make a film that focused on nerds as heroes," Coolidge said. "It was ahead of its time."

2. Martha Coolidge’s priority was getting the science in Real Genius right—or at least as right as possible.

In the film, ambitious professor Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton) recruits high-achieving students at the fictional Pacific Technical University (inspired by Caltech) to design and build a laser capable of hitting a human-sized target from space. Coolidge researched the subject thoroughly, working with academic, scientific, and military technicians to ensure that as many of the script and story's elements were correct. Moreover, she ensured that the dialogue would hold up to some scrutiny, even if building a laser of the film’s dimensions wasn’t realistic (and still isn’t today).

3. One element of Real Genius that Martha Coolidge didn’t base on real events turned out to be truer than expected.

From the beginning, the idea that students were actively being exploited by their teacher to develop government technology was always fictional. But Coolidge learned that art and life share more in common than she knew at the time. “I have had so many letters since I made Real Genius from people who said, 'Yes, I was involved in a program and I didn’t realize I was developing weapons,'" she told Uproxx in 2015. “So it was a good guess and turned out to be quite accurate.”

4. Val Kilmer walked into his Real Genius audition already in character—and it nearly cost him the role.

After playing the lead in Top Secret!, Val Kilmer was firmly on Hollywood’s radar. But when he met Grazer at his audition for Real Genius, Kilmer decided to have some fun at the expense of the guy who would decide whether or not he’d get the part. "The character wasn't polite," Kilmer recalled to Entertainment Weekly in 1995. "So when I shook Grazer's hand and he said, 'Hi, I'm the producer,' I said, 'I'm sorry. You look like you're 12 years old. I like to work with men.'"

5. The filmmakers briefly considered using an actual “real genius” to star in Real Genius.

Among the performers considered to play Mitch, the wunderkind student who sets the movie’s story in motion, was a true genius who graduated college at 14 and was starting law school. Late in the casting process, they found their Mitch in Gabriel Jarrett, who becomes the third generation of overachievers (after Kilmer’s Chris and Jon Gries’s Lazlo Hollyfeld) whose talent Hathaway uses to further his own professional goals.

6. Real Genius's female lead inadvertently created a legacy for her character that would continue in animated form.

Michelle Meyrink, Gabriel Jarret, Val Kilmer, and Mark Kamiyama in Real Genius (1985).Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Michelle Meyrink was a staple of a number of ‘80s comedies, including Revenge of the Nerds. Playing Jordan in Real Genius, she claims to “never sleep” and offers a delightful portrait of high-functioning attention-deficit disorder with a chipper, erratic personality. Disney’s Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers co-creator Tad Stones has confirmed that her character went on to inspire the character of Gadget Hackwrench.

7. A Real Genius subplot, where a computer programmer is gaming a Frito-Lay contest, was based on real events.

In the film, Jon Gries (Napoleon Dynamite) plays Lazlo Hollyfeld, a reclusive genius from before Chris and Mitch’s time who lives in a bunker beneath their dorm creating entries to a contest with no restrictions where he eventually wins more than 30 percent of the prizes. In 1969, students from Caltech tried a similar tactic with Frito-Lay to game the odds. But in 1975, three computer programmers used an IBM to generate 1.2 million entries in a contest for McDonald’s, where they received 20 percent of the prizes (and a lot of complaints from customers) for their effort.

8. One of Real Genius's cast members went on to write another tribute to nerds a decade later.

Dean Devlin, who co-wrote Stargate and Independence Day with Roland Emmerich, plays Milton, another student at Pacific Tech who experiences a memorable meltdown in the rush up to finals.

9. The popcorn gag that ends Real Genius isn’t really possible, but they used real popcorn to simulate it.

At the end of the film, Chris and Mitch build a giant Jiffy Pop pack that the laser unleashes after they redirect its targeting system. The resulting popcorn fills Professor Hathaway’s house as an act of revenge. MythBusters took pains to recreate this gag in a number of ways, but quickly discovered that it wouldn’t work; even at scale, the popcorn just burns in the heat of a laser.

To pull off the scene in the film, Coolidge said that the production had people popping corn for six weeks of filming in order to get enough for the finale. After that, they had to build a house that they could manipulate with hydraulics so that the popcorn would “explode” out of every doorway and window.

10. Real Genius was the first movie to be promoted on the internet.

A week before Real Genius opened, promoters set up a press conference at a computer store in Westwood, California. Coolidge and members of the cast appeared to field questions from press from across the country—connected via CompuServe. Though the experience was evidently marred by technical problems (this was the mid-1980s, after all), the event marked the debut of what became the online roundtable junket.