- Gary Larson’s The Far Side demonstrates that sometimes, no words need be spoken to tell a good joke, using minimalistic panels.
- Larson’s ability to condense meticulous ideas in a relatable way, with succinct yet powerful comedy, is a testament to his skill as a cartoonist.
- Some of The Far Side’s best comics don’t use words, yet still manage to impart thoughtful, socially-relevant humor, showcasing Larson’s genius.
Since hitting the stands in 1980, Gary Larson’s avant-garde newspaper strip The Far Side has demonstrated that sometimes, no words need be spoken, or printed, in order to tell a good joke. With some of the best regarded cartoon panels ever to grace the newspaper funny pages, Larson’s strip is famous for its minimalist ability to communicate a punchline in few words – often, none at all.
There’s a certain skill in being able to compose a scene that conveys a complex situation in a humorous way, and one of Larson’s greatest attributes as a cartoonist was his ability to condense very meticulous ideas in a relatable way, with succinct yet powerful comedy. In a true test of his skill, some of The Far Side’s best comics don’t even use language at all, while still managing to impart thoughtful, socially-relevant humor. Here are ten of of the best wordless Far Side comics.
10 “Stickman Nest”
Animals, specifically birds, were frequent Far Side subjects, as seen here, with two blackbirds happily build their nest in anticipation of their growing family. However, it appears one of the couple may have snagged something more than wooded debris: a terrified stickman lies gasping in its beak. Without a single word, the confusion of the crows and the horror of the stickman are clearly communicated to the reader. While the panel breaks from realism, the clearly anthropomorphic form of the stickman provides a tether for readers’ understanding of the image.
9 “Smiley-Face Wrecking Ball”
A man hard at work destroying buildings needs a symbol, and there is no greater symbol for a man’s work than happiness as he goes about his labors. Ergo, it should be no surprise that the smiley-face wrecking ball is among the most weighty of Larson’s glib social commentaries, depicting, in the face of destruction, the blind contentedness of the destruction’s instrument, being a simple, blue-collar demolition man. What makes the sight gag such a brilliant nugget of cartoon genius is the slight traces of malicious glee upon the wrecking ball’s painted gaze, suggesting the happiness of the construction worker may in fact be due to his capacity for wanton destruction.
8 “Artist Painting Flies”
A vibrantly colorful panel, showcasing The Far Side’s more artistic sense, an artist is depicted sitting in his studio, surrounded by what appears to be stylized abstract art, done in neon color schemes of the late-20th Century style. As the panel reveals, it in fact turns out that the artist’s process involves smashing bugs with his shoe and then uses their mutilated visages as the literal transcribed images for his art. Whether this is a mad brute or a savvy operator is up for debate, but there’s an implied criticism being made on the nature of abstract art as a discipline that becomes irresistibly endearing in its satire.
7 “Owl Prank”
One of the more innocent jokes of the series, two owls sit on a branch, backs turned to the viewer, and one of them decides to try the old “tapping over the shoulder” trick as a prank. What results is a classic punchline by perspective, as the pranked owl stares with a look of clear bemusement, their head turned a complete 180 degrees towards the panel. Not the most revolutionary of ideas, basing a joke on an owl’s unique head-turning abilities, but the added sense of casual familiarity that arises from the use of a classic prank makes this one of the most relatable, humorous strips of the series.
6 “Penguin Slips on Banana”
In a moment of sheer yet understated absurdity, a penguin waddling within an icy, artic wasteland manages, somehow, some way, to slip upon a banana peel. It’s a common joke, slipping on a banana peel, but Larson somehow manages to unlock a sensation of raw, unadulterated surrealism with the imagery of this Far Side installment. This penguin, no matter how good they were at braving the tundra in some of the most dangerous terrain in the world, was vulnerable to a simple banana peel. That’s all it took to send them to the ground, which has a way of putting things in perspective.
5 “Bears Mug Photographer”
It’s a common fear among nature photographers: getting killed by a bear. Following this tragic fate for one of those brave wildlife journalists, two blank-faced bears commit the final indignity upon this poor individual, and, after taking his wallet from his ragged shorts, one of them is seen stealing his cash from his wallet following their cold-hearted murder. This starkly horrifying scene is given almost sublimely amazing humor in this instance as, no matter how awful it is that a bear would attack a human being, it is a reflection of the relative innocence of a bear that, at the very least, it will not kill a person simply to steal their hard-earned money.
4 “Caveman Invents Car, But Not Wheels”
This cartoon, featuring a caveman who has invented a car before he properly invents the wheel, is simply one of the greatest cartoons of all time. Under a wide open sky, a highly inventive caveman predicts the needs of his species’ culture, thousands of years before such a thing could possibly be known, and manages to invent the automobile. Unfortunately, because the actual method of traversal, the rotating wheel, has not been invented yet, the caveman has no method to properly propel the vehicle, marking what could have been the single greatest achievement in his life as nothing more than a wasted foray into a useless daydream.
3 “Fly Portrait”
In this panel, the lady seated for her portrait is going to have quite a shock when she finds her countenance has been merged with that of a fly. Not literally of course, as in the classic 1986 film starring Jeff Goldblum – but due to a tiny obstruction to the painter’s vision, the subject has been merged with an interloping insect. While not the most subtle panel, its trademark Far Side characteristics work in its favor. Aside from the lady’s pleasant, oblivious expression, there’s the complete lack of realism in the painting itself, given the proportions of the lady’s face with the fly’s mandible, leading the viewer to question the actual mindset of the artist.
2 “Cowboy Cliff Brawl”
Larson’s use the starkness of the space in the landscape creates an air of tension, as two cowboys brawl on the edge of a cliff. Right below this cliff, in the direct radius of their potential fall, is inexplicably a tavern piano-entertainer, no doubt playing the piano in similar vein to old cowboy film music, which might play during such a fight scene in those films. Rather than humor at the coincidence, there’s a certain and sudden alienation that the viewer vicariously experiences through the eyes of the piano player, as if this longed-for fantasy, actually having old-timey piano music for a cowboy fight, has instead arrived as a grotesque and dreadful experience.
1 “Aliens Swim to Desert Island”
A moment simply loaded with ill-fitting pathos, a beleaguered castaway watches as perhaps the most amazing scene that has ever happened unfolds before him. With the realization that soon he will be sharing his tiny island with these octopus-like aliens swimming towards him, there’s a feeling of disbelief which permeates the scene. Amusingly, the seemingly highly-advanced aliens have ended up in the same predicament that the castaway is in. The unintelligible face of the marooned aliens, combined with the scene of unbelievable wonder and tragedy, grants this cartoon a certain absurdist flair the comes along with the best of The Far Side. A picture is worth a thousand words, and sometimes, no words are necessary for decent comedy.