Writing a joke is hard. Damn hard. Telling one though is easy, well easier. Humour is one of our most nuanced, complicated, outward but personal emotions. It is a great connector, an indicator of character, a defining trait and (hopefully) in most people’s lives an ever constant. It can easily fluctuate though, it can change due to other emotions, simply the time of the day, our current social political atmosphere, life or world events or even the company you are with. You could find something funny yesterday but not today but that doesn’t mean it can’t be funny tomorrow. It is a complicated and fickle emotion and yet so many of our relationships are based on our opposites having a “good” or similar sense of humour.
Imagine having to take in all those factors and on a weekly or even daily basis produce a joke. Something clever, of the moment, sensitive, fresh, a little edgy, aware, thoughtful and thought provoking while all the while remaining above all else funny. This is the role of the Comic Stripper. Be it in a magazine, a zine, a pamphlet or more commonly in a newspaper but this is the role they burden themselves with. When I say Comic Stripper or Cartoonist many minds will rush to the likes of Snoopy and Charlie Brown from the Peanuts strips or to the sweet charms of Calvin and Hobbs or even to the ever Monday-hating cat; Garfield. Instead however I want to focus on my personal favourite, the works of Gary Larson and his creation, The Far Side.
Not only did Larson produce 15 years worth of content that was carried by 1,900 newspapers constantly encountering reams of letters filled with angry complaints. He also limited himself to expressing his witticisms with only a single drawing, a single panel. In which he provided the set-up, the reinforcement and the punchline. He littered them with social nuance or quick thought filled gut punches or simply delivered hearty belly laughs. They were aware, socially conscious, timely, strange, unafraid, goofy, thoughtful, powerful, dumb-as-all-hell, dark, masterful and above all else very very funny. His surrealist work often involved anthropomorphic characters or socially uncomfortable situations. At times they would riff on proverbs or even be life affirming proverbs in their own right even in light of their own morbidity. Believe me Larson had a tendency for the morbid, a favourite theme of his was of the family dog plotting to kill its owner or at least turn the tables on them. I was introduced to his works by my dad after he rescued his copy of The Night of the Crash-Test Dummies from a water logged box that had been used sandbag-like to block the flooding of our garage. Once those pages had dried though a whole new twisted funny world was opened up to me.
Like many a great cartoonist or comedian as absurd as his work could be it came from a human place rooted in reality just bent through a brilliant witty mind. The use of animals and references to physics and formulas were born out of Larson’s love of biology and the sciences as a child. Jokes came from his childhood fear of monsters under the bed, one which Larson’s brother was quick to exasperate by hiding beneath said bed or closet before leaping out late at night to many screams and flailing protecting limbs. Humour is an inherently human characteristic. We can wield it waspishly and defensively and meanly but it is something we mainly use for comfort, joy, we use it welcomingly, creatively, we use it to create a sense of unity, a bond, to create a safe place. The ability to joke openly, quickly, stupidly, to laugh amongst friends and family or even strangers is amongst one of the greatest treats in life. And Larson could achieve all of this with a single drawing.