Gary Larsen was one of the funniest cartoonists in American history, but to this day some people don’t know why, and that troubles me.
Recently, while searching for a different Larsen cartoon, I happened upon the title “Cow Tools” and was intrigued. It actually took awhile to find it, for Larsen apparently is rather possessive about his work, which is understandable. So was Picasso.
The cow itself is very zen, very much in the moment. This is an in-your-face, right now cow. He looks at you directly, confronting you straight on with his own goofy existence as if to say, “Here I am, a being that makes no sense, yet here I am. Deal with it.”
The flat line for eyes is absolutely essential, symbolizing both the mental density and the bland inscrutability of a cow. One is tempted to wonder, why does a cow even have a brain? Yet it does. Go figure.
Before the cow we see a table, upon which have been placed four objects for our consideration. The observer naturally wishes their significance to be explained.
Request denied. These are “Cow Tools.” You tell me.
Item 1: A kind of saw. For a cow??
Larsen reflected later that the first tool was a mistake, because it looked too much like a saw. I think he’s being too humble. The cow-saw is a wonderful start to a progression of increasingly vague and ambiguous objects. What would a cow need with a saw? Note that a cow’s ability to hold onto any of these objects is the least-emphasized factor.
Item 2: Back scratcher? Grass hoe?
The saw was fairly obvious, a bit of symbolic hand-holding. Now we enter the next level in this Twilight Zone. It’s some kind of pole ending with a couple curved tips, and a smaller one pointing the other way. Looks a little like a garden fork, possibly a cow back scratcher…Doesn’t this require, um, fingers?
Item 3: Practice Udder?
Or maybe cows play curling? The guesses necessarily become wilder, because the object is more ambiguous. A kind of cylindrical protrusion sticks out, but we’re not sure we even want to know what it’s supposed to be. Shame on you for even thinking that. Troubling, thus hilarious.
Item 4: WTF??
Larsen finishes off the collection with the utterly vague kind of proto-tool that bedevils archaeologists. We’ve seen this before on science shows – a barely-altered lump of something that we are confidently told was used by primitive man for some exceedingly clever purpose, while we sit back and say, “Oh, really?” Meanwhile, we stumble over similar objects in our back yard, and there’s not a cow for miles.
What Larsen did with a few apparently crude lines was to confront us with the sadly difficult job of interpreting artifacts. The cow represents the ultimately unknowable nature of whoever might have used the little objects we find strewn about at dusty digs around the world. Could Picasso have said it with more economy? Would it be funny?
Now I apologize, for having explained the joke, I have systematically drained all the blood from its ability to elicit spontaneous laughter. However, having approached this singular masterpiece, it is my sincerest hope that Larsen’s other cartoons will be at least a bit more accessible. Sometimes it is not the answer that is funny, but the question.
Update: I completely forgot to mention the unexpected public reaction to “Cow tools” when it was published in 1982. Larsen received literally thousands of responses, some of them quite angry. People wondered what he was trying to say. Was he even TRYING to be funny? Was he challenging man’s status as the only tool-making creature on earth? The furor served to launch Larsen’s Far Side comic into high gear, eventually syndicated in hundreds of newspapers. Then, at the pinnacle of his fame and fortune, Larsen quit publishing his drawings and took up a career as a jazz musician, one of the very few with money in the bank. Happy ending!
Salon article on Larsen:
Another essay on Cow Tools:
Why Aren’t Philosopher’s Funny?
Larsen cartoons for free email postcards!
Larsen’s collections on Amazon