Top Cartoons: Gary Larson’s Tales From the Far Side

vid’s been taken down, sorry ūüė¶

Like its creator, Tales From the Far Side is a misunderstood creature. A lot of people just don’t get¬†Gary Larson, and I don’t think they got this show either.¬†It was one of just¬†two animated specials based on the popular comic strip, and the only one that aired in the United States. It’s a lovely bit of animation, but I think that director¬†Marv Newland, creator of the haunting Black Hula and¬†Bambi Meets Godzilla, pushed things a little too far into Halloween-Town for most audiences. His¬†vision is clear right from the beginning: the score is a cloud of gloomy¬†guitars and eerie er-hus.¬†The camera¬†glides past smoking farm animals and dead people before settling on a reanimated bovine. This queen of the night tells us with an piercing¬†bleat that she’s¬†bringing us somewhere that we might not like to go, and she doesn’t give a damn how we feel about¬†it.

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That Newland’s direction is matched with Gary Larson’s off-center perceptions¬†doesn’t aid the accessibility factor.¬†In keeping with the spirit of the strip, the show is a series of disconnected jokes, many of them conceptual, so if you never dug¬†The Far Side,¬†you’re not going to dig¬†this.¬†I once watched this show with a non-fan friend, and the loudest, angriest¬†question to come up was, “So what happened to the cow?” She was frustrated that the show had ditched¬†the Franken-cow from¬†the opening, and had never¬†come back to it. She didn’t understand that¬†The Far Side was never about the traditional, long-term payoff. Larson is foremost an idea man, and in his world, the punchline is in the premise.

We get some throwaway gags lifted straight from the funny pages, like a crow scraping its meal off the street with a spatula, but there are also more elaborate setups. My favorite is the insect airline, where the business class is packed with worker bees, and the in-flight movie is The Fly.

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There are also several “role-reversal” scenarios, not unlike¬†Paul Driessen’s¬†The Killing of an Egg,¬†in which arrogant humanity suffers for its transgressions against nature. Presented in the innocent¬†pictures of the comic, this dark theme was leavened. When bolstered by motion¬†and sound, however, it turns¬†downright devilish.

I think it’s terrific, but most critics of the day did not. They admired the slick presentation, but found the material¬†simple and one-note. I’m really not sure what they expected from a show based off a one-panel cartoon. I think Tales From the Far Side¬†is the perfect amplification of the comic strip.¬†Just watching Larson’s dumpy, bell-shaped characters take motion is a lot of fun. The animators clearly¬†had a great time with it: everything bounces and wobbles and wiggles in a delightful fashion that suits¬†the visual style. There’s very little¬†dialogue, which is odd considering that the comic could be quite wordy, but I think it¬†works. Too much speech would soften¬†the show’s concepts, and extract us¬†from the uncomfortable un-reality that we’re meant to be visiting.

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Some of the sequences could use a little trimming, and the finale is a big letdown, but I still think that¬†Tales From the Far Side is a marvel. Like¬†A Wish For Wings¬†That Work,¬†it’s a comic strip special whose material simply can’t cater to everyone, but that’s precisely¬†why I love it so.

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Song of the Psy-ren

When it comes to the supernatural, I’m with James Randi: it’s all woo-woos and cold reading, a shyster’s¬†sale¬†to the unending human desire to believe that there must be SOMETHING more, SOME¬†order or¬†purpose, behind the death, the doldrums, and the drudgery of¬†our world.

But not all of the time.

The mattock that picked a crack in my shield¬†was an anecdote by Lewis Black, the bitter, jaded, and slightly angry comedian whose “Back in Black” segments on The Daily Show always left¬†me in stitches.

In his book, Me of Little Faith, he tells about his meetings¬†with Michael Bodine, brother of the more famous Echo, who knows things about Black’s family, career, and future that he¬†shouldn’t. Black explains that Michael gains this knowledge from people that only he can see. Spirit guides, I guess. Black doesn’t go into detail about these psychic encounters, but he makes it sound as though Michael brings these answers to him without any prompting, questioning, or reading of any kind. Michael even leaves a voicemail at Black’s home one night, in which¬†he adds to a conversation¬†Black was having with others, miles away, at that very minute. Black says, “It was as if¬†Michael was there with us.”

Michael is a professional psychic and ghostbuster. He drives lingering spirits from people’s homes. In his book, Black tells about how Michael had to rid a young man’s home of a succubus, a female ghost who had fallen in love with the young man. It was a pretty good story, and it got me wondering about whether there were there possible dates in the ether¬†checking me out too.

But what’s really going on here? Any fan of Mr. Black will tell you that the man is one of the most angry, world-weary, serious, and cynical sons of bitches out there. Is that all a¬†persona, like Stephen Colbert’s famous ultra-conservative parody? If so, he¬†sells it far better than Colbert does. Everything about Black, from his mussed hair¬†and sagging lip, to¬†his beaten-down, Howard Beale posture, tells me he’s the real deal. His¬†material comes from a true place, though of course, he exaggerates at times for comic effect.

Could the man be a woo-woo, a shyster who just wants to sell his book, or to help Michael sell his books?

Well, he’s in the entertainment business, right? It’s a market of illusions.

But maybe he really experienced something. Maybe he felt something that he never expected, and was compelled to tell about it because it exposed the cracks in his thinking.

Are there people who know about our futures that only Michael can see? If so, what do they know about me, or my family, or the universe’s plans for the earth?

James Randi says that even jaded people will open their ears to the call of the psychic when their lives turn, spin, or topple over. When a person’s life skids out of control, and flies off the highway¬†that was once the only route they knew, of course that person is going to want to know what the hell to do next. Problem is, there are no maps to¬†the network of human life. The lanes and nodes and currents are in constant flux, like electrons. If there’s a man, like Michael, a conduit to the outside, who can speak with beings that know¬†where the river bends, wouldn’t we all want to confer with him…for three-hundred dollars an hour?

Black ends his story about Michael with a disclaimer: he says he has never paid Michael a cent for his services. Still, I’m sure that an endorsement from such an unexpected source must be pretty valuable to Michael.

It’s almost working¬†on me.