Depths of... Cow Tools



I’m Annie Rauwerda, and I started @depthsofwikipedia on InstagramTwitter, and TikTok to highlight my favorite trivia and internet rabbit holes. I partnered with Bullish Studio to round up fun trivia about a new topic each week.

First up, Mashable interviewed me, and you can read it here!

Also, I ran the Ann Arbor Marathon on Sunday! I still don't know why I keep coming back to distance running, as I find it completely miserable, but there's something so addicting about marathons. I didn't follow a training plan, and I probably didn't prepare as much as I should have, but I survived(!!) — which is more than Pheidippides can say.

Since I finished the race two days ago, I've been channeling healthy cow energy. This is my favorite image caption on Wikipedia hands down, and it's inspired the theme of this newsletter: cow tools!!

Cow Tools

When the Cow Tools comic hit the syndicated press in October of 1982, America had no idea what to think. A newspaper phone line rang off the hook with confused readers, and creator Gary Larson received "hundreds" of letters — one of which came from a reader so perplexed that they showed the comic to 40 people with doctoral degrees. Just like "The Dress" of 2015, Cow Tools turned father against son, sister against brother, cow against man. Larson calls it "arguably the most loathed Far Side strip of all time."

In response to the controversy, Larson stated: "The cartoon was intended to be an exercise in silliness. While I have never met a cow who could make tools, I felt sure that if I did, they (the tools) would lack something in sophistication and resemble the sorry specimens shown in this cartoon. 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."

In a later interview, Larson said: "You start out thinking that everyone in the world has the same type of humor as your six friends. I was surprised at just how upset some people can be."  

Cow Tools was before its time with surreal humor — like @afffirmations, or other memes that are funny precisely because they miss the mark a little. The punchline is that there is no punchline at all! But even though absurdist, surreal humor dominates the internet, Gary Larson spent a long time trying to keep The Far Side off the web. 

In 2007, he wrote "These cartoons are my 'children,' of sorts, and like a parent, I’m concerned about where they go at night without telling me. And, seeing them at someone’s web site is like getting the call at 2:00 a.m. that goes, 'Uh, Dad, you’re not going to like this much, but guess where I am.'"

Eventually, Larson caved. The 2019 announcement of his new website made major headlines. Larson's conversion from Luddite to techie continued. In 2020, he returned to publishing cartoons again after 25 years — all because he got a tablet.

"I got one, fired it up, and lo and behold, something totally unexpected happened: within moments, I was having fun drawing again," he wrote on his website. He feels like he is "sitting at the controls of a 747."

I'm very glad he got into cartooning in the first place, because it wasn't his original plan. Larson has had a longtime affinity for the natural world. Despite his passion for Biology, he studied Communications at Washington State ("One of the most idiotic things I ever did"). He intended to "save the world from inane advertising," but he spent post-grad years working as a cruelty inspector for the Humane Society, musician, and music store clerk (he now calls music stores the "graveyards of musicians").

Larson eventually landed a cartooning gig at the Seattle Times, and in 1979, the San Francisco Chronicle syndicated his comic to over 30 newspapers. Adored by scientists and academics, the comic grew to 1,900 newspapers and 17 languages. But the seven-per-week schedule started taking a toll.

"Every week, when my batch of weekly cartoons would go to FedEx, it felt like a small miracle," he said. "Then in a few days, it's 'here we go again.'"

After a 15-year run, Larson called it quits in 1995. 

Cows <3 

“I’ve always thought the word cow was funny,” Larson once said. “And cows are sort of tragic figures. Cows blur the line between tragedy and humor.” 

Gary Larson drew a lot of cows, and much of the bovine humor had to do with a role reversal between cows and humans. 

Wholesome Gary Larson and Jane Goodall beef

One of my favorite things that has ever happened in history is when The Far Side made a joke insinuating that Jane Goodall and a chimpanzee slept together. Goodall found it so amusing that she invited Gary Larson to Tanzania. In the forward to The Far Side Gallery 5, Goodall wrote that she found him "utterly delightful, quiet, and very observant." She "never heard him talking Larsonesque Far Side language in public!" 

The chimpanzees weren't as kind — Frodo the chimpanzee attacked Gary Larson, leaving him scratched and bruised, but ultimately okay. (By the way, Goodall was the answer to Final Jeopardy last night!)

Other things I liked this week


  • Dave Rule: A satirical metric of gender equity in Silicon Valley — there should be as many women on a tech team as there are people named "Dave"

  • Jacques Tits: A mathematician who introduced Tits buildings, the Tits alternative, the Tits group, and the Tits metric

  • Hotmail had a security issue in 1999 where you could access any account with the password 'eh'

  • [citation needed] on the Standing article. Question everything!

  • Instagram's most-liked post came from the list of diss tracks. Twitter liked it too!

Wikipedia-inspired Halloween costumes 

That's all for today! As always, feel free to forward this to a friend and send your thoughts to [email protected]. I really like your emails!