The Far Side Of The Smithsonian Through Gary Larson's Lens, The World's A Naturally Wacky Place, So A Temple To Natural History Is A Fitting Place For A Show Of His Cartoons

Posted: April 16, 1987

It was a Thursday afternoon at the National Museum of Natural History, and the young man with the thinning hair and the steel-rim glasses seemed to fit right in.

He had the quiet, pensive look of a curator, and he was listening attentively as Vicki Funk, the Smithsonian Institution's curator of botany, told him about the time her helicopter went down in the mountains of Peru.

"We had three days of food, and we were stranded for 10 days," said Funk, ''so we had to eat birds. The flycatchers tasted awful, probably because they eat insects and all," she said - and instantly the young man's eyebrows arched with astonishment. "But the hummingbirds - which feed on nectar - tasted wonderful."

Gary Larson blinked and said nothing, but this was great stuff: scientists, trapped in the jungle, snacking on hummingbirds and flycatchers, wondering what made them taste good. Why, it was like something out of those Far Side cartoons you see in the newspapers. And perhaps, someday, it will be.

Larson, 36, is creator of The Far Side, an utterly unpredictable newspaper cartoon in which cows push doorbells just to baffle a farmer; a grumpy duck in a restaurant complains, "Where's my Earthworms Alfredo?"; teenage dinosaurs sneak cigarettes ("The real reason they became extinct"); pigs drive tractors; sharks wear neckties, and in which all of these share the planet with witless cavemen, daffy scientists, women in 1956-style "cat" glasses, oafish men and impossibly nerdy teenagers.

The Far Side appears in 600 newspapers, including the Philadelphia Daily News on weekdays and The Inquirer on Sundays. Its paperback anthologies have topped the best-seller lists for years, and Larson cartoons are taped up on office bulletin boards and refrigerators just about everywhere. But nowhere is Larson better appreciated than at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, which a week ago opened an exhibit of 527 of his Far Side cartoons in its massive rotunda.

At first glance, Larson's work seems like the last thing that this great domed building, built in 1910, might put on display. Its marble, columned corridors and legendary exhibit halls are devoted to such objects of interest as mastodons, whales, dinosaur bones, insects, gems - including the legendary Hope Diamond - and meteorites.

Peer at Larson's work under your laughoscope, however, and you'll see that The Far Side is teeming with natural history. There are gags about cavemen, wooly mammoths, vultures, possums, spiders, whales, and scientists in lab coats and pith helmets. In one drawing, for example, a dinosaur is at a podium, addressing a symposium of other dinosaurs. "The picture's pretty

bleak," the creature says. " . . . The world's climates are changing, the mammals are taking over, and we all have a brain about the size of a walnut."

It's zany stuff, and some of the seven million visitors expected to tour the museum this year may be baffled at first. Cartoons? In a museum? But unbeknownst to the public, there's been a Larson "show" behind the scenes at the Natural History museum ever since The Far Side appeared in a local newspaper in 1978. Within weeks, Larson cartoons were being slapped up in museum labs and offices; Larson has been a tradition at the museum ever since.

"I started clipping him out years ago," confided Dick Grant, curator of brachiopods. "He's an absolute genius. Of course, he does a lot of things we could object to - men and dinosaurs in the same era, for example. He's got everything out of kilter, but that's part of his appeal."

"Natural history is the wellspring of his creativity," museum director Robert S. Hoffmann said last week to a crowd of 50 reporters and photographers attending a pre-opening news conference - the museum's largest press turnout in recent memory. "He has tweaked the funny bone of science. . . . It was inevitable a science museum would create such an exhibit."

It was so inevitable, in fact, that about two years ago, both the Smithsonian and the San Francisco Academy of Sciences came up the idea for a Larson show within days of each other. The California museum asked first, but both institutions collaborated to create this traveling exhibit, which already has appeared in San Francisco, Denver and Los Angeles. The show "is jammed," said a museum spokesman. It continues at the museum through May 31, then heads to Orlando, Fla., Chicago and Toronto, and it arrives in New York in 1989.

Larson, who lives in Seattle, seemed startled by all the attention he got in Washington. "This is extremely flattering," he told guests at a reception that drew 400 guests to the rotunda the evening before the exhibit's formal opening. But he is a man of few words. "I didn't come with any prepared statement," he told reporters, and he politely declined individual interviews.

The show features 127 black-and-white originals of his cartoons; the rest are copies, but it's hard to tell the difference without peering closely. Most are mounted on boards that each contain 50 drawings; the boards are placed around the walls on the first and second floors of the rotunda. Most visitors to the reception were laughing so hard that the seismograph on the second floor must have trembled.

Some folks' heads would bob and jiggle as they read from panel to panel. Others would lean forward, read a caption like "Testing whether or not animals kiss" - under a cartoon showing a scientist, wearing a lab coat, kissing an armadillo - and suddenly convulse.

"I feel so embarrassed just laughing here," said one elegantly dressed woman to her companion. "Which one?" he asked, nodding to a woolly mammoth being shorn to look like a French poodle. " 'French mammoth'?"

"No," she said. "I'm laughing at 'gravel angel,' " - a drawing of a caveman lying face down, flapping his arms in a gravel bank.

Several Larson devotees attempted to explain his appeal. "He's sick," said John J. McKechnie, 25, a lobbyist. "But I mean that as a compliment." ''We think like him. A lot of people do," said Diana Cohen, 29.

Alas, even Larson does not understand where his ideas - such as cows selling peaches in the Garden of Eden - come from. "Actually, I just sit down at the drawing table and get silly," he said at the news conference. "I have no insight where it comes from. For me it's an internal process."

As a boy growing up in Tacoma, Wash., he caught frogs and salamanders, had cats and dogs and other pets, and was terrified of monsters in his closet, he said. At the University of Washington he was a communications major who took every biology course the school offered. "Natural science," he said with a shrug, "is just a subject I'm interested in."

By 10:30 a.m. the news conference was over. As reporters departed, wondering how they'd convey Larson's brief replies and visual humor to their audiences, Larson, museum officials and a reporter slipped through a pair of large swinging doors that read "Not Open to the Public." Larson - hero of the museum staff - was about to embark on an expedition through collections that the public rarely sees.

Although the public correctly perceives the National Museum of Natural History as a vast exhibit hall (it is the most visited of the Smithsonian system's 13 museums and galleries), it is also a vast research institution whose curators and staff explore jungles and mountaintops and deserts and ocean bottoms, seeking to understand how earth and its countless life forms originated and evolved.

Less than 1 percent of the museum's vast collection of 84 million birds and rocks and bones and plants and worms and shells and fossils and meteorites are on display, simply because there is no room, and few of them would interest the layman.

But each of the museum's 120 curators has special drawers or shelves containing his or her "oh my!" collection - a handful of spectacular specimens guaranteed to elicit gasps from those fortunate enough to see them.

Rick Potts, associate curator of hominid evolution, showed Larson a cast of the skull "Lucy," a three-million-year-old australopithecus africenis. Dennis Stanford, curator of North American archaeology, showed him petrified butchering tools and bones from an 11,700-year-old American mammoth. "Oh, wow," said Larson, which is about as much as he ever said during the tour. Taped on Stanford's door were several yellowed Far Side cartoons, including one that showed two cavemen roasting a woolly mammoth - tusks and all - on a barbecue spit. "You mean no one brought the buns?" exclaims one.

Dick Zusi, curator of birds, had already pulled out two dozen of the museum's most spectacular stuffed birds when Larson arrived. They included a harpie eagle, brilliant birds of paradise, a spoonbilled kiwi, a crested penguin, a Guatemalan quetzel, and an Andean condor, or vulture. "I know you're into vultures," said Zusi. Larson smiled. "Vultures and chickens," he corrected with a smile. On Zusi's wall were a half-dozen Larson drawings. ''They're not just up for the occasion," said Zusi. "They're everywhere."

Larson appeared particularly fascinated by the "oh my" insect collection, which included some four-inch beetles, killer bees, and iridescent moths. "I just did a drawing about killer bees," Larson told associate curator Ronald McGinley. "It says, 'Why bees become killer bees,' and it shows juvenile larvae delinquents."

Nobody expected the worm collection to be the highlight of the tour, but Dwayne Hope, curator of worms, was "delighted" to meet Larson, and enthusiastically showed him two-foot worms recently discovered miles deep in the Pacific Ocean. "They're warmed by volcanic activity and feed on sulfur. It's another whole world!" said Hope.

And several of the curators were thrilled to learn that Larson would be shown the museum's famous "blue room," the vault where some of the museum's ''lesser" gems and minerals are stored. "I've never even seen it," said McGinley. "Neither have I," said Stanford.

In the blue room, John White, curator of gems, pumped Larson's hand, asked him to autograph a favorite cartoon, and showed him a fist-size, 2,470-carat blue topaz. Most of the gems are under glass, but - under the watchful eye of staff and closed-circuit television cameras - Larson was allowed to touch a ring containing an 8 1/2-carat sapphire and a 5.3-carat diamond; to slip an emerald ring onto his pinkie, and to touch opals, tourmalines, garnets and rubies.

The man who "tweaks the funny bone of science" was king for a day, and the curators were his courtiers. Only Nobel Prize winners usually get this kind of attention, right?

"Nahh," said one museum official with a laugh. "Nobel Prize winners are a dime a dozen."

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