Starting in 1979 and still sporadically releasing new content today, Gary Larson’s The Far Side is among the most beloved comic strips in the world. Famous for its insightful take on nature, surrealist visuals, and slightly morbid sense of humor, the strip didn’t tackle pop culture often, but when it did, the results were usually timeless.
Here are the 10 best The Far Side strips which reference classic movies, from Jaws to Psycho to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Each movie has been limited to one entry which means that for frequent subjects like Godzilla and The Wizard of Oz, only the very best are included.
In this strip, Doctor Frankenstein searches for his creature’s missing head, swearing to bolt it back on if they ever actually find it. As countless comedy takes on Mary Shelley’s horror tale have confirmed, there’s something funny about Frankenstein, Igor, and the monster all living together in a domestic setting – something The Far Side plays with frequently. However, in this case the reference to neck bolts means this comic is specifically referencing the 1931 Frankenstein, starring Boris Karloff. The difference is meaningful because while Shelley’s story has entered the public domain, Universal retains the copyright to its specific design for the creature, with the flat-topped head, bolts and green skin being key aspects that aren’t available for just anyone to use.
Despite taking an often grim view of the animal kingdom, The Far Side reserves a fondness for dogs in most of its strips – even if they’re not exactly portrayed as the brightest animals. The most famous of these is the surprisingly scientifically accurate comic where a scientist invents a device to hear what dogs are ‘saying.’ only to learn that they exclusively yell “HEY!” It’s in this spirit that ‘Toby vs Godzilla’ sees a faithful hound taking on the towering kaiju, perfectly accentuated with a toppled ‘BEWARE OF DOG’ sign.
The idea of Jaws‘ terrifying shark somehow carrying around its John Williams score is a surreal joy. The comic makes sure fans don’t miss the reference by recreating the movie’s iconic poster, though rather than having “lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes,” The Far Side goes for something a little goofier, but ultimately still scary. Lots of Far Side comics imply the possibility of a terrible fate moments after the panel, but this is one of the few where it’s clear that no-one will survive what comes next.
7 Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
Surreal, dark, and drawing from the realities of the animal kingdom, this comic would be funny enough without Snow White walking up the path, holding a newspaper with the headline “Python Escapes Zoo.” Bizarrely, this comic is actually based on Gary Larson’s real-life experiences. In The Pre-History of the Far Side, he tells the story of his pet Burmese python attempting to suffocate him, explaining “I got rid of the snake, and in so doing improved not only my chances of living awhile longer, but my social life as well.” This freaky anecdote perhaps explains why suspiciously bulging pythons appear throughout The Far Side.
6 Nightmare on Elm Street
A genuinely bizarre (and pretty tenuous) movie connection makes this surreal comic even funnier, as well as one of the darker Far Side strips that saw print. The Far Side often uses chickens and ducks as its antagonists, drawing humor from the diminutive fowl standing up for themselves. Decades before It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia created one of its best moments with a similar gag, Gary Larson was on the scene, and his version includes a talking chicken.
Some Far Side jokes are so surreal or specific that fans have spent days trying to figure them out. Indeed, the infamous ‘Cow Tools’ strip created a minor cultural phenomenon when it was published, as fans wrote in to newpapers en masse, demanding an explanation for the weird joke. ‘Psycho III’ is not one of those comics. In a world where the Psycho movie franchise got out of hand, movie execs have scaled up the threat level by giving Norman Bates a tank.
It’s an inversion of the creeping psychological dread of the first movie, but primarily a big, fun spectacle as a tank bursts through the wall, presumably to the strains of Bernard Herrmann’s iconic score. While the tank remains hyperbole, Larsons’ prediction came true – 1986 saw the release of the once-mocked idea of Psycho III, with Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates once again working at the Bates Motel.
4 The Godfather
The beginning of the cream of the crop, this strip is funny on several levels. First, the movie reference. Second, it inexplicably takes place in a world where horses and humans coexist as equals. And third, it’s absolutely impenetrable to anyone who isn’t aware that, in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 masterpiece, the central gangsters intimidate a producer by hiding a horse head in his bed while he’s sleeping.
It’s a disturbing and oft-parodied scene (even Modern Family has its own version of the moment, with a stuffed zebra), but the horse is right to be freaked out. The movie was made prior to the Screen Actors Guild adopting the American Humane Society’s standards for animal safety, and the scene used a real horse’s head, since Coppola wasn’t satisfied with the prop versions available. Offering slight consolation to movie fans, the horse wasn’t killed for the movie (production made contact with a working slaughterhouse), though that would be unlikely to comfort the equine movie-goer in this strip.
Adding a little darkness to Disney is a surefire way to strike pop culture gold, but this strip also draws on The Far Side‘s usual surrealist bent, depicting an adult Dumbo becoming a flying menace. It’s a logical extension of the ‘flying elephant’ idea, and also a fitting future for a character who spends most of his own movie being bullied by various antagonists. Tim Burton’s 2019 Dumbo might have been better received if, instead of remaking the original, it embraced Gary Larson’s pitch for a revenge-fueled sequel.
2 The Wizard of Oz
The final strip of The Far Side‘s original run, this Wizard of Oz parody sees Gary Larson wake up from the dream of his comic strip, only to discover that all his best recurring characters were based on people from his ‘real’ life. With no sequential story to wrap up and no true ‘characters’ who could return, Larson still managed to nail the landing, ending with an ‘explanation’ for the stock characters and visual gags fans had come to know and love. Sadly for Larson, it seems that in this version of his life, his pet Burmese python has returned for another shot.
1 King Kong
One of The Far Side‘s best comics, the central conceit of the police having one slim lead on the giant ape who rampaged through the city is a gem on its own, even before the ludicrous detail of a monogrammed handkerchief. Interestingly, in The Pre-History of the Far Side, Larson reveals that the initial version of this strip actually starred two Godzilla-like monsters walking away from a ruined city, with one suddenly realizing he’s left his monogrammed handkerchief behind and exclaiming “They’ll know it was me!” Larson sensed that the strip would be funnier from the police’s perspective, choosing King Kong because “there just aren’t too many famous monsters running around with first and last names.”
The Far Side is famous among comic strip fans for its tendency to tell a story in only a single panel. Playing off iconic movie properties allows the comic to be even more surreal and experimental, knowing that fans already have the context they need to understand what’s happening, whether that’s knowing who the ‘K.K.’ handkerchief belongs to, or understanding the dark significance of the python’s seven bumps.