“Always carry a flagon of whiskey in case of snakebite and furthermore always carry a small snake.”
— W.C. Fields
I remember the woman on the phone was highly upset.
That wasn’t too unusual, but she was incensed by a cartoon in the paper, and it was my job to listen, understand her concern and investigate what had made her so unhappy.
When she called, I was the editor in the Owensboro, Ky., daily newspaper, and I was used to some of the odd quirks of that readership. … But this one surprised me.
She was upset with that day’s Far Side cartoon. You remember Far Side, the daily, always offbeat, very funny single-panel comic strip by Gary Larson. It was published from Jan. 1, 1980 to Jan. 1, 1995. The Tyler Morning Telegraph was one of 1,900 daily newspapers that published it.
She wasn’t that upset with Larson. She generally liked his daily humor, but she did not like that day’s strip. As I remember, it featured two rattlesnakes sunning themselves in the highway. … And in typical Larson style, the snakes were reclining in beach chairs, with sun umbrellas and tropical drinks at their side.
She didn’t like snakes, hated snakes, didn’t think they were funny and was upset with me that I didn’t agree with her. I listened politely, tried to point out that Larson used all sorts of animals in his strips — and some were funnier than others. But I think I came across as an apologist for snakes, and that made her even more shrill.
Larson himself knew there were snake haters out there who cringed when he used the slithery creatures in his panels. But, to his way of thinking, that made it all the more fun. He even drew up one panel that explained the complicated mathematical formula that determined how many snake cartoons he had to draw to create a certain number of complaint letters.
The world of newspaper cartoons is a minefield for editors. Each has its loyal followers. Each has its detractors. One reader hates the same strip another loves. … And both might threaten to cancel their subscription to the paper because you ran it or because you didn’t.
The Tyler Paper’s comic pages haven’t changed a lot over the years. Some strips, like Donald Duck, are there simply because they have always been there. Only a very few papers still carry it. Others, such as Gasoline Alley, have grayed with their readers.
It was a different strip when it debuted in 1919, a strip about a group of car enthusiasts who gathered in the alley. In 1921, when Walt Wallet found an orphan in the alley and named him Skeezix, it became a strip with family interest. The characters grew older, had kids, then had grandkids. Four generations later, three cartoonists later, it’s just not that exciting.
But someone out there still follows Gasoline Alley. Someone else likes Rex Morgan, a 65-year-old soap opera that is just about impossible for me to get worked up about.
But I know I’ll hear from more than one of you who thinks Rex is indispensable, and others who will say, “But we grew up with Gasoline Alley.” So maybe I should stop telling you which cartoons I like and which I don’t.
I wish I had Gary Larson back in our newspaper. But he decided long ago that he would just enjoy his millions and stop trying to be brilliant every day. He went out on top and — at least in my mind — left us with lesser comics to enjoy.
But Larson’s rattlesnake cartoon and that one caller’s reaction still tickles me to this day.
I tried to be as patient as I could. I listened and told her I appreciated her call. But before I could finish, she left me with a line I have shared many times with other journalists.
Before hanging up in my ear, she left me with one parting shot.
“Creatures without collarbones are not funny!”
Dave Berry is the editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph. His column runs every Sunday. Tell him what you think about the Tyler Paper’s cartoon lineup by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Next week, “Letter in the Recipe Box,” explores a slice of personal wartime history. Thanks for reading.