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A cow drawn by cartoonist Gary Larson, creator of the "The Far Side ®️"

Gary Larson Discusses His "Adult Children's Book."

"The Far Side®️" cartoonist Gary Larson has written and illustrated the new book "There's A Hair In My Dirt! A Worm's Story" (HarperCollins). It's the story of a family of earthworms and a fair maiden in the forest. “The Far Side” was in daily syndication from 1980 to 1995 and appeared in more than 1,900 newspapers worldwide. Larson has published more than 20 books featuring his cartoons. His first animated film, “Gary Larson’s Tales From The Far Side,” aired in the U.S. as a 1994 Halloween special. It, along with its sequel “Gary Larson’s Tales From The Far Side II” (1997), was selected for numerous international film festivals, and both films have been broadcast in various foreign countries. Larson’s website,, debuted in December 2019 and quickly won a Webby People’s Voice Award for Best Humor Website. He lives in Seattle, Washington.


Other segments from the episode on April 30, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 30, 1998: Interview with Gary Larson; Review of albums of Kurt Weill music.


Date: APRIL 30, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 043001np.217
Head: There's a Hair in My Dirt
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Cartoonist Gary Larson has devoted fans all over the world. His weird and surreal comic "The Far Side" was syndicated in more than 1,900 newspapers around the world, and translated into 17 languages. Twenty-one of his Far Side books have been bestsellers.

Larson retired from drawing The Far Side three years ago. Now, he has a new illustrated book about a family of earthworms called "There's a Hair in My Dirt!." It's a kind of twisted fairy tale which he describes as an adult children's book.

GARY LARSON, CARTOONIST, FILMMAKER, AUTHOR, "THERE'S A HAIR IN MY DIRT": It's centered on a family of worms that are sitting around the dinner table, like, one night. And they're having their usual dinner -- what they -- the only thing they always ever have, which is dirt. So, they have these little plates of dirt in front of them.

And on this one occasion, the little worm -- the little kid worm -- sees that there's a hair in his dirt. And that, I mean, just completely infuriates him and just -- he's so -- he's so upset by it. And he just has this tirade -- goes off about, you know, the life of a worm and just how miserable he is, and on and on.

So, he has this big scene at the dinner table, and his mother and father were just sitting there listening to him vent. And he finishes, and finally father worm looks at him and decides he has to tell him a story. And that's sort of where the -- I guess, the main book begins.

It's actually the story being told by the father worm to his son. And he tries to -- it -- you know, it centers on trying to tell him the importance of being a worm; that his life is not so bad. And that in essence all things -- all things play a role in nature.

And he uses a story to explain it.

GROSS: Gary Larson, this book is based on a short set of drawings and captions, like a short strip that you did 15 years ago.

LARSON: Right.

GROSS: How did you first come up with the story?

LARSON: I guess I was hearing -- maybe this goes back to my -- my childhood because I -- I always had an affinity for animals that lived in swamps and especially snakes. I always liked snakes and caught them and brought them home. And I had -- I had very tolerant parents, I think, that allowed you to bring things into the house like that and set up little cages and terrariums and whatever.

And that -- that has always stayed with me. I've even, on into my 20s, I had a real strong interest in reptiles and amphibians. But when you do that, you start to get -- you start to obviously encounter a lot of reactions from people who walk into your place and are horror-stricken at what they see. And it makes you -- well, it always made you feel like you had to explain yourself. And I just never had any fear of those things at all. In fact, I was -- I thought they were beautiful.

And it's -- it started me thinking about, well, you know, is it me? Or is it you? Why is someone else looking at this and saying that it's ugly, whatever? And I started to realize that maybe there's -- maybe we all bring prejudice to nature as well, when we decide what's beautiful and what's ugly or what's -- what's dramatic and impressive and what's not.

And because everything is just -- looks the way it looks because it's...

GROSS: One of your comics is of a snake that's coiled up, but it's sitting on a couch in a living room. And of course, the snake has the same patterns -- the snake's skin is the same pattern as the couch's upholstery.

LARSON: Right.

GROSS: So...

LARSON: Right, right.

GROSS: ... so the couch is kind of -- the snake is kind of like camouflaged in the living room...

LARSON: Right.

GROSS: ... the way snakes usually are camouflaged in the woods. Did you have snakes in the house that got out and hid out in the living room?

LARSON: Oh, I did. I used to -- yeah, they would get loose every once in a while and my folks were never really pleased about that, but still they never put their foot down. But yeah -- well, I usually could find them eventually.

GROSS: Usually? All right.


GROSS: That sounds awfully...


LARSON: I know my -- I lost an eight-foot boa constrictor once in our house, and my dad and I went on a search for it. And we were looking -- we were looking everywhere and could not find this thing. And my mom was gone. She didn't even -- wasn't even aware of it, but you know, we had to find it before she got home.

And I remember I was in the living room looking behind the couch or whatever, and I -- I heard my dad scream from another room. And he said -- well actually what he said -- he yelled "I found it." And then this scream came out of there.


GROSS: What happened?

LARSON: Well, nothing. Actually, the snake didn't do anything. He had reached up -- my mom had like a sewing machine or something, and it was -- and he had reached up inside -- you know, well, actually the cabinet that it was in. And he didn't look. He just put his hand up inside this thing and was feeling, and he put his hand right on it. And it was -- it was really funny because he had -- this reaction was to first of all say that he found it, and then it sort of hit him that he'd found it. And this scream.

GROSS: You have done so many comics, Gary Larson, about insects and creatures and wildlife and animals and so on, that there's been a couple of creatures named after you. One of them is a louse -- as in lice.


GROSS: And you -- you reprinted in one of your books the letter that the biologist sent you -- the biologist who wanted to name the louse after you. And he said: "let me warn you, I do not work on cute insects. I am a specialist on the order malefagia (ph), which is the chewing lice." I hope I pronounced that right.

LARSON: Right. Right.

GROSS: Were you honored...

LARSON: I was honored.

GROSS: ... that he wrote you this?

LARSON: I was very honored. Yeah, I was -- that was a great compliment. I don't know if everyone would feel that way, but I did. I mean, and the fact that it was a chewing louse was fine.

GROSS: Did you get to ever see this chewing louse?

LARSON: I've never seen it, no.

GROSS: And what's it officially called?

LARSON: You mean as in like a common name or what...

GROSS: Well, now that it's named after you, is it called the "Gary Larson louse?"

LARSON: No, it's -- "larsoni" (ph), I think, is the species or sub-species name on it. And I can't -- I -- right now, you've caught me off guard, I can't think of the genus name.

GROSS: And you have a butterfly named after you too?


GROSS: And what's that?

LARSON: I sort of forget what that is. I don't know too much about the butterfly. I -- frankly, it was -- I was more drawn to the louse, I guess.


GROSS: In a lot of your comics, you try to see the world through the eyes of insects and animals and the human world looks, you know, often very absurd when see through the eyes of insects and animals. In one of your very funny comics, there's a movie theater filled with insects, and they're watching a horror movie called "Return of the Killer Windshield."

LARSON: Right.


GROSS: I think it was very funny. What kind of things to you wonder about when you wonder about what an insect's point of view is like? Do you spend a lot of time doing that? Thinking: I wonder how the world looks to the insects that we kill when we drive quickly down the highway?

LARSON: Well, I suppose I do. But you know, it's always been confusing to me as well -- is to try to understand how or where this idea came from, how I got there.

GROSS: With the idea of that particular cartoon? Or just ideas in general?

LARSON: In general, 'cause now -- I mean, I'm thinking about the cartoon you mentioned in that, and I'm going: well, how did I think of that and why did that come to me? But yeah, I imagine I am starting to think about their world and looking at it, and what it would be like, and what are the threats and dangers and encounters that they have in their world.

And what do I know about them and their lives and life cycles, and start thinking like that.

GROSS: My guest is Gary Larson, the creator of the syndicated comic "The Far Side." Now he has a new book called There's a Hair in My Dirt!: A Worm's Story. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Cartoonist Gary Larson is my guest, of The Far Side fame. He has a new book and it's called There's a Hair in My Dirt!, and it's told from the point of view of earthworms.

We've been talking about real creatures. I want to talk about monsters a little bit. You have some great monster comics that you've done over the years. And one of them -- a monster couple is sitting at the kitchen table. They're drinking coffee. And Mr. Monster says: "dang, look at the time, and I gotta be in little Billy Harrison's closet before nightfall."


Did you think that there were lots of monsters in your house when you were a boy -- hiding out?

LARSON: I did. I did. I was -- well, I'll tell you this. I had a real fear of my closet when I was a kid. And I mean I just -- I was convinced that something lived in my closet. And I had this little ritual as a result that every night when I went to bed I made sure that the closet doors -- I had two sliding doors -- I made sure they were completely shut before I went to bed.

And one night, I was in bed and I was -- had my reading lamp on and I think I was like reading a comic book or something. And I looked up to check on the closet because I was always checking on the closet. And the door was open like, I don't -- you know, half an inch or so and I was -- I just was mortified. I couldn't believe that I had done this. I had overlooked it.

And of course, I also knew that I couldn't get up and go shut the door 'cause that's just what the thing inside wanted me to do.


And I didn't want to walk across the room to turn the light on. And so, I just -- I just laid there and I was -- I was really in a cold sweat wondering what to do about this. And, I went back to reading for a while. And I looked up again, you know, like half a minute later, and I wasn't sure, but I thought that maybe the door was now a little wider -- that it had opened a little.

But if it had, it was very subtle. And I looked down again and looked up once more, and this time I was convinced: it was like now like an inch open -- wide open. And all -- now, all I could do was just stare at it and I was just staring at this closet and I found myself trying to look into this black slit into the closet. And eventually, I could make up -- make out an eye staring back at me -- just one eye looking at me.

And I -- oh, this primal scream came out of me. And at the same time that I was screaming, the door just slid open very slowly -- I mean, just before my eyes, and my brother stepped out. I don't know how long he'd been hidden in there, but he was -- he knew I had this fear and he was just milking it out.

GROSS: Oh, he had your number.

LARSON: Oh, boy, did he. Yeah.

GROSS: So did that -- did that reinforce or end your fear of the closet?

LARSON: Oh, it didn't end anything for me.


GROSS: What -- what did you expect the monsters would look like, since you've drawn a lot of monsters over the years?

LARSON: I think the monsters that I saw in my mind were very werewolf-like, I think.

GROSS: Lots of hair, big fangs.


GROSS: Partly -- partly human, partly animal.

LARSON: Yeah. Actually, and I realize again, my -- once again, my older brother had a big influence on me 'cause he had a -- when we shared a bedroom, he had a dream one night in which -- and he woke up screaming. And my mom came running in to see what was wrong. And he described this dream to her of this -- of being in a basement somewhere, and this wolf that walked on its hind legs was trying to get him. And the wolf kind of shuffled its feet and you could hear him coming, and he described the sound of this -- these feet going "shhh shhh shhh" down the hallway toward him.

And when it finally showed up, it was this huge wolf on its hind legs and it didn't have any pupils -- it just had pure white eyes. And it became sort of famous in our household. It was known as the wolf with the pure white eyes. And he was -- he completely forgot about it after he woke up. But for me, his dream haunted me for the longest time. I think I kind of absorbed his dream -- that story -- and worried about that wolf somewhere in our house for years.

GROSS: Now as an adult, you came up for one of your cartoons with a good device to protect against monsters. It's the "monster snorkel."


GROSS: And it allows a child to stay under the covers, hidden from the monsters, while still breathing through this snorkel. And you know, in reading that, it made me think that, you know, in my fear of monster-era, I had to vigilantly stay with my head outside of the covers 'cause as long as I was watching, they probably wouldn't come, see? So if I was under the covers, that's when I'd be vulnerable.

LARSON: Oh. No, that was very different from my own private version of how to survive.


I had -- I almost -- I think I -- I could have suffocated, maybe, some nights. I just did not want to expose any part of me, I thought.

GROSS: It was interesting that you were at the -- on the one hand so attracted to, you know, like snakes and kind of creepy, crawly type things that would scare a lot of people. And on the other hand, you were really afraid of monsters.

LARSON: Mm-hmm. Well, literally, it was -- I guess that's a difference between day and night for...

GROSS: Oh, sure. Yeah. Right.

LARSON: Yeah. In the daylight, I was into nature and you know, everything -- it was, you know, I read books on biology and natural history and I studied about snakes and other animals. I mean, I was really into that.

But boy, when the sun went down, it was like, oh, this is another world.


GROSS: When do you work now? During the day or at night?

LARSON: I work usually -- I start late afternoon, I guess, and go into the night.

GROSS: Is night a good time to work for you now?


GROSS: Why is that, do you think?

LARSON: It suits me, I guess. I like to -- you know, I sit at my drafting tables in the corner of a room and I usually put some jazz on or something and everything is quiet elsewhere. And I can concentrate.

GROSS: Do you still have -- ever have really bad dreams at night or just kind of thoughts that come to haunt you? Is the night still, in its own way, threatening?

LARSON: No. I got through it. I mean, it's -- I don't have those kind of thoughts anymore.

GROSS: You have a comic -- you know, you've spoken of your brother a little bit and some of the practical jokes and so on he played on you. You have a cartoon where the character who I assume is based on you is tied to a tree while the older brother is coming at him with a match so large that it looks more like a torch...


... than a match. Did your brother like do things to torture you?

LARSON: Oh, well I had to watch out for myself, I guess. I was often saved by the bathroom, which was the only, you know, room with a lock on it, of course, to escape. But mostly, things like hiding in the closet -- whatever.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

LARSON: Sometimes it got physical, but...

GROSS: If you don't mind my asking, I know one of the books is dedicated to the memory of your brother. What happened to him?

LARSON: Oh, he had a heart attack about four years ago -- a massive heart attack and died. And caught us all off-guard. And he was -- you know, now when we look back on it and realize he was, you know, overweight and he had high blood pressure and high cholesterol. And a lot of things going against him. And -- but still, we were all sort of shocked. He was 46.

GROSS: That's young.

LARSON: Yeah. So.

GROSS: Do you still do cartoons about him? Or, do you feel like would be off-limits now? Or...

LARSON: Oh, no, I don't think it'd be off-limits. I think these are some of my -- my memories, you know, and I wouldn't want to ignore them, I guess. And he wouldn't want me to.

GROSS: Gary Larson is my guest.

Did you read a lot of comics as a kid?


GROSS: What did you read?

LARSON: I read mostly Tarzan comics.

GROSS: That's funny that you should choose Tarzan, because he's out in the jungle. You know, there's a lot of wildlife.

LARSON: Right. Yeah. Yeah, and...

GROSS: Monkeys, other animals.

LARSON: Exactly. Yeah.

GROSS: Swinging from branch to branch of trees and...

LARSON: Yeah, those could take me away in my imagination, and actually I used to read Edgar Rice Burroughs books -- Tarzan books. And the fact is, I had a -- I remember there was one Tarzan book that had a dictionary in the back that Burroughs had made up this language of the great apes. And I memorized it.

GROSS: Do you remember any of it?

LARSON: I -- oh, gosh, I remember "creega bandulo" (ph).


Those came up a lot. I think that was "beware/kill."


GROSS: No, you have -- one of your comics is about comics. And let me see if I could describe it. There is a kind of mis-shapen middle-aged couple that's answering the doorbell after it rings, and they've opened the door to find two strangers.

And the strangers are drawn in a completely different kind of way than the couple who's opened the door. The strangers are drawn in this kind of mainstream, attractive way with kind of bolder, darker lines.

And the funny-looking couple, after opening the door, says: "oh, man, you must be looking for "Apartment 3G," "Mary Worth," or one of those other "serious" cartoons.

This cartoon made me think of how you see your cartooning style compared to other newspaper cartooning styles over the years. So let me ask you to talk about that a little bit -- how you see your style visually fitting in with other cartoons and comics that you've seen over the years in newspapers.

LARSON: Mm-hmm. Well, I guess I never saw it as really fitting in very well. And as a matter of fact, when I started drawing, I never thought of newspapers as being the eventual home for my work. I was -- I was more inspired by the cartoonists that worked in magazines. And you know, and they were all the single-panel cartoons like mine. They didn't have names. I didn't even -- I didn't have a name -- The Far Side -- for my cartoon.

I was surprised when they told me they wanted to give it a name. And I said: "do we really have to do that?" I was -- I mean, I was just extremely naive about newspaper comics. And so there I was. I mean, I ended up on the comic page, where I'd be sometimes juxtaposed with "Nancy" or something. And, it's strange.

Well, I think that's where I -- The Far Side actually had a lot of trouble in the beginning because it had a lot of resistance from both editors and readers, and it was this -- these collisions were taking place with people who just got finished reading Nancy and their eyes would go over and see this strange thing next to it.

GROSS: Gary Larson is the creator of the comic The Far Side. His new book is called There's a Hair in My Dirt. He'll be back in the second half of the show.

Here's music that guitarist Bill Frizzell (ph) composed for an animated version of "Tales from the Far Side."

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with cartoonist Gary Larson. He retired three years ago from drawing his popular syndicated cartoon The Far Side. Now he has a new illustrated book which he describes as an adult children's book. It's called There's a Hair in My Dirt!: A Worm's Story.

The -- you've said that you don't think of yourself as a very good artist in terms of drawing -- that there's a limit to your capacities in drawing. How did you start drawing and how did you feel about it when you started?

LARSON: Started drawing The Far Side?

GROSS: No, just drawing in general.

LARSON: In general? Well, I was real little. I was drawing since I can remember. And, I was serious about it then. I wasn't drawing like cartoons. I mean, they probably looked like cartoons, but I was drawing whales and dinosaurs and things like that. And I was -- so I was always interested in it.

And that was another thing my folks encouraged me, and always kept me supplied in paper and whatever. So, I've never considered myself to be a great -- I think I can communicate something. I draw well enough to get something across, and I -- actually, I think sometimes there's a risk in -- I see it, I think, with some people when they draw so well they almost kill the life of something -- you know, of the humor. I think there's nuances that you have to concentrate on, and if you get those down, the rest of it's not as essential.

GROSS: Well, with your comics the way they're drawn, they're kind of drawn as if they're your thought balloon or something. They're very -- it's like what's going on in your mind, as opposed to what's going on in the real world.

LARSON: Yeah. Right.

GROSS: So the fact that everything's a little eccentric in how it's drawn seems to be the way it should be, because it's about your -- your sensibility as opposed to the actuality of the fact of the world.

LARSON: Yeah, right. The things that I draw generally come from inside me. I know of cartoonists who -- ideas are triggered by something. And this has happened to me, too. Someone will say something or you'll be somewhere, you know, and it'll almost hit you like that. But for me, I relied mostly on just sitting down at the drafting table and starting to let myself go. And I would -- I would call up things -- things from inside me that -- either experiences or something I knew from my education or my background or something.

And my sense of humor is actually -- is the same sense of humor that my entire family has. It's the kind of things that happen around the dinner table. So yeah, it was -- it's definitely from within, I guess.

GROSS: Did you ever think that you would be doing this professionally? Or did it just seem like a hobby?

LARSON: Oh, I had no idea in the world I would do this professionally. This is such a weird thing to happen. I look back on it, I just -- you know, it's just one of those things. I rolled the dice and tried it, and it paid off.

Boy did it -- I just -- when -- in fact is when I first started I just wanted to pay the rent. That was my -- that was my fantasy. Gee, could you actually do something you liked to do and make a living at it. And as soon as it reached that level, I was -- I mean I was totally satisfied. This is great.

GROSS: Now, if -- if memory serves and if what I read was accurate, you started off drawing for -- you know, doing cartoons for a Seattle paper.

LARSON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And then took them to the San Francisco Chronicle...

LARSON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ... where an editor, much to your surprise, actually liked them a lot and asked you to stay on with them and draw for them.

LARSON: Right.

GROSS: And I think it was the people at the Chronicle who named it "The Far Side."

LARSON: Yes. Yeah, it was.

GROSS: What did you think of the title?

LARSON: I thought it was fine. I -- they said we'd like to call it The Far Side. What do you think of that? And I said, well, it sounds good to me. And I guess it sounded good to me 'cause it didn't lock it in a whole lot. I was worried they'd -- you know, they were going give it a name of some character or whatever -- "Ernie" -- or something. And you know, I didn't want to have that. I wanted to have some freedom in it.

And they also wanted me to develop maybe characters like, you know, like "Charlie Brown" or something that would always come back, 'cause they said that's -- that's what's been proven about newspaper comics is that readers need that familiarity of seeing the same character come back over and over again.

And I -- that's where I said I just didn't know if I could do that. Well, one of the reasons I didn't think I could do it, 'cause I didn't even know if I could draw six cartoons a week. I didn't know where my ideas were going to come from or if I could do this year after year -- or, well, week after week.

And I signed this contract that said I would do it, thinking I probably won't go to prison if I can't.


And it's my -- you know, why not? I'll give it a shot and...

GROSS: Well, did they want The Far Side to at least be some kind of positioning statement? That this is something that would imply, in its way, that this is going to be a surreal comic? It's going to be an odd comic?

LARSON: The name?

GROSS: Yeah.

LARSON: I think so, yeah. I think that's what they were going for. They actually sprang another name on me, and I -- I can't remember the complete name, but I know the word "underbelly" was in it.


GROSS: Didn't -- didn't like that?

LARSON: No, well, I don't even remember exactly what it was, but they had themselves said they thought The Far Side was a better name for it.

GROSS: Well, was it hard when you actually signed on to do -- what? -- six a week?


GROSS: Was it hard to do them?

LARSON: Oh, yeah. Yeah, it was -- well, I was terrified, too. Again, I just didn't know if I could do that. I just -- I almost lied by saying I could. And actually, they wanted me, and I did -- I sent eight a week when I started, because they wanted to have the luxury, of course, of you know, editing out a couple.

And -- but before that, I was just doing a weekly cartoon. And I -- I was having a hard time coming up with that. And put a lot of thought -- but the thing that happens that I discovered as time went by is it's -- it actually gets easier. I think, you know, it's almost like you teach yourself how to think and it's like you start getting chops or something by doing it -- forced to be doing it day after day.

GROSS: Was there a first comic that you can think of that got this really big reaction and made you realize: oh, people are paying attention and they're responding.

LARSON: Yeah. That happened to me with a very strange cartoon, I have to concede. I drew this cartoon showing a cow -- what else? -- but a cow standing in front of like a workbench, looking out at the reader. And on the workbench were these just amorphous shapes. And there's like a barn in the background, or whatever -- this little scene. And I titled it "cow tools."

And I had been thinking -- I remember how I got to this idea. I was thinking about how anthropologists used to define mankind as being -- man as being the only animal that made and used tools. And then they subsequently discovered that, well, even some birds and primates do that. So, they had to change the definition a little. But I started thinking about, well, what if cows start -- made tools, what would they make?

And my intention was that, well, you don't know what they are. Only the cow knows what they are. You know, and here are this display of tools that a cow would use, and only a cow knows.

But the reaction was unbelievable. I thought it was the end of my career, honestly, because I just started getting a barrage of phone calls and letters and...

GROSS: Saying what?

LARSON: Well, saying: what does it mean? And that's what happened -- everyone was just utterly confused by it. And I think there was one newspaper that posted some kind of a reward or something for anyone that could figure it out.


And I actually -- that was the first time that I realized that, you know, more than six people were looking at it. I had no idea.

GROSS: And the fact that they didn't get it, and it confused them really mattered somehow.

LARSON: Yeah, yeah. It was a very confusing week for me. I was trying to sort out: what does this mean? I mean, I was -- I can't describe what that was like. It was just very strange. I mean, I lived in a little basement apartment, you know, by myself. And drew these things once a week. I was very -- I mean, it's a very isolated kind of existence and I mailed them once a week into my editor and we'd maybe talk about them.

GROSS: Who was in a different city than you were.

LARSON: Yeah, it was in a different city. Yeah. And then one day, this thing happened and I had -- oh, it was incredible. I had this -- I mean, after I got through it, I realized well, I guess this is good news, but at the time, I thought: "oh, jeez. You don't do this. I mean, you don't confuse people."

GROSS: Did you print an explanation or a followup comic?

LARSON: I did a lot of interviews. I was, I think -- so yeah, in a sense, I -- oddly enough, doing something that wasn't funny, but just confusing, probably did more promotional work for me than anything else. It's strange how that worked out. But yeah, I was -- I had a listed phone number and everything, so I mean I was just picking up the phone and find myself talking to some reporter and explaining it.

GROSS: My guest is Gary Larson, the creator of the syndicated comic The Far Side. Now he has a new book called There's a Hair in My Dirt!: A Worm's Story. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Gary Larson.

Now, I know one of the things that you've done over the years that gives you a lot of pleasure is listen to music and play music. And I think even before you were a cartoonist that you played guitar and banjo in bands?

LARSON: Mm-hmm. Yeah, well I started off playing banjo when I was like 12 or 13, I think. And...

GROSS: Was it the Pete Seeger "learn how to frale" (ph) approach? Or...

LARSON: No. You know, this is -- this is sort of embarrassing for me. I -- I mean, for being a basically a shy person, I don't know what made me pick up the banjo, which is this instrument that screams, you know, "look at me" when I'm playing a banjo.


And -- but I started playing a four-string plectern (ph) banjo, which was -- I don't know if it was like -- it might have been in vogue in like the '20s or something. But it was like ragtime or Dixieland what have you. And I -- I mean, I really worked at it. I -- I learned to play it.

And I think a few years later, the movie "Bonnie and Clyde" came out and of course, "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" on a -- what else? -- a five-string banjo, which is, you know, as you know, totally different from a four-string. So I mean, not only did I choose a strange instrument, but I didn't even choose the one that became real popular and was real cool to play.

So -- but I -- and then I finally switched to -- seriously to guitar, I guess, in my early 20s. It's funny. I was just talking to my -- I'm still in touch with my old college roommate and we're still good friends. And he finally confessed to me that, I think he said: "you know, we thought we were going to have to kill you."


Because I would practice the banjo, you know, in the room. And I never thought about it. Of course, that would drive someone insane. But...

GROSS: Well, what about guitar? What was your guitar playing like? Or what is your guitar playing like?

LARSON: Well, I -- I became interested in jazz. And that's where I've been ever since. And suddenly one day I discovered, gee, guitar is very expressive and wonderful, and I've just been at it ever since. And I love it.

GROSS: I know you've done some studying with the great jazz guitarist Jim Hall (ph). Did you approach him? And he lives on the East Coast and you live on the West.

LARSON: Yes. Yeah.

GROSS: How did this work?

LARSON: Well, we had a mutual friend in a guitar-maker -- a guy that passed away named Jimmy DeQuisto (ph). And I was talking to Jimmy one day and said to -- he was just saying "hey, you ought to call up Jim Hall and see if you can get some lessons from him." And I mean, I was -- I thought, "God, if that could happen, it would just be a miracle."

And so I don't know what happened next, but yeah, I approached him or maybe through Jimmy. I don't remember how it happened. But he was willing to do it. And wow, it was fantastic.

GROSS: So, did you fly to the East Coast to take lessons with him?

LARSON: Yeah, I did. My wife and I actually moved to the Village area and lived there for a few months.


LARSON: For one summer and I'd go up there and take lessons from him a couple times a week, and I also linked up with another guitarist named Remo Palmier (ph) and took from him as well. So it was -- I mean, it was just a wonderful experience for me -- a great summer. That was during my sabbatical.

GROSS: Does playing still give you a lot of pleasure?

LARSON: Yeah. Yeah, it's -- it's just great, I think, when I'm -- I mean, it's frustrating for me, too. I mean, you're a student of it and you want to be better and you keep practicing it and...

GROSS: Yeah, when your ear is more sophisticated than your ability to play.

LARSON: Yeah, exactly, exactly. But everything else, you know, when I'm playing guitar, all of the troubles seem to melt away. I'm just absorbed in it. So, I guess it's a form of therapy in a way, too.

GROSS: I want to ask you about a story that you've told in one of your books, and that I want to hear more about. Before you started working full-time as a cartoonist, you had a job with the Seattle humane society investigating cases of animal cruelty -- cruelty toward animals.

LARSON: Right.

GROSS: And on your way to the job interview, apparently you ran over a dog.

LARSON: I did.

GROSS: What happened?

LARSON: I did. It's -- that's the most unbelievable thing that's probably ever happened to me. I mean, that's -- and that's the only time I've ever hit an animal, I think, driving. And I'm on my way to the -- an interview at the human society. You know, I look back on it now and see the irony in it and everything, but at the time, it's mortifying when something like that happens.

Well, it was out on kind of a rural road and it was like a pack of dogs, and they just -- I mean, I don't know where they appeared from, but they were just heading from one side of the road to the other. They came up from the woods and were heading across the street, I think probably chasing a deer.

And one of them -- I mean, just -- I just nailed it and hit it -- thumped it really hard with the right front fender. And I stopped and looked back and I saw the dog, and he actually moved off. He went back off into the woods with the other dogs, but I have no -- I mean, there's no way that he didn't feel that or something -- what happened to him. So I never knew what became of the dog or whatever, but I don't...

GROSS: Well, there's no way you're going to after him and be in all this pack of dogs, that you didn't know.

LARSON: Yeah, I mean it was -- yeah, it's kind of hard to describe the setting, but that was -- that didn't seem really plausible at the time, the way things were happening. But -- and it was all pretty fast. It wasn't like he was lying in the road there, or something like that.

GROSS: Right.

LARSON: It was -- almost as if he wasn't injured, in fact, but he had to have been.

GROSS: So, did you show up to the interview with blood on your fender?


LARSON: No. I was kind of rattled about it, though.

GROSS: I can imagine.

LARSON: I was just, you know, sitting there being interviewed, and I just like -- oh yes, and by the way I just...

GROSS: Murderer!



GROSS: I would like to end our interview with some music, and since you listen to so much music and enjoy it so much, I thought I'd ask you to choose a favorite record.

LARSON: I like all -- I've always liked the recordings by Paul Desmond (ph) and Jim Hall. They're -- that's some of the music that I listen to a lot when I work.

GROSS: And Jim Hall's a jazz guitarist who you've studied with, so...

LARSON: Yeah. He's just great.

GROSS: OK, well, we'll close with that. Gary Larson, such a pleasure to meet you and talk with you. Thank you so much for being with us.

LARSON: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Gary Larson is the creator of the comic The Far Side. His new book is called There's a Hair in My Dirt! And here's a track from a Jim Hall-Paul Desmond session that he mentioned.


Coming up, new CDs featuring music by Kurt Weill.

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Gary Larson
High: Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson has written and illustrated the new book "There's A Hair In My Dirt! A Worm's Story." It's the story of a family of earthworms and a fair maiden in the forest. Larson quit drawing his syndicated Far Side comic in 1995. The Far Side thrived for 14 years and appeared in more than 1,900 newspapers worldwide. Larson has published more than 20 books featuring his cartoons. In 1994, Larson completed his first animated film, "Gary Larson's Tales from the Far Side." His second animated film "Gary Larson's Tales From the Far Side II" has appeared at the Telluride Film Festival.
Spec: Media; Cartoons; Books; Authors; Worms; Animals; Culture; The Far Side; There's A Hair in My Dirt
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: There's a Hair in My Dirt
Date: APRIL 30, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 043002np.217
Head: From Berlin to Broadway
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: The Kurt Weill phenomenon shows no signs of slowing down. Weill died in 1950 at the age of 50, but two years before his centennial, record companies are rushing to put out recordings of his music.

Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz has a review of some of them.

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: Last year, Pearl Records issued an important double CD retrospective of Kurt Weill recordings called "From Berlin To Broadway" that featured his most famous partner, Berthold Brecht singing their most famous song, "Mack the Knife."

On Volume 2, which Pearl has just released, we can now hear Kurt Weill himself singing songs from his biggest Broadway hit, "One Touch of Venus," which had wonderfully literate lyrics by, of all people, the nonsense poet Ogden Nash.

The original Broadway star was Mary Martin. Later, Hollywood filmed it with Ava Gardner, but most of Weill's delightful score was eliminated. Here's Kurt Weill himself singing with affecting understatement one of his most insinuating romantic ballads, "Speak Low."


When you speak low
A summer day
Withers away
Too soon
Too soon

Speak low
When you speak low
A moment is swift
Like ships adrift
We'll press adrift too soon

Speak low
Darling, speak low
Love is a spark
Lost in the dark
Too soon
Too soon
I feel

Wherever I go
That tomorrow is near
Tomorrow is here
And always too soon

Time is so old
And love so green
Love is pure gold
And (unintelligible)

We're late...

SCHWARTZ: Weill's most famous American song, "September Song," was introduced by Walter Huston in the 1938 musical "Knickerbocker Holiday" that Weill collaborated on with playwright Maxwell Anderson.

This new Berlin to Broadway set includes Huston in an abbreviated 1945 radio broadcast of the whole show. There are cover recordings in French and Hebrew that show how quickly Weill's music entered the international repertoire.

And it's fascinating to compare these to some of the rare early recordings by the most famous Weill singer of all, his wife Lotte Lenya.


Oh, moon of Alabama
We now must say goodbye
We've lost our good old Mama
And must have whiskey, oh you know why

SCHWARTZ: The most bizarre selection on this album is something called "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory," Weill's four patriotic melodramas -- orchestrations he made in 1942 of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," the "Star Spangled Banner," the Pledge of Allegiance, and Walt Whitman's call to arms, "Beat Beat Drums."

These are recited with over-the-top fervor by the so-called "first lady of the American stage" -- Helen Hayes. They're morbidly fascinating period pieces.


Oh say can you see by the dawn's early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous sight
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming

And the rockets red glare
The bombs bursting in air
Gave proof through the night
That our flag was still there

SCHWARTZ: Danny Kaye became a star in another Broadway show composed by Weill -- "Lady in the Dark," the first musical about psychoanalysis. Kaye couldn't be on the original cast recording with Gertrude Lawrence because he was contracted to another label. So, he recorded his own selections from Lady in the Dark, including Gertrude Lawrence's numbers.

These now appear both on Berlin to Broadway and on Sony's reissue of Lady in the Dark, starring opera singer Risa Stevens (ph), which is the most complete recording of this fascinating score, though it loses the sharp edge of the original cast.

Sony has also reissued Lotte Lenya's great 1956 album of Weill's Berlin Theatre Songs, coupled with her marvelous recording of Weill's "Seven Deadly Sins." When Sony first issued Berlin Theatre Songs on CD, I was upset that they used a shortened version of Lenya's devastating "Surabaya Johnny" (ph). I'm happy to report that on this new issue, the complete version is finally available.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix. He reviewed Kurt Weill from Berlin to Broadway, Vol. 2 on the Pearl label, and other Kurt Weill recordings on Sony Masterworks.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Lloyd Schwartz, Boston; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz reviews "Kurt Weill: From Berlin to Broadway, Vol. 2" and other recordings of "Lady in the Dark" and "Berlin to Broadway" as well as Lotte Lenya's "Berlin Theatre Songs."
Spec: Music Industry; Theater; Kurt Weill; Europe; Germany
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: From Berlin to Broadway
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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