Ethics Quiz: The Cartoonist’s Regret

                                        Hell’s video store

Sometimes Ethics Alarms is on these matters quicker than anyone; sometimes it takes a while. Two years ago, retired “Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson confessed that the above cartoon was the only one he could think of at the moment that he felt he should apologize for. He wrote,

Ace Ethics Alarms commenter JutGory alerted me to Larson’s lament, which had been recalled in this recent post on the site “Screen Rant.” I tended to find that the cartoonist’s apology reflected well on his  ethics alarms, as did the Screen Rant pundit, who wrote,

In the end, he put his ego aside and admitted he unfairly judged the movie and criticized it without ever seeing it. The Far Side creator sharing his mistake shows that even the most talented and self-aware cartoonists can accidentally cross a line without initially realizing it. Thankfully, after seeing the movie for himself, Gary Larson understood an apology was warranted for the Far Side comic.

Jut, however, has a different take. He wrote,

It was a joke that landed well because of popular sentiment at the time it was made. Thinking about it another way, what if he saw Ishtar at the time and liked it?  He could still make the same joke because it would resonate with the public.  It would still be funny. I guess the real question is whether comics are bound by the same rules as a critic.  A critic should know what it is criticizing.  A comic is going for a laugh.  And, to the extent it was an “unfair” joke (I am not sure it is, as the movie had a widely-known bad reputation), is an apology necessary.  Most jokes are “unfair” to some extent.  But, does that, in itself, require an apology.  From a critic, yes; from a comic, no.

Ooooo, I think I may have to agree with Jut.

Maybe.

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day is…

Does Gary Larson have anything to apologize for?

Jut is right that humorists, comedians and satirists are under no obligation to actually believe what a joke asserts, not does satire have to be fair if it is funny. “Ishtar” is 35 years old and few remember it, but when the movie  was released it was savaged by critics, who went overboard taking advantage of the chance to really sock it to the two stars, Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty, who had the hubris to try to imitate Bob Hope and Bing Crosby with a “Road” movie homage. Neither Beatty nor Hoffman are especially skilled when it comes to broad comedy (watch Hoffman help kill “Pan” for example as Captain Hook), and Bing and Bob they aren’t. In addition to missing its target by a mile, the thing is also over-long and bloated, and bombed at the box office. No, it’s not the worst movie ever, but when Larson drew the cartoon, “Ishtar” was being called the worst.  If he had drawn it in 1995, the only videos in the store would have been “Showgirls.” If he had drawn it in 1973, the store would have only stocked “The Exorcist, Part II: The Heretic.” I’d watch “Ishtar” five times before I’d try to sit through “Don’t Look Up!,” and that pompous crap was nominated for an Oscar.

I really am torn. Larson obviously feels it was unfair to level such mockery at a movie he had never seen, and in that respect, his apology is admirable. On the other hand, I find Jut’s “So what? If it made people laugh and they got the joke, he didn’t have to know what the film was really like” a persuasive rebuttal. It’s not as if there hadn’t been many far worse movies before “Istar.” John Wayne as Genghis Kahn in “The Conquerer.” The unwatchable “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” Peter Bogdanovich’s catastrophic movie musical starring actors who couldn’t sing or dance, “At Long Last Love.” “The Attack of the Killer Shrews.” Any Ed Wood film.  Larson wasn’t obligated to use the worst movie ever; he just needed one that would make the gag work.

On the OTHER hand (evoking Captain Hook again): what if “Ishtar” had been an unfairly maligned masterpiece (though it isn’t) like “It’s A Wonderful Life,” and Larson’s cartoon discouraged the public from giving it a chance?

11 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The Cartoonist’s Regret

  1. I almost believe the apology itself is a joke. Lots of his comics have gotten complaints and THIS is the one he apologizes for?

    Anyway, I don’t think the panel hurt the movie; if anything it gave Ishtar more attention, as will this apology.

  2. “Does Gary Larson have anything to apologize for?”

    No. I think you mentioned that he doesn’t have to believe what the joke asserts. I agree. You can agree or not whether the movie really deserved the criticism it got, but I don’t think you can argue it was not vilified. For that, the cartoon is justified.

    Apologies like this are generally to ease the one making the apology. They virtually never accomplish what a good apology should.

  3. I think the apology is fine and good. Larson could have drawn the exact same cartoon after watching – and enjoying – the movie, but he didn’t. At the time he believed that the general consensus of the movie was correct (that it was unwatchable) and made his panel based on that belief. When decades later he somehow adjusted that belief he decided to make that known and apologize to those he could have hurt for it. Maybe he knows he’d still have done it, but that’s the difference between a good-natured rib and a nasty roast. It does not help that this subtlety is even harder to convey in a medium where a playful voice and a knowing wink are not part of the performance.

    All in all, apologizing for figuring out you were wrong, even way later and for a somewhat minor fault is good; and our society would be better by following his example. Especially the part about being willing to learn about some long-held belief.

  4. To paraphrase Phil Collins: “No Apology Required”

    If you’re not a fan of Jeopardy, you missed a funny moment from current champion Cris Pannullo the other day. In the meet-n-greet section, he said his favorite movie of all time was “Spaceballs”. He said (not an exact quote but very close) that he had watched “Spaceballs” more times than he had watched all the “Star Wars” movies put together, because “Spaceballs” was better than all the “Star Wars” movies put together.

    I love “Spaceballs”, too…one of the three most quotable movies along with “Dumb and Dumber” and “Napoleon Dynamite”.

  5. My position on this was that I was puzzled why a comic would apologize for a successful joke.

    It made me think that Larson had lost his sense of his role.

    But, Eddie Murphy has apologized for jokes at the expense of gay people. I suppose that, even if the joke worked, a comic could still look back and say the joke was lacking.

    Having said all of that, I got the Far Side joke. However, I had never seen the movie. When the movie came out, I was ambivalent about seeing it. If anything dissuaded me from seeing it, it was the bad reviews, not the Far Side cartoon.

    -Jut

  6. Of course not. Any production that employs Warren Beatty always needs to be panned as much as possible. The fact that he won Best Director for REDS, is one of many stains on the Academy. That epic cured insomnia.

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