This Is the Only 'Far Side' Comic Gary Larson Ever Apologized For

'Ishtar' isn't nearly as bad as Roger Ebert claimed, so says Gary Larson
This Is the Only 'Far Side' Comic Gary Larson Ever Apologized For

The Far Side was never the kind of comic strip to pull its punches, but Gary Larson is a big enough man to admit when he got it wrong – they could have used that kind of attitude while making Ishtar.

Over the course of fifteen years, Larson produced a total of 4,337 single-panel Far Side comics that aspired to elevate the medium to surrealist, science-fiction-y, intelligent heights that other strips could only hope to reach. Through The Far Side, Larson garnered a wide range of cultured comic strip-readers, which often included the influential and well-educated – he even unintentionally coined the term “Thagomizer” as the semi-official name of the spikes on stegosaurian dinosaurs among the paleontological community. So, it stands to reason that, when the historically trashed box office disaster Ishtar premiered in 1987, at least one member of its cast or crew could have been a Far Side fan and, when they saw the comic Larson published on September 25th, 1991, their heart sank.

Of all the 4,337 Far Side comics in existence, only one ever led to Larson issuing a public apology to the strip’s subject. Again, the cast and crew of Ishtar could have learned a lot about apologizing for bad decisions.

The woes of the adventure-comedy Ishtar have become something of cinema legend in the decades since the way over budget, $51 million movie (roughly $138 million in 2024 dollars) grossed a measly $14.4 million amidst many miserable reviews. The story of a pair of inept songwriters, played by Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty, who found themselves stuck in the middle of an international conflict in Morocco was described by Roger Ebert as “a truly dreadful film, a lifeless, massive, lumbering exercise in failed comedy." But, considering the behind-the-scenes drama going on during the making of Ishtar, that’s still better than it could have turned out.

Apparently, shooting a movie about a real-life conflict zone on location leads to conflict, both within the cast and crew and with the local community who had no idea how to handle the presence of a Hollywood production. Writer and director Elaine May was typically at the center of the sparring, often feuding with her cinematographer and her stars among other production members – in the most famous incident, May demanded that her production designer spend weeks scouting the perfect sand dunes where they would shoot a certain scene, only to later decide that the shot required a flat landscape. May then made her crew spend ten entire days leveling an entire square mile of the desert. 

Thanks to the stories of difficulties and disasters on the set of Ishtar that leaked even before the film premiered, critics and audiences alike delighted in pointing out the film’s many structural flaws, calling it one of the worst films ever created upon release. In the years since, analyses of Ishtar have been more forgiving, claiming that the fiercely negative response to the final cut was slightly too harsh – Larson clearly agreed.

Maybe if Larson had actually watched Ishtar before drawing a cartoon that characterized it as a movie only worth viewing in hell, he never would have had to issue his first and final apology for the content of a comic. And, maybe if Elaine May understood the intricacies of sand, she never would have made Ishtar.

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