The History and Significance of Cow Tools

The History and Significance of Cow Tools

Alec Barker, Writer

The 1982 comic “Cow Tools” by Gary Larson is a one panel, simple comic as a part of Larson’s disjointed series known as the Far Side. This series commonly was shown in newspapers throughout the 80s, and followed the format of a one panel image, either with characters speaking, or as this comic does, having a silent image with a caption. Gary Larson’s work can easily be compared to the online forms of comedy that were to spread through the internet around 20 years after The Far Side’s peak. However, this comic in specific strays far from the usual captioned punchline format The Far Side was known for. This is because, in short, Cow Tools had absolutely no joke. At least no known joke, as many fans of the comic either wrote to or called the author demanding an explanation. There are even some accounts of people debating on what exactly the cows tools would be used for, hoping it would explain the joke. Gary Larson explained what the deal was with this comic in his book The PreHistory of the Far Side: 

“The cow tools were supposed to be just meaningless artifacts—only the cow or a cowthropologist is supposed to know what they’re used for.

The first mistake I made was in thinking this was funny. The second was making one of the tools resemble a crude handsaw–which made already confused people decide that their only hope in understanding the cartoon meant deciphering what the other tools were as well. Of course, they didn’t have a chance in hell.”


Above is a contemporary meme including the cow tools image

The joke to Cow Tools is so hard to find as it is likely the most obvious joke made. If a cow were to make tools, they would not be well built. Furthermore, it would be unlikely that anyone would know these tools, as cow toolmaking is an unknown historical subject. Even after explanation, the joke was a failure. Those who now got the joke were somewhat disappointed, even while not expecting that as an answer. But it may be possible that cow tools is a clever joke in exactly this way.


The comedy of Cow Tools not being processed is the comedy of Cow Tools. The internet today welcomed cow tools warmly, as there is nothing an online content creator loves more than their followers desperately commenting for an explanation. It’s in a way a prank where no one is hurt, being amusing for the creator, and the viewer too once they understand. This is the same logic behind “why did the chicken cross the road”. But because Cow Tools is in a pictured image form, rather than being spoken word, it can be enjoyed far beyond its comedy.