Why does Gen Z love ‘Cow Tools,’ a nonsensical comic from 1982?

“It was so ahead of its time,” says one fan of “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson’s divisive work.

Gary Larson

Ancient Greek poet and philosopher Xenophanes famously noted that if horses could draw, they would draw their gods as horses. Under the same logic, if cows used tools, they would use cow tools.

But we’re probably giving it too much thought. After all, “Cow Tools” — the 1982 The Far Side comic that is currently having a moment online — isn’t that deep. There’s no punchline, no message, nothing to get.

The utter meaninglessness of Cow Tools makes it both cartoonist Gary Larson’s most-loathed work and his magnum opus, and it has developed a cult following on the internet among people who didn’t exist when it was first published.

“It was so ahead of its time,” says Konstantin Boristovich, a 38-year-old programmer from Iowa who started the now 3,200-member Facebook group Cow Tools Sophisticationposting in November 2020. “It’s so Gen Z, with obscure references and absurdist musings.”

The comic in question depicts a cow standing behind a table covered in an assortment of odd implements. The cow’s blank expression begs you to ponder the bovine mind, but the caption, which simply reads “Cow tools,” offers practically no explanation as to what is going on — or what, exactly, about the scene is supposed to be funny.

Back in the pre-internet days of 1982, confused newspaper readers flooded newsrooms with calls and letters. In California, readers formed an organization called the Fellowship of the Unexplained and wrote to Larson: “The Cow Tools fellows have been brought together by an absolute certainty that your cartoon means something.”

Another letter writer admitted to asking more than 40 people with doctoral degrees what the comic could mean — to no avail. “Please help,” the person wrote. “What is the meaning of ‘cow tools’? What is the meaning of life?”

Larson said that the uproar over the panel made him want to “crawl in a hole somewhere and die,” and he issued an apology: “The cartoon was intended to be an exercise in silliness. While I have never met a cow who could make tools, I felt sure that if I did, they (the tools) would lack something in sophistication and resemble the sorry specimens shown in this cartoon. I regret that my fondness for cows, combined with an overactive imagination, may have carried me beyond what is comprehensible to the average Far Side reader."

When a Chicago Tribune reporter asked what the tools were, Larson replied that “only the cow knows.”

“The first mistake I made was in thinking this was funny,” Larson later wrote in The PreHistory of The Far Side collection. “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.”

“Cow Tools” has inspired people to tattoo Larson’s imagery onto their bodies. And, of course, it has launched all manner of memes:

via Redditor zf13, Konstantin Boristovich, and Jonah D
via Konstantin Boristovich, Alice Combs, and Bunnie Lynn

But why? Perhaps there’s something compelling about the fact that the comic has no deeper meaning than “cows would make bad tools,” a punchline so unfunny that the cartoonist had to issue a mea culpa.

“My grandpa showed me Cow Tools when I was 13, and I thought it was stupid,” says Ellis Soodak, a 23-year-old financial trader from New York who serves as one of Cow Tools Sophisticationposting’s moderators. He finds continued joy in “taking an old comic that a lot of people recognize and repurposing it in different formats until the horse is completely beaten dead.”

In a world where things don’t seem to make sense, it tracks that people ascribe some deep, symbolic significance to bovine tools. The meaning of life? Cow tools. It’s cow tools all the way down.