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Elitist, Artsy-Fartsy 'Poonies

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According to Peter Gabel, an HL contemporary of Weidman’s, nonpreppies viewed the ’Poonies as “elitist, artsy-fartsy types” and maintained “the slightly hostile distance characteristic of people’s attitudes toward the clubs,” but the HL’s exclusivity had a different cast to it. “The Harvard Lampoon was not as if you took five characters from Brideshead Revisited and dropped them onto the Harvard campus in the mid-60s, sort of detached and aristocratic, sipping sherries,” Weidman said. “In the ’60s, the Lampoon wasn’t particularly elitist. However, people did think they were wittier and smarter and having a better time.”

There were other crucial differences. For one thing, unlike the clubs, the HL had a project beyond reinforcing privilege and networking; this was to put out a magazine, however desultorily. For another, it had different role models. “You felt connected to the culture of satire, to people who did pranks and wrote funny things,” Gabel said. “On the high culture side, you were connected to literary people like Santayana.” These connections were more than in the mind. Chris Cerf was already an editor at Random House. Weidman’s father, Jerome, was a playwright and New Yorker contributor, and Gabel’s mother, Arlene Francis, had joined Cerf’s father on the panel of a popular television quiz show called What’s My Line?

Where the HL diverged most noticeably from the clubs was, by 1965, in the ethnic background of the membership. Several of the ’60s ’Poonies had been non-Protestant preppies, an experience that informed the insider-outsider perspective characteristic that would come to define the National Lampoon. “We were almost all Jewish and Catholic,” said Conn Nugent, another late-60s recruit to the HL. “It was a real urban melting pot—very New York influenced. Some members’ parents were actually Democrats.”

These distinctions loomed in the mind of Doug Kenney, a clever sophomore from Ohio who gave little indication of becoming one of the guiding forces behind the National Lampoon when he joined in the spring of ’65. The subject of preppies propelled Kenney’s HL debut, a parody musical libretto called Backside Story (the movie version of West Side Story having swept the previous year’s Oscars), which chronicles the ongoing feud between the Preps and the Townies. It kicks off with Kenney’s version of “When You’re a Jet,” as the Preps enter singing, “When you’re a prep, you’re a prep through and through / From your Brooks Brothers suit / To your Bass Wee-Jun shoes.”

While Kenney may have arrived at Harvard prepped out to the max, that doesn’t mean he was quite the real thing. According to Nugent, both he and Kenney were “Irish Catholics from social-climbing families who went to prep schools generally considered mediocre.” But Kenney’s pose was hardly seamless: “Doug could go out and buy a white linen suit and get his hair cut and look as preppy as anyone I’d ever known,” a friend said, but, while Kenney might buy white linen suits, “then he’d sleep in them.” Moreover, Kenney was hardly alone. “We all assumed the preppy persona in and out,” Nugent recalled. “The Harvard Lampoon was a place where one developed one’s poses—preppy, hippie, social activist, literary type—and sometimes they ran amok. We simultaneously thought that we were great stuff and that our essential fraudulent postures would be found out.”

Gabel saw Kenney as “a combination of a boy from the Midwest and embryo preppy. He was elusive as a person, in some way always performing, trying things on all the time.” But, Weidman maintained stoutly, “Doug didn’t posture and he didn’t pose. He went through a lot of evolutions. There were good Dougs and bad Dougs and stoned Dougs and all different kinds of Dougs, but there was nothing false or faddish about him.”

Perhaps the distinction to make is that Kenney’s identity itself was fluid and the style followed. Alex Garcia-Mata, a college girlfriend who subsequently became his wife for one year, compared Kenney to an onion. “You would get down to what you thought was the core and there would be another layer, like so many masks to take off,” she said. Kenney may have been unable to pick a social persona—whether smooth preppy or creative bohemian or ambitious Midwesterner—and stick with it because he was always aware of the inherent ridiculousness of that particular image. If nothing else, his field trips into different social milieux enabled him to satirize them all the better for having been there. “In one way, he could be perceived as a social climber,” an HL colleague said. “On the other hand, he very clearly expressed his contempt for the whole thing and was very funny about it.”

These were not cries for reform but rather for admittance. “Any of us who joined a club were into social climbing,” Nugent declared. “We cared about things like whether a tweed jacket was nice or hideous. If we were liberal it was mainly because liberal implied sophistication. There wasn’t much sense of social mission at the Harvard Lampoon,” he said. “We thought of admitting black people and so one got in [in 1969], but that’s as far as our consciousness went at that time.”

Nor were ’Poonies especially caught up in the other burning issue of the day since, thanks to student deferments, Harvard students were in no immediate danger of being called up to go to Vietnam, a war that had been intensifying since the early ’60s. There was a general gentlemanly opposition to the war, but this was not put into action, at least on an organizational level. The HL, Weidman felt, “was neither political or aggressively nonpolitical or even apolitical. Individual members were involved or not.”

The prevailing attitude toward politics around the Castle, said Nugent, was that “no sincerely stated statement should be safe for more than fifteen seconds and boundless enthusiasm was generally symptomatic of ignorance.” Issues of major importance such as nuclear annihilation were not on the Castle table. “The Lampoon encouraged one form of rebellion only,” he said: “thumbing your nose at propriety, establishment values, the whole Pollyanna shtick. There was no refuge from the high irony of the place,” and so the most frequently heard adjectives were “boring” and “tedious.” This applied not only to God, Motherhood, and the Flag, but also the Peace Corps, the War on Poverty, and other manifestations of mid-60s idealism.

The rebellion of the self-consciously disenchanted usually took the form of embarrassing people and a general prankish disrespect, like a plan to make off with some invaluable moon rocks from Harvard’s geology department, which fortunately failed to come off. Some students, like Jim Rivaldo—a member of the business board, Weidman’s roommate, and a scholarship student—had trouble entering into the proper spirit of irresponsibility. “When I think of having lobster food fights and filet mignon food fights . . .” he said, remembering the Thursday-night black-tie dinners. In time, the HL grew less tolerant, if anything, of such scruples. “We do get problems with new members from poor backgrounds,” a 1986 member admitted. “But you just lift their wrists, force them to drop the plate, and they squeal with delight. Somebody’s going to clean up anyway, so a couple more pieces of glass aren’t going to matter.”

The mid-60s crop was similar. “It wasn’t mean-spirited or even unconscious,” Rivaldo recalled. “Somehow it was just another absurd thing, part of being removed from what the rest of the world was experiencing. Everything you did as a member of the Lampoon was some kind of absurd statement in behavior or attitude. When you walked into that bizarre castle, you had a responsibility to act different and think different and be different.” By the end of 1965, it was getting harder to keep up the pose: the US presence in Vietnam had increased by sixty-one thousand troops, and the first draft card had been burned. That August, the first of several urban riots had erupted in a clash between police and the residents of Los Angeles’s Watts district that left thirty-four dead, four thousand arrested, and millions nervous.

By April 1966, the war and the official obfuscation surrounding it had come to even the Castle’s attention, at least to the extent of providing grist for the mill in “The Great American Guinea Pig,” a long essay by a junior from Connecticut, future National Lampoon editorial mainstay Henry Beard. “Whenever an American wishes to display to a foreigner the inherent rightness, goodness, or harmlessness of something he has done,” Beard wrote, rather than resorting to “the messy statistics and confusing facts for which his country is so justly famous, he cuts through the web of ignorance and false knowledge . . . and offers himself as a guinea pig.” Applying this principle to foreign policy, Beard suggested that the abortive Kennedy-era CIA-funded attempt to have anti-Castro Cubans invade their homeland “would have looked a great deal better if we had let the Cubans stage a Bay of Pigs of their own in the Chesapeake with exiled Republicans to prove that interventions of that sort are enjoyable.”

If Kenney was an ersatz preppy, Beard, an ectomorph given to a professorially shabby image complete with pipe and tweedy suits (Beard would later describe himself as the owner of “a lint suit that picks up blue serge”), was the genuine article. He was known for the consistency of his persona, which Nugent described as “anachronistic, literary, ironic, and perpetually bored,” and he soon became a Castle fixture. “Henry was the Lampoon guy,” Weidman recalled. “Everyone else had girlfriends and was banging around, but you went to the Castle and Henry was there, or his extraordinary presence was.” Consequently, Weidman said, Beard “was treated with a certain kind of deference. He could really do it. He could put paper in the typewriter and wail.”

A capacity for hard work and a lack of extroversion also distinguished Rob Hoffman, a 1965 addition to the business board. “Everyone deferred to Rob’s financial judgment while having a great affection for him,” Rivaldo said. “It was clear from the beginning that he was going to be a multimillionaire entrepreneur,” and indeed Hoffman would make his first million before he was twenty-four from engineering Kenney and Beard’s National Lampoon deal.

Even so, the magazine’s writers were ambivalent about Hoffman’s expertise while appreciating his financial acumen. “Rob would get a lot of shit for being practical,” Nugent recalled. “He was the thick-skinned, intelligent guy who could do the organizational work the poseurs didn’t want to do.” Despite assuming the pivotal role of treasurer, Hoffman never became a highly visible presence because, while he joined in singing around the piano, he did so quietly and the focus of the Castle’s denizens stayed on the boisterous merry pranksters who claimed center stage.

Singing around the piano had become increasingly central to HL life. One of Nugent’s fondest memories was of Kenney and ten other ’Poonies singing selections from the early ’60s’ bumper crop of great party songs like “Hang On Sloopy” and “Louie Louie” that cry out to be sung in a state of inebriated camaraderie.

These songs had a restless drive that fit the rhythm of the young men’s experience far better than the string-laden sentimentality of popular favorites like Mitch Miller, Patti Page, and Perry Como. Swaddled by material prosperity and political stability, the ’Poonies had a passion for unmitigated experience that led them to embrace the raw, exciting sound produced by artists for whom a sheltered life was rarely an option. “It was not uncommon among members of my generation (the generation that grew up as wards of the meretricious adulthood of the 1950s) for one to feel one’s first strong sense of reality through the agency of Negro music,” Trow wrote in his 1980 New Yorker essay (later book) Within the Context of No Context.

The ’Poonies did not pretend to remain above this aspect of their generation’s upheaval. At the start of the 1960s, the British had started producing a seemingly inexhaustible flow of great bands rooted firmly in American blues and R & B. But many contemporaneous US radio stations’ playlists remained effectively segregated, with record labels reluctant to spend advertising dollars on “race” music. However, one by-product of the civil rights movement was greater cultural as well as political integration, and with a boost from Motown, this rich musical tradition finally went mainstream.

The Castle didn’t get a stereo until ’67, but the members listened to the Temptations and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles in their rooms and tried to recreate these groups’ choreographed routines around the piano. Even more than the Motown groups, the names to drop were the true Soul Men like Sam and Dave and Otis Redding. “It was real important to my roommates and me to let people know we listened to black music so we were cool,” Nugent said. “Otis Redding was it even though we secretly listened to the Lovin’ Spoonful.”

As America became the land of a thousand dances, white boys had to attempt to move their pelvises in public, a task many found mortifying and undignified. Girls, on the other hand, took to the Pony, the Jerk, and the Swim with enthusiasm. After years of having to appear ladylike, they were finally allowed to work up a sweat, and they started shaking their hips in all directions with enthusiasm.

Possibly girls were celebrating the fact that they were finally able to breathe normally. Panty hose had started hitting the market in the mid-60s, and while to many boys they seemed to be merely nylon chastity belts and no great step forward, to girls this was one less layer of rubber between their bodies and the world. Bras, too, lost their conical rigidity—one small step toward valuing the tactile if imperfect reality of women’s bodies over the stiff illusion of perfection. As well, the Pill had become widely available. Harvard University Health Services began distributing contraceptives around this time and, Nugent observed, “something was definitely happening along those lines. It was clear you could get laid more easily than you could a few years before.”

Added to this was the influence of hang-loose breezes blowing eastward from California. Like the Brits, the Californians had their own exotic argot, exciting musical sound, and distinctive image. Hedonists of all stripes flocked to the West Coast to find the “fun, fun, fun” the Beach Boys sang about. But even if the Californians were going casual, when Natalie Wood came to the Castle in 1966, the ’Poonies turned out to greet her in jackets and ties. If ’50s standards of deportment and ironing did not disappear overnight, neither did ’50s standards of morality, dance moves notwithstanding.

Until his junior year, Nugent, for example, went to Mass where he agonized over “the French kiss as mortal sin” and experienced “high nervousness about procuring condoms.” Parietal rules were still in effect and coed dorms were undreamt of. Even though nice girls were starting to, most of the naked women the ’Poonies saw had staples in their navels. Not that they saw many women, naked or otherwise. Harvard was an all-male institution and so were its clubs, so officially, no women were allowed in the Castle, although by the mid-60s ’Poonies were sneaking women into the building for social functions.

The women were definitely there as adjuncts, not participants. Before female comedians like Sarah Silverman and Lena Dunham became visible enough to prove there’s nothing inherently dainty about women’s humor, there was a widespread view that, as Nugent said, “there is a kind of Bad Person humor that breaks taboos which comes from men and relatively few women shared the belittling, sexually demeaning, raucous, and unkind sense of humor which we found hilarious. A lot of us could have said, ‘Chicks aren’t funny,’” an observation attributed to Doug Kenney.

Despite their low opinion of female humor-generating capabilities and the exchange of much male-bonding genitalia-oriented banter, the ’Poonies were, relatively speaking, still your sensitive Harvard intellectuals more than your macho louts. The question of which pose to assume was exacerbated by the split emerging in their lives. By day the Harvard boys were immersed in the Judeo-Christian tradition, which counseled duty, responsibility, and rising above our animal nature. By night they danced to songs that urged them to, as one put it so well, “Sha na na na na na live for today.”

So there they were in the spring of ’66, maintaining a pose of ironic detachment but getting down around the piano and putting out a magazine that, as Rivaldo put it, “was a sleepy backwater for kind of irrelevant people who every now and then would make a splash here and there.” Then at the beginning of the summer of 1966, HL president Walker Lewis suggested doing a Playboy parody. And everything changed.

Ellin Stein has contributed arts features and criticism to publications including the New York Times, The Times (of London), the Guardian, the London Telegraph, and Variety and is a former reporter for People and InStyle magazines. She currently lives in London, where she teaches screenwriting at Goldsmiths College, University of London.

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