[20 September 2010]
Early on in Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Writers and Artists Who Made National Lampoon Insanely Great, author and former National Lampoon staffer Rick Meyerowitz claims that this book is not merely a “Best of” the humor magazine for adults that was published for the last 30 years of the 20th century. This reviewer admits rolling his eyes at that statement at first. A 300-plus page oversized book containing the most notorious articles and comics by the big names and heavy hitters of National Lampoon? If that is not a “best of” compilation, then what is?
It was not long before I saw what it truly was: a sort of oral history of one of the more important institutions of American satire in the last 100 years.
For Americans endeared of satire, Mad magazine has largely been the mainstay since its inception in 1952. Since it was largely aimed at children, Mad was able to stay under the radar while simultaneously cementing its place in the minds of thousands of young readers. Of course, there were and are many other avenues of satire, but Mad has remained the most consistent player in the field during its existence, even if it that is largely due to momentum at this point.
As popular and well-regarded as Mad is and was, to be perfectly blunt, it is for children. Adolescent children, perhaps, and of those, the ones who want to develop their sense of humor as well as their critical thinking skills. As those children grow up, though, many find themselves chafing against the same pop-culture targets of parody, and begin to seek other avenues of satire, ones that more directly address sex and violence and other trappings of the grown-up world.
So it’s no great surprise that in 1970, around the time when many of Mad’s original generation of readers would be coming to this adult self-awareness, National Lampoon was founded.
One of the epigrams to this book is a quote from early National Lampoon staffer and original head writer of Saturday Night Live, Michael O’Donoghue: “Making people laugh is the lowest form of humor.” If there was a headstone for National Lampoon magazine—which officially ceased production in 1998, though it had been crumbling for years—then this would be etched into the marble. This is not to say there are no laugh-out-loud moments in this book: Michel Choquette’s “Stranger in Paradise” depicting Hitler wiling away his golden years on a tropical beach; the self-written “Letters to the Editor”; and the delightfully sick cartoons of Sam Gross and Charles Rodrigues come to mind.
National Lampoon often omitted the punchline, to almost actively avoid the laugh, and instead engage comedy as a purely intellectual exercise. Take “Law of the Jungle” by Henry Beard and John Weidman: a 12-page legal instrument delineating each and every form of animal law: property or territory law, the right to bare claws, copyrights and patents (see Centipedes v. Millipedes). Written in dense legalese, the piece is far from a rollicking parody of the American justice system applied with (not-so-)simple wit.
Take also the work of Brian McConnachie. His “Our Wonderful Bodies” is an in-depth look at the amazing and disgusting human anatomy. Presented as though it were in a high-school science textbook, “Our Wonderful Bodies” is accompanied by photographs of objects which are almost certainly not of the human body (what is that, a fruit bat? A pot roast?), but since the entire piece is presented in a straight-forward manner, one is not sure what else these could be pictures of.
Again, there is no punchline, really, no rimshot of a conclusion to most of these pieces. Instead of building towards a laugh, the articles and comics in National Lampoon need to be taken as a whole in order to be at all funny. Again, McConnachie demonstrates this with his “Tell Debby” advice column, in which the reply to every request for advice is something along the lines of “Oh, how awful.” There is no sudden reversal at the end of the column, no detailed answer to an innocuous question to counter all of those previous.
The same with Gerry Sussman’s “Yello Pages”, a parody of the phone book. There are individual jokes in the “Yellow Pages”, but the very nature of the material does not allow for the normal joke progression of premise, set-up, punchline. These jokes are in alphabetical order.
The work in this book is split up chronologically and by major contributors. Most of those who are still alive offer a few short words about each chapter, and Meyerowitz handles the rest of the introductions, usually by way of an anecdote or two. These are interesting peeks into the lives of these humorists, but the most telling material is simply the work itself. As one reads through, one sees the evolution of the magazine.
Although the magazine’s subsequent devolution is perhaps not so well represented, that is likely for the best. Most would rather remember the magazine for what it was. As former staffer Fred Graver puts it, “The Lampoon was losing its grip on its audience, and they thought they could get it back with seminaked girls on the cover, not satire.”
As Graver goes on to say, “What the next generation of comics learned from the Lampoon was that getting it right was everything.” Anybody could go for the easy laugh, the pie-in-the-face, the slip-on-the-banana-peel, the fart joke. But to know when that was right, and when it was right to feature Hitler on the cover, and when it was right to have photos of bare-chested women, that was not for just anybody. National Lampoon may have had a relatively short life compared to Mad, but its contribution to satire, and by extension to American culture, will long outlive many of its founders.
Um, a lot of whom are already dead, anyway.