That's Not Funny, That's Sick: National Lampoon & the Comedy Insurgents Who Captured the Mainstream

Ellin Stein

Ellin Stein’s book goes behind the jokes to witness the fights, the parties, the collaborations—and the competition—among this fraternity of the self-consciously disenchanted.

That's Not Funny, That's Sick: The National Lampoon and the Comedy Insurgents Who Captured the Mainstream

Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Price: $27.95
Author: Ellin Stein
Length: 464 pages
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2013-06
Excerpted from That's Not Funny, That's Sick: The National Lampoon and the Comedy Insurgents Who Captured the Mainstream by © Ellin Stein. Published by W.W. Norton. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.

Chapter 1: Lampy’s Castle

Immediately after the last Labor Day of the 1960s, two recent Harvard graduates moved to New York to work on a magazine called the National Lampoon. Unlike many recent graduates who start work on new magazines, Henry Beard and Doug Kenney came in as the chief editors. Unlike many magazines that have recent graduates as chief editors, the Lampoon had backers committed to the tune of $350,000 (about $2 million in today’s money), a deal negotiated by a Harvard student who was still finishing up his last term. Six years later, the two editors would each be $2.5 million (nearly $11 million today) richer. Five years after that, one would have found a measure of equilibrium by keeping a low profile while the other, having blazed a comet-like trail of highly visible successes, would tumble to his death off a cliff in Hawaii.

Along the way, the National Lampoon helped trigger a chain reaction of groundbreaking projects that would spread to theater, records, radio, television, and movies, making satire and subversive humor a gateway to commercial success when the conventional wisdom had previously considered it to be an obstacle. It was a pebble thrown into a pond, with ripples ultimately including The Simpsons, The Onion, This Is Spinal Tap, South Park, The Daily Show, 30 Rock, and Superbad, but its most significant and proximate influence was on Saturday Night Live, the breakthrough television show that for over thirty-five years has been the premiere launching pad for American comedy talent. Satirists and humorists emerged in amazing numbers to bounce off each other in ever-shifting groups and combinations, generating considerable heat, occasional light, and more than a few dramatic explosions. The Lampoon and its offspring reflected, defined, and enhanced an iconoclastic sensibility that would emerge as the dominant style of the ’70s, a decade that otherwise often seemed like the hangover after the blowout of the ’60s.

Huge pop culture successes are big rivers fed by many obscure streams. The tributaries feeding into the mighty Lampoon included improvisational comedy troupes such as Second City, early video production collectives like TVTV, underground comics, and, primarily, the Harvard Lampoon (HL), humor organ of the august university and, at the time, as unlikely a source for future television comedy writers as could be imagined. But in time, membership of the HL would change from being an excuse to hang out to being a coveted launch pad into the entertainment industry, all due to the unexpected success of Beard and Kenney’s efforts.

Much as the HL’s frivolity departs from Harvard’s overall serious-mindedness, so its home resembles an elaborate and charming joke, an unusually whimsical exception to the order and harmony of the university’s architectural vernacular. Although called the Castle, the building is only three stories. However, it does have a tower with a pointed roof, atop which perches the Ibis, the organization’s frequently stolen mascot. Vaguely medieval detailing such as emblazoned wooden doors and leaded glass windows add a certain baronial flair. Upstairs is the Great Hall, a big room that looks like a Hollywood version of something called “The Great Hall” down to its vaulted ceiling and magnificent sixteenth-century Elizabethan fireplace, suitable for smashing plates and glassware against (the building comes complete with a maintenance staff to clean it up). The walls along a winding staircase are covered with framed covers of HL projects dating back to the founding of the organization/publication by seven undergraduates in 1876.

“It’s not clear whether the Harvard Lampoon is a social club or a humor magazine,” observed Michael Frith, an HL veteran and later creative director of the Muppets. “At different points in its history, it’s been one or the other and sometimes both. Most likely it’s neither very successfully and probably a combination of the two.”

The organization has a number of quaint traditions including weekly formal dinners that may involve the aforementioned smashing of plates and glassware. Most of the rest involve practical jokes. HL president George Plimpton (’48), for example, distinguished himself by putting a goat into Widener, the Harvard undergraduate library. One of the HL’s most daring pranks was inspired by an editorial written for its 1936 parody of wholesome general-interest magazine the Saturday Evening Post, which fulminated, “Some morning we may wake up to find a Communist flag waving from the staff of our greatest public buildings.” Sure enough, shortly thereafter the Soviet hammer and sickle was discovered at dawn billowing from the flagpole of the Supreme Court in Washington DC, with a copy of the HL left near the scene of the crime, like the Mark of Zorro. This led the court’s security chief to huff, “The Supreme Court of the United States is no place for Harvard Socialists to have fun.”

Another cherished tradition is annoying the Crimson, the well-respected Harvard student newspaper, usually by publishing at least one Crimson parody annually. Crimson staffers would invariably retaliate by stealing the Ibis, but the institution was at a distinct disadvantage. The Crimson couldn’t decide whether to get into the feud or remain above it, recalled ’Poonie Peter Gabel (’68), “because they were a serious organization of political expression and ideas whereas we were a bunch of assholes.”

HL membership hovered around forty or fifty, although the number of those actually involved in putting out the magazine was usually fewer than ten. A student could attempt to join as a writer or, if not creatively inclined, as part of the business board. Admission to the editorial board was either by writing sample or by good social connections to existing editors. Earlier distinguished HL members included New Yorker humorist Robert Benchley, the philosopher George Santayana, and journalist John Reed (who salvaged, legend has it, the brassware that adorns the Great Hall’s mantle from the 1917 storming of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg during the Russian Revolution).

Ostensibly, the HL produced its own publication five times a year and, from 1917 until World War II, put out an additional magazine parody virtually every year. But by the time Michael Frith joined in 1959, the fortunes of the HL were in decline, with circulation having sunk to an all-time low of nine hundred. “The magazine had become ingrown and rife with debt,” he recalled. “We were amazed to hear that other college humor magazines divided up their profits among the staff—we paid dues!” The dues mostly went toward the formal dinners, with publication costs funded solely from magazine sales. The malaise lifted in the early ’60s, when the organization was revitalized by a remarkably energetic intake of members that put out an unprecedented nine issues a year.

With this newfound energy came a revival of the magazine parodies, triggered by a young staffer at Mademoiselle, a fashion and lifestyle magazine for young women, who in 1961 suggested to its august editor in chief, Betsy T. Blackwell, that it might be a good idea to give the magazine’s traditionally low-circulation July issue the Lampoon treatment. Not only did Blackwell agree, she offered the amazed Lampoon editors an honorarium.

Far from feeling constrained by producing the Mademoiselle parody alongside the magazine’s ladylike staff, the HL pranksters “really enjoyed them,” Frith said. “What a bunch of eccentrics!” He remembered particularly Blackwell, a large woman given to terrible coughing spells that could throw editorial meetings into a state of suspended animation. During one such meeting, a new, very serious HL writer earnestly remarked that, in order to make the parody work, it would be essential to “get a real suppository of ideas,” whereupon, recalled Frith, “I thought we’d lose Betsy T. Blackwell.”

The HL suppository worked, and Mademoiselle’s July circulation shot up. The Harvardians were invited to edit the summer issue for the next two years running. By 1963, they were already bored with parodying Mademoiselle and amused themselves by using that year’s July issue to parody the men’s magazine Esquire, thus creating total confusion.

Besides increasing the HL’s own subscription list by several thousand names, the success of the Mademoiselle parodies made the ’Poonies reconsider the size of their potential audience. Access to professional production facilities and the ability to parody the target magazine’s format exactly was a revelation to Frith’s HL contemporary and future Sesame Street lyricist, Christopher Cerf. “All of a sudden we were putting out a national magazine and working with models and photographers,” he said. “We didn’t feel confined to only putting out the Harvard Lampoon.”

After the second Mademoiselle parody in the summer of 1962, Cerf, a born instigator, teamed up with Frith to write a parody of the adventures of President John F. Kennedy’s favorite fictional character, James Bond. Dubbed Alligator, the slim seventy-seven-page paperback was then slipped into all twenty thousand copies of the fall HL.

So accomplished was Alligator that it might easily have been mistaken for the real thing. The book’s villain, one Lacertus Alligator, a short megalomaniac with “pointed teeth made of burnished steel,” pet alligators, and a penchant for spraying everyone who comes within arm’s reach with a purple aerosol spray, is only slightly more outlandish than the average Bond baddie; Bond’s capacity for remaining unaffected by substance abuse (“he had quickly showered and dressed, tossed down seven double martinis”) or physical pain (“the beast tore itself away from B*nd, bringing with it a substantial portion of his foreleg and, B*nd realized thankfully through senses clouded by agony, the ropes that bound his legs. He now was free to move about”) only slightly exaggerated; and the hero’s instructions for the preparation of food and drink (“ ‘A bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich,’ he said. ‘The bacon must be crisp, not, however, over-cooked. Lettuce from the inside please, but not the heart.’ ”) only slightly more elaborate.

Cerf’s father, Bennett, editorial director and cofounder of publisher Random House, took note of Alligator’s glowing reviews. He thought he could bring Alligator out in hardcover and, Frith recalled, “wrote Ian Fleming a nice letter that said, ‘Dear Mr. Fleming, wouldn’t it be wonderful if . . . ?’ ”

The urbane novelist replied to this suggestion with a furious letter heaping scorn on the HL parody. This reaction shocked the parody’s authors, who had thought the Bond books were supposed to be funny. A nervous B. Cerf suggested the HL publish only an additional one hundred thousand copies and asked (unsuccessfully) that the rights then transfer to Fleming, who was about to do a children’s book (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) for Random House. The additional Alligator copies sold out immediately, and this windfall looked like it might only be the beginning. “We had movie offers, somebody wanted us to do a Broadway musical,” Frith sighed, but the collegiate authors were legally unable to further exploit their notoriety.

Fleming’s ire extended beyond the grave. After he died, the people who had obtained the rights to continue the series approached Frith and C. Cerf and asked them to write the further adventures of James Bond. The collaborators accepted, but a routine check revealed a codicil in the late author’s will that prohibited in perpetuity Frith and Cerf specifically from writing any Bond books after Fleming’s death. Not even over his dead body would the author let his hero fall into the parodists’ clutches a second time.

When the Esquire parody appeared in July 1963, there was already a favorable climate for light satirical comedy. A record making good­natured fun of the Kennedy clan, the First Family, became a hit. A former ad man named Stan Freberg was exploring the possibilities of audio parody on radio and records, while a comedy team from Chicago, Mike Nichols (later the Oscar-winning director of The Graduate and Working Girl, among many others) and Elaine May (who went on to write or direct well-regarded film comedies such as The Heartbreak Kid and A New Leaf), mined a rich vein in the new widespread interest in Freudian analysis. On television, Ernie Kovacs had already injected surreal comedy into prime time, and a cartoon show called Rocky and His Friends, which depicted the eternal struggle between an all-American squirrel and two Soviet agents, was grafting sophisticated adult humor onto a program ostensibly for children.

As well, in October 1962, three Cambridge University graduates—Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller, and Alan Bennett, along with Dudley Moore (from Oxford)—had brought their hit comedy sketch revue Beyond the Fringe from London to Broadway, where it received a rapturous reception and a yearlong run. Though Beyond the Fringe is credited with starting England’s so-called satire boom of 1961–1963, the perpetrators were more inclined toward anarchy than satire, aiming at being funny rather than reforming. “None of us approached the world with a satirical indignation,” Miller said. “We had no reason to. We were all very comfortably off and doing very nicely.”

Nevertheless, Beyond the Fringe appeared radically innovative and shocking because it took previously sacred subjects such as religion, patriotism, and the royal family and treated them as suitable subjects for mockery. Evading all labels, the show did not take an easy politically liberal line. As one critic wrote, it was “anti-reactionary without being progressive,” a description that could equally apply to the yet unborn National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live.

Recognizing kindred spirits after seeing Beyond the Fringe’s Boston preview, the ’Poonies invited Cook and Moore to the Castle, where, after some sustained socializing, the British team had to be given large amounts of coffee before they could leave to do their show. After Alligator appeared, a Broadway producer asked Frith and Cerf if they wanted to do an American Beyond the Fringe. Although Frith declined, it seemed to him “very natural” that they would get an offer. “As soon as I graduated from college in 1963, I was being interviewed for things like appearing on television panels,” he said, “and my attitude was ‘Oh, all right. I hope it doesn’t take too long.’ ”

This insouciant expectation of a seamless transition to a pleasant postgraduation life belied the growing turmoil in the broader society outside the Castle’s walls. In 1962, all fifty-three members of a little-known organization called the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) had produced a statement setting forth guiding principles for something they called the New Left, a proclamation that went virtually unnoticed by the world at large. August 1963 brought two hundred thousand civil rights demonstrators to Washington DC, where they heard Martin Luther King dream of a fully integrated nation. Then in November 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated, and nothing would be quite so wholesome again.

Harvard, and the HL especially, were for the most part still unruffled by the gathering forces of change, but they would not remain so. When John Weidman, a future National Lampoon contributing editor, came to Harvard as a freshman in 1964, he found the campus “more like Harvard in 1944 than it would be like in 1968 when I left. The change in those four years was enormous.” In 1963, when buses going down to Mississippi bearing the Harvard contingent of voter registration workers had departed from the Castle’s doorstep, the ’Poonies came out in black tie to toast the departing Freedom Riders with champagne, behavior that did not go down well. When Weidman went on a campus tour shortly thereafter, the tour guide, he recalled, “made a point of stopping in front of the Castle and sneering.”

However, by 1964, in its own detached way, the HL had started to reflect the oncoming metamorphosis, devoting its May ’64 issue to civil rights. “How many of us really realize that the Negro is a sick man—that Negrosis is a disease like any other?” one writer argued. “If he begins ranting about ‘equality’ or ‘our heritage,’ the disease is in its terminal stage and the victim should be removed from society.” This modest proposal, ostensibly by “D. Fritz Overholt Jones-Oglethorpe, of the Memorial Hospital, Birmingham,” was in fact written by the almost as absurdly named George William Swift Trow, then-president of the HL. Trow, another future National Lampoon contributing editor, was an HL anomaly in that he already had a conception of himself as a professional writer.

Trow also embodied a certain WASPy prep style that would become less and less typical of the HL. “Affect (oh go ahead) POVERTY!” Trow would write in a 1965 HL piece called “Igor Cassini’s Christmas,” little dreaming some of Harvard’s most gilded youth would be taking his advice five years later. “While all your pedestrian middle-class friends scream and shout about the Waring Blender they’re going to get for Christmas, you steal the show in eye-catching rags.”

This prep school influence, however, did not loom nearly as large at the Castle as it did at other Harvard subsocieties. The university disdains fraternities but instead has final clubs, then peopled largely by boys similar to the protagonist of the Harvard-set Love Story; old money, old school, and old family preferred. Among the clubs itself there were further hierarchical distinctions, and decidedly not in the top drawer was the Spee, which had a distinct literary-intellectual tinge and valued brains over background. This was the final club to which many of the HL members belonged.

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