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

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.

Elitist, Artsy-Fartsy ‘Poonies

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.

PopMatters