The Magazine

Laughing Last

How yesterday’s insurgents became today’s Establishment.

Jul 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 43 • By MICHAEL HEATON
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In the beginning, there was the Harvard Lampoon. And it was good. And the Harvard Lampoon begat the National Lampoon. And the National Lampoon begat the live stage show Lemmings. And Lemmings begat Saturday Night Live. And Saturday Night Live begat the movie Animal House and Spy magazine and The Simpsons and the Onion and FunnyorDie.com.

National Lampoon

National Lampoon

And .  .  . you get the idea. 

It’s not much of stretch to call this exceedingly thorough and wildly entertaining history of modern American comedy a bible on the subject. Ellin Stein goes deep and dirty on the topic. The names (Michael O’Donoghue, P. J. O’Rourke, Anne Beatts, Christopher Cerf, Paul Krassner, George W. S. Trow, to name a few) comprise a humorist hall of fame. Stein gets the unfiltered dope on the snotty gang of irreverent Harvard grads who highjacked the prevailing corny, pre-fab comedy culture of the 1950s and infused it with whip-smart satire, withering parody, and dead-on disenchantment with the we’re-number-one ethos of American pop culture. 

But this is no hagiography. The players in this story get no special treatment. The hundred or so writers, performers, and producers interviewed are all given free rein to assess and critique themselves and each other with the kind of caustic candor one would expect from such ambitious and accomplished smart-ass wisecrackers. Some became rich; others became rich and famous; a couple died in splashy, ignominious, drug-related scenarios. The cliché that comedy isn’t pretty has never rung truer than in this terrific recounting of the comedy juggernaut set in motion by Harvard Lampoon editors Henry Beard and Doug Kenney.

The Harvard Lampoon, founded in 1876, began as an elite bastion of pointy-headed humor writing. The New Yorker humorist Robert Benchley, philosopher George Santayana, and commie sympathizer-journalist John Reed—did you see the ponderous movie written and directed by Warren Beatty called Reds?—were all on the masthead at one time. Beard and Kenney helped it turn a profit, and, in the process, greased the skids for comics of the 1970s to become the new rock stars of the ’80s and beyond.

Did Kenney and Beard know what they were up to at the time and what an influence National Lampoon would have on popular culture? Probably not. But what they wrought sent waves of laughter and shivers down through generations of laugh-starved suburban youngsters breast-fed on Mad magazine (“What, me worry?”) and the antics of Bugs Bunny (“What’s up, Doc?”). Anyone who cares about how American comedy came to rule the world, in terms of influence, and why The Daily Show, Conan, or the Borowitz Report are free to rip on any topic that seems ripworthy, must understand the debt owed Beard and Kenney.

Because it all started with National Lampoon. (Unless you want to count Mad, first published in 1952.) When Beard and Kenney cut the ribbon on the operation in 1969, they had a $350,000 nest egg from investors with which to start the mission. They knew they could make money: Three years earlier, the Harvard Lampoon had turned a profit of $91,000 on their Playboy parody issue. It’s one thing to play around on your college paper at the expense of the dean; it’s another to be able to hand out real walking-around money to a college-age staff.

But these guys rocked it hard and fast, and no one was more surprised by their success than they were: “We can actually make money by being sophomoric assholes?” Yes, they could, and they kept on going without looking left, right, or center—well, maybe center. They were greedy for the good stuff, too: the money and prestige that came with being the country’s number-one source of snit and snark. In 1966, these guys had sold 450,000 copies of their Playboy parody in less than a week; what might the real world of humor publishing bring? This is the question Stein explores to glorious effect, complete with the jealousy, infighting, and power-jockeying that attends any highly successful made-for-show-biz endeavor.

The new staff of National Lampoon deviants differed from their WASPy, East Coast, Harvard predecessors. The writers on the new Lampoon were almost all Jewish or Catholic. Kenney was a Midwestern kid from Chagrin Falls, Ohio, and P. J. O’Rourke, who would join the staff in 1971, was from Toledo. And these guys weren’t satisfied going after their parents’ tired mores. They were willing and eager to take on the target-rich clichés of their own generation—and the occasional photo of a naked woman with large breasts didn’t hurt sales, either. The magazine caught on fast, engaging the hot-button topics of the Vietnam war, political assassinations, left-wing radicalism, and rock ’n’ roll with aggressive irreverence. (Who can forget the famous cover line: “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog”?)

Each issue was given a theme before being handed off to a writer to plan and execute. The masthead bench was deep, and writers—some wacky, some vicious, others scholarly—gave each issue a fresh and hilarious tone. The humor ranged from run-of-the-mill penis jokes to P. J. O’Rourke’s stylized treatise on cocaine etiquette. In 1972, the Lampoon was offered a record contract for a comedy album and Christopher Guest, who would later produce such classic comedy films as This Is Spinal Tap and Waiting for Guffman, was brought in as musical director for a live comedy stage show mocking Woodstock, called Lemmings. (The jokes were mostly about music and drugs, and John Belushi began his Joe Cocker impression in the show.) From there, the magazine began morphing into other forms of humor/comedy, which would ultimately include the television show that will not die, Saturday Night Live, and such movies as Animal House, Blues Brothers, and the series of Vacation films, which were based on a Lampoon piece by John Hughes, later of The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off fame.

The life story of cofounder Doug Kenney, who died falling off a cliff in Hawaii in 1980, is the thread that connects this impressive, all-encompassing, 50-year history of boomer comedy and the people who created it. A big squirt from the seltzer bottle goes to Stein for her intrepid reporting, squeaky clean prose, and the herding of all these nasty comedy kittens to produce a book that will serve as a cultural reference work for the ages. And a blast from the past to read. 

Michael Heaton writes the Minister of Culture column for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.