How National Lampoon became the lost paradise and missing link of modern comedy

How National Lampoon became the lost paradise and missing link of modern comedy

At some point in the ’90s—roughly, between the time of Conan O’Brien’s ascension and the moment when magazine editors who had been running pieces about the social significance of Bart Simpson got bored with that and switched to assigning profiles of members of The Simpsons’ writing staff—it became a pop-culture in-joke that the campus of Harvard University amounted to a farm team where all the richest and most successful comedy writers of tomorrow went to make connections and hone their chops, before taking Hollywood and the New York publishing world by storm. These pieces always stressed the importance of The Harvard Lampoon, the undergraduate campus rag whose alumni include O’Brien and other notables, ranging from John Updike to George Plimpton to B.J. Novak to fabled Simpsons writer George Meyer; most of them described it, in awe-inspiring tones, as “America’s oldest humor magazine.”

As Ellin Stein makes clear in her new book, That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick: The National Lampoon And The Comedy Insurgents Who Captured The Mainstream, the Lampoon’s direct pipeline to the entertainment industry goes back only as far as the ’60s. Despite all that illustrious history and all those famous names, that’s about as far back as anyone can trace any commitment among the Lampoon staff to actually putting out a product that would be mentioned at a job interview in the grown-up world. It was during that time that a new generation of professional ironists, among them Henry Beard, Doug Kenney, Christopher Cerf, and George W.S. Trow, began extending the magazine’s reach into the real world with a series of one-shot magazine parodies. 

They had a big success in 1966 with a parody of Playboy; it featured a cover photo of a pretty young woman that, as Stein notes, promised a satire of cheesecake that could also pass for real cheesecake for magazine readers in a non-reflective state of mind. Flushed with triumph, Beard, Kenney and company next produced a parody of Life. This time, the cover was a mock-somber photo of a broken egg that had been painted to look like the planet Earth. It was an expensive commercial bomb, and the Lampoon boys, who were quick learners, next put out a parody of Time whose cover showed a topless blonde and the banner line, “Does Sex Sell Magazines?”

For these guys, it was not an idle question. Beard and Kenney would become two of the founding editors and co-creators of National Lampoon, which set the standard for satirical ruthlessness during the first half of the ’70s. It seems that, from their college days on, there were two things both men took seriously: not taking anything seriously and making money. The third partner, Robert Hoffman, reserved his own ruthlessness for business negotiations; he cut the deal with Matty Simmons and Len Mogel, the magazine’s principal financial backers, that made it possible for Beard, Kenny, and Hoffman to cash in after five years and retire as millionaires. This year, 1975, turned out to be a watershed moment for the Lampoon; not only did Beard collect his money and happily vacate the premises, but other notable figures, including the invaluable art director Michael Gross, also moved on. One of the magazine’s star writers, the notoriously hot-tempered Michael O’Donoghue, also departed, apparently with both middle fingers upraised; by the end of the year, O’Donoghue, his sometime writing partner Anne Beatts, and several performers who had worked on the Lampoon’s off-Broadway stage play Lemmings and its radio show (including John Belushi, Chevy Chase, and Gilda Radner) had found a home at Saturday Night Live, which, as Stein notes, arrived just in time to inherit the Lampoon’s position as the natural home for the young, hip, and snotty.

Ellin Stein is an entertainment journalist who has contributed to The Guardian, Variety, and People, and who now teaches screenwriting in London. In March of 1986, she reviewed the first serious book about the history of Saturday Night Live, Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad’s Saturday Night, for The New York Times. The author’s bio for that review mentioned that she was “at work on a book about satire in the 1970s.” That’s Not Funny is that book, though Stein hasn’t been consistently been picking away at it for 27 years. In fact, she actually completed the manuscript more than 20 years ago but was unable to find a publisher interested in it. SNL had become a boring subject, and the Lampoon, then more or less defunct, was a forgotten one. The resurrection of this project, which includes snippets from interviews Stein did back in the day with key players who have since died (including Hoffman, who went on to become a major art collector and philanthropist, and O’Donoghue), is a reminder that what may now seem like yesterday’s news will become a time capsule of a golden age before we know it.

For one thing, the history of the Lampoon is a good story, and Stein may be the first person to devote so much of a book to it who doesn’t have her own ax to grind. (Until now, the best book on the subject was Tony Hendra’s memoir-cum-critical history of what he called “boomer humor,” Going Too Far, which came out in 1987. Hendra, who played Ian Faith in This Is Spinal Tap and worked on such fondly remembered topical parodies as Not The New York Times, Off The Wall Street Journal, and Not The Bible, started writing for the Lampoon in its early days and did his best to keep it from falling apart after Beard left.) At the center of Stein’s book are two men who may seem like complete opposites, but both were brilliant and both were working toward the same goal: the charismatic, unstable Kenney and the tweedy, detached Beard. While Beard’s aloofness seemed to give him the ability to see what was ridiculous about any potential target, Stein describes Kenney as a born existentialist, or method actor, who was constantly dismantling and reconfiguring his personality to fit whatever social group he was moving into, then satirizing that group from the inside. This strategy appears to have been guileless; in Hendra’s book, he remembered Doug sincerely asking people he considered better-informed, or at least more firmly centered than himself, whether he should be “for” the Black Panthers.

Each of the writers at the Lampoon had his own special obsessions and approaches. Beard was capable of great flights of wonkishness, as in “Law Of The Jungle,” a long piece, written for the 1974 “Animals” issue—which must have set some kind of record for the use of footnotes and Latin terminology in a humor essay—while Kenney was a pig in shit whenever he had an excuse to trip out on nostalgia for the rituals and memories of pre-counterculture adolescence. (Much of the material he wrote for the magazine’s “Nostalgia” issue percolated until it blossomed into the 1964 High School Yearbook Parody, and, later, the screenplay for Animal House.) But, thanks in no small part to the stylistic unity provided, issue to issue, by Michael Gross, the magazine seemed to speak with one voice. But the different roles and identities of the two main editors became more clearly defined when, after a year, Kenney, now married and feeling Adult Responsibilities breathing down his neck, freaked out and used his company credit card to flee to the West Coast. He returned, with his tail between his legs, but only after Beard had proven that he was capable of holding the many strong, constantly warring personalities in the office together and putting out a successful product on a dependable schedule. (Kenney spent part of his time working on his own novel, Teenage Commies From Outer Space, which he ultimately destroyed after passing it around to a few trusted readers. One of them, the librettist John Weidman, says that—contrary to Michael O’Donoghue’s judgment that it was “ungodly bad”—the novel “wasn’t bad—just scattered. It was very much like Doug.”)

Because of his lust for the limelight and the traces of wistful sweetness mixed in with his bile, Kenney was definitely the right man to have on board when the Lampoon stormed the gates of Hollywood with Animal House. By then, Beard was long gone, which was just as well, given that he was increasingly dismayed by Matty Simmons’ efforts to push the magazine into “show business” with such ventures as Lemmings and the 1972 comedy album Radio Dinner. In his own book, Tony Hendra sounds baffled and hurt when he recalls how Beard, having finally collected his big payout after spending more than four years of his young, barely post-graduate life playing guiding light and reproachful father to a bunch of deranged egomaniacs, said, “I haven’t felt this happy since I got out of the Army.” Beard wasn’t a crusader on a life mission to throw himself against the stone walls surrounding the bastards in power. He was a commercial entertainer, who in the decades since leaving the control tower has kept busy by turning out dozens of light humor books with titles like French For Cats. But even if he wasn’t any other kind of idealist, Beard was determined to do his work for the National Lampoon as seriously as he could, without compromising the implicit principles on which the magazine had been founded. 

This is a distinction lost on Simmons, who proudly told Stein that he himself “was a writer,” but that the staff of the magazine he used as his cash cow, including Michael O’Donoghue, were not, because they “had never even made a living at it.” Stein’s book ends with Kenney’s mysterious death in August 1980, which occurred while he was vacationing in Hawaii. His body was found at the bottom of a cliff, a month after the opening of Caddyshack, which Kenney had produced and co-written. (Stein relates “one of the better” jokes told about Kenney’s death: That he “had slipped and fallen while looking for a place to commit suicide.”) That’s too bad; she uses a few paragraphs, in the concluding “where are they now?” section of the book, to relate the somewhat interesting, thoroughly depressing story of what happened to the National Lampoon in the years after its last few stalwart talents drifted away and Simmons and the like-minded hustlers who came after him got a firm grip on the golden goose’s neck. Simmons’ efforts to duplicate the success of the first Lampoon movie led to one harmless family-film series, the Vacation films, and a number of embarrassing fiascos that have mostly been released directly to home video and cable TV. 

Simmons had the idea that the secret to the success of the early, literate, politically and culturally sophisticated Lampoon was that it was “outrageous,” and for a man with no interest in literacy or political or cultural sophistication, that apparently translates into massive servings of T&A with a side of grossness. After years of trying to get his hirelings to stick to that formula, Simmons appointed himself editor-in-chief of the magazine. Perhaps he was still trying to prove that he was a writer, and had decided that one way of going about it would be to show that he wasn’t an editor, because with him at the helm, the magazine slid from a monthly publication to a bi-monthly, then an informal “once in a blue moon” schedule. Given the quality of the product, one would have to be insanely ungrateful to complain that it didn’t come out more often. Eventually, after the magazine had changed hands several times, with its final print issue having seen the light of day in 1998, the name was acquired in 2002 by a company that licenses it out to bad movies and even worse pay-per-view TV events, such as National Lampoon’s Strip Poker. Jake Tapper’s 2005 New York Times article reported that some writers who had done the best work of their careers for the Lampoon 30 years earlier were now reluctant to include the name on their CVs. As a consolation prize, two consecutive CEOs of National Lampoon, Incorporated, have since been locked up after being convicted of taking part in a Ponzi scheme.

For about four years, National Lampoon was the white-hot center of the hip comedy zeitgeist. It was lucky in its timing: Those years overlapped not just with the years when its key creative personnel were at their hottest and hungriest, but also with the Nixon years, a time when the most powerful man in the free world seemed to have been created in a lab for the express purpose of being made fun of. This was not just by virtue of his exceptional venality, but because, of all the U.S. presidents of the TV age, he, with the possible exception of George H.W. Bush, seemed the least comfortable in his skin. It was also a time when the counterculture was being co-opted and selling itself out, and the political opposition to the party in power seemed flailing and ineffective. It made for a scene in which the wild men of the Lampoon, who professed to believe in nothing, could take pride in giving everyone—Nixon, George McGovern, Jane Fonda, George Wallace, John Lennon—equal time in the sweat box. It’s an attitude that SNL embraced, albeit tentatively, when it was taking its baby steps. It’s also an attitude that the show was quick to abandon as soon as times changed. When Lorne Michaels appeared on camera, on the first SNL episode after the Twin Towers fell, and asked the actual mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani, for permission to “be funny,” the funny thing was that he really wasn’t joking. In that moment, there were, at minimum count, half a dozen things on that stage—starting with Michaels’ penitential, funereal tone and ending with the heartfelt reverence shown to the certifiably batshit Giuliani—that the National Lampoon, once upon a time, would have torn to shreds, if it hadn’t already gagged to death.

The National Lampoon had no reverence for anything, which is one reason it had no clear partisan position, not even culturally. (It once put out an issue with the theme “Is Nothing Sacred?” In the pop-culture context in which the magazine made sense, that meant not making fun of Mom and apple pie, yet skewering R. Crumb and Che Guevara.) That might be the best legacy the magazine could leave behind to inspire others, and it’s not something that today’s best and smartest satirists have an easy time getting a handle on. (Stephen Colbert throws darts at everyone, but his on-air persona demands that everything that comes out of his mouth be understood as a comment on the Fox News mentality.) And although South Park is pretty indiscriminate—and sometimes baffling—in its choice of targets, it sometimes leaves the audience wishing Matt Stone and Trey Parker also actually believed in something. The Lampoon was always open to charges of reckless cruelty, charges that Bruce McCall—one of the most imaginative wits to make his mark at the magazine, and one of the gentlest—doesn’t believe apply to people like O’Donoghue and such notorious pieces as “The Vietnamese Baby Book,” which grew out of honest, moral outrage. McCall could be speaking about the current state of satire when he says, “Most of the National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live people didn’t rage. They were just peevish.”