P.J. O'Rourke has had an unusual career for a journalist: He started out writing pointedly low comedy at National Lampoon in the '70s, and moved through the humor pages of an assortment of slick magazines before settling in as a commentator/reporter at Rolling Stone in the '80s. There, O'Rourke honed his persona as an unapologetic conservative, eager to mock conventional wisdom and willing to travel to the world's trouble spots to find evidence for his point of view. He now plies his trade at The Atlantic, having earned a reputation with such bestselling right-wing calls to arms as Eat The Rich and Give War A Chance. As Rugged Land prepared to reprint the legendary parody National Lampoon 1964 High School Yearbook, which O'Rourke helped bring to fruition back in 1974, the author spoke with The Onion A.V. Club about his early days at the Lampoon, his theories on humor writing, and what it's like to be a Republican firebrand when Republicans are in charge.
The Onion: Were you ever at The Harvard Lampoon?
P.J. O'Rourke: Oh, no. Christ, I went to Miami of Ohio. I couldn't have gotten into Harvard with a crowbar.
O: But you were at National Lampoon all through its ascendancy.
PO: Exactly. The Lampoon started in 1970, and I began writing freelance for them around the end of 1971, and then all through '72. They hired me in '73, and I left early in '81. I did everything from low puns to being editor-in-chief. I bought my first house because of Animal House. Not that I had anything to do with the movie, but at one point I went in and asked for a raise, and they cried poor and offered me stock options instead. And, in the wake of Animal House, the stock briefly and quite wrongly shot up. So I love that movie.
O: Was it strange to be part of a publication that became so wildly popular? Weren't you all just kind of goofing off?
PO: Oh, yeah! It was like the opposite of all work experiences that anybody has ever had, as far as I can tell. Normally, the job sucks but work is kinda fun, because you see your friends and flirt with girls and stuff. Lampoon was exactly the opposite. The work was a lot of fun, but the office environment was hell. You cannot put 20 humorists together. "Bitchy" would be the operative word… sort of a heterosexual bitchiness. Like, Michael O'Donoghue was a very close friend of mine–very encouraging with my stuff, and really a great guy–but he was a no-kidding difficult person.
O: Wasn't Michael O'Donoghue responsible for the yearbook project?
PO: In 1970 or '71, early in the magazine, he did maybe eight pages of a 1958 yearbook, from Ezra Taft Benson High School. But by the time the [book-length] high-school yearbook came around, he didn't want to be involved. I think he felt he'd said what he wanted to say. In fact, nobody thought we could spin it out long enough to make a book. Finally, one night we were smoking pot and talking about the people that are invariably in high school, whether you go to prep school or public school or ghetto school or rich suburban school. And actually, it spun off from a Kurt Vonnegut quote. Vonnegut once said, if you ever want to know who somebody is… Like you look at Richard Nixon, or Adolf Hitler, or Ralph Nader, or anybody who seems like a difficult person to understand, and is therefore not part of the pattern of human behavior. Think about who they were in high school, and they will explain themselves to you. So we got a hold of, like, 50 high-school yearbooks, including my mom's from 1925 or something, and we discovered that they're all the same. This is something we just stumbled into, although I guess on some level, we already knew it. Once we realized that there were these 25 invariable types–the class politician, the frigid popular girl, the kid who tags along behind the jocks–once we came up with these key characters in a cloud of marijuana, the whole thing just came together. One of the things I'm really proud of is how much of a high-school yearbook it is in its look, so much so that Hunter Publishing had the art director, David Kaestle, and I come for years to their annual convention and do a little talk on how not to do a yearbook.
O: What were you all influenced by? Mad magazine?
PO: Yeah, Mad… The Harvard Lampoon itself, which had a pretty stellar run in the '60s. The National Lampoon was a direct outgrowth of the book and magazine parodies that The Harvard Lampoon was doing in the '60s: the James Bond parody, Bored Of The Rings… I think the most famous was the Playboy one, where the centerfold girl was tanner on her tits and butt than on the rest of her. [Laughs.] The dominant type of humor in the '60s was essentially defensive and self-deprecating, using humor as a shield. And if there was an ethos at the Lampoon, it was "humor as a sword." This was not defensive humor; it was offensive humor. Humor on the attack.
O: As National Lampoon got more popular, did you feel any increased sense of pressure or responsibility?
PO: No, but I was managing editor for a while, and it does cause business problems when your circulation goes up. Especially with a magazine like Lampoon, which was very dependent on newsstand sales. Our readers didn't usually occupy the same address long enough to get a subscription, because they were in college, or they were hippies. So it was very up-and-down, and we had to calculate how many to print, which was always sort of a headache from a business point of view. We knew we could never rely on advertising, because who wanted to advertise next to blow-job jokes? We had to make every newsstand copy pay, and every subscription pay.
O: Can you see a through-line from the things that influenced the Lampoon to the Lampoon itself to what came afterwards?
PO: Oh, sure. You start out with Mad magazine, and you go right through the sort of black humor of Lenny Bruce, Lord Buckley, Mort Sahl, Paul Krassner… If you put Lenny together with Mad magazine and run it through the brain of a college student, you get National Lampoon. From National Lampoon, you go directly to Saturday Night Live, because it's a lot of the same people. Then Saturday Night Live spawns… well, everything right down to American Pie 9, where all humor has to be irrelevant, which can get a little tiring. Lampoon ran out of steam in the early '80s, and wasn't able to reinvent itself because it ran out of talent. People who wanted to do this kind of stuff could suddenly make $100,000 in Hollywood right out of college.
O: What happened to you at this time? How did you make the transition to Rolling Stone?
PO: Oh, I fiddled around. In the wake of Animal House, all of us at the Lampoon had a lot of Hollywood opportunities. We could definitely get people to return phone calls. When I left the Lampoon, I went west to try that out, and discovered that I hated it. They were awful people turning out awful product. I went back to bumming around New York, writing freelance stuff for Car & Driver and such. And I'd known the people at Rolling Stone for a while. I'd gone to them with a piece I'd done on Beirut for Vanity Fair that Vanity Fair didn't want to publish, because they said I was making fun of death… This was Tina Brown. [Laughs.] But they paid me for it. So I've got this big chunk of a piece, and Rolling Stone liked it, but they thought it was a little dated. But then they called me back and asked me to do a similar piece about the Turks and Caicos Islands, where the whole government had been arrested for dope smuggling. That was fun. Then basically what was happening was that it was the middle '80s, and Rolling Stone realized that a lot of their readers had voted for Reagan, and they were going, "Gosh! We need a Republican! Does anybody know a Republican? Wait a minute! I think P.J.'s a Republican!" [Laughs.]
O: Did you feel comfortable in that role as the counterculture Republican?
PO: I was never in the office. It was very different from Lampoon, where we spent a lot of time together socially, which is to say "drunk." Lampoon was a very collegial operation, though "collegial" usually means "friendly" and it wasn't that friendly. But we were tight, like a family. And I mean that in the worst possible way. [Laughs.] Whereas Rolling Stone, I just never had anything to do with them. I'd stop by the office maybe twice a year.
O: How did you deal with the challenge of writing about politics in the space once occupied by Hunter S. Thompson?
PO: Well, he and I are old friends, but what we do is so different. There are surface similarities that really have to do with us being frustrated poets. We like to pile language on language. Hunter was an influence on me, no doubt about it. I started reading him when I was in college. We also have a lot of the same influences–we both read a lot of the beatniks. And yet what we actually do is almost exactly the opposite. His political stuff is just wonderful, but basically nothing happens. It's all about his reaction to a situation. And my stuff is much more externally driven. He brings a lunatic genius to ordinary events, and I bring an ordinary sensibility to lunatic events. And as a result of that, and as a result of friendship, I don't think we've ever been competitive. I mean, there's probably a very good reason Hunter isn't jealous of me. [Laughs.]
O: You travel a lot, don't you?
PO: I do, yeah. I think I've been overseas four months out of the past seven. I was just in Iwo Jima. Someone was producing a pilot for The History Channel about great battles and called and asked me to narrate it. It's very hard for a civilian–very hard for anybody–to get to Iwo Jima, because it's a closed Japanese military installation. They run maybe four trips in there a year: one for the decreasing number of doddering veterans, and another two or three for young enlisted people who have shown themselves to be not too drunk and not inclined to rape anybody on Okinawa too often. Off they go on this sort of camping trip to Iwo Jima, where they're taken around and shown where all the battles took place. It's very moving. Disgusting little island, though. Still an active volcano. Stinks of sulfur. There are dead Japanese everywhere under that island. It's icky. But I knew I would never have another chance to go, so I took the job.
O: How do you manage to get into some of the other hot spots you visit?
PO: I've been doing it for 20 years. With the war in Iraq, I had the cooperation of the Department of Defense. Kuwait was pretty eager to get American journalists in there, to show us what a wonderful place they are, and what great allies they are to America, even though they didn't actually fight in the war.
O: Why do you go in the first place?
PO: About 20 years ago, Michael Kinsley from Slate was editor of Harper's, and he sent me to Russia right at the butt-end of the Brezhnev years, to go along on a riverboat tour with a bunch of leftists. The tour had been organized by The Nation, so it was a bunch of old Nation readers who were still having huge fights with each other over Trotsky. They were hilarious. I always thought there was some romance to that '30s leftist stuff, even though I'm a Republican. You know, like Rick in Casablanca: "We'll always have Paris." When what we'll always have is, like, Brooklyn and arguments about Trotsky. Anyway, I had such a ball on that trip. I had really not been out of the United States much, except for Mexico. I thought, "Jesus Christ, this is like a whole new world." Instead of writing Michael Jackson one-glove jokes, all I had to do was go to these weird places and keep my eyes and ears open.
O: Do you feel that travel also gives you more weight than a writer who stays in an office and pontificates about what's going on in the world?
PO: I suppose. I've never really thought about it in that way. It's just that I had grown up as a feature writer, and basically my career had been in The National Lampoon and as a magazine editor, and I'd never been a reporter. I didn't realize what fun it was. I figured if I could put together being funny about stuff and actual events, maybe I could do something that wasn't being done much. Because the reporters that I met out there were funny, and they had hilarious stories that just didn't fit in the AP/UPI/New York Times foreign-correspondent style. They couldn't use the things they had. But I could. I could hang out at the bar with them and listen to all this stuff, and I had a place for it. On the other hand, I'll be 56 this year, I've got two kids, and I think it's probably time to go back to writing one-glove jokes.
O: What prompted your shift from Rolling Stone to The Atlantic?
PO: Mike Kelly called me up and said he could pay me less money. [Laughs.] Seriously. It was running out at Rolling Stone. First of all, they didn't feel the need for a dissident conservative voice in a world where certain conservative aspects had become intellectually dominant. I would actually argue against that, but on the surface of it, in the Clinton years the market economy triumphed, certain libertarian ideas became ordinary, and certain early-20th-century ideas about centralization of government and economic planning and socialism with a small "s" had obviously gone out the window. The Cold War was over, blah blah blah. And then when Bush was elected, I think they thought I would have some sort of special "in" with that administration, to provide some sort of inside poop. Which is not something I'd be interested in doing, and anyway, I didn't. I actually knew more people in his dad's administration. So it was obviously winding down at Rolling Stone, and they were having financial troubles, too. They weren't getting the advertising, and the issues were getting thin. They fired Bob Love, who'd been my editor there for a long time. And they went for one of those "lad magazine" things, so now it's like…
PO: Yeah. Although I like the fact that they still run substantive pieces. I'm not sure I like the pieces, but it's nice that they do that. Anyway, it was always sort of ridiculous, me having anything to do with the youth culture, but now that I'm in my 50s, it's extra-double-ridiculous. They were losing interest in me, and I was losing interest in them. When I went to renegotiate my contract at Rolling Stone, I kind of halfheartedly asked if I could do half the work for half the money, and they asked if I could do two-thirds of the work for half the money. I ran that by my agent, since he can do math. Meanwhile, Mike had called me and said he could offer me less, and I said, "You're on!" Because I was really excited with what Mike Kelly was doing, and now what Cullen Murphy is doing with Atlantic. It's a really cool magazine.
O: Going back to what you were saying about the need for dissident conservative voices: What's different about being a conservative commentator now as opposed to the Clinton era, or even the Reagan era?
PO: Well, I think in the Clinton era, if people hadn't been spending vast amounts of time attacking Clinton, they would have found that they had essentially the same problems as they do now. It is very hard now to shock people into thinking about government regulation and the extent of government involvement in life… about fundamental Hayekian ideas. Ever read any [Friedrich] Hayek? He's great. The Road To Serfdom is like… I'm not a big political-science reader, but I actually dog-eared my copy. I ended up going back through it and writing a précis, I was so impressed by this book. It's all about what happens when government tries to make everything right. I mean, Hayek is not protesting that things like child labor and stuff are good. He's just trying to show that when government undertakes to make everything good for everybody, this is what happens. And he addresses it to socialists of all parties. It was written during WWII, and basically it's an anti-Nazi, anti-communist thing, but also it's an anti-Conservative and anti-Labor-party thing aimed at the British. He was an Austrian, writing in Britain. And I feel like now, I guess, everybody pays lip service to libertarian–and, indeed, many conservative–ideas, and yet they keep moving forward with an increasingly bureaucratic state. It shows itself in all sorts of little ways. I'm not screaming about injustice here, or gulags. I buy a tractor two years ago, and four-fifths of the tractor manual is about not tipping over, not raising the bucket high enough to hit high-tension wire… not killing yourself, basically. The tractor itself is covered with stickers: Don't put your hand in here. Don't put your dick in there. And in that manual, I found out–and it cost me a thousand dollars–that when the tractor is new, 10 hours into use of the tractor, you have to re-torque the lug nuts. If you don't, you will oval the holes. This is buried between the moron warnings. I never found it. I take the tractor in for its regular servicing, and they say my wheels are gone. A thousand dollars worth of wheels have to be replaced because I didn't re-torque after 10 hours. How am I supposed to know that? "It's in the manual." You fucking read that manual! You go through 40 pages of how not to tip over! Anyway, that's the world that we seem to be moving into. And just because a society has absorbed these ideas and pays them lip service, anyone who's talking about libertarian ideas and certain basic conservative principles will get people who nod politely and say, "Oh, yeah, we knew that already." It's a pain in the ass.
O: What do you make of the wave of bestselling conservative commentators?
PO: People love to be told what they know already. It's not so much that what they say is wrong, though Ann Coulter does seem to be completely crazy. [Laughs.] But it's kind of like reading The Power Of Positive Thinking, or any other advice or how-to book. All they do is reassure people of their basic opinions, and then they can continue to act like they've always acted. I'd say it's time to move on to something else, but I don't know what it would be.
O: Do you think of yourself as a commentator first, or a humorist first?
PO: Oh, humorist, I guess. Or really more of a reporter. A reporter who reports on funny things. If I bring anything to the table, it's the fact that not everybody realizes they're funny. So I just point a finger.
O: One of the papers that ran your review of the Hillary Clinton biography also ran a left-hand editorial about your review, claiming that all the good political humorists today are on the right. Do you buy that?
PO: Uh… I'm trying to think. In the first place, there aren't many political humorists. Dave Barry is excellent, but he doesn't do it much. Can you think of any?
O: Well, what do you think of The Daily Show?
PO: Oh, good! I wasn't thinking about that. I don't watch much television. Yeah, that's pretty funny. I don't know where they stand politically, do you?
O: They lean left, but they'll mock Howard Dean, too.
PO: Which needs doing. Um… Bill Maher can be pretty good, except when he gets "important." Maher's all over the place politically.
O: Dennis Miller is starting to lean more right.
PO: Ah, can't tell. There's such a self-conscious balance that goes into television. Also, these are not people that think things through. I mean, you read Maher's book, and he didn't take Econ 101. All his arguments about gasoline, it's not that they're right or wrong–they're just not informed.
O: How about Michael Moore, or Al Franken?
PO: I like Michael Moore, but I think of him more as a rabble-rouser. On his TV show, when he went to the home of the guy who invented the car alarm and set off all the car alarms on the block… pretty funny. [Laughs.] But Moore doesn't really use his sense of humor that much. Franken is left-wing and funny. He's a pretty good political humorist.
O: Do you find that political humorists are inclined to look for things to be annoyed about? Do you find yourself approaching every news story with an eye toward potential mockery?
PO: If you're doing a column, you kind of have to. Like in the back of Sports Illustrated, Rick Reilly has to find something to be mad about. It's not really the way I approach things. I like to take things that are boring-but-important and try to make them interesting. That was definitely what I was after with Eat The Rich.
O: Do you feel hampered at all by your writing persona?
PO: Bob Wallace was my editor at Rolling Stone when I first started writing there, and he's a wonderful editor. I was in the Philippines during the Marcos overthrow, and I was up on what was called Smokey Mountain. I think it's gone now, but it was a garbage dump with a bunch of people living on it. I was talking to Bob on the phone, and I told him, "I'm a humorist. I can't write about this." And Bob told me to let my style be dictated by the subject, to take what I saw and write about it in the tone that it requires.
O: Do you ever have a crisis of confidence when you're writing, where you say, "Man, I don't know if I'm right about this?"
PO: If I do, I say so. That's the only way out of that. If there are three words that need to be used more in American journalism, commentary, politics, personal life… it's the magic words "I don't know." I mean, there are certain basic principles, like the dignity of the individual and the individual's responsibility, and certain basic economic principles, like how when something costs less, more of it will be consumed… There are certain things that I feel pretty confident about. But when I get in deep water, I prefer to announce that I'm in over my head.