It all started at a magazine rack in Jackson, Mississippi in 1968. I was walking by at a normal pace when I noticed the latest issue of Time magazine. On its cover was a naked girl at a newsstand, facing us seductively. My sneakers made that hard-court screech sound as I stopped to look closer. A canvas pouch reading “Newsweek” covered this fetching blonde’s, um, southern regions, while the cover of Time she was holding up, and her thus-crossed arm, obscured the, ah, north. The cover she displayed was the very one she was gracing, so ever-diminishing naked girls holding Time magazines approached the vanishing point, like the fully-clothed tyke who spills the Morton salt. In screaming type read this headline:
DOES SEX SELL MAGAZINES?
Being the Sixties college student that I was, I thought righteously, don’t these Time idiots realize they’re self-fulfilling their own moral criticism and objectifying the sisters themselves? Then I noticed that every other magazine at Time’s newsstand, from Mad to Car & Driver, also had the same fetching blonde on its cover. Finally, I saw the diagonal banner at the top: A HARVARD LAMPOON PARODY. An instant later I was one dollar lighter, but that bad boy was mine.
This was my first experience with two of the funniest guys ever to grace the Castle, home of the world’s oldest humor magazine: Doug Kenney and Henry Beard. Though the Time parody was truly a collaborative effort (and only the latest in a long line of Harvard Lampoon parodies), it was Kenney and Beard who made it not only the best, but also the most successful, obtaining mega-newsstand distribution (thus my copy in Mississippi) and selling hundreds of thousands of copies. The next year, Kenney and Beard collaborated on a parody of THE LORD OF THE RINGS, then enjoying its hippie-phase rejuvenation in popularity (Ian Ballantine’s lapel buttons reading FRODO LIVES were seen at many a love-in). Even the bogus names in BORED OF THE RINGS were priceless: Frito, Dildo, the Balhog, Goodgulf and Goddam traipsed through Lower Middle Earth and into our hearts – you couldn’t read two pages of the damned thing without crying from laughter. It became a best-seller, and these chaps Kenney and Beard were now on my radar screen.
Matty Simmons, a former executive with Diners Club, the first credit card, had distributed the Time parody, and as the boys were getting set to matriculate, he made them wash up (haw, haw) and brought them to New York to discuss taking the Lampoon nationwide. It was Kenney, Beard, and Rob Hoffman, who wasn’t a wiseacre but had a steel-trap business mind; these three Harvard whelps were the founders of the National Lampoon. Their first issue appeared in April 1970.
Why should you care? Because this magazine changed the face of American humor. Without National Lampoon, you wouldn‘t have SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. You wouldn’t have THE SIMPSONS, SOUTH PARK, Conan, Stewart and Colbert, The Onion, Bill Maher, Judd Apatow. Not to mention John Hughes, who was on staff. Put it this way: before the wave that NatLamp created and encouraged – to the world of comedy, a thundering series of epiphanies like the ones rock music had just experienced — our idea of a humor magazine was Mad, and George Carlin worked in a suit and tie.
Inspiring this rumination is a wonderful new book, DRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD, a four-year labor of love by Rick Meyerowitz, the BRILLIANT illustrator who stated the visual look of NatLamp in its heyday (among other works, he painted the famous “Mona Gorilla,” long the Lampoon’s unofficial mascot, and the iconic movie poster for ANIMAL HOUSE), celebrating the writers and artists who made the magazine great for about ten years after its debut. It’s heavy on visuals – the 9½ x 12 trim size lets them sing, and some material has been re-shot digitally and re-set for this edition, including Michel Choquette’s stunning “Stranger in Paradise”: the photos of a certain madman in silver-sanded retirement on Martinique look twice as good as they did in the original mag – but you do get to read a bit too, including, for example, the unexpurgated text of Henry Beard’s staggering “Law of the Jungle,” which has never been reprinted in its 12,000-word entirety until now.
Even better, Meyerowitz looks up as many of the NatLamp stars as he can find, and pries stories out of those who are not yet DEAD. They’ll all talk, because the author was in the trenches with them as well. When the magazine was can’t-miss vital, especially in the early Seventies, every page of every issue was funny. NatLamp was an equal-opportunity offender, and had just as much disdain for the STONED counterculture as for the White House cesspool of Richard Nixon. It was brave like Lenny Bruce, but erudite as only a bunch of collegiate scamps could be. The vocabulary had vaulted over the heads of, say, the comics appearing on Ed Sullivan on Sunday, and nothing – nothing – was sacred. Each issue examined one particular topic; the cover of the “Is Nothing Sacred?” issue depicted Che Guevara taking a pie in the face. The “Death” cover, perhaps NatLamp’s most famous ever, was a photograph of a hand holding a pistol to a nervous mutt’s pate over the headline, “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog.”
Tony Hendra, P.J. O’Rourke, George W.S. Trow, Christopher Cerf, Sean Kelly, John Weidman, Anne Beatts (hey, a female!), Brian McConnachie, Chris Miller, Gerald Sussman, Ted Mann, Jeff Greenfield – all these writers and more are here. Plus artists including M.K. Brown, Gahan Wilson, Ed Subitzky, Stan Mack, Sam Gross (he of the immortal “Try Our Frogs’ Legs” cartoon, my favorite one they ever ran), Shari Flenniken, Bruce McCall, Charles Rodrigues, and others.
My favorite NatLamp writer was a precocious curmudgeon, Michael O’Donoghue. A few years ago, I had the privilege of editing the definitive biography of this man, a beautiful job by Dennis Perrin called MR. MIKE, available in fine second-hand bookshops everywhere (sic transit gloria backlist). Here was a guy who seemed to be trying to find the exact spot where you’d stop laughing and start squirming. Time does not dim the outrage of “The Vietnamese Baby Book,” an innocent guide to your little dear’s first everything, except he’s in a country being blown to bits! Nor fades the delicious verbal slapstick of “How To Write Good.” This was a king among funnymen.
It was O’Donoghue and Hendra (who had been part of a stand-up comedy team that had actually played Ed Sullivan) who helped write the next, fatal chapter. The Lampoon was as hot as it got in the early Seventies, and put together an off-Broadway show called LEMMINGS and the syndicated NATIONAL LAMPOON RADIO HOUR. (I’m omitting a lot of backstage dirt that’s all in MR. MIKE, kidz!) Now they were meeting actors and improvvers like John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, and so on. Lorne Michaels, a Canadian TV writer and comic, was also watching and listening. He hired O’Donoghue for the writing staff of a new show he was prepping, NBC’S SATURDAY NIGHT. (O’Donoghue actually appears with Belushi in the “cold opening” of the very first show.) The renamed SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE made Belushi a star, and Doug Kenney – having cashed out of the magazine along with Beard and Hoffman in 1975, the same year O’Donoghue and Belushi went on the air — headed to Hollywood, where he would co-write ANIMAL HOUSE and CADDYSHACK. In 1980, on vacation while mulling MODERN PROBLEMS for Chevy Chase, he stepped off a cliff on Kauai, and the New Golden Age of American humor ended as abruptly as Altamont ended “the Sixties.” Two years later, Belushi was DEAD too. There are lots of funny people around these days, but to me, only The Onion displays even part of the absolute DRUNKen savagery that was NatLamp.
If you want to, you can buy a DVD-ROM containing every single NatLamp issue from 1970 to 1988 for fifteen bucks; not quite half of that material comes from when, as we say, “National Lampoon was still funny,” but it’s all there. However, if you just want a taste, or you want to remember tiny bits of those halcyon days again (maybe even gussied up a bit, but still the real stuff), get this Meyerowitz book. The spine’s going to look great on your bookshelf when Granny comes over to visit!