The Lowest Form of Humor: How the National Lampoon Shaped the Way We Laugh Now

October 29, 2013 | 13 books mentioned 4 15 min read

1. Storming the Castle
coverIn the fall of 1999, my junior year, I decided to try out — in the Harvard parlance, to “comp,” short for either “compete ” or “competence,” an abbreviation that neatly captures the atmosphere of repressed striving and insecurity on campus — for my college’s quasi-bimonthly humor magazine, The Harvard Lampoon. (Or, as the rivalrous Harvard Crimson newspaper habitually refers to it, “a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine.” Repressed striving and insecurity, with a split infinitive!)

It was only my third semester in Cambridge; the fact that I’d transferred in as a sophomore may mitigate — slightly — the inescapable annoyingness of stating I went to Harvard. In any case, the wit and intellect of the Lampoon had consistently impressed me in the meantime. I had a yearning to write satire, but hadn’t yet approached it in any disciplined fashion. It seemed to me that joining a 123-year-old publication that counted John Updike, George Plimpton, and Robert Benchley among its alumni would put me on that path. More importantly, it would bring me into contact with the culture that had birthed the vaunted National Lampoon (NL), whose dominant run of comedic films in the late ’70s and ’80s, from Animal House to the National Lampoon’s “Vacation” series, was responsible for a high percentage of the catchphrases heard in my youth.

I attended an orientation session in the Lampoon Castle, a stout, puckish building opened in 1909 that resembles a human face in a helmet. One upperclassman described the style of the humor pieces the Lampoon hopefuls — mostly nerdy white males — would have to write to come aboard. At one point he made accidental reference to “a phonograph player.” He caught his minor error (he meant, simply, a “phonograph”; a phonograph is already a “player,” so “phonograph player” is right up there with “ATM machine” for redundancy).

“A phonograph player,” he said as he laughed. “It plays other phonographs.”

Soon after, another writer observed, “Some people think we’re exclusive or snobby…But we’re not. I mean, look what we look like.” He may or may not have had a point — they were, indeed, in the archetypal comedy writer’s schlubby getup — but these two moments, in their ironizing and even lacerating self-consciousness, served notice as well as anything in the magazine itself for the kinds of deeper drives that turn ordinary mortals into Lampooners.

People rarely become conspicuously funny because they’re satisfied with themselves. The writers who had gone on from Harvard to make their mark at the National Lampoon — the people whose cinematic offerings I’d consumed throughout my childhood, and whose casting of Beverly D’Angelo and Christie Brinkley in the first “Vacation” film surely had a profound impact on my adolescent sexuality — were outsiders at Harvard and outcasts in high school. The targets they vengefully skewered were usually social microcosms, high school and college very much included. Underscoring this fixation was a deep-seated inferiority complex. The funny guys and girls who are confident (it was dawning on me, there at that orientation) are the ones who hold court at parties. The funny guys who are diffident become comedy writers. Or, as I once read in an interview with an Onion writer speaking about the makeup of its staff — the closest thing we have to the National Lampoon in its heyday — they’re the guys who are outside the party, making fun of the guy inside telling jokes.

coverAt its peak, the NL produced some of the bleakest and most controlled furious humor in American letters. Yet in the twenty-nine years between its inaugural issue and my own fumbling attempts to breach the castle walls, these outsiders’ inside jokes had become the lingua franca of the educated classes. The National Lampoon’s creators played a role in or held sway over nearly every major comedic movement in the country over the last forty years. And now, thanks to Ellin Stein’s assiduously researched and comprehensive book That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick: The National Lampoon and the Comedy Insurgents Who Captured the Mainstream, we can trace the Lampoon’s evolution from the margins of Cambridge to the mainstream of Hollywood, covering a cast of characters ranging from lesser-known luminaries to the extroverts telling jokes at the party (John Belushi, Bill Murray). Had I read it that night after the Lampoon Castle, when I went home to begin writing my first piece — had I had a fuller understanding of how insecurity and striving could be harnessed — it might have made my work easier.

2. Baby’s First Words
American humor was, like the nation itself, in a radically transitional state in the 1960s. Light comedy ruled the early part of the decade, but after President Kennedy’s assassination and the domestic and international turbulence that followed, the genteel Harvard Lampoon that had nurtured Updike and Benchley began to broach social issues more often, and with a finer point — even while maintaining the generally apolitical stance of the detached humorist. (The contradictions were sometimes potent: Lampooners mockingly toasted, in black tie with champagne, departing Freedom Riders in 1963; the next year, they devoted an entire issue to civil rights.) As the decade deepened, the Lampooners targeted inequality and injustice less frequently than they did mainstream conformity — as if the gray flannel suits of the ’50s were still in fashion, not tie-dye and love beads.

The two linchpins of the Lampoon Castle in the mid-’60s were Doug Kenney and Henry Beard. They would go on to create “the characteristic tone of the National Lampoon,” Stein writes:

…assuming all actions are the result of greed, malice, or sheer stupidity; promiscuously interweaving icons from high and low culture; snobbery; and ironic distance from everything (including the work itself), all made palatable by sheer mastery of the traditional techniques of comic writing.

Beard was the hardworking, stable center of the organization, cranking out consistently solid material at all hours. A thrill-seeking WASP manqué from Ohio, Kenney comes off, by contrast, as the most tortured figure of all the Lampooners. Working in sporadic fits of genius around late-night gourmet-food fights, he affected, like most of the staff at the Harvard Lampoon, a preppy look and demeanor. Unwilling to accept the essentially insecure identity and origins of the comedy writer, Kenney had a lifelong desire to be the guy telling jokes at the party.

coverA few profitable parodies, including a Tolkien take-off called Bored of the Rings (which continues to pull in royalties for the Harvard Lampoon), made the notion of a national magazine look attractive financially, as well as conceptually. In 1969, Kenney, Beard, and business-minded classmate Rob Hoffman formed National Lampoon Inc. with two New York magazine publishers, Len Mogel and Matty Simmons. Issue one of the National Lampoon appeared in April 1970. The group soon added other Harvard alums as well as a standout non-Harvardian, Michael O’Donoghue, who came from a working-class background, was several years older than his more affluent colleagues, and had made a name for himself as an underground satirist of black-hole humor.

The Lampooners always prized craft above politics, and O’Donoghue himself wasn’t above the Lampoon’s affection for reflexivity, as in his classic treatise “How To Write Good,” which advises writers to conclude their stories with “Suddenly, everyone was run over by a truck,” then wraps up its ten lessons with the sentence, “There are many more writing hints I could share with you, but suddenly I am run over by a truck.” Stein writes that one of the other founding members described his peers’ affection for parody as “the natural art form for people who have been shaped by a meaningless iconography” — specifically, TV commercials. Yet the bohemian O’Donoghue’s reimaginings of that iconography were nothing if not meaningful. In January 1972, he penned one of the most memorable pieces in NL history, the scathing “Vietnamese Baby Book” (baby’s first word: medic).

Congenial chuckles were not O’Donoghue’s goal. “I’ve always considered comedy what you use to get people to swallow the pill, not the pill itself,” he said, along with this deathless epigram: “Making people laugh is the lowest form of humor.” He considered himself a moralist, and a livid one at that — who was still able to exert mastery over his feelings: “Rage is only interesting when it’s controlled. When you repress those emotions, you always get something artistic and interesting.” His highest-profile heirs today are Chris Rock and Louis CK, whose moral anger fuels their comedy without stepping (in Rock’s case, barely so) over the threshold of Lewis Black’s or Sam Kinison’s exhausting fury, and for whom the point is often less to get a laugh — let alone self-congratulatory applause — than to provoke thought. With O’Donoghue’s influence, and Vietnam’s escalation, the National Lampoon couldn’t help but become more political than its ivory tower predecessor, attacking both the right and left for their conservatism and hypocrisy, respectively. And, as with the response to The Onion today, people loved being reminded of their flaws.

3. Throwing Spitballs in Homeroom
But the NL’s ascent, in Stein’s telling, also contained the seeds of its demise. As the magazine expanded in the mid-’70s, the writers of the Lampoon came to embody as much as anyone the historical tension running through American comedy of its being written by, if not always the smartest, then certainly the quickest guys in the room, for the consumption of the lower-velocity masses. Not only did this gulf prompt a timeless conflict — whether to write for niche quality or mainstream success — but it was itself a source of the writers’ essential contempt for conformity and mass culture. Such an anxiety also placed under further pressure the NL’s volatile admixture of politics, linguistic virtuosity, and vicious, high-concept irony. But, for the time being, this pressure produced a bright, controlled burn.

coverMany of the National Lampoon’s obsessions and talents and scars coalesced in the 1964 High School Yearbook Parody, published in 1974. Its portrait of a fictional Ohio high school offered the Lampooners the chance to return to a personal and national era of irretrievable innocence: “Doug and I figured that 1964 was the last year before the sort of hipness explosion,” said P.J. O’Rourke, co-editor of the parody with Kenney. The pre-counterculture epoch remained the moment they related to best, when they could rail against conventionality before nonconformity became its own form of subservience.

The humor was granular; hand-scribbled notes by and to a generic student, Larry Kroger, covered the margins. And it was focused on the Midwest, the home turf of most of the Lampooners and the incubator of their sensibility. The equation was something like: more orthodoxy equals more quiet desperation to ridicule.

While we now take for granted the comic mining of high school, it wasn’t as obvious a move in 1974; American Graffiti had come out the year before and Happy Days premiered that fall, but most pop-culture depictions until then had been sober and had divided students into the facile binary of greasers and preppies. In researching real yearbooks, O’Rourke and Kenney had discovered the more nuanced taxonomy John Hughes (a future Lampooner) went on to highlight, and attempt to debunk, in The Breakfast Club: that everyone was a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, or a criminal. The Yearbook alone may not have catalyzed the wave of ’80s and ’90s comedies about high school, but it certainly anticipated it and their taxonomies. It was a total triumph; sales and acclaim were outsized, with Harper’s hailing it as “the finest example of group writing since the King James Bible.”

4. The Comedy of Antithesis
Norman Mailer said that J.D. Salinger was “the greatest mind ever to stay in prep school,” and that backhanded compliment might also apply to the Lampooners. Their neoteny became more apparent as the ’70s wore on and the NL drifted into non-print media. There, they couldn’t rely as easily on luminous writing or assume the audience — always a schizophrenic mix of comedy geeks and frat boys, equally enticed by the mathematically precise wit and the art department’s illustrations of females with proportions more out of Russ Meyer films than Ms. magazine — was as literary. They released both studio and live comedy albums, bringing Chevy Chase and Christopher Guest to prominence, and a nationally broadcast radio show that lasted a year. The 1973 stage show Lemmings, a parody of Woodstock, also led to collaboration with Chicago’s Second City improv-comedy troupe and its most charismatic performer, John Belushi.

Second City embraced its director Del Close’s philosophy: action over language, physicality over concept, concreteness over abstraction. The NL was all brain, no body; Belushi’s characters had never heard of the superego. Improv also relies on the “yes and” rule: never contradict your fellow performers’ creative inspiration, but continue their suggestion to absurd heights. Prose satire, however, derives much of its energy from dialectics. From “Frontline Dentists,” by O’Donoghue, a comic strip relating the brave exploits of our military dentists:

CAPTION: “The war against tooth decay is waged on every front…”

ATTRACTIVE, HALF-NAKED WOMAN ON STEET: “Hey Joe! You got Hershey bar?”

VIRILE DENTIST STRIDING PAST: “Certainly not, young lady! Sweets are the number-one cause of cavities!”

The closing negation here would derail or arrest an improv scene that might have cooperatively spun out into unforeseen territory (the dentist shills for Hershey to boost his business, he’s an ashamed chocolate addict himself, etc.). On the page, however, where a solitary writer is in control of the material, refutations don’t deny another’s ideas. (There are, of course, also plenty of examples of prose humor that engages in the “yes and” rule.)

covercoverOne could argue that, medium aside, the comedy of antithesis permits a more sophisticated, analytical form of humor. Instead of the classic onstage or onscreen method of overstuffing a gag to its exaggerated conclusion — think of the crowded cabin scene in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera, reprised to humiliating effect in the bathroom scene in the Farrelly Brothers’ There’s Something About Mary — the prose humorist can wend his way around a central conceit from all angles, even those that seem to undercut it. In the NL’s “Tell Debby,” a parodic advice column in which letter-writers send in stories about their miserable lives, Debby responds with callous one-liners, such as, to a boy from a dysfunctional home, “Young Man, you spelled my name D-e-b-b-i-e. My name is spelled D-e-b-b-y.” (See the echoes in The Onion’s “Ask a…” columns, in which a character unsuited to dispense advice provides his own running monologue that has nothing to do with the question.) Not “Yes and,” but “Whatever; which reminds me…”

Over many columns, though, the obtuse eponym of “Tell Debby” begins to reveal the limits of Lampoon humor. In the writers’ eyes, any hint of vulnerability could be cruelly exploited for laughs. And this is where Stein’s book is revelatory in its own right. Since dissecting or retelling a joke out of context invariably leaches it of humor, That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick is itself not funny. But deprived of its mask of mirth, the fundamental misanthropy at the core of the Lampoon sensibility is easier to see. Swift wrote that “principally I hate and detest that animal called man, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth”; one gets the feeling that the Lampooners hated man and detested John, Peter, and Thomas, too.

5. “I’m better than you and I’m going to destroy you.”
And thus we reach the vexed question of empathy — what takes the writer beyond the narrow satirical limits of hatred and detestation.

Almost exclusively young, gentile white men of privilege, the original Harvard Lampooners had few socioeconomic chips on their shoulders. Through the nihilistic days of Watergate, the NL maintained its dispassionate, if left-wing, politics, and some of its apathy may derive from its remaining a white boys’ club well into second-wave feminism. There were not many women on staff, no minorities, and, most surprisingly for a comedy publication, a relative dearth of Jews. So, while the writers often satirized racial stereotypes, for instance, Stein points out that they frequently ended up reinforcing them, much as the prurient illustrations of buxom women didn’t quite qualify as subversive feminist humor. The Lampooners thought that women, as a rule, were humor-deficient, and that anyone who didn’t fit their own background was therefore writing from a narrower perspective. It was a prejudice that, Stein writes, partially sprang out of their culture of fear-inducing derision:

Bad enough when your NatLamp buddies used their intimate knowledge of your sore spots to assert their mastery through mockery; imagine if your girlfriend started doing it, too. You could never let down your guard. Tonight’s whispered confession might fuel tomorrow’s sarcastic remark.

Though there were a few nods to the female experience — mostly from writers Anne Beatts and Emily Prager — the men seemed more engaged by exploring their anxieties over the changing definitions of masculinity, as in an ad for a boy’s doll called T.G.I.F. Joe, an “Action Assistant Sales Supervisor” who could be positioned for a variety of menial tasks. (To be fair, this is likely the kind of humor their readers — also nerdy white males, “reminiscent of the editors’ own younger selves” — preferred.)

The lack of Jews, particularly, countered the prevailing winds of American comedy in the ’70s, including Mad magazine’s self-effacing brand, and the Lampooners took special pride in their resistance to Semitic humor. P.J. O’Rourke noted that there is offensive and defensive humor, and that the Lampoon veered strongly to the former: “We used humor as a weapon rather than a shield.” As at Harvard, the WASP mentality, indebted to the tradition of heartless British satire, was their model. In James Thurber’s distinction of comic writers — “The wit makes fun of other persons; the satirist makes fun of the world; the humorist makes fun of himself, but in so doing, he identifies himself with people — that is, people everywhere, not for the purpose of taking them apart, but simply revealing their true nature” — the Lampooners were satirists with a nastily witty edge; Alfred E. Neuman was a gentle, schmucky humorist. (The Harvard Lampoon has since become more Jewish, and tapped more of the campus’s women and minorities, as well.)

Yet for all its unexamined privilege, the Lampoon’s humor has the strong whiff of overcompensation, a refusal to acknowledge its creators’ former social underdog status. “We take the stance of the white, educated, upper-middle class,” O’Rourke said in 1978. “We are ruling class…our comic pose is superior. It says, ‘I’m better than you and I’m going to destroy you.’”

6. Falling Off a Cliff: Television, Movies, and Cocaine
coverAs the National Lampoon entrenched itself as the comedy world’s ruling class, its humor became more watered-down. (O’Rourke’s persona somehow doesn’t play as well in his TV appearances in 2013). A sequel to Lemmings brought Bill Murray and Ivan Reitman into the NL fold, and soon various writers and actors associated with NL — Belushi and Chase, and, as head writer and occasional actor, O’Donoghue — flocked to Lorne Michael’s new comedy variety show, Saturday Night Live. The Canadian producer was inspired by British satire, especially Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but worried that Americans responded better to character-based comedy. SNL steered clear of Python’s absurdist, postmodern devices — intertextuality, self-referentiality — and its esoteric allusions. The result was a show that, despite O’Donoghue’s helming it, was far more “Second City” than National Lampoon: Belushi became a star in a work environment that rewarded physicality and extroversion, and though the climate seemed ripe for political satire, the show’s parodies focused more on the media rather than leaders and institutions. When SNL did attack political figures, they sent up their quirks (Ford’s clumsiness, Clinton’s libido, Bush’s strategery), not their policies.

The recurring characters and reliance on catchphrases grated on O’Donoghue (not to mention Belushi and others). The former thought it mainstream and conservative, two decades late to the game. By the mid-’70s, even the Lampoon felt a bit obsolete, said contributor and illustrator Bruce McCall: “It had been a vessel into which the gifts and rage and experience of all those people was poured. It was molten at the beginning, and now it was finally played out.”

It didn’t help that, in 1975, Beard, Kenney, and Hoffman had accepted the lucrative buyouts for which they had shrewdly negotiated. The conservative O’Rourke took over in 1978, guiding the magazine rightward and back toward the Midwest. A few more parody publications — of an Ohio newspaper from the same town depicted in the Yearbook, and Not the New York Times — made waves, and their repercussions can be found in The Onion and any number of Internet-era takeoffs on Times trend pieces.

Kenney moved to Hollywood, as was his hedonistic destiny. He nursed a cocaine habit and revived the magazine’s reputation by cowriting National Lampoon’s Animal House, a hugely popular film that, once more, satirized militaristic conformity in the early ’60s. Though the Lampoon creators had a dim opinion of their own parties-and-panties pandering movie, there are several inspired moments that would have appealed to their younger, rule-breaking selves, such as when Belushi spies on undressing sorority girls and raises a fourth-wall-breaking eyebrow to the audience.

covercoverSNL’s popularity spiked thanks to Belushi’s role in the movie, and Animal House’s success spawned a number of increasingly middlebrow, albeit clever, comedies in the ’80s with Lampoon connections: The Blues Brothers, Caddyshack, and the “Vacation” movies, starring Chevy Chase in Reagan-era station-wagon fantasies of returning to, as usual, pre-Vietnam times (written by John Hughes, two were based on his personal essays “Vacation ’58” and “Christmas ’59”). If there had been a long-running debate in the ’70s between privileging quality or money, there was little question which side had won by the next decade.

The magazine’s circulation dwindled through the ’80s and published its last issue in 1998, but to most readers, it unofficially ended in 1980, when a vacationing Kenney was found dead at the base of Hawaiian cliff in an apparent suicide at age 32. His death was received by his peers with equal parts sadness and gallows humor; the best line was that Kenney “had slipped and fallen while looking for a place to commit suicide.” The NL ceded its satirical reign first, in the late ’80s, to Spy magazine, which derided the lifestyles of the rich and famous, and then, in the new millennium, to the media-oriented Onion and Gawker, the politicized Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, and finally to anyone with a Twitter account and a misspelled opinion. In the last two decades, the surviving brand has pumped out over thirty films, some given the NL imprimatur, many straight-to-DVD and with titles the original Lampooners would have heaved up only for parodic target practice (2007’s Homo Erectus, aka National Lampoon’s Stoned Age).

7. The Apotovian Era
There has also been a backlash against the NL’s detached affect. Later generations of prose humorists showed that vulnerability and sentiment could profitably commingle with irony and darkness. The typical McSweeney’s Internet Tendency piece splices in moments of naked emotion among its conceptual, literary jokes. The Onion’s humanity comes most alive when documenting the sad lives of loserish area men or in covering national tragedy (after the Newtown school shootings: “Fuck Everything, Nation Reports — Just Fuck It All To Hell”), and occasionally becomes downright mushy (their eulogy to Roger Ebert, “Roger Ebert Hails Human Existence as ‘A Triumph’”). Arch satirists have finally embraced the sensitive ’70s inner-male the Lampooners were frightened of becoming, part of a wider cultural shift in which the tech-savvy meek have inherited the app-driven earth. In Judd Apotow movies, at least, the funny (and Jewish) dork, far from worrying that he’ll get made fun of for his nebbishy weaknesses, now makes use of them to get the shiksa.

Despite or because of these developments, the National Lampoon remains as relevant to today’s young comic writers as it was to the preceding generation. Though the institution has become a caricature of its former self, with a WASPish superciliousness that now feels a bit dated, the National Lampoon’s targets — middle-class convention and inanity, conservative corruption, liberal hypocrisy — don’t feel obsolete, nor do its sentences from its glory days. And if it its jokes don’t land with the modern reader, well, making people laugh is the lowest form of humor.

As for me, back in 1999, I was justly rejected from the Harvard Lampoon after writing several mediocre humor pieces. I continued reading the magazine, though, and became friends with some Lampooners. It took a few years after college until I found my comedic footing and began contributing prose humor to different publications.

I recently visited the Harvard Lampoon’s website and read some of their current material. My favorite was “Paternity Test,” by Z.E. Wortman, which concludes with this paragraph: “The good news is you are the father. Wait, sorry. I was holding the test upside down. The baby is your father.”

There are many more of these I could share with you, and sentences from over a decade ago I could recite verbatim from the phonograph player of my memory, but suddenly I am run over by nostalgia.

is the author of the novels Loner, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, and Kapitoil. He writes the Future Tense column for The New York Times.