Splitsider

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

George Meyer's 'Army Man' and the Birth of 'The Simpsons'

If you follow the stories about the beginnings of The Simpsons, chances are you're heard of Army Man. But just as likely, chances are you haven't read it. Army Man exists mainly in lore, a rare, brilliant, short-lived moment of a magazine that, as one of the show's former producers called it, was "the father of The Simpsons."

Army Man was started by George Meyer in 1988. At the time, Meyer was a 32-year-old former writer for Letterman and SNL who had grown tired of New York and television and fled to Boulder, Colorado. He wrote the first issue mostly himself, with help from some college friends. He typed up, Xeroxed, and assembled the pages on his bed: two hundred copies, which he gave away. The mountain location and do-it-yourself production have become key details to the magazine's now legendary beginnings: Army Man was born of frustration and exile. Having worked on the Harvard Lampoon and the defunct National Lampoon, Meyer has said he was motivated in part by the lack of truly funny publications in circulation in the late 80s. He determined to fix it with a homemade zine.

The humble status of the project was acknowledged in a note: "Submissions Policy. Due to the tiny volume of mail we receive, we are able to acknowledge every submission with a heartfelt personal note, and occasionally even a gift." Of course this didn't last long. Meyer stopped publication after only three issues, once the volume of submissions had grown too large to handle, as he hated rejecting people.

Meanwhile, Army Man had become an underground hit, and photocopies began making their way through Hollywood. Sam Simon saw a copy and was so taken he offered Meyer a job on his upcoming show, an expansion of some shorts from The Tracy Ullman Show into its own animated series. Meyer didn't think the show had potential, and turned him down. Simon tried again, and this time he accepted. Many of Army Man's contributors came along, and these writers formed the core of the Simpsons' writing staff for its classic years. (As the New Yorker noted in a lengthy, definitive profile on George Meyer: "The Simpsons today probably shares more genetic material with Army Man than it does with those shorts [from the Tracy Ullman Show], or even with the earliest episodes on Fox.") Perhaps more impressive than listing the contributors that got hired for The Simpsons would be to list some of the contributors who weren't: Andy Borowitz. Andy Breckman. Roz Chast. Ian Frazier. Jack Handey. Bob Odenkirk.

Meyer, of course, became The Simpsons' "behind-the-scenes genius among geniuses," a ruler of the rewrite room who contributed more jokes to classic episodes than anyone else, a force that (to quote the New Yorker again) "so thoroughly shaped the program that by now the comedic sensibility of The Simpsons can be seen as mostly his." Ian Maxtone-Graham said, "I would rather make George Meyer laugh than get an Emmy." These words of unrestrained praise can be found in any profile or interview with Meyer (and there are many, all worth reading). His success and influence on The Simpsons has in turn transformed Army Man into a mystery, almost an object of worship, like some pined-after rare live Japanese bootleg double-length Radiohead CD that only initiates — we're way beyond talking about "fans" now — know how to truly appreciate.

Has it been built up too much? Meyer himself even seems to be taking a step back now when discussing Army Man's formative importance. In last year's great compilation of interviews with Mike Sacks, And Here's the Kicker, he tried to downplay Army Man, for what I think is the first time: "I'm embarrassed when people build it up as this monumental work of comedy. It was just a silly little escapade, never meant to be enshrined."

Mythmaking can be a problem, but with Army Man we have to rely on the myth, because the issues themselves are so hard to find. Hard, but not impossible. There are, if you're willing to look for them, enough snippets online to judge Army Man on its contents. It holds up.

The Believer reprinted Army Man #1 to accompany its September 2004 issue, and you can still purchase the back issue for a very reasonable price — worth it for the Army Man alone (the other contents are good too). Excerpts have popped up online here and there: a decent number can be found in a 2003 post on Maud Newton's blog. And if you don't mind squinting, there are lo-res scans available on some anonymous user's Picasa account. And wow, are they lo-res. The images don't zoom to any beneficial effect, and half the pages are cut off. If you can bear to read it, the missing words do lend some of the jokes the unintentional air of Zen haiku:

Likes Song
Barbara Bush's favorite countr
is "Don't Come Home From Drink
With Lovin' On Your Mind."

Or even more teasingly:

In The Next Issue:
Mother Teresa: The Nun You Love T

And what about the originals? They are impossible to find. The print runs never got much higher than a thousand copies, and the people who have them aren't giving them up soon. Those clipped, tiny Picasa images are themselves probably scans of a photocopy of a photocopy. Meyer did admit in his interview with Sacks, probably just to taunt us, "I still have lots of them in a storage locker. I should send them to a leper colony or something. They're not getting any funnier." (Or! he could give them to Splitsider readers!)

The first issue had five contributors (Breckman, Frazier, Handey, Meyer, and Mark O'Donnell). By the second issue that number had jumped to 30 (Ian Maxtone-Graham, John Swartzwelder, and Jon Vitti had joined the roster by then).

Army Man #1 included an early appearance of Deep Thoughts (which had previously appeared in college magazines and the National Lampoon). Three years before their first appearance on Saturday Night Live, they were already being called "Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey." Many of the Deep Thought contributions later reappear elsewhere and in compilations, but they are still gems: "Dad always thought laughter was the best medicine, which I guess is why several of us died of tuberculosis."

Besides Handey's Deep Thoughts, the issue contained a Frazier short story called "Child of War" ("I served in the Korean conflict at the age of three, and attended elementary school on the GI Bill."). Breckman, Frazier, and O'Donnell each contributed cartoons. Except for an absurd quote from scripture, the rest of the issue is unattributed, which could very well mean Meyer wrote it all himself.

Even now, it's easy to see how punk Army Man was. The homemade zine feel of Army Man's layouts help the jokes retain a spontaneous, almost improv quality you don't feel reading through back issues of a glossy like Spy magazine. (One of the Army Man #1's Deep Thoughts even found their way into Nirvana's I Hate Myself and Want to Die: "Many people don't realize that large pieces of coral, which have been painted brown and attached to the skull by common wood screws, can make a child look like a deer.") Meyer's brand of humor is often cited as dark, and it's easy to see how this D.I.Y. aesthetic and twisted P.O.V. matched so well with Matt Groening's Life in Hell comics and early Simpsons attempts, themselves famous for being crude and dashed off, and which appeared in the alternative press (back when there still was one). Army Man comics would feel at home with Life in Hell comics.

Even the name Army Man is perfect for what we imagine Meyer was trying to achieve: this was a fighting stance, a volley in the name of sincerity and individuality. It also makes me think of the term avant-garde, originally a term from military use. The avant-garde was the advanced guard of army men that would scout the enemy territory and make it safe for the troops to follow. This close nucleus of humor writers went from an experimental publication that resisted mainstream appeal to helming the longest-running sitcom in history and defining the comic sensibility of an entire generation. It's impressive.

Army Man did it right. It started strong and it died young. It came from nowhere and — I don't think this is an exaggeration — changed American comedy, without most of America even knowing it existed. There are only a few examples in the last century of small groups of artist friends coming together for a short while and then spreading out to change the world. The students at Columbia who later became the Beats would be one, the artists at Black Mountain College who later became the Abstract Expressionists would be another. Army Man should be part of that list.

Stephen Hoban is a writer living in New York.

Image via Flickr

  • Todd Sentz
  • http://www.twitter.com/becca_oneal Rebecca O'Neal

    This and Michael O'Donoghue's Planet of the Cheap Special Effects will probably elude comedy fans forever.

    You hit the nail on the head with the stuff about most of the allure being the creation myth surrounding Army Man (not that what I've seen of it isn't funny enough to merit the hype).

    The internet is great and a godsend for comedy fans everywhere, but Army Man could never exist today. The fact that anyone anywhere at any remote outpost can start a humor blog eliminates the possibility of lightning striking twice. There might be another George Meyer out there assembling a coterie of hilarious friends and their witticisms, but the volume, saturation, and easy distribution of material of wildly varying quality drowns out a lot of what I imagine is good stuff.

  • Steve Hoban

    I agree the internet makes something like this impossible. Maybe because it's so hard to stay isolated long enough? It's harder for there to be communities or scenes with their own distinct local voices when everyone's able to share everything right away.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Riley-Hamilton/5256424 Riley Hamilton

    This is the best week of content that any blog has ever done on the Internet.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Joe-Marshall/514248686 Joe Marshall

      agreed.