A Reading List: The Best College Humor Publications
College humor magazines have been around for literally hundreds of years, with the oldest of these entertainment publications beginning in the late 1800s. For a long time they trafficked in fluffier fare such as innocent parodies, grandpa jokes like “Have you taken a bath?’ ‘No, why, is one missing?’” and other similarly nonsensical written gags that were funny and skillful, but still squarely on the lighter side of the humor spectrum. This shifted during the 1970s when many of these outfits began to satirize on-campus and off-campus events more heavily and inject a more cynical tone, or at least a heightened irreverence, that produced work worthy of the 1970s and early 1980’s circulation hey-day. However, from the long history provided by magazines that are over 100 years old, it is easy to see their popularity is cyclical.
In recent years, many old standards have experienced some resurgence in readership or at the very least received a facelift, and a few new gems have joined the game. These changes are due to a revitalization of energy and interest — possibly stemming from the saturation of acerbic satire in the media with humor sensations like The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and The Onion. The last of these started out as a college humor magazine founded by Tim Keck and Christopher Johnson at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Additionally, innovations in design software and the ease of web publishing have increased both what students at college humor magazines are capable of creating and who they are capable of reaching with those creations.
The oldest college humor magazine is The Yale Record, founded in 1872 and still published eight times a year. The Record was influential across comedy history, but especially in the area of cover art and cartoons, with Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau serving as Editor-in-Chief and many alumni drawing for Esquire and The New Yorker. Like most of the successful and active college humor magazines, The Yale Record also maintains a website. However, unlike most of the others, the website accepts submissions from the public at-large (not just Yale students) and has an area devoted to mentoring people trying to start their own humor magazine at their school.
The most famous college humor magazine is probably The Harvard Lampoon. It was founded a few short years after The Yale Record, in 1876, and it is so adept at humor that even the “satirical castle” housing the magazine’s headquarters is a joke — albeit an architectural inside joke by designer Edmund Wheelwright where a building looks like an ugly Prussian soldier (see above photo). The Harvard Lampoon was so successful that at its peak it spawned a national humor magazine called National Lampoon, which became a multimedia humor brand with films like Animal House (1978). Alumni from the undergraduate magazine have gone on to write for Saturday Night Live, Late Night with David Letterman, The Simpsons, Seinfeld, News Radio, The Office, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, and The League among many, many other comedy hits. You can read more about their impressive history, along with their three self-proclaimed “Golden Periods” at their website.
Three more college humor magazines that are literally older than crayons, cars and ice cream cones are: The Stanford Chaparral, The Pennsylvania Punch Bowl, and The Princeton Tiger. The Chaparral was founded in 1899 and still publishes six times a year, including the annual issue mocking the University newspaper (a favorite trick among many of these college humor magazines). The Chaparral has some funny recent alums including The Office staff writer Carrie Kemper whose informative chart “Urban Legends v. Rural Legends” can be read at their site. The Pennsylvania Punch Bowl was also founded in 1899 and it has some indescribable videos, as well as solid written content. The Princeton Tiger has a fantastic website, especially considering this publication is so old (founded in 1892) that it holds the earliest print appearance of both the “Not!” joke and the “Man from Nantucket” limerick. They would also want me to mention that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote for the Tiger — seriously, I am afraid not to mention this fact. I fear that not mentioning that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote for the Princeton Tiger, at least twice in this article would unleash the wrath of what would truly be — in the words of Tracy Jordan — “the scariest Princeton parents’ weekend ever.”
There are some great newer publications providing humor to colleges founded (or resurrected) in “only” the last 10-25 years. The most notable is The University of Texas at Austin’s The Texas Travesty founded in 1997. The paper produces six issues a year and maintains a website in the very popular “fake news” style with articles like “Iran Nuked Twice for Flinching”. The Hamilton Duel Observer is a weekly parody newspaper founded by Tom Keane ’03 and David Schwartz ’02 that is definitely worth a look. So is the University of Virginia’s Yellow Journal (founded in 1912 but its current incarnation was revived in just 2010) with articles like “Bank of America Can Suck Local Man’s Dick”. Also, UC Santa Cruz’s tri-weekly humor publication Fish Rap Live!, founded in 1985 and revived in 1990, is a great read with headlines like Danny Brook’s “Missing UCSC Student Found Undead”.
My favorite among these newer publications is probably The Brown Noser. It was founded in 2006. It is (yet another) fake news style website, but it knows what it’s doing with articles like Charlie Pfaff’s “Everyone in Chipotle Feels Vaguely Guilty for Some Reason”, Kelly Lougheed’s “Professor Frustrated by Student’s Comparison of World War I to Gossip Girl”, and Daniel Moraff’s “Welcome to Pain City, I’m the Mayor of Pain City and I’m Going to Hurt You”. The website is not as sophisticated and impressive as many others; it’s the execution of the writing in the articles that turns a simple funny headline into something more.
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There are many other good college humor magazines out there and still many more that were once great, now defunct. Seek out some of these older issues too, and you will not be disappointed. The writing is not only entertaining, but also gives a highly specific sense of the time in which it was created — humor is a pretty compelling filter for history. Some of the artwork is also masterful. This is part of the reason that the library at the University of Wisconsin-Madison showcased its special collection, The Dobbertin Collection of over 200 college humor magazines, in a 2008 exhibit called “The Art of the College Humor”. It’s always a treat to see the earliest work of some of the most famous minds in comedy history. A version of that reasoning is hopefully also applicable to the current publications mentioned in this article — take a look and become a fan of someone funny that might become Someone Funny.