Splitsider

Tuesday, September 18th, 2012

The Invention of Nostalgia: Inside the National Lampoon's '1964 Kaleidoscope'

Who would win in a fight between Don Draper talking about how nostalgia is a “twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone” and Cheese saying “Ain’t no nostalgia to this shit here”?

I don’t know, but there is a book I love, and it’s the 1964 Kaleidoscope, the cover of which is an embossed kangaroo holding an oil lamp (or if you’re looking at it upside down and backwards, the cover is a cheerleader butt). Either way, let’s talk about it!

What this book actually is, is a thin-looking but superdense special edition of National Lampoon from 1974 parodying a high school year book from 1964, the bulk of which was written by Doug Kenney and P.J. O’Rourke. (Rick Meyerowitz in Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead additionally cites the “tireless brilliance” of art director David Kaestle, who also did most of the photography.)

According to Matty Simmons in his (unindexed!) If You Don’t Buy this Book, We’ll Kill This Dog, the April 1975 issue of Harper’s called it “the finest example of group writing since the King James bible” and I am here to tell you: You will die a thousand tiny deaths if you read it.

The book had had two earlier dry runs, which I think are interesting, so bear with me.

First, and most evidently, “Cat Calls”, a ten-page high school year book parody, appeared in the November 1970 “Nostalgia” issue of the Lampoon, celebrating the Ezra Taft Benson High School class of 1956.

The idea for “Cat Calls” came from Michael O’Donoghue’s files but was more or less gifted to Doug Kenney because the subject matter was so far up his alley it was in his wheelhouse. The content and the tone are close enough to an actual year book that it’s initially hard to think of it as unkind: there are cruddy line drawings of mascots and diplomas and cruddier photos of seniors and school clubs, but the cruddiness feels like a kind of affection.

The affection is not without an edge, though, especially in the damning by faint praise in the “Bye Bye Bobcats” spread, the class prophesies and the Autographs page, which in particular reads like excerpts for an Iona and Peter Opie collection that they never finished because it depressed them too much:

The second dry run was a failed novel. In July 1971, during an abrupt, unannounced leave from the Lampoon (and his marriage), during which time pretty much no one knew where he was, Doug Kenney briefly turned up in Los Angeles and began dabbling on a novel that he imagined would become his masterpiece: Teen Age Commies from Outer Space (abbreviated TACOS, and supposedly named after a sign above an LA restaurant).

Kenney ultimately spent a year in Martha’s Vineyard, away from actively working on the magazine he had helped create, focusing on TACOS and imagining himself as a successor to Evelyn Waugh. In Josh Karp’s book, A Futile and Stupid Gesture, Karp describes Kenney returning to the Lampoon offices in winter 1973 after his sabbatical and giving a copy of the manuscript to Henry Beard and Michael O’Donoghue and waiting for the verdict:

Sitting silently across from Henry, Doug said, “It sucks, doesn’t it?” Henry nodded. Doug tossed a year’s worth of work in the garbage, and it was never discussed again.

As far as I know, only one sentence survives, anecdotally: Lampoon publisher Matty Simmons, in his book that’s not indexed, recalls that O’Donoghue especially liked this line, describing a noisy room: “It sounded like a gunfight in a bell factory.”

With Kenney’s role at the magazine both diminished and in question, Simmons put him (along with P.J. O’Rourke) in charge of expanding “Cat Calls” into a full-length special edition. O’Rourke recalls thinking (again, from the Karp book), “The joke’s too thin. We can’t pad this up to the size of a whole yearbook.”

But! Now take TACOS back out of the mental file labeled Things I’ll Never Get to See and It’s Killllllling Me (with O’Donoghue’s Saturday Matinee and, I don’t know, Army Man, I guess), because as Beard later implied, the novel failed because a novel was the wrong format; the content was effectively reworked into the yearbook parody.

The washed out, inexpertly cropped photos from Cat Calls appear again here, but there are this many more of them: 99999999999999999999999, and some of them are perfect jokes. E.g., this is pretty much all that ever needs to be said about badminton:

And this is all you need to know about Esperanto:

(Actually, you also need to know that William Shatner was in an all-Esperanto movie called Incubus in 1966, BUT THAT IS ALL.)

My high school theatre textbook (shut up) listed one of the “Seven Causes of Laughter” as “Recognition”, but it turns out it is also one of the seven causes of “A Terrible Sinking Feeling”. Because 38 years before you learned the word “wahjah” the subtext that was beginning to harden in Cat Calls becomes an adamantium heartpunch in the 1964 Kaleidoscope.

The C. Estes Kefauver seniors shown at the beginning of the yearbook announce themselves and then become locked into their own inescapable high school archetypes, shorthanded by their nicknames: “Metal Mouth”, “Fridge”, “Quickie”; the sole African American student is described as “a credit to his homeroom”. And Emily May “Preggers” Praeger’s subtext, which is barely even subtext…

…is confirmed a few pages later when she is shown alone in a photo labeled “Cutest Couple”.

But the yearbook belongs to Lawrence Kroger (fun nickname: “Larry”). His plot – a love triangle between a girl called “Eggy” whose unrequited love for Larry, and Larry’s in-turn unrequited love for a girl beyond his reach (Tammy Ann Croup, or “Twinky”) – worms its way through the book.

Twinky signs her senior photo apologizing for the misunderstanding about prom (she really did think she had to wash her hair), but also signs it “Luv ya” which is something Larry will likely spend months trying to parse. The lovestruck Eggy signs Larry’s yearbook in a 200+ word mash note with underlining and multiple exclamation points. And everyone else’s signatures reference the whole thing.

Describing this as the “plot” of the book undersells it. There are a dozen plots in this book, almost all of them Man vs. Inevitability. All the seniors (and staff) reappear throughout and if you were to pick just one and map him or her through all their appearances in the book you could replace the Wikipedia entry for determinism.

And these are all conveyed in a handful of different media. In addition to the yearbook proper, the book also contains:

  • A basketball program, with a helpful diagram of Official Referee Signals

  • A deskful of confiscated Lawrence Kroger flotsam: a fake hallpass, a fake excuse notice from his mother, and a dead baby joke that may have cost him a promdate
  • Larry’s English final, report card, diploma and Permanent Record
  • Instructions for making a “Cootie Catcher”
  • A history book, The American Spectacle: 1492 to the Present, with inadvertent entendres noted

  • A “Sex Test” filled out by Twinky and pored over by Larry and his friend
  • The school newspaper, The Prism, which, fans of verisimilitude take note, is included on appropriate paper stock
  • The school literary magazine, The Leaf & Squib, which consists of contributions almost exclusively from the student editors of The Leaf & Squib

And in fact the Larry-Twinky-Eggy triangle culminates in an article in The Prism describing how a “printer’s error” in a drawing on page 10 of The Leaf and Squib, is resulting in it being pulled. This is followed by a copy of The Leaf and Squib, on page ten of which is Larry’s poem, “The Kiss (to T.A.C.)” and the offending illustration.

Maybe that’s not the sockdolager you were expecting, but from the characters’ perspectives, it is a disaster. In truth, a lot of this isn’t as much strictly funny as it is just distressingly recognizable. There are some specific-to-the-60s references (e.g., the “Cootie Catcher”, which my generation repurposed as “Fortune Tellers”, cooties having been eradicated by Jimmy Carter in 1979), but the Boomers took such care in passing down their folklore (not to say reliving it through us) that none of it is really that impenetrable (the way a site like imremembering.com might be to someone who isn’t aware of the specific referents). Plus: the narratives in the book are so firmly ingrained in our DNA that they approach monomyths.

And now here is some good news: unlike previous books I’ve talked about, this one was rereleased in 2004 and is in fairly plentiful supply. A downside is that the rerelease has an introduction that tells what every one is doing now – confusing if you’ve not read it yet, and not all that funny if you have. But just skip it! Or buy some whiteout.

In the Matty Simmons book that no one took the time to bother to index, Lampoon art director Michael Gross remembers Kenney talking about the yearbook and its impact: “We invented nostalgia. Everybody wanted to read about their high school, their college, their first sex, their pesky sister and their first zit. We brought it back to them.”

Patrick Mortensen lives in Chicago. More of his writing can be found here and on his hard drive where it quietly waits rejection from the Quality Lit Game.

  • NashFan

    Every page is brilliant, still have the one I purchased the week it came out, as I was getting ready to graduate from high school. Every time I hear P. J. O'Rourke try and wax smart on some talk show I think about the pictures of him in drag in there. Weirdly resonant with me as well as I share a name with Larry Kroger and drove the same car he did, a '64 Chevy Malibu.

  • http://twitter.com/Godsauce Cornbrolio

    I must get this book.

  • http://twitter.com/Jimmytheworm Jimmy Callaway

    Super good job, chief. Still wish TACOS was a thing. Also, if you ever get your hands on an Army Man, please scan it and e-mail it to me. Thanks.

  • peteykins

    LOVE the yearbook parody. Also, don't forget the NL Sunday Newspaper Parody, which picks up a lot of the characters' stories from the yearbook. Also a classic.

  • Magic

    The yearbook's "Larry Kroger" later appeared as the main character in National Lampoon's Animal House. I'm surprised you missed this.

    • http://twitter.com/MrBikferd Patrick Mortensen

      I'll send you my way-too-long first draft so you won't have to feel surprised anymore. (Also, the football coach is named Vernon Wormer; I'm surprised YOU missed THAT)

  • Spacious

    This thing is so deathless, my junior high school yearbook teacher referenced it as a textbook in "what not to do". Best sight gag: The Freshman Photo, um, page.

  • ron

    Great write up. This book deserves all the praise given by you and more, a comedy masterpiece. It couldn't be recreated today though, way too politically incorrect! Thank God it is still in publication.

  • Michael Gross

    when Doug and I were in Hollywood, sitting in a Warner Bros office, Doug introduced me as "the man who invented nostalgia"..referring to the above…Michael C Gross

  • Asterisk Averse

    I was in college when this came out. A friend gave this to my then-boyfriend, who was in the hospital recovering from an appendectomy. He performed the following ritual for days afterwards: He'd read it for 20 seconds, start to laugh, wince horribly, stick it in the drawer by the bed, and with gritted teeth and tears rolling down his cheeks, he'd make little wheezy noises for about 15 minutes. Then he'd get it out of the drawer again for the next dose.