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Wednesday, November 28th, 2012

Talking to National Lampoon Co-Founder Henry Beard About Humor Writing, the Lampoon and More

Henry Beard, one of the co-founders of The National Lampoon, is a prolific man. Over the course of forty years, Beard has written more than 35 humor books, including Zen for Cats, The Official Politically Correct Dictionary and Handbook (co-written with Christopher Cerf), and Latin for All Occasions. What’s especially interesting is that Beard remains one of the few comedy writers to only devote themselves entirely to print, with little or no interest in writing for other mediums, be it television or films.

Beard’s first parody book, Bored of the Rings, was published in 1969, when Beard (and co-writer Doug Kenney) had just graduated Harvard. The book remains in print to this day, having become something of a classic to any college stoner with a propensity for naming their pets after Middle-Earth creatures.

Beard has been described as, among other things, “enigmatic,” “reclusive,” and “odd.” He’s also been called a “genius” and “brilliant,” two descriptions difficult to argue with when taking a look at the high quality of his output over the last four decades. Beard is not known for giving many interviews, eschewing the chance to talk about himself or his years at the National Lampoon. Thankfully, he’s made an exception for this interview.

Encyclopedia Paranoiaca is Beard’s latest release, co-written again with Christopher Cerf. Digging deep into the world of delusionary thinking, Beard and Cerf have assembled a tome of hundreds of harmful, deadly products, at least according to the self-styled experts who may or may not know better. Take the dangers of perfume, according to Scottsdale, Arizona immunologist Dr. Doris Rapp: “One giant whiff of a perfume spray can create a medical emergency and cause some, who are very sensitive, to collapse or be unable to stand and walk.” Sounds like fun. (It’s important to note that Beard and Cerf only cite real dangers and real experts. And there are 50 pages of footnotes to prove as much.)

It’s a dangerous world, and a bit idiotic, and Beard and Cerf provide us with more than enough evidence to keep us safe—or depressed. Beard spoke to me by phone from his home on Long Island.

Encyclopedia Paranoiaca is an addictive book to read, in that it encourages the reader to go from one entry to another, not necessarily in order, which will then send the reader to another entry and yet another. It could go on forever.

That’s exactly what it felt like to write. Once you allow yourself to sort of be booted around the Internet in a kind of facetious way, it really does become addictive. This other universe that exists out there is so rich and strange. You just can’t exhaust it.

If you hear that Brussel sprouts are bad for you, you go to Wikipedia and you start finding out all this crap. You can find more websites of semi-insane people who really care deeply about much weirder things than you could ever imagine. Our rule was as long as somebody had a website and a semblance of credibility we would cite them. So it was hard to stop. We kept extending the deadline because it was a great game to play. The publisher finally said, “No, come on, that’s it, you’ve got to get this thing out.”

Who was the lucky fella to fact-check and copy-edit this book? The details, the minutiae is incredible. The notes section alone runs over 50 pages.

The real master of this is Chris Cerf. I have to tell you that Chris is so meticulous that by the time we delivered the manuscript, I don’t think there were more than maybe a couple dozen pages of inquiries. Everything is true. To be able to say, “Honest to God, there is somebody who thinks that the Fukushima nuclear disaster was the result of high altitude atmospheric research project gone awry that was run by British Petroleum and the Central Intelligence Agency,” you really need to quote that person. You’ve really got to get to that person.

It’s a book that’s a lot more fun to leaf through that than to scroll through on Wikipedia. We did that work for you. You can look through this stupid thing. Even though we strongly advise against it, it is the perfect bathroom book.

One of the things I love about your career is that it’s strictly geared to humor for print, which almost seems like a lost art. Most comedy writers now only seem interested in print if it somehow leads to a TV or movie career. 

My generation came along when there was a huge changeover. I graduated from Harvard in 1967. When people graduated from the Harvard Lampoon, they went to law school, they became architects, a few of them went on to medical school, or they went to work on Wall Street. If you were a writer, and there weren’t many, you mostly wrote for print, not Hollywood. Most clung, of course, to The New Yorker, Playboy, and books. Within ten years of my graduation, however, all the writers headed west, to write for comedy television shows.

The real beginning was Doug Kenney [who graduated in 1968]. Doug was a naturally funny writer of print. In retrospect, and I didn’t realize it at the time, he was also a gifted writer of movie comedy. Doug just had a great, natural comic instinct, which could be applied to anything. When he got the opportunity to do Animal House [in the mid-’70s] it was clear that that was what he was really meant to do.

You didn’t realize Doug’s talent for screenwriting at the time? I find that surprising. His reputation now is as one of the all-time great comedy writers.

Because we worked so hard on the Harvard Lampoon, and later National Lampoon, we weren’t thinking about doing movies. The deadlines for the magazine were brutal. Months come every seven days. It was just unbelievable. I remember one time, the very cool-headed publisher of National Lampoon took me into his office and said, “Henry, I just want to explain something to you right now. There is a freight train that’s on its way to a printing plant in the middle of this country, and on the back of it are these ten flat cars and they have these huge rolls of paper, okay? And then at the plant they’ve got these enormous drums of ink, and they’re missing something. They’re missing the next issue of this magazine. Can you help us out?” I said “We’ll do what we can.” So it was just brutal, and Doug was really focused on putting out a magazine each month.

You know, maybe even he wasn’t aware that he could write screenplays.

The National Lampoon’s style of humor was very dense, and not wedded to one cookie-cutter premise. There were many different types of genres that were parodied, from comic books, to game instructions, to yearbooks, to magazines. It must have been an exhausting publication to put out month after month.

Absolutely, and going back to Doug, he had a great gift for the visual. He was the one who more than anyone said: “Listen, the material in the magazine can’t just be words on a page. We should do absolutely strict and accurate parodies.” He completely and instinctively knew that this was a great opportunity to do funny work. It was just in his blood. Once we all caught on to how it was being done, it became very clear that this was the direction to take.

In the very early issues of National Lampoon, the art direction appeared looser. It wasn’t necessarily very accurate to what it was parodying. 

It was clumsy in the beginning. Until [art director] Michael Gross came in around the sixth or seventh issue, it was not working. To his great credit, Michael called up our publisher, even before he was hired, and he said, “You know, this is a funny magazine, but it looks like crap. I’m an art director. Hire me. I’ll fix it.” And we did, and he did. He saved us, really. Total accuracy for what was being parodied. It was easy to confuse the real and our version.

This very talented comedian named Ed Bluestone came to the office in 1972 with the line, “If you don’t buy this magazine, we’ll kill this dog.” The next day Michael found a dog who would turn its eyes away from a pistol, with a little prodding. I saw this picture and simply couldn’t believe it. And it was like with a wave of his left hand. Magic. So that’s the type of thing that made all the success possible.

Do you think the magazine could work today as well as it did in its prime, when it had over a million readers? So much of this type of humor depends on the audience’s knowledge of what’s being parodied, and a lot of the print formats you dealt with aren’t as popular as they used to be.

That’s absolutely the right, it was a moment of shared experience. With the visualization of a lot of print and the introduction of television after World War II — and this was for my generation — you had this attic stuffed with shared experience and memories. Everybody had read the Saturday Evening Post, everybody had read the stupid comic books, and we connected. It was just an entire world of visual references, and we ran through them at the speed of light. The amount of material we consumed in a few years at National Lampoon was shocking. We just used it up.

Most of the humor in National Lampoon — and it’s now 40 years old — remains fresh. This even includes material that, in lesser hands, would feel very dated, such as Watergate or the Vietnam War. 

It’s very lasting. It was very difficult to produce, but I do think most of it has lasted. Some of those parodies I can still look back at and laugh out loud. I re-read the 1964 High School Yearbook parody recently. That was unbelievable; I mean, just great.

A lot of comedy fans feel that the 1964 Yearbook, published in 1973 and edited by Doug Kenney and P.J. O’Rourke, invented nostalgia. At least a certain type of nostalgia — looking back, but with the knowledge of what we know now.

I wouldn’t argue with that. Well, I’m not sure we invented nostalgia. We did package it well and gave it momentum. But as a symbol of it, yes. The format of a high school yearbook is the one complete true universal, at least in this country. That’s gone. I mean, are we going to now have people sharing their first experience via Twitter? No. So everybody lived through high school. And the high school yearbook was the distillation of this experience.

This a very specific type of nostalgia. When you have references to high school girls visiting Puerto Rico, really a euphemism for leaving the country to obtain an abortion, that’s a different type of nostalgia than looking back fondly on concerts held in the town square, playing oompah music. 

Right, it’s completely different. There’s a depth to the nostalgia, or a width or a breadth, or whatever geometrical metric you want to use. I think that partly had to do with us growing up in a time, the ’60s, when it was unbelievably straight-laced and tight-assed. Things started to loosen up a bit after Kennedy’s election, but the first time I ever heard of anybody using drugs was in 1965. It was marijuana. I remember someone saying, “My God, if they ever catch that guy, he’s going to federal prison for life!” Can you imagine? Two years later, you couldn’t walk through Harvard Square without getting a contact high. It just all fell apart. So the National Lampoon’s timing in that sense couldn’t have been better. We got a chance to draw on this shared, weird background of the boomers at a time when everything was coming loose. I think the National Lampoon was the first printed magazine that published every single four-letter word.

I remember early on the publisher telling us, “I’ve got some bad news. I got a call from the printing plant. They won’t print a particular cartoon.” I think the punch line was, “Oh well, go fuck yourself,” or something like that. Within six months, though, they were printing everything. They just gave up.

This was before even Playboy began publishing four-letter words.

Absolutely. To their credit, Playboy was more careful, because they were smart. They were printing bad pictures and they didn’t want to get involved with bad words. Hefner wanted a clean-dirty magazine. We were very content to have a dirty-dirty magazine. Hefner was a very smart man. When I was on the Harvard Lampoon, we wanted to do a Playboy parody. We cold-called Hefner to ask his permission. His secretary said, “Just a minute.” Hefner comes on the phone practically immediately. Not only does he say he’d love to have it parodied, but he says, “I’ll arrange for you to use my printing plant. I will tell them that you’re solid citizens. And all you guys have to do is make sure you get signatures from some of your rich graduates on the bill to make sure we don’t get stiffed.” I think we printed 635,000 copies and we sold them in 11 days.

That was really the beginning of me thinking, My God, I don’t have to go to law school.

That the first inclination that there was something big out there?

That was the first really big one. We realized that not only could we do something that was going to be on newsstands all across the country, not just on the east coast, but we realized that certain production values could be achieved, which was a necessity for accurate parody.

Can you tell me how Bored of the Rings came about?

That was Doug and me. After we had done the Playboy parody, we got too ambitious and we did a Life parody. Which is very beautiful and amazing, but it had a few problems. The first was, Life magazine was huge. Physically huge. The volume of paper we needed was staggering. The cost of printing it was huge. We lost a little money. Not a lot, but it was an embarrassment. So I convinced Doug, who had not read Lord of the Rings, and who had correctly thought it was kind of a stupid thing, that we should write a parody of it. He wrote about 85% of it. I remember sitting across from Doug at a desk in the fraternity we were both in. He wrote as fast as you could type. He wrote 35 or 40 words per minute. And it was hysterical. I mean, it was just unbelievable. That was Doug, that was pure Doug.

We were able to sell it to Ballantine, the publisher that originally put out the paperback edition of the Lord of the Rings. And again being careful, we sent a letter to J. R. R. Tolkien saying, We’re thinking of parodying your books. What do you think?” And he sent back this sweet, very quirky letter that said, “Well, I don’t really know why you’d want to bother, but if you’re silly enough to want to do it then that’s just okay with me. Go ahead.”

The head of Ballantine, Ian Ballantine, basically picked up the manuscript with a pair of fireplace tongs. It was noxious to him. He wasn’t thrilled about it. Meanwhile, over the years, that book has helped support the Harvard Lampoon. Simon & Schuster will be publishing yet another edition this fall.

It must be strange to talk about some of your college classmates who later become such comedic icons. Is it all surreal? 

Totally surreal. Everything seems completely accidental. It’s that philosophy that if you cross 6th Avenue at 42nd Street instead of at 43rd Street, you’ll end up alive instead of being hit by a car. I mean, it was all so completely, unbelievably accidental. I went to Harvard. My father went to Yale in the class of 1913. I went to Harvard to piss off my father. It was youthful rebellion. That was the only reason. If I had gone to Yale, none of this would have happened. No way. I have no idea where I would have ended up. All so trivial.

You hate to admit it, but it’s all luck. It’s just really all luck. And that’s why it always frustrates me, as a lifelong Democrat, when I hear the Republicans talking about hard work. “It’s all hard work.” Well, yes, it is always hard work but there are a lot of people who work very hard and are unlucky and they get screwed.

The people who started the National Lampoon were very fortunate. We came along at a very particular time. All the restraints were coming loose, it was probably one of the last times when you could start a monthly magazine. When we first went out, we were one of the first magazines of its kind to have a 75-cent cover price. That was considered a wild, wild gamble. Who would pay 75 cents for such a thing? Well, of course it made it possible for us to exist. For a long time we couldn’t get advertising. The advertisers would say, “I’m not going to advertise in that disgusting magazine.” But that soon changed. At 295,000 it was disgusting. At 305,000 it was an important audience that needed to be reached on its own terms.

Many of the writers you worked with, including Doug Kenney, Michael O’Donoghue, Sean Kelly, Bruce McCall, have fantastic reputations as comic writers. But some had quite difficult personalities, right?

Some of the most gifted people I ever ran into were among the craziest and most difficult people I’ve ever dealt with. Sean Kelly and Bruce McCall were very sane and totally professional. But you do not get to pick and choose. The number of crazy people one had to tolerate at the National Lampoon was just amazing. And on top of everything else, you’re trying to get this stupid magazine out and there are people throwing these tantrums and going nuts over nothing. It was exhausting. I was doing 80, 90, 100 hour weeks for over 5 years.

Do you ever wonder if future generations will have either the interest or the talent to concentrate solely on humor for print?

Print is a totally different beast. It requires, without patting myself on the back too hard, some discipline. I’m not saying you can get away with murder. Television comedy is very tight, very carefully written and rewritten and rewritten and rewritten and rewritten. But it’s not quite the same. And you know you’ve got the backup, you’ve got funny people to make faces when a line doesn’t work. It’s different. I suppose some writers will still keep writing humor for print, but it doesn’t seem quite as natural as when I was coming along.

And to be fair to comedy writers just starting out, there really isn’t much money in it. 

No, there isn’t. There never really was, but there’s a whole lot less now. It’s just not a viable thing. It’s just so difficult to write humor for print. I tried to figure this out recently. When I was at the National Lampoon, I think I wrote a million words. God help me, most of them were supposed to be funny. I can’t imagine anyone doing that again. I can’t imagine myself doing it again. Send the guys in the white jackets and nets. Looking back, you just can’t believe it.

Over the years, there’s been much discussion about the 1980 death of Doug Kenney at the age of 33, while he was vacationing in Hawaii. According to some, he jumped off a cliff. According to others, he slipped. What do you think happened?

I don’t know. Honestly, I just don’t know. I think it’s possible that he killed himself. The whole thing is so murky. Doug had his ups and downs, there’s no question about it. I guess it comes with the territory. Years before, Doug had gone to visit friends in the Caribbean, and he was caught with marijuana in his luggage. It wasn’t very serious. He knew people who had good political connections and he got off. But he would never travel with drugs again. So I think he was out in Hawaii and he may have tried to score some drugs. This might have been a drug deal gone bad, and he might have been killed. But I honestly don’t know.

You’ve been leery over the years to talk about your National Lampoon days. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you interviewed for any of the numerous biographies of the magazine — and there have been many.

Well, it’s not any sort of hidden agenda. It just gets exhausting. A couple of years after I left [in 1975], I remember giving an interview to Robert Sam Anson for Esquire, who misquoted me, and some of those misquotes hurt a few people. I swore to myself for a long time thereafter that I would never speak of it again to anybody. I felt I couldn’t trust them. But now I’ve kind of mellowed.

Did you ever have any regrets on leaving the Lampoon after only a little more than five years?

No, it probably saved my life. I had a college friend who was a psychiatrist who told me, “If you hadn’t gotten out of there we were going to come and get you. You know, there’s no way you would have lasted much longer.” Selfishly, I don’t feel any particular guilt. I had the best of it. By the time we got Nixon out and things were sort of cruising along, we’d kind of done it. And the really great gifted people began to leave. Even though he could be really difficult, O'Donoghue was an extraordinary talent, but he had gone on to Saturday Night Live. I knew we couldn’t compete with SNL. And Doug had moved on to Hollywood and was not coming back. There were not a lot of other people of that same caliber. And it was becoming a bit more of an uphill fight and a little bit more of a routine. I just got burned out. You can only do something at that level for so long.

So, what advice would you have for a young humor writer? Or a wannabe? Or someone even wanting to improve their lot in comedy writing?

The only advice is you just have to do it. I think you just have to start writing early. I think one of the other things is to just go to Hollywood or to go work for Saturday Night Live. But the thing with those jobs, while often remunerative, they’re also all-consuming. I don’t think there are a lot of people who write television comedy, or for movies, who are writing books on the side — unless you get to the point where you’ve made your bundle and you can just write anything. But, at that point, you don’t, do you?

Maybe it was always this way for the comedy writer. S. J. Perelman was always complaining he never had two nickels to rub together. He never seemed to have enough money. Robert Benchley did well out in Hollywood but it killed him; he was just never happy there. So, I don’t know. The Onion is doing very well. Thing happen, things change. It’s not the same as what I went through; it’s just different. I’m just grateful that I had a shot.

Mike Sacks is on the editorial staff of Vanity Fair, and is the author of three books. His latest book, Poking a Dead Frog: More Conversations with Humor Writers, will be released by Viking/Penguin in 2014.

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  • http://sorryyourheinous.tumblr.com syh

    This was fantastic.

  • Michael Gross

    Wonderful that he did this, and proud to have been included…kudos. Michael C Gross

  • Jeffrey Goodman

    Thank you for getting Mr. Beard to discuss National Lampoon. Wish one of his future books would be a memoir of his days at HL and NL…I know many people who would buy a copy!