Big and Glossy and Wonderful: The Birth of the ‘National Lampoon’ Magazine
The first issue of the National Lampoon appeared in April 1970 and sold fewer than half of the five hundred thousand copies printed. Some readers may have thought they were buying yet another Harvard Lampoon magazine parody, understandably confused by a cover that was a variation on their recent Time parody; a dimly lit model in revealing costume posed against a muddy brown background with the caption “Sexy Cover Issue.” Less predictably, next to the model was a grinning cartoon duck — a Doug Kenney idea. “Henry would say, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to do an interview with [legendary New Yorker humorist] S. J. Perelman,’ and Doug would say, ‘We gotta get a duck for a mascot.’ Doug would go on and on about jokes with this duck and more naked girls,” said Michael Frith, who was a little disturbed by the less mature aspects of Kenney’s omnivorous cultural appetite. Kenney got his duck and with it the art directors he wanted to be in charge of the magazine’s visual aspects — a victory he would later regret.
The look of the new magazine had been a source of strife. Keeping newsstand appeal in mind, Simmons wanted the national version to be slick like Cheetah, but his editors had other ideas. “Doug and Henry, mostly Doug, had this idea the magazine would be rough, in an underground vein,” Rick Meyerowitz recalled. Glossy was just not cool.
By the time the National Lampoon started, there were some three hundred underground newspapers in the United States. With an advertising base resting precariously on the counterculture trinity of sex (escort services and massage parlors), drugs (head shops, mail-order bongs, etc.), and rock ’n’ roll (local music venues and record stores), many of the underground papers operated on smaller budgets than even the early ’60s Harvard Lampoon. Their appearance reflected this lack of resources, but these funky production values were seen by readers as a testament to the integrity of the editorial content. As well, low overhead meant low or nonexistent cover prices. Salaries, too, were low or nonexistent, and this led to constant staff turnover, resulting in contributors with widely varying degrees of ability.
Several of the undergrounds ran cartoon strips created by graphic artists who had been warped by the same influences as the Lampoon editors: Kurtzman’s Mad and the fresh-from-the-crypt horror of EC Comics. Beginning in 1967, when the raunchy Zap No. 1 emerged from the pen of Robert Crumb — the artist most associated in the public mind with underground comics (or “comix” as they were sometimes called by the kind of people who spelled America with a k) — these predecessors of the graphic novel had filtered out into the world through head shops and progressive bookstores.
Despite their remoteness from the Harvard side of the Lampoon, “the undergrounders were by no means looked down on,” according to Weidman. “Everyone I knew thought R. Crumb was wonderful,” he said. “Shelton [Gilbert Shelton, creator of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, a sort of dopester Three Stooges] was also highly appreciated.” The Lampoon and the underground comics had much in common: an anarchistic viewpoint that made them willing to deride conservatives and self-righteous liberals alike; a love/hate relationship with anything covered by the label “bourgeois” (not least themselves); an interest in experimenting with format; and, above all, a delight in puncturing hypocrisy.
But Frith (whose shelves, he said, “once groaned with the East Village Other,” the underground paper serving greater Lower Manhattan) felt that “most of those Lampoon guys were yuppie conservatives playing at being counterculture.” If so, they may have seen the comics as communiqués from the genuine underground. “What Doug really liked was to hang out with the real counterculture ’70s beatnik types,” said an East Village Other writer. “People who were really avant-garde, who weren’t in it for the money.”
Back in late 1969, having just moved to New York, Kenney had come across the genuine underground cartoonists Peter Bramley and Bill Skurski, whose Cloud Studios was based in an East Village storefront. Although he also created magazine illustrations and book covers, cartoons were Bramley’s true love. “Bramley lived and breathed cartoons. He drew cartoons all night and would always bring the conversation back to cartoons. Actually, he was a pretty one-dimensional guy,” said Meyerowitz.
Appointed as the Lampoon’s first art directors thanks to Kenney, Cloud insisted on illustrating everything themselves, but when it came to administration, they knew less about standard art-directing practice than Beard and Kenney knew about professional magazine editing. It was learn while you earn for all concerned, and it showed. “The first issue was just ugly,” Frith declared.
On the editorial side, things weren’t so much ugly as out of focus. “The first six issues were kind of fumbling around,” Weidman admitted. In these early days, the magazine sought to hire writers from the ranks of established humorists and cartoonists who would lend credibility to the Lampoon, but these outsiders’ approach tended to be too genial. Hard-pressed to find writers with a suitably aggressive style, the editors instead drew on their own resources. A large proportion of the first issues were written by Kenney and Beard, though this was not always apparent. Once a writer exceeded a two-articles-per-issue quota, anything more had to run under a pen name. Michael O’Donoghue, a.k.a. Commander Barkfeather, was another workhorse, while vivacious Tamara Gould, one of the Lampoon’s few regular women writers, was in fact Trow.
Trow, the only NatLamp writer with a real flair for gossip, was able to pick up Vogue’s breathless style. “People are talking about . . . crime, petite crime, street crime,” wrote Tamara. She also contributed True Finance to the May 1970 Greed issue (each issue was built around a theme). “In a trice, my glamour issue lay on the floor around my feet and my tiny little cotton futures were all that stood between my domestic auto sales and his hard-core unemployment,” panted Tamara.
In a subsequent (October 1970) Politics issue, Beard did for legislative procedure what Trow had done for finance. “With a sudden motion, he attached his riders to my omnibus bills and I felt a groundswell building up for ratification as his enormous package approached enactment in record time. ‘I’ve got a quorum, I’ve got a quorum,’ he suddenly cried and my lower chamber filled up with his supporters,” Beard wrote in the steamy True Politics.
The first issue also contained Kenney’s most successful assumption of a female persona. Modeled on the ongoing Private Eye feature Mrs. Wilson’s Diary, which purported to be the intimate musings of the wife of the British prime minister, Kenney’s Mrs. Agnew’s Diary chronicled life in the shark tank of the Nixon inner circle through the ingenuous eyes of Judy Agnew, wife of saurian vice president Spiro “Spiggy” (a name borrowed from “Spiggy Topes,” Private Eye’s John Lennon stand-in) Agnew.
Judy might have come across as merely an easily mocked bouffanted ditz, but behind the faux-naif voice was Kenney’s genuine affinity for naive characters, and he endowed Judy with an inner life that made her sympathetic as well as ridiculous.
For example, after hearing a talk by “that Gloria Steinem girl,” Judy develops a strange urge to express herself and by January 1971 she’s stealing from the grocery money (“you know how Spiggy feels about a woman getting too much education, and where her place is anyway”) to attend the Famous Writers School, an actual correspondence course whose titular head was Bennett Cerf. B. Cerf’s death in 1971 provided an ongoing source of jokes about Judy’s unawareness of this fact, jokes that Kenney was not about to forgo out of consideration for his contributing editor C. Cerf.
Soon Judy is receiving comments from “that nice Mr. Cerf” on poetic efforts such as this May 1971 tribute to President Nixon’s daughter Julie:
Hail and welcome keen-eyed Julie!
Nymph of charm and temper scalding
Our troubled youth adores you truly
Though cares of state have left you balding.
Jokes about Julie’s husband, David Eisenhower, grandson of the previous Republican president (“O spawn of saintly Eisenhower” in Judy’s words), were a staple of the early Lampoon. He turns up again in a February 1974 Kenney parody of the then-popular romance-oriented comic books aimed at young girls (only instead of being called First Love, this one is aimed at young boys and so called First Lay) and in White House Romance, another Kenney love comic, which suggested that the marriage of the Republican dynastic offspring remained unconsummated. The Lampoon writers struck Beatts as “the kind of kids who had Ant Farms when they were younger,” and the gawky Eisenhower may have been such an irresistible target not only because of his Republican connections but because he evoked the editors’ road not taken—the privileged white boy who had not gotten hip and did not question authority.
The anxieties of sexually inexperienced adolescents still caught in pre–sexual revolution morality became Kenney’s special purview, notably in First Blowjob, another tale of lost innocence. Perfectly capturing the style of magazines aimed at preteen girls in those more sheltered days (“Blotting her cherry-frost lipstick on a tissue and giving her pert, blonde curls one last flick with her brush, Connie sighed and stepped back from the mirror for final inspection”), this is a date story with a twist as dreamboat Jeff Madison, “co-captain of the Varsity Football Team, chairman of the Student Senate and Hi-Tri-Y activities coordinator,” turns out to be a raging psychopath who forces Connie to perform the title’s sexual act, ties her wrists and ankles to the steering wheel, and lashes out “viciously at her unprotected body with a snapped-off car aerial,” something he’s been wanting to try ever since he “first heard Negro music.”
Unlike many subsequent Lampoon writers, Kenney identifies with the vulnerable, and his humor is black instead of vicious, arising out of how the world hurts the innocent rather than mocking innocence itself. When Connie returns home, “her half-naked body crisscrossed with red welts,” her kindly but firm dad punches her out. Connie’s experience was the inevitable outcome of playing with fire, or so proclaims future first lady Nancy Reagan in her July 1971 Guide to Dating Dos and Don’ts, another demonstration of Kenney’s affinity for Republican political wives. “Dating is like dynamite,” she warned. “Used wisely, it can move mountains and change the course of mighty rivers. Used foolishly, it can blow your legs off.”
While sensitive to the slightest wrinkle in the weave of the social fabric, “Doug didn’t really grasp politics,” as O’Donoghue said. Yet the events leading up to the magazine’s launch were such as to politicize even the uninvolved. In the 1969–1970 school year, there had been nearly two hundred bombings on college campuses, mostly targeting ROTC and defense industry–related buildings. Then in a horrific and grimly ridiculous incident in March 1970, three members of radical group the Weathermen blew up both themselves and an elegant Greenwich Village town house that belonged to a member’s parents where they were constructing a homemade bomb. Some homemade arsenals proved more effective. In December 1969, a Bank of America branch was bombed in the days following the conviction of five Chicago Albatrosses.
The increased militancy flowed in large part from the perception in more radical circles that the current administration was prepared to disregard peaceful antiwar protests, no matter how widespread. Indeed, it decided to expand the war and in April 1970, American troops crossed the border into Cambodia. Even Kenney was moved to write an editorial in July 1970 on the “liberation of a somewhat surprised and bewildered Cambodia,” suggesting it would soon enjoy the same benefits as South Vietnam, which, “once an underdeveloped Asian sump full of mosquitoes, overcooked rice and foreigners has blossomed under our tutelage into a veritable Eden of rusted tanks, Coca-Cola bottles and highly decorative half-breeds.”
The war at home was escalating as well. On May 4, members of the Ohio National Guard, faced with a group of Kent State University students hurling barbed words and the occasional stone, fired into the crowd, wounding nine and killing four. In the wake of Kent State, 437 schools went on strike and over seventy-five thousand people marched on Washington. And yet the father of one of the dead students received letters calling his daughter a “communist whore” and a poll in the May 18 issue of Newsweek showed that 58 percent of respondents blamed protestors for the deaths at Kent State. A week later, two more students were killed at Jackson State, a predominately black university in Mississippi, an event that drew less media attention.
When the small group of writers met between the Labor Day 1969 move to New York and the April 1970 launch to discuss what the new magazine should be, they were not opposed or even indifferent to the protestors’ aims, but they were uncomfortable with the overheated rhetoric often used to express those aims. As Beatts said, “Conditions were so bad as to be absurd, so the only intelligent reaction was black humor.”
Right from the start, the Lampoon approached efforts to change the existing power structure with a degree of fatalism. This arose less from allegiance to it than from the knowledge that it was too entrenched to dislodge. As the children of privilege, the Lampooners knew “what the men in power were thinking and . . . what their strengths and weaknesses were, and also that they had virtues and were not easily to be dismissed,” as Trow observed.
The Mafia, for example, was not seen as the enemy of the established order but as its dark twin. “The recent change in Administration brought with it a long-awaited reduction in Federal interference and destructive over-regulation and the welcome removal of several shortsighted and overzealous officials whose hostility toward free enterprise has been so harmful in the past,” wrote one Nicholas Fish (a.k.a. Beard), author of the CosNosCo Annual Report in the May 1970 Greed issue.
In 1970, there was no shortage of publications ready to attack the Establishment. What distinguished the Lampoon was its lack of faith in a viable alternative. The politics of the editors themselves ran the gamut from noncombatants like Kenney to gonzo anarchists like O’Donoghue to more traditional liberal Democrats like Cerf and Weidman to Terry Catchpole, a self-professed Libertarian right-winger (despite being a Harvard alum), a frequent freelance contributor until 1973. According to Sean Kelly (a self-professed anarchist who became a frequent contributor in 1971), Beard also described himself as a Libertarian, although another genuinely right-wing Lampoon editor dismissed him as “just a New York Times liberal.”
In Catchpole’s view, “one of the Lampoon’s greatest accomplishments was that you never had to define yourself in any terms other than your capacity to be funny,” and the writers were at their best when going after what they held most dear. Thus the liberal Weidman could take swipes at the welfare bureaucracy while Catchpole could go after the idea of peace through strength. He contributed a remarkably prescient piece along these lines in the May 1971 issue (with the appropriate theme of the Future) called “But You Hadn’t Heard of Vietnam in 1957,” describing the situation in the imaginary “oil-rich sheikdom” of Abaqa on the Persian Gulf, under increasing pressure from Arab militants to sever its Western ties. “It’s no longer a question of what we’re going to give them, or how much,” says a Defense Department spokesman, “only when and how.”
“There’s a perception that the National Lampoon was left-wing, hippie, liberal,” said Ed Bluestone, a stand-up comedian who started freelancing for the magazine in 1971, “but we had real right-wing followers.” Although the Lampoon editors shared some conservatives’ dim view of human nature, finding it unlikely that people would work as hard out of concern for the common good as when driven by the carrot of greed and the stick of fear, they also rejected the right wing’s authoritarian tendencies. At the same time, the refusal of many self-styled radicals to recognize the shallowness of their commitment to change when it came down to personal sacrifice continued to provide an irresistible target. Worse, militancy of any stripe precluded insubordination and the Lampooners did not take to being given orders by the politically correct any more than they did from the ROTC.
“It says here you are starting a funny magazine,” read a letter from an irate imaginary reader in the April 1970 premiere issue. “All I can say is you people have a lot of nerve. Haven’t you looked outside your own selfish egos long enough to see that people are being wronged and oppressed all over the world? Take the fascist military regimes which grow in number every year . . . and you, with your funny magazine.”
The editors were not refusing to look outside; they just had a different take on what they saw. “What was going on had a great effect,” O’Donoghue said. “Society was depicted in black and white,” white being “the hippies, the pure idealists who would put the flower in the barrel of the gun,” and black, of course, being “the power brokers, Dow Chemical, the pigs. We could stand in the center with the sniperscope and take turns blowing the shit out of them. ‘Kill them all. God will know his own,’ ” was O’Donoghue’s motto, borrowed from the Green Berets. “It was a very easy game to play,” he said, “because they were so sharply defined. Then in the mid-70s, the smoke cleared and we found it was a silly conceit we’d made up. There were these two schools, but essentially everybody was drinking Coca-Cola.”
O’Donoghue took some of his best shots in an August 1970 parody of an underground paper, targeting excessively groovy flower people (“Dear Mr. Newspaperman—I just think there would be peace if everybody just got together and rapped with each other and we could smoke dope rolled in strawberry-flavored cigarette papers and make love in the park and listen to Buffy Sainte-Marie records,” etc.), psychedelic band names such as “The Organic Egg Cream” and “The Stuffed Bedlington Terrier,” and the constant staff turnover (“Staff: The real editor OD’d last week, so somebody else was filling in but he got busted for a bomb plot and the associate editor split for the Coast. . . . Maybe I’m the editor now”). Unlike the ridicule of hippies that appeared regularly in the mainstream press, the Lampoon’s satire had credibility in the same circles it tweaked. It was clearly from the inside; you wouldn’t know what kind of person would voluntarily use strawberry-flavored papers unless you’d been there.
If O’Donoghue had a bead on hippies present, some unsigned author was gunning for hippies future. “Aquarian Entrepreneurs Cast Bread upon Waters, Returns on Investments,” read a headline of the Gall Street Journal in the Greed issue. “ ‘The economic philosophy that motivates these kids is light years away from Adam Smith’s,’ asserts Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith,” the Journal says. “ ‘While parents are only concerned with the money to buy food, clothing and shelter, the younger generation is more concerned about lifestyle. You know, better things to eat, expressive wearing apparel, comfortable, diverting places to live. Hey, wait a minute . . .’ ”
Those who were still simply living as opposed to having a lifestyle drew Trow’s fire. “Why do you need Mediocrity?” he asked in the July 1970 Bad Taste issue. “The Wonderful World of Mediocrity,” which starts out with a genuine quote from a genuine mediocre senator speaking up on behalf of a Nixon Supreme Court nominee. “Even if he were mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers and they are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they?” the senator asks plaintively. “We can’t have all Brandeises, Frankfurters and Cardozos.” Furthermore, the article advises, “mediocrity is a way of ridding yourself of the disastrous highs and lows, the unwanted excess that is destroying your fragile sanity.”
“George’s special target was the booboisie,” said Kelly, who felt that Trow, whom he described as “a Tory radical, a left-leaning aristocrat,” was the only Lampooner besides Weidman who had “any real passion about racism.” At the same time, he said, “George was very antibourgeois in the Mencken tradition: the working class are OK, aristocrats are OK, it’s the jerks in the middle you have to deplore. My argument was ‘I’m one of those people. So are my parents. You can’t write them off.’ ” These tender sentiments did not stop Kelly himself from writing “The Great Kitsch Conspiracy Trial,” which went after middlebrow taste in the March 1971 issue. But Trow’s objections were not based purely on snobbishness. It was the political expression of this yearning for blandness he minded, the constituency claimed by President Nixon as “the silent majority.”
The Lampooners disdain for the Nixon administration exemplified exactly the kind of Ivy League East Coast snootiness the president resented, but it also reflected an uneasy realization that the principles they had been brought up with were increasingly irrelevant.
This change in values was reflected in a political shift identified in the early ’70s by Carl Oglesby, a founder of SDS. Oglesby argued that power in the Republican party had moved from what he called “Wall Street”—East Coast–based, internationalist, and with a lingering sense of social responsibility—to the Sunbelt-based “Cowboys”: isolationist, rabidly anti-Communist, and determined not to give a penny to anyone who lacked the gumption to make their own fortune.
The Cowboys first flexed their muscle by installing Arizona conservative Barry Goldwater as the 1964 Republican presidential candidate and consolidated their triumph with the election of Ronald Reagan. With the Republican center of gravity moving west, even born-and-bred Wall Streeter George H. W. Bush had to recast himself as a son of the Sunbelt. Both factions—Wall Street and Cowboys—were devoted to defending the interests of capital, but it was a classic clash of old money versus new money, and the Lampoon definitely resented a takeover by men sporting large diamond pinky rings and white belts.
The Lampoon’s aversion was based on substance as well as style, as illustrated by Beard’s scathing November 1971 attack (modeled on an ad for Ultra-Brite toothpaste) on formerly liberal Republican New York governor Nelson Rockefeller’s conversion to Cowboyism in the wake of losing the 1968 nomination to Nixon. “One day I overheard a top leader in my party (you wouldn’t know his name in a million years, but he’s on the board of 147 top corporations) say to a mediocre party war-horse (who runs a leading free-world democracy), ‘Too bad Nelson’s such a goddamn pinko. What do you say we give him that ole heave-ho?’ ” Rockefeller confessed. “He recommended Ultra-Right . . . all it is is a powerful mixture of blatant racism and crude fear-enhancers combined with simpleminded rhetoric. . . . In just weeks, convictions I had held for twenty years were gone, and with them that logy, washed-up feeling that can accompany defeat in a major election.”
The acme of mediocrity in politics was personified, in 1970, by Judy Agnew’s better half, Spiggy. He became the muse for one of the early Lampoon’s most inspired works, Eight Days that Shook Wook, Iowa: The Assassination of Spiro T. Agnew by the mysterious Punji (who was actually Tony Hendra, a new contributor from the British satire scene by way of Bruce-influenced stand-up and television comedy, writing in collaboration with Beard), that combined photos, fake newspaper clippings, and text to create a sort of scrapbook effect. One photograph shows the first few suspects all gleefully claiming responsibility, joined in subsequent photos by even more happy self-described assassins. An excerpt from the Burger Commission Report on the crime asserts that the hole in the vice-presidential skull “through which the fatal ice pick was introduced had been in his head for some years.”
The article appeared in October 1970, a seventh issue that almost marked the Lampoon’s death as well. A meeting the previous month had considered whether to keep publishing the magazine in light of its poor sales. “I give you five issues, tops,” one Hugh Hefner allegedly wrote in to the July 1970 Letters to the Editor (which were, naturally, all written by the editor). Even before the first issue appeared, Newsweek had prophesied in March 1970 that “putting out a monthly that will entertain the nearly-30s may make the three youthful editors old fast.” The initial source of consternation was the art direction. Beard and Kenney were falling out with Cloud fast while Simmons was already putting out feelers for a new art director. In the interim, he fell back on his own resources. “I was very unhappy with the covers, so with the September issue I said, ‘I’m going to do the cover,’ ” he recalled. The result, Minnie Mouse in pasties, brought the Lampoon its first lawsuit, from the no-longer acquiescent Disney organization, for $11 million. “I’d always warned them about being sued,” Simmons chuckled, “and then my idea gets it.”
Whoever came up with the cover concept (Meyerowitz also claimed responsibility), it marked the Lampoon’s first success. Then, three issues later, the magazine went into the black, “but,” as Weidman said, “who cared? We didn’t think twice about it. Into the black—big deal.” All their other projects (except Life) had been successful. Why should this be any different? But Simmons, who knew a new magazine’s break-even point is usually at least a year down the line, was happily surprised to get there only six months in. The vital ingredient was the new art director, a twenty-five-year-old named Michael Gross, whose highly developed visual sophistication departed from Cloud’s funky approach. “When the commercial reality of the thing hit home,” Beard told Print magazine in 1974, “we saw that what we really needed was a slick art director who knew magazines.”
Besides organizing the art department to run efficiently and bringing coherence to what had been a hodgepodge of design elements, Gross “made the Lampoon special from a visual point of view,” said David Kaestle, originally Gross’s assistant and later art director for NatLamp’s nonmagazine output. The visual aspects of the magazine were divided into three components. One was the standing elements—the headings for regular features like Letters and the Diary. The second was simple illustration, which could be graphics, photographs, or lettering. The third, which the Lampoon became most associated with, was parody.
Articles parodying other magazines poured forth: Pethouse (soft-focus photos of totally nude furry animals in provocative poses); Stupid News and World Report; a 1940s’ Life; Gun Lust magazine; Popular Evolution; Third Base—the Dating Newspaper; and the aforementioned True Politics (“Dear God, Why Do I Want to Be Named to the Bureau of Indian Affairs?”) were just some of the publications from the parody mill in the first three years. Then there were parodies of other types of publications—for example, the Eddie Bean Down-Filled Catalog that explored the new craze for functional yet expensive outdoor gear.
As with the HL Time parody, the NatLamp parodies were notable for their attention to detail, although the tedious task of making sure the parodies looked like the originals fell largely to the art assistants (all female) while Gross and Kaestle focused on concepts. It was rare for art directors to be involved in the conceptualization of imagery to the extent that the Lampoon’s were, and, said Kaestle, it spoiled them for life.
It also drew top illustrators to the Lampoon even though it didn’t pay top rates, because, Kaestle recalled, “they were allowed a freedom of imagery they couldn’t find anywhere else.” Regular contributors like masters of the macabre Gahan Wilson and Edward Gorey were permitted a particular degree of autonomy. Still, not all illustrators were swayed. The much-admired Robert Crumb thought the context was too commercial, while the vitriolic caricaturist Ralph Steadman, who illustrated Hunter Thompson’s odysseys for Rolling Stone, also resisted numerous overtures.
The hands-off attitude applied not only to Gross’s relationship with the artists but also to the editors’ relationship with Gross. This unsupervised approach usually worked because the art director tried to fully understand the writer’s premise before commissioning the artwork—usually, but not always. In an editorial that appeared in the November 1972 Decadence issue, O’Donoghue had a simple explanation for why the cover of that issue, intended to be a parody of Sir Walter Scott’s “The Lady of the Lake,” showed a sword emerging from a bathtub clutched by a man’s hand instead of a woman’s: “Michael O’Donoghue, who came up with the idea, turned the entire project over to Art Director Michael Gross. O’Donoghue didn’t bother to go over every detail with Gross because he figured any schoolboy has read King Arthur, not realizing Gross, who’s still trying to finish a Blackhawk comic he began some months ago, thinks King Arthur is a seaport in Texas.”
Gross retaliated in the January 1973 issue’s editorial. “Do you think the editors who insist, month after month, that I am the cause of all our cover problems, can possibly be right? This month’s brilliant cover [a photograph of a revolver being pointed at the head of a very apprehensive-looking dog with the caption “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog”] is a success primarily because of one element—a joke,” he wrote. “The problem around here lately is that the combined efforts of the entire editorial staff have not resulted in a single funny cover in four months.” Gross was later vindicated when the cover won an Illustrators’ Guild Award to add to the eighteen design awards the Lampoon had already collected in its brief existence.
In contrast to most magazines where writers and artists are rarely in contact, at the Lampoon they often collaborated on the concept for an article. For example, Gross was able to finish illustrating a movie poster—part of an imaginary publicity package for Right On!, a purported Hollywood attempt to cater to Revolting Youth—even before Catchpole’s copy came in. Gross’s poster features an illustrated image of Jane Fonda wearing a skintight T-shirt and jeans in character as an “Aquarian Age activist whose sexploits rocked a nation!” while Catchpole’s accompanying synopsis informs us that she is “Jan Henry,” an actress who “abandons her makeup case and haute couture wardrobe and, throwing away her bras, dons the severely simple—but revealing, male readers!—garb of the committed activist!”
All the press kit’s graphics are, like Catchpole’s prose, dead on. “Parody has to be accurate,” Gross said. “If you’re imitating schlock, you have to know what makes it schlock. A parody should be so like the original that one has to look closely to see the difference.” Consequently, the happiest collaborations were with artists who let the material carry the joke. Frank Springer, the illustrator of Phoebe Zeit-Geist whose muscular super-heroic illustration style particularly suited action stories, was especially in demand. “When we knew Springer would be drawing it, all we needed to do was think of every possible joke on the subject,” Cerf said. For example, when he, Beard, and Kelly created Prison Farm, a saga about a convicted Watergate burglar doing hard time at a “country club” light security prison, they met over drinks to brainstorm prison farm jokes. “We had list after list of these things,” Cerf recalled, “and Frank got every single one of them into that strip somewhere,” including the moment when the prisoners, pushed beyond endurance by a selection of inferior vintages, bang their tin cups and call for “Montrachet!”
Springer also worked with Kenney, who was still immersed in ’50s obsessions, on April 1972’s Commie Plot Comics, which depicts the Russian takeover of a small Midwestern town. Renamed Stalinville, its Howard Johnson’s is reduced to serving only one flavor of ice cream—“Red Raspberry, and we are out of that too, little comrade. Ha! Ha! Ha!” Kenney also collaborated with artist Daniel Maffia in March 1971 on The Undiscovered Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, in which Maffia’s delicate pen-and-ink drawings, very much in the style of the originals, illustrate further evidence of da Vinci’s uncanny ability to anticipate modern inventions. These include “la Personalle Vibratoria—una Christamma presente per Il Papa Innocente III, ha ha,” and the “Rota-Riducione? Circula Magica? Hulus Hoopus?”
Some of the most striking examples of artist-writer collaboration, and certainly of the latitude the magazine was willing to allow both, were surreal photo collages, like Trow’s Bland Hotel in the September 1972 issue, illustrated with Jim Hans’s wonderful facsimiles of ’30s hand-tinted postcards. “The fashion now is for twin hotels joined by a marble subway,” Trow wrote. “The Bland Hotel suffers. Recently, Parlour Pimps have appeared in the lobby. Nothing can be done to dislodge them.” However, all this obscurity wasn’t quite as left field as it might seem. Surrealism had become less niche as college audiences, already enticed by the surrealists’ pastimes of drugs and subversion, flocked to the films of Luis Buñuel and the Marx Brothers, which, like the Lampoon, combined black humor, ridicule, blasphemy, anarchy, silliness, and cruelty in varying amounts.
The magazine’s willingness to bend its format attracted artist-writer hybrids whose work transcended categories. One of these was Bruce McCall, who discovered the Lampoon in 1971 after his brother sent him a copy. It was a revelatory experience at a transitional point in his life. “I thought, ‘This is what I’ve been doing all my life,’ but I never believed there might be a mass media outlet for it,” he recalled. For the April 1972 issue, he wrote and illustrated a six-page brochure on the ’58 Bulgemobile (“too great not to be changed, too changed not to be great!”). This ode to the great American automotive romance describes “scrumptious extras like Full-Vu glass and new Ejecta-matic ashtrays” and backseats of “richly simulated Wonda-Weev fabric-like material,” depicted in the accompanying illustration as being big enough for at least seven people, a nostalgic thrill for passengers crammed into the backseats of the newly popular Japanese imports. Such hyperbole came naturally to McCall, whose day job for many years (as European creative director for the Ogilvy & Mather agency and later another agency) was concocting Mercedes-Benz ads. “After working as a commercial artist,” he said, “this was my revenge.”
Glowing descriptions of unbelievably enormous, impossibly luxurious modes of transportation became McCall’s specialty, and he took snob appeal to gargantuan extremes. The first-class boat deck on McCall’s April 1974 RMS Tyrannic is a vast expanse dotted with a few well-dressed figures in polo coats. “The Right crowd, and no crowding,” reads the caption, while the heading urges, “Pray, Gambol Tyrannically! Gentlemen are requested to refrain from riding ponies through the Steerage after 8:00 P.M.”
McCall wasn’t the only artist to poke fun at his livelihood in the Lampoon’s pages. Kelly Freas, who regularly drew Mad covers, produced one of the Lampoon’s most notorious images when he presented Mad mascot Alfred E. Neuman as accused atrocity perpetrator Lt. William Calley asking “What, My Lai?” on the cover of the July 1971 Bummers issue. However, it seemed to an uneasy Frith that some artists were parodying themselves. “If Gross wanted the look of a third-rate pulp artist, instead of getting somebody really good to work a little cleverer change on it, he would hire the most famous third-rate pulp artist. You never knew whether it was a letting go and having great fun with something or whether there was an innate cruelty.” This perceived cruelty was one of the reasons Frith became disenchanted with the magazine before the end of 1971, even though his name stayed on the masthead for another year. The Lampoon was drifting ever further from Harvard.
Reprinted from That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick: The National Lampoon and the Comedy Insurgents Who Captured the Mainstream by Ellin Stein. Copyright © 2013 by Ellin Stein. Used with the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.