The Best of ‘Army Man,’ the Humor Magazine That Was the Foundation of the Original ‘Simpsons’ Writers Room
If there is such a thing as a cult comedy magazine, it’s Army Man, America’s Only Magazine. With a writing staff that included George Meyer, Jack Handey, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, David Sacks, Ian Maxtone-Graham, Andy Borowitz, Roz Chast, Ian Frazier, Bob Odenkirk, and many many more, it’s criminal that Army Man isn’t more well known.
But the humor magazine ran for only three short issues and was never widely distributed. It was a homemade production, each ‘zine photocopied and stapled by comedy genius George Meyer. The quality of the humor is only surpassed by the the caliber of the writing staff and their subsequent projects. Most famously, creator George Meyer and others became a large chunk of the Simpsons writing staff. But beyond Springfield, Army Man‘s writers have won many Emmys, a few Golden Globes, a NAACP Image Award, and a Tony. The ‘zine spawned four New Yorker staff writers, the first Letterman top ten list, the Chanukah Song, USO tours, Bob Odenkirk, cookbooks, humor collections, and what seems like all TV programming since the ’80s.
I heard about Army Man for the first time through a New Yorker profile of Meyer, written by David Owen, also a former Army Man contributor (they are everywhere, seriously). In the late ’80s Meyer left New York and a job writing for Letterman and sought refuge in Colorado. He wanted to get away from the New York grind and work on a personal project. But since he’s Meyer, he also ended up writing, what is by all accounts, a brilliant feature script. Although it was never produced, the script was so good that, according to Owen’s profile, Simpsons‘ writers would guiltily borrow from it when they needed a joke.
When he needed a break from the screenplay, Meyer worked on Army Man. He wrote much of it himself, laying out his pieces alongside submissions from writers he knew at the Lampoon, Letterman, and elsewhere. “The only rule was that the stuff had to be funny and pretty short,” Meyer told the New Yorker. Working on his bed, Meyer cut, pasted, copied, and stapled all the issues for the original run.
Nowadays, Army Man is almost impossible to find. I became obsessed with finding these three issues, but it proved difficult. It felt unfair that my laptop refused to yield up Army Man. The instant availability of the internet age had spoiled me — I just assumed that on some back-shelf of the internet, sat scans or PDFs. But the twenty-odd pages of Army Man seems to have thus far eluded the insatiable maw of the web. Sure, there are some crappy scans and transcriptions, but I craved the whole deal. So I emailed friends, I reached out to confused ‘zine librarians, I trolled university library catalogues. Nothing. I gave up and was content that even today, there are still places to hide from the internet’s roving eye.
But a few months ago, I interviewed with someone who happened to be a former Lampoon writer of Meyer’s generation. At some point, he and I both gushed about Meyer and Army Man. Coyly, I brought the conversation back around – getting the job was secondary at this point. He offered to run off some photocopies for me. I tried to match his casualness and acted like I wasn’t singing comedy nerd Christmas carols in my mind.
A few days later, I met him at his office, and while he ate his lunch, I cradled the still-warm copies, complete with an apologetic letter from Meyer that Army Man was suspending publication (Meyer: “To paraphrase Gen. Douglas MacArthur, ‘I shall, if circumstances permit, and no one objects too strenuously, return.’”) I imagined, with the anticipation, the exhaustion, and the joy, that this must be what having a child is like.
By the time I got off the subway back in Brooklyn, I had made my way through most of the magazine and was blown away. The first thing that struck me was how dense the magazine is, visually as well as comedically; the page layout takes little care about design, and instead aims to get as much on each page as possible. It’s an obvious cut and paste affair, looking more like a punk ‘zine than I would have guessed.
And everything is incredibly brief. The longest piece is just a page long, topping out at no more than 500 words. I recognized Jack Handey’s Deep Thoughts, which are surprisingly somewhere in the middle for length. Nothing is very topical, almost all of the jokes are broad enough to still be relevant today. There are lines of “stray dialogue” that poke fun at film and TV tropes. There are small fragments of scripts, or sketches that end after three lines. There are log-lines for movies that will never be made. There’s a scathing review of Cannonball Run II from a Honolulu newspaper that Meyer apparently liked enough to clip out and include.
But what makes Army Man‘s humor so relatable is that many of the pieces are pointedly critical and, like much great humor, evidently reflect the writers’ frustrations. The jokes land with more honesty and truth as a result. Take this bit on the news media that which could be a list of Buzzfeed articles or headlines on a 24 hour news network:
Or this, which could easily be a marketing executive’s pitch for military rebranding:
One of my favorites is this short sentence that succinctly skewers the mind games that advertising plays:
And this bit, which lampoons health food obsession:
It’s also interesting to see a foreshadowing of The Simpsons and the style that would make the show distinct. Look at this snippet of dialogue from John Swatzwelder, which I can easily imagine taking place in Springfield:
And read this in the voice of Mr. Burns:
The longer pieces really shine, too — bizarre stories written with the sensibility of sketch, with a single twist or conceit. Take this one by Ian Frazier, which blows out a joke that in less capable hands might have landed as obvious:
Which is the best? Let Meyer speak for his own magazine, from his New Yorker profile:
“To me, the quintessential Army Man joke was one of John Swartzwelder’s: ‘They can kill the Kennedys. Why can’t they make a cup of coffee that tastes good?’ It’s a horrifying idea juxtaposed with something really banal — and yet there’s a kind of logic to it. It’s illuminating because it’s kind of how Americans see things: Life’s a big jumble, but somehow it leads to something I can consume. I love that.”
This captures what makes Army Man work so well, even decades later. It’s the density of the jokes that makes them more than just a quick laugh. They are able to pull in large ideas, universal gripes, and pain. This universality and relatability is what would make the Simpsons one of the greatest shows of all time. If there’s a joke that could serve as the thesis of Army Man, I would chose this:
The juxtaposition of truth and levity in this joke is like the smile of Homer Simpson that still remains after more than twenty years of failure and pain: light-hearted, goofy, and irreverent in the face of the all the world’s horrors.
In the age of Twitter, it can be tempting to compare Army Man‘s short, punchy humor to tweets. But unlike twitter, Army Man has no chaff. This is the power of an editor with a strong vision. Meyer chose the funniest of funny. Careful attention is given to each joke but also to the unity of the absurdist, off-kilter voice. With Twitter and democratic or algorithmic organization, the steading hand of an editor is lost. Meyer’s editorial guidance makes Army Man more than what it would appear to be.
The magazine’s success would be its ultimate downfall. One of Army Man‘s biggest fans was producer Sam Simon. When Simon needed to quickly pull together a writing staff for the first season of The Simpsons, he opened a copy of America’s Only Magazine and hired George Meyer, Jon Vitti, and John Swartzwelder. Later, most of the masthead of Army Man would end up writing for The Simpsons. Which was great for The Simpsons, but it doomed the magazine. Meyer didn’t want to sacrifice the quality of either by trying to juggle his attention. So after just three issues, the magazine stopped.
I’m not going to scan the whole thing here, just a few of the jokes. Sorry. It’s not that I don’t want to share this amazing magazine. Rather, I like that some things are still hard to find. And I imagine it’s what George Meyer would have wanted — a limited run of strange, short, and timeless humor. (Email me if you agree or disagree, Mr. Meyer, or just to say hi!).
If you get a chance though, read Army Man. You won’t regret it.
James Folta is a writer, comedian, and improviser living in Brooklyn. He has published writing for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Esquire, and Narrative.ly. Find more of his work online at jamesfolta.com.