Around and about

In idly searching about for current assessments of National Lampoon‘s continuing influence, I came across a few relatively recent stories of interest.

In this New York Times article from 2005 (written by Jake Tapper, now the rather well-known CNN correspondent), Stephen Colbert and others discuss the role of the Lampoon in the development of their own satiric visions. Like myself, The Simpsons executive producer Al Jean (born 1961), Jon Stewart (born 1962), and Colbert (born 1964) read the Lampoon as teenagers, perhaps one generation younger than the Lampoon‘s editors and writers. But despite that generational gap, something stuck:

Al Jean, executive producer of The Simpsons on Fox, talks about the subversive power of [Michael] O’Donoghue’s “Vietnamese Baby Book” of 1972, which chronicles a child’s first year in My Lai with dark wit (“baby’s first word: ‘medic”‘). Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central’s Daily Show quotes from O’Donoghue’s influential 1971 essay sending up hackery, “How to Write Good.” (“All too often the budding author finds that his tale has run its course and yet he sees no way to satisfactorily end it, or, in literary parlance, ‘wrap it up,”‘ O’Donoghue wrote. “Observe how easily I resolve this problem: ‘Suddenly, everyone was run over by a truck. The End.”‘)

Mr. Jean, who worked for the magazine in the 1980’s, added that Saturday Night Live, which absorbed writers, performers and attitude from the Lampoon, often received the credit for changing comedy that the Lampoon truly deserved. … Mr. Colbert credits the Lampoon with introducing satire that not only eviscerated its subjects, but also did so in the style of its target, like the magazine’s letters to the editor, none of which were ever real, or myriad magazine parodies.

A few years ago in Counterpunch magazine, satirist and editor of The Realist Paul Krassner reviewed Douglas Tirola’s documentary about the magazine, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, with a few idiosyncratic observations of his own. But first, he quotes Michael Simmons, the son of Lampoon publisher Matty Simmons, who edited the Lampoon for a few years in the 1980s, a decade after its glory days had come and gone:

[Simmons:] “I’ve wondered if the Lampoon’s ‘everything’s a target’ philosophy set the stage for the post-irony we’ve endured for the last twenty or so years. Not that I’d have it any other way — one can find the absurdity in most endeavors. But when everything’s equally absurd, what’s left to satirize? A world in which Donald Trump is considered a serious presidential candidate is a self-parody, and I’m not sure satire can out-do reality in a case like Trump’s. I was a Lampoon editor from 1984 through 1989. We knew the golden era had passed.”

Nonetheless, the 2015-release timing of Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead succeeds in presenting the war on taboos that contrasts so blatantly with the current reincarnation of political fucking correctness.

So sayeth Krassner. More on the Lampoon — which deserves a closer look — to come.

Do it yourself

I was glad to see that yesterday’s column on the National Lampoon received a modicum of attention from my faithful readers. I imagine there are a few, too, who wouldn’t mind going back to those original Lampoon pieces to judge for themselves.

Unfortunately, with the Tenth Anniversary Anthology out-of-print and fetching prices of $200.00 or more on Amazon, it’s hard to track down the work itself. Rick Meyerowitz’s anthology for Abrams understandably focuses on the visual aspects of the magazine, and includes several excellent pieces, but not all. Fortunately the current owners of the National Lampoon brand have started selling .pdfs of the entire Lampoon run here, at an affordable $2.00 each. If you use this alongside Mark Simonson’s index here, as well as Ellin Stein and Josh Karp‘s books, you should have a good start in creating your own NL anthology.

Drunk, stoned, brilliant, and still dead

Without satire no civilization can be truly described or benefited. We could name many names, from Voltaire to Swift, before we ran into the modern morbid playwrights and sex novelists, who are more interested in the sordid corners of life than in the human heart.

James Thurber
The Future, if Any, of Comedy or,
where do we non-go from here?
” (1961)
(Probably Thurber’s final completed work)

It appears that outrage-fatigue is beginning to affect American comedians as well as everybody else. After a few months of the Trump administration, SNL, after a promising start, is recycling rapidly aging caricatures of Trump and figures in his administration as they used to recycle sketches like “The Coneheads” and “The Bees,” each iteration becoming more tired; even John Oliver, in the first episode of the latest season of his otherwise laudable investigative-satire program Last Week Tonight, seems a little lost.

Earlier this week Marilyn and I turned to Netflix to watch Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, Douglas Tirola’s 2015 documentary about the late National Lampoon magazine, which flourished in the 1970s before declining to a state at which, currently, it’s the clearing house for a brand name that can be rented then attached to pretty much anything or anyone that has the money to purchase it. During its glory years — 1970 to 1975, more or less — it was one of the best-selling magazines in the nation. Deliberately positioned as a humor magazine to bridge the MAD Magazine-New Yorker age gap, it was always a commercial endeavor, but the stars so aligned that it also proved an outlet for some of the best, most outrageous literary parodists and satirists of post-Kennedy America. Its quick demise — and the quick demise of some of its brightest minds — begs the question that Thurber asks at the beginning of this column, as well as the question: What happened in the first place?

Some satire, like Gulliver’s Travels, Candide, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, lasts, and some doesn’t. “Satire is what closes on Saturday night,” as the decidedly non-satiric American comic playwright George S. Kaufman once put it. Well, the bad sort closes, but obviously there are exceptions, and that’s because although most satire is directed at corrupt contemporary targets that are rapidly lost in the mist of time, those targets stand in as metonyms for the deeper corruptions of the human heart. The British/French military and political conflict that Swift parodies in the first book of Gulliver stands in for the arrogance and foolishness of nation-states; the attack on Leibniz’s philosophy which sparked Candide is also an attack on sentimental optimism itself; and Twain’s satire of race relations and clannish feuding in the pre-Civil War America of Huckleberry Finn is now read as a satiric exploration of the American ideals of democracy and community themselves. Eighteenth-century European politics, a philosophical dispute from the same century, and the socioeconomic situation of the American South in the 1830s have all become somewhat academic, but not the observations about the human condition that these satirists drew from these local circumstances.

The triumvirate of satirists who steered National Lampoon through its first five years — Douglas Kenney, Henry Beard, and Michael O’Donoghue — were, first and foremost, literary satirists. Kenney’s influences included Evelyn Waugh, James Thurber, and Ronald Firbank (the last also a major influence on British playwright Joe Orton); Beard decided to devote his career to literary humor after his exposure to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, perhaps the greatest of post-war American Menippean satires; O’Donoghue’s background was extraordinarily wide-ranging as a habitue of Greenwich Village in the 1960s, though he seems to have been most inspired by the novels of Terry Southern and William S. Burroughs. The best of the short prose essays and other material that appeared in National Lampoon from those years, and the level of baroque style and parody, easily rank with and outshine those of Thurber, Robert Benchley, and S.J. Perelman in their heyday, and unlike the pieces by Woody Allen and others in the New Yorker (however accomplished and of permanent value as some of these are), their work was tinged with the fire of outrage and a keen anarchic sense of the fraudulence of the time and the heart. Even more than Twain, their immediate satiric ancestor was Nathanael West, whose apocalyptic vision of an urbanized, trivia-besodden America in the 1930s, especially in the revelatory riot that closes The Day of the Locust, offered no hope or respite from the corruptions of the spirit.

The Lampoon‘s best work exemplifies all this. (I don’t mean to disparage the brilliant art direction of the magazine, key to its commercial and aesthetic success, but that’s a post for another time.) Kenney’s spot-on parody of Che Guevara’s diaries reveals the blind, insipid, delusional idealism at the heart of political revolution (especially in an age of celebrity); O’Donoghue’s “Vietnamese Baby Book” is a masterful deconstruction of the savagery and sentimentality that exist simultaneously at the heart of American culture; and Henry Beard’s “Law of the Jungle” is a genuinely astonishing satire not only of the law but also of the human race’s relationship to the natural world. Later, the best movies under the Lampoon banner also transcended their initial subjects. Animal House (co-written by Kenney) explored the disasters that occur when naivete meets reality, Vacation laid bare the anxieties that the commodification of leisure time produces. (I apologize for all this, and thoroughly deserve some lampooning of my own for these interpretations for what are, after all, just barely grown-up versions of the funny pages.)

In 1975 or so, O’Donoghue left the National Lampoon for what he thought were the greener pastures of NBC’s Saturday Night Live, which debuted in that year. Kenney and Beard were, in a way, luckier. Their friend Rob Hoffman in negotiating their contacts in 1970 schemed to include a clause in which publisher Matty Simmons could buy out their contacts based on a multiple of the percentage of the magazine’s value. Kenney and Beard opted to take the buyout, which made them multi-millionaires before they were 30. Kenney went Hollywood and, unable to negotiate the demands and successes of fame, died in a fall from a Hawaiian lookout (whether he jumped, slipped, or was pushed remains a matter of conjecture) in 1980; Beard retired into private life, still writing, and refused to discuss his career with the magazine until he resurfaced in Tirola’s documentary four decades later; the magazine itself had a few more good if not great years under the supervision of Tony Hendra, P.J. O’Rourke and others before its precipitous decline.

Ironically, the reasons for its decline are more numerous than the reasons for its success. By 1975 the political scene in America was becoming more fractured and polarized, and students were increasingly irritated to be told by a bunch of white, upper-middle-class Ivy League elitists that their ideals were illusory at best (while several women were regular contributors to the magazine, including Anne Beatts, Emily Prager, and Shary Flenniken, the skin color in staff photographs of the time is as white as the driven snow); the sophomoric-tastelessness-for-the-sake-of-sophomoric-tastelessness that was always a feature of the magazine began to overtake the more ambitious satires as publisher Simmons strove to drive profits higher and higher; magazine circulations themselves became locked in a struggle against the growth of electronic media. And perhaps the most influential of early Lampoon staffers, Michael O’Donoghue, found that he was unable to tailor his own dark apocalyptic vision to the requirements of the entertainment industry — and O’Donoghue desperately sought commercial success — before his own early death from a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 54.

So what of literary satire in the Trump age, given the great achievements of American satire in the half-century before it? Are irony and satire dead — has the future become so dark that we can’t joke about it any more? The same things were said after the Nixon administration, after 9/11, and we’re no closer to a response now than we were then. I doubt there’s an answer in the small shelf of books (and a documentary) now devoted to the history of the Lampoon, its influence, and its offshoots. (These include Tony Hendra’s still-indispensable Going Too Far, Ellin Stein’s That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick, and Josh Karp’s biography of Kenney, A Futile and Stupid Gesture, which is now being adapted into a film for Netflix. And The American Bystander, a new humor magazine, is a brave and worthy attempt to revive the Lampoon‘s spirit; it features several of the contributors to the original Lampoon.) But inspiration can still be sought in the best of its achievements, even if where we non-go from here is still something of a mystery.

For more information on where you can find back issues of the National Lampoon, click here.

John Oliver’s reality check on the refugee “crisis”

Scary times call for a scared man.

Tucked away in the late-Sunday-night ghetto of pay cable, John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight has been on hiatus since late last year; it’s scheduled to return on Sunday, February 12. What differentiates Oliver’s satiric current affairs program from others like The Daily Show are the 10-20 minute deeply researched, informational reports on a variety of subjects — everything from retirement plans to Trump University, and more. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of these without learning something I didn’t know before. (And as something of a public service, HBO posts these reports on YouTube the day after they air on HBO. You can find a full archive of them here.)

Last September, Oliver explained the process by which refugees are investigated before being allowed into the US — something that came up again this weekend. So here’s a little education for you. And no doubt Oliver will hit the ground running later in February.

January list

Detail of Charles Jervas’ portrait of Jonathan Swift (about 1718).

As we desperately look around ourselves for the causes of a world and a race that can produce the likes of Aleppo, Donald Trump, Meryl Streep, contemporary art, global warming, and TEDTalks all at the same time, even as that same race congratulates itself for its own rational enlightenment which only continues to flourish with every click of the internet, we may finally turn back to Jonathan Swift, who has been experiencing something of a renaissance, at least in certain corners of the literary world. Leo Damrosch’s fine 2013 biography will be supplemented next month by John Stubbs’ Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel (which has already received considerable praise across the pond) — two major biographies of the satirist within five years after a considerable period of neglect. Gulliver’s Travels is still the masterpiece, as my recent reading attests, but there’s much to be said for “A Tale of a Tub,” the “Battle of the Books,” “A Modest Proposal,” and several of the poems as well.

In these writings, those causes are laid out quite clearly: pride and vanity, gullibility, avarice, intellectual and political corruption, the abuse of reason and nature, arrogance, self-righteousness, factionalism, an obsession with trivia; and if these can be ameliorated somewhat (Swift was an Anglican minister, mostly conservative in his theology), they can never be eradicated. In fact, with every technological or philosophical advance in culture, these human traits seem to multiply farther and faster. Yesterday I wrote about Jean Renoir’s satire The Rules of the Game, and since its publication Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels has been subjected to the same criticism by Samuel Johnson, Thackeray, and others: it has been labelled, like Renoir’s film, “depressing, morbid, immoral [and] having an undesirable influence over the young.” That doesn’t mean, for all their pessimism, that either Swift or Renoir were wrong.

“Satire is a sort of glass,” Swift wrote, “wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own; which is the chief reason for that kind reception it meets with in the world, and that so very few are offended with it.” Swift didn’t exempt himself; indeed, it was likely his own experience and self-observation that led to some of his darker conclusions. I don’t exempt myself either. And neither, maybe, should you. It would, after all, explain a great deal.

The list: