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:

Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders comes to Metrograph this Sunday

Little-Murders-images-9844eb35-7b7c-47f7-b74d-085c39570f2This Sunday, August 21, at 2.30pm, the delightful new Metrograph theater at 7 Ludlow Street will offer a very rare 35mm screening of the 1971 film Little Murders, directed by Alan Arkin and with a screenplay (based on his play) by Jules Feiffer. Though Metrograph describes the film as a “surreal, nightmare vision of Mayor Lindsay-era New York,” it’s a film that has continuing, even greater relevance in an increasingly violent society like our own, as I explained in the below essay about the film, first published here in March 2015. Tickets for Sunday’s screening are available here. You should stay after the show for a drink or two at the theater’s relaxing downstairs bar.

Metrograph will offer a second showing of the film on Thursday, August 25, at 6.30pm. At this screening, Jules Feiffer will be present to participate in a question-and-answer session and sign copies of his new graphic novel Cousin Joseph. More information here.


Rumor has it that when Elliott Gould secured the film rights to Jules Feiffer’s 1967 Broadway satire Little Murders (according to the Internet Broadway Database, it ran for all of 23 performances, including previews; Gould appeared in the play on Broadway), he tried to interest Jean-Luc Godard in directing the film; eventually Godard withdrew and the film was completed and released in February 1971 in a version directed by Alan Arkin. The idea of Godard directing Gould in Feiffer is daunting, to say the least. But the film that resulted in the end is one of those products of Hollywood that makes you wonder how it was ever made in the first place, let alone released — and it’s very very certain that it would have been neither produced nor released had it been proposed today. Little Murders is an extraordinary work that retains a profound significance for 21st century America, and putting things like Richard Nelson’s Apple family plays, presumably also a family-centered meditation on the conflicts in American culture, next to it is an indication of just how toothless American drama has become over the past four decades.

The play’s lead character, Alfred Chamberlain, the son of Chicago-area intellectuals, describes himself as an “apathist.” He is frequently mugged and beaten by strangers for no discernible reason, but he never fights back; if he puts up no resistance, he observes, the muggers get bored and eventually leave him alone. One day he crosses paths with a woman named Patsy Newquist, who becomes determined to introduce him to happiness and compassion, as well as the necessity of fighting back against whatever forces conspire to rob him of his dignity. It is an uphill battle. Late one night, Alfred reveals the source of his quietism to Patsy (and actors seeking unusual audition monologues, take note):

Having made this confession of his own paranoid cruelty, Alfred finally realizes the importance of fighting for what he believes in, of hope, of trust, and of love — and, in the next moment, all of these are cruelly shattered by a tragic act of random violence.

Feiffer was writing about the American culture of the late 1960s, but the violence, the surveillance state, the rapid crumbling of traditional values remain central dynamics of the 2010s. In Little Murders, he proved himself a far more observant and caustic satirist of the American scene than his status as West Village Liberal might have suggested. “It’s dangerous to challenge a system unless you’re completely at peace with the thought that you’re not going to miss it when it collapses,” Alfred says at one point — and he turns out, with terrible consequences, to be right. It’s a line that should echo through things like the Occupy movement.

Among Feiffer’s many targets in Little Murders are the upwardly-mobile middle class; the justice system; religion both old and new (the parson who marries Alfred and Patsy in a disastrously ridiculous ceremony is the head of the “First Existential” church); homophobia; both apathy and idealism (obviously); the art market and photography; and, as I mentioned earlier, intellectuals. Beyond all this, though, it’s a shockingly emotional and compassionate work. Patsy’s Upper West Side family seems oblivious and ridiculously hypocritical, but it’s revealed early on that their promising first son was killed in a random, unsolved act of violence on a New York City streetcorner; the revelation undermines an easy dismissal of their defensively bourgeois perspective. In many ways, the rhythm of the plot is cruel, not only to Alfred and Patsy but to the audience as well; and though the conclusion of the play appears facile at first glance, there is a poetic rightness to it that gives the play a cohesive shape. I know that a few artistic directors of regional and New York non-profit theatres read this blog; though I’m usually loathe to make recommendations, I would hope that they would take a look at Little Murders, a cruelly underrated and even forgotten American play that ranks with the most powerful work of Twain and Swift. (A 1969 revival at Circle in the Square, also directed by Arkin, enjoyed a more successful 400 performance run and won Feiffer an Obie for the play.)

“And of course it’s funny” is often a phrase used to encourage audiences to see a play that presumably has a darker core — and it’s usually wrong. But in this case it’s right. Little Murders is an extremely funny play, with gorgeous setpieces like the first meeting of Alfred with Patsy’s parents and the wedding ceremony itself. Somewhere about three-quarters into the film (and the play), though, Little Murders splits apart explosively and powerfully. It’s a remarkable piece of work, with standout performances from Elliott Gould as Alfred and Vincent Gardenia (who should have been given an Oscar or two for his performance, which is one of the most textured I’ve seen in this context) and Elizabeth Wilson as Patsy’s father and mother, but also memorable cameos from Lou Jacobi, Donald Sutherland, and Doris Roberts. (The director of photography, Gordon Willis, captures New York of the 1970s perfectly — not surprisingly; he later shot The Godfather, Annie Hall, and Manhattan.)

And screw Godard. Director Alan Arkin has a brilliant four-minute cameo towards the end of the film as an insane police detective that makes Joe Orton’s Truscott look like Lenny Briscoe; I doubt Godard would have been nearly as effective. Arkin’s cameo is below (and, again, actors seeking unusual audition monologues, take note):