A golden age of American satire

Michael O’Donoghue

First published here on September 14, 2014.

It’s very easy to make people laugh. That’s not the point. It’s very difficult to make people think. Art is the cake. Comedy is the frosting. The trick is to get them to eat the cake.

Michael O’Donoghue (1942-1994)

Whatever happened to satire? I mean not parody or television shows like The Daily Show, which usually just confirms the prejudices of its audience, but literary satire, the kind that flourished in Rome with Horace and Juvenal, the kind that flourished in early 18th century England with Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope? The product of rage, a sense of the absurd, and skepticism about the hypocrisies of both public and private life, satire is often enough dismissed as hopelessly ephemeral (“Satire is what closes on Saturday night,” as George S. Kaufman memorably dismissed it). But the best satire, like that of the four writers I mention above, unfortunately proves to have considerable staying power. Sometimes righteous anger is justifiable, and only a few kinds of hypocrisy have a sell-by date. In the best satire, there’s always an element of cruelty — especially when that satire is not directed to politics (which admittedly is ephemeral), but to human experience and stupidity and gullibility itself.

The question occurs because I’ve been indulging in a little nostalgia lately, thinking about the kind of reading I did in my teens and as an early adult, and apart from plays it was almost all satire. Fortunately, having been born in 1962, I was growing up in what now appears to have been a golden age of American literary satire. I blame my father, really; among the books on his shelves as I was growing up were Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961), masterpieces of satire and parody. But I didn’t have to look at home for this, either; the newsstand helped as well. As print publications, both Mad magazine and National Lampoon also qualify as literary satire, and I devoured Mad‘s parodies and satires in the early 1970s, graduating before too long to the more slash-and-burn, take-no-prisoners attacks of National Lampoon, then in its glory days (as the National Lampoon Tenth Anniversary Anthology 1970-1980, now sadly out-of-print, attests). From inspired silliness like the “Wide World of Meat” to the coruscating “The Vietnamese Baby Book” by Michael O’Donoghue (with Baby’s First Handprint [three fingers, thanks to Agent Orange], Baby’s First Wound, and Ask the Doctor [“Although my baby is over four years old, she continues to suck her stump. What can I do?”]), the Lampoon honed my own sense of the horrifically ridiculous to a razor edge. What made the Lampoon particularly effective was its careful art direction — the “Baby Book” was designed to precisely resemble the kinds of baby albums kept by American parents, at the same time undermining mawkish sentimentality and emphasizing that it’s what some of these same American parents were supporting as the Vietnam war dragged on. I’m a parent myself now, and it wasn’t hard to remember the “Baby Book” during the recent wars in the Middle East and elsewhere, which claimed their own shares of similar victims.

O’Donoghue had his own heroes. “If there was a Mt. Rushmore of modern American humor, Terry Southern would be the mountain they carve it on,” he once said, and Southern quickly became one of mine as well — not because of his Dr. Strangelove screenplay for which he is best known and which has grown somewhat dated and tiresome, but for his astonishing satiric novels, The Magic Christian and Blue Movie among the best of them. The millionaire Guy Grand spends the concise 148 pages of the first novel “making it hot for them,” gaily revealing the greed, corruption, and foolish self-congratulation of American life through a variety of outlandish frauds and tricks; Blue Movie may be the best Hollywood novel since Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust, centered on a Kubrick-like director who is trying to make a big-budget pornographic epic featuring Hollywood celebrities. Southern’s career was wildly uneven, but the novels represent the pinnacle of his achievement, and a high point of American satire of any age, that of Mark Twain included. (Though I should point out that Twain is the grand-daddy of them all, and all of the writers mentioned here owe him credit and reverence.)

Southern was the friend of both William Gaddis and Joseph Heller, to complete a triumvirate, perhaps, of American satire in the years 1955-1975; Gaddis I’ve written about before, but Heller, too, deserves to be remembered as one of the great satirists in the mode of Juvenal and Swift; it’s a shame his later novels, such as the powerful (perhaps more powerful than Catch-22) Something Happened and the more experimental Picture This and Closing Time, aren’t better known. Their books, too, began to pop up on my shelves beginning when I was about 15 or so, and these, along with shows like Monty Python’s Flying Circus that began to appear on American television at about the same time, is enough to corrupt any young mind.

There was plenty of comedy in film and live performance as well that graced the period — Lenny Bruce’s 1961 Carnegie Hall and Curran Theater concerts had been released on LPs (I went through a number of phonograph needles replaying these), and the caustic All in the Family and the somewhat less caustic (despite O’Donoghue’s presence as head writer) Saturday Night Live both had debuted before I was 16 — but the lasting impressions were certainly made by Southern, Gaddis, Heller, Mad, and the National Lampoon. The grace, style, wit, elegance, anger, resignation, and sheer quality of this literature are without parallel, and that they flourished simultaneously is little short of miraculous. It is a rich, accomplished, incomparably American body of great satire that remains valid — The Daily Show and The Onion can’t hold a candle to it. Before long it was over; with the exception of Mad, all of these are now defunct. I hope my daughters’ minds will be similarly corrupted, but I can’t see how.

Friday roundup: Satire and schnitzel

A rather slow week — I was away from a working computer for most of it, and I’m none the worse for it — but on Tuesday I posted this review of a recent book about Monty Python’s Life of Brian, a film I watched again a few days ago. I’m glad to report that it still holds up and I can recommend it highly.

I’m delighted to offer for your Friday enjoyment episode 1 of Erwin Cooks, a new series from my good friend Erwin Schröttner at Cafe Katja — so if you can’t join us in person, you can join us in spirit. In this episode, Chef Erwin deconstructs the iconic Wiener Schnitzel (with the secret to making it perfect every time), goes deep into the potato (cucumber/potato salad and parsley potatoes with a butter glaze), discusses Riesling with one of America’s top vintners, and travels to the Alps to cook another version of schnitzel. Erwin Cooks runs on PBS39 in Bethlehem, PA (and below, when I can find it). Prost!

Something funny about crucifixion

On location with Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Earlier this year, London’s TimeOut released the results of a poll ranking the “100 Best Comedy Movies,” and coming in at #3 — just after This Is Spinal Tap (#1) and Airplane! (#2) — was the 1979 Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Though it’s been a few years since I’ve watched it, I probably saw it several times upon its first release and the years immediately afterward. Of the three official Monty Python films, it’s the one that holds together the best (and contains a lovely Chaplin-esque performance from Graham Chapman as Brian), and I have a feeling that it, like the other two of the top-three comedies, retains its strengths, even 40 years later.

Its interest, too, remains. In June 2014, the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at King’s College London hosted an international conference exploring the historical Jesus and his times through the lens of the Python satire. Pythons John Cleese and Terry Jones also participated in the conference, and the results were released in book form in 2015 by Bloomsbury T&T Clark as Jesus and Brian: Exploring the Historical Jesus and His Times via Monty Python’s Life of Brian, edited by conference organizer and King’s College Professor of Christian Origins and Second Temple Judaism Joan E. Taylor. It’s a cracking good read, too.

Mind you, the idea behind the book doesn’t suggest a rip-roaring page-turner. The conference and collection are experiments in “reception history,” a comparatively recent development in Biblical Studies. As John F.A. Sawyer defines it, reception history assumes that “what people believe [the Bible] means and how they actually use it — in everyday situations, in the liturgy, in preaching, in the media, in literature, in art, in music, in film — can be studied with the same degree of scientific sensitivity and rigor as the original,” and that this study can, in the words of Paul Joyce, “shine a spotlight on biblical verses that have been dulled by familiarity; it can foreground biblical concepts and concerns that have faded over time into the background; and it can even give rise to new readings of difficult Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek terms.” In short, it can deepen our insight into the texts of the Bible themselves, how people live with and without the Bible, and, perhaps for some of us, provide different perspectives on Christian and Judaic faith.

The first half of the book looks at the film itself, its production and contemporary reception. In doing so, it reveals a few fascinating perspectives that may not have been obvious at the time. In Taylor’s own “The Historical Brian: Reception Exegesis in Practice,” she reminds us that Brian’s trip with aliens through the Terry-Gilliamesque skies may have been a parodic reference to Erich von Dänekin’s 1968 spurious potboiler Chariots of the Gods?, which suggested that extraterrestrial beings visited the ancient world and left behind structures that remain mysterious (fun fact: its German editor, Wilhelm Roggersdorf, was a best-selling author himself during the Nazi era); a documentary based on the book was released in the US in 1972, narrated by Rod Serling. William R. Telford’s essay looks at Life of Brian as a parody of the “Jesus film,” intriguingly asking whether it’s a “Jesus film,” an “anti Jesus-film,” or an “anti-Jesus film”; Anglican Bishop Richard A. Burridge looks back at the controversy that surrounded the film upon its original release in “The Church of England’s Life of Brian — or ‘What the Bishop Saw,'” asking “whether the Church and the academy missed a golden opportunity in 1979 to debate the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth in wider society,” as well as addressing a decline in biblical literacy in the years between 1979 and today; and David Tollerson offers thoughts on what blasphemy means in the Bible, in 1979, and today. In my favorite essay so far, Philip R. Davies’ “The Gospel of Brian,” the founder of what we might call “Brian Studies”1 compares the Christ of history with the Brian of history, revealing considerable wit and style in the process. Interesting observations about the cheerful nihilism of the end of the film abound. The second half of the book delves more deeply into issues of Biblical scholarship and archaeology, as well as questions of sexuality and Jewish identity that Life of Brian raises.

I can already see you yawning, but you shouldn’t; all of the contributors are fully aware that they’re engaged in the frog-dissecting business of analyzing a movie that was meant as entertainment, as a comedy, and by and large their tone remains as light and irreverent as that of the Pythons themselves. John Cleese, who participated in the conference, said, “I think it was somebody who said you were going to say, ‘What was the most interesting part that came out of Pythons?’ and as far as I’m concerned it’s this conference.” Terry Jones, the co-director of the film, echoed Cleese’s comment with an “Absolutely,” and contributed a preface to the collection in which he concludes, “The comparisons are always illuminating, and the commentaries are right on the nose.”

There’s no evidence in the Bible to indicate that Jesus ever laughed; this is a point that Cleese himself brought up at the conference. He wept, yes, according to John 11:35; but never an indication that he chortled, or even smiled. On the other hand, if Christ was fully human, it’s hard to believe he didn’t, with the apostles or with the money-changers and prostitutes with whom he often shared dinner. This is, though, nothing to be surprised at. The Bible is a collection of books of various genres composed over 500 years — of laws, of history, of letters, of poems — everything except jokebooks, it appears; but jokebooks are a rather late development.

If God invented everything, as some would have it, he invented satire and humor, too. In the end, we have G.K. Chesterton’s most interesting observation, from Orthodoxy:

And as I close this chaotic volume I open again the strange small book from which all Christianity came; and I am again haunted by a kind of confirmation. The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.

The film Monty Python’s Life of Brian and this collection of essays may remind us of that. It’s something completely different, and worth a moment or two of reflection.


A few interesting videos mentioned in the book are below. The first is the 1979 debate between Pythons Cleese and Michael Palin versus Malcolm Muggeridge and Anglican bishop Mervyn Stockwood, broadcast on the BBC:

And, just to prove that parody is not beyond parody, here’s a satire of the same conversation — with Rowan Atkinson defending his film, Life of Christ, on the same basis that Cleese and Palin defended theirs — a little later on Not the Nine O’Clock News:

As bad as we say it is

Billboard on Schuylkill Expressway, near Exit 37 west of Conshohocken. Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, 1970.

When in the early 1970s the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce needed a slogan to promote the city to businesses and tourists, the best it could come up with was “Philadelphia isn’t as bad as Philadelphians say it is.” It’s hard to determine exactly what the Chamber of Commerce expected as a result. In the ten years following the slogan’s launch, the population of Philadelphia dipped by 13.4 percent, from 1,948,609 to 1,688,210. And on the eve of the city’s Bicentennial celebrations in 1976, then-Mayor Frank Rizzo requested 15,000 federal troops to maintain order in Philadelphia that summer, fearing violence from political demonstrations. Tourists stayed away in droves. “The total number of visitors to Philadelphia in 1976 was estimated to be between 14 and 20 million, which fell far short of the planners’ expectations,” Madison Eggert-Crowe and Scott Gabriel Knowles write in the online Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.  “Much of the shortfall may be attributed to fear of violence spread by media attention to the protests and the mayor’s reaction to them. During the Bicentennial there was also an outbreak of Legionnaire’s Disease. Hundreds of members of the American Legion staying at the Bellevue Stratford Hotel contracted an infectious disease through the hotel’s air conditioning system, killing more than thirty of the Legionnaires.” Local wags inclined to punnery called the city “Filthydelphia,” and the same wags, referring to the main artery into town, the deteriorating high-speed Schuylkill Expressway, were prone to call it “the Surekill Distressway.” We regularly booed our sports teams, which inevitably found themselves in the basement of the standings a few weeks after the opening of the season, at their home games. Philadelphia was, at the time, the self-loathing Larry David of American cities. It remains so in some respects. It may be no coincidence that the phrase “We have met the enemy and he is us” was popularized in the 1970s (though not coined) by Walt Kelly, the creator of the comic strip Pogo — and a Philadelphia native.

I consider myself a native Philadelphian too — I was born at Pennsylvania Hospital at 8th and Spruce Streets in 1962, in the heart of Center City — and remain one, though I’ve lived in New York since the early 1990s. I spent quite a bit of time in Philadelphia in the 1970s (I must have passed that billboard many times myself) and remember this period well. But then, Philadelphia was never one to curry favor with outsiders, or with ourselves. Compare Philadelphia’s slogan of the 1970s with, for example, New York’s “I Love New York” advertising campaign, which launched in 1977 — a screaming success. A success, at least, when it came to the city’s self-image, if little else; New York’s population also suffered a 10 percent decrease during the 1970s. Nonetheless, the contrast between the two slogans reveals about Philadelphians their steadfast refusal to believe  their own bullshit.

Bullshit is a fine fertilizer, and like other fertilizers it’s a compound, its individual elements consisting of hyperbole, publicity, half-truths, whole-lies, arrogance, exaggeration, conceit, egotism, self-delusion, greed, and a narcissism verging on religious mania. The danger is in believing your own bullshit, and if anybody believes their own bullshit, it’s New Yorkers. The sentence “Philadelphia is not as bad as Philadelphians say it is” unintentionally reveals a more laudable modesty and humility at the heart of its civic and urban culture. That modesty and humility have done damage to the city and its reputation, no doubt. But they have also done the city and its inhabitants more good than may be evident at first glance, and it obscures the far greater civic and urban damage that bullshitters who believe their own bullshit can accomplish.

The roots of this difference between New York and Philadelphia may lie in their histories. William Penn, the founder of the city whose statue looks down from the top of Philadelphia’s City Hall, deliberately established Philadelphia on the Quaker values of tolerance, piety, pacifism, and order in its original prospectus.1 He envisioned it as a “greene country towne,” a “city of brotherly love” that would disdain excessive commerce and business activity in the pursuit of a prosperous (within reason) but civilized community of compassionate, like-minded citizens. Within fifty years of its 1682 establishment, of course, these ideals had fallen by the wayside as the non-Quaker population — diverse and heterogenous as it was in terms of religious, social, and racial composition, a diversity and heterogeneity ironically encouraged by Penn himself — displaced the original Quaker settlers, forming a more practical and commercial population, personified by no less than Benjamin Franklin, inventor, entrepreneur, and civic leader. On a recent walk through Olde City Philadelphia, I counted no fewer than fifteen statues and historical references to the inimitable Franklin — he’s hard to miss — but above it all, Penn and his memory still look down over the city. There is, no doubt, some bullshit in Penn and rather more in Franklin; the capacity for bullshit is something that differentiates the human race from the animals, after all, and none of us is entirely devoid of it, even and perhaps especially seemingly benign visionaries like Penn. New York, on the other hand, was founded as a trading post. And New York is still a trading post — magnified a millionfold, and powered by the latest in technology, but a trading post nonetheless. And there’s no better fertilizer for business, commerce, and publicity than bullshit. I hate to say it, but if Benjamin Franklin may be the personification of colonial Philadelphia, Donald Trump may be the personification of contemporary New York.

That “Philadelphia isn’t as bad as Philadelphians say it is” also suggests a bit of a desire to be left alone. In these more connected and networked days, a Facebook intimacy, in which we can be “friends” with hundreds, if not thousands, of people that we never meet, undermines traditional conceptions of community and friendship, which traditionally required us to actually meet, talk, and enjoy each other’s real-world presence. Such traditional conceptions themselves undermine the ability of bullshitters to successfully bullshit us; we can see the deceptive glint in their eye as they spew it.

About twenty years ago, Philadelphia got around to hiring a rather more adept publicity firm, which came up with the slogan “The Place That Loves You Back.” This might be interpreted as a somewhat sarcastic response to New York’s “I Love New York,” which doesn’t love anyone, apparently. In 2012, Prof. Richardson Dilworth, Director of Drexel University’s Center for Public Policy, compared the two Philadelphia slogans in an insightful essay for NewsWorks, seeing in the later slogan something of a betrayal of the Quaker ideal of universal love.2 “The claim that Philadelphia loves you is really the opposite of Quaker-inspired universal love. The slogan suggested intimacy, while universal love is cold and impersonal,” Dilworth noted. “If I love everyone, I love no one in particular. And Philadelphia has indeed often been perceived as a uniquely cold and unwelcoming place.” Cold and impersonal, perhaps — but also cautious, and, befitting the essentially conservative (with a small c) nature of the city, fonder of and more comfortable with the devil it knows rather than the devil it doesn’t.

Dilworth cites Digby Baltzell’s landmark 1979 study Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia as he continues:

According to Baltzell, the radical equality and antiauthoritarianism of the city’s Quaker leaders fostered a uniquely individualistic culture that was more tolerant of dissent than the more paternalistic culture fostered by the authoritarian Puritan leaders of Boston. … Though generally considered a negative characteristic, Philadelphia’s antisocial reputation was intimately connected to the city’s perceived virtues — the opposite side of the coin of tolerance and acceptance is indifference and disregard. …

Since the city’s antisocial reputation also defined some of the city’s perceived virtues of tolerance and acceptance, it seems worth asking what shared sense of community we gave up in selling ourselves more successfully to tourists.

“The Place that Loves You Back” suggests that we offered to welcome tourists into a warm and intimate community. We want you to have fun; in fact, we’re going to insist that you have fun, because we love you and we care.

But in making this new offer, have we forsaken the mixed history of tolerance and indifference that allowed anyone to come here and do what they wanted? And in exchange, we really wouldn’t care?

There’s a reason that one of the more significant studies of Philadelphia of recent years is titled The Private City.

The more years I spend away from Philadelphia, the more I come to appreciate its eccentricities, including its reserve, self-deprecation, and modesty. I find in these qualities more realism than skepticism, more honesty than self-hatred. Naturally, I’m not blind to its many deficiencies. I’m glad that my daughters are enrolled in public schools in New York, given the worrisome condition of the public school system in Philadelphia today; its arts community, compared to that of New York, is less vibrant and less daring, though there’s enough vibrancy and daring in Philadelphia if you know where to look. Its newspapers are a shadow of what they once were. And very little of Philadelphia’s urban cuisine — those cheesesteaks, the pulled pork sandwiches at DeNic’s — will end up on the cover of Eating Well magazine anytime soon; five minutes in the Reading Terminal Market will send any vegan or health-conscious eater screaming to the exits. On the other hand, Philadelphia, for many reasons, encourages an individual to come to private terms with a history — his own, as well as his culture’s — that’s worth preserving. Perhaps that’s the bullshit I believe, and perhaps it’s the bullshit Philadelphia believes, too. In which case, to each his own.

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 midst 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 latter 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. 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.) 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.