Mineshaft, my brief radio career, and disillusionment

Later this spring, Mineshaft #40 will appear on the streets of Durham, NC, and in your mailbox; as the cover above attests, you’ll find friends new and old, including more than a few veterans of the old humor and comix magazine circuits. It’s a coterie publication, perhaps, but it’s a coterie that includes the likes of R. Crumb, Drew Friedman, Bill Griffiths, Mary Fleener, and others of a unique generation of American artists. More information about the issue here, including ordering information. Get it while it’s hot!

Speaking of old humor and comix magazines, I’ve been spending the past few months paging nostalgically through old issues (well, anthologies, anyway) of the magazines and publications I enjoyed when I was a kid, in those long-ago days of the 1970s. I wouldn’t say that I’ve been viewing them through rose-colored glasses; rather gray they are, but certainly much more dark than light.

When I was 14 years old I went to high school in Hazleton, PA (pop. 28,000 or so in 1976), and at the time the local AM radio station hosted a “High School Hour” once a week, inviting teens from the local schools to host their own radio show, read some school news and play some popular music. I loved radio back then — I still do — so I was among the first to sign up for my school’s Radio Club. There weren’t many of us, but together we put the hour together, and I was responsible for writing up the school news, submitting it to the vice-principal for approval, then reading it on the air to the enraptured listening audience.

About three or four months into the year, I decided to mix it up a little. So instead of writing up news about debate club competitions and the math team, I wrote parody news items about teachers, classes, clubs, and sports competitions. That Friday afternoon during Club Hour in the typing classroom, I giggled, I confess, at my weak digs at favorite and not-so-favorite teachers, at the sports teams, and whatever else might have sparked my fancy. I have no doubt that few of these passed the smell or, for that matter, the humor test, but they were innocent enough; and what the hell, I had fun writing them up. And, as usual, I passed my script along to the vice-principal a few days before without warning him that this month’s news would be a little … well, different.

It wasn’t long before I was summoned to the vice principal’s office. I took my seat in front of him as he looked down at my script, shaking his head. “I don’t know what this is supposed to be,” he said.

“I just thought it would be nice to tell a few jokes and make the show a little different this time,” I responded.

He tsk-tsked, looking at one typed page, then another. “This is just inappropriate, George,” Mr. Rudewick said. “It’s inappropriate, it’s …” and here he searched for the right word, eventually finding it: “It’s uncalled-for.” He put me on notice that I’d have to re-write the news items, and write them straight-up, unless I wanted to be an ex-Radio Club member. So a few nights later I sat in the WAZL-AM radio booth, 1490 on your dial, enlightening Hazletonians with properly humorless renditions of recent accomplishments by the MMI Debate Club, the MMI Math Team, and the MMI basketball team (then, I believe, enjoying a 0-14 season).

None dare call it censorship, I guess — I don’t know why I expected to get away with it, especially with the pre-approval process in place, and though I suppose I could have slipped my original parodies in there at air time, I was far too cowardly for that. Rebelliousness was not in my nature, then or now, though I admit I’ve never forgotten that “It’s uncalled-for,” which sets the hair on my neck on end even now. But I do know precisely what to blame for my uncalled-for-ness.

The mid-1970s were halcyon years for American satire magazines and American satire generally. When I was in my teens, I subscribed to both MAD Magazine (which I’d started reading when I was eight) and National Lampoon, eagerly digesting each issue as they arrived in my mailbox; once in a while I’d even pick up the MAD ripoffs Cracked and Sick at my local newsstand, which also carried the occasional NatLamp specials like the high school yearbook and Sunday newspaper parodies. MAD and National Lampoon were enjoying their highest circulation then, and in the mid 1970s Saturday Night Live debuted and Monty Python’s Flying Circus appeared on American television for the first time. On my own, I was discovering Lenny Bruce’s Carnegie Hall and Curran Theater concerts, then being issued on LP, along with Richard Pryor’s early albums. A few years later, too, there was Weirdo.

I suppose I was in a way a perfect audience for all of it. What all of these cultural artifacts aimed at — from MAD parodies to Lenny Bruce’s sex and race talk — was disillusionment. All of them encouraged skepticism about the ideals peddled by teachers, parents, religion, authority, and especially the media, in advertising and drama and news, rendering blind obedience absurd. They even rendered blind obedience to their own perspectives absurd; instead, the message was that each individual had to think for themselves. It was not hard for me to get the message. In my junior high school social studies class in the spring of 1973, I and my classmates were taught about the three branches of government, the Constitution, and democracy (learning about how politics was supposed to work); that same spring and summer, I sat transfixed in front of the televised Watergate hearings (learning about how politics really worked). I’d been raised on The Brady Bunch, The Waltons, and The Partridge Family as examples of domestic life; my own parents separated acrimoniously when I was eight, after an acrimonious marriage. So every month, when these magazines arrived, they confirmed what experience had already taught me. To come across the below at the age of eight or nine, from “The MAD Primer” in the September 1958 issue (and reprinted in MAD anthologies in the 1970s, when I read it), generated a frisson in me that was very hard to shake:

I can’t say really that I knew what a “klepto,” a “bookie,” or an “auditor” was back when I was 10 or so, but I think I got the picture.

And, as a result, these artifacts, these magazines and comedy routines, told me that I wasn’t alone. I’m sure that I’m far from the only member of my generation who had this experience (as the circulation numbers I mentioned above attest, the magazines sold quite well even without me). What me and my peers shared was laughter: laughter at our predicament, laughter at our own tendency to buy in to the corruptions of culture, but especially, though parody, laughter at these corruptions themselves. What’s more, these magazines insisted that they, too, were corrupt, like all human endeavors and for that matter all human beings. Art Spiegelman said of MAD: “The message Mad had in general is, ‘The media is lying to you, and we are part of the media.’ It was basically … ‘Think for yourselves, kids.'” As MAD publisher William M. Gaines insisted, “We must never stop reminding the reader what little value they get for their money!” And finally, as Eric Stratton cheerfully told his fellow Delta House fraternity brother Flounder in National Lampoon’s Animal House, “You fucked up! You trusted us!”

This insistence that individuals had to think for themselves echoed in other satiric magazines of the period as well. In 1958, in the first issue of his magazine The Realist, Paul Krassner wrote: “I am neither for conformity nor for non-conformity. I am for individuality. If one’s individuality is in effect non-conformity, then so be it. But basically, one’s individuality consists of conformity — to oneself.”

That such pretenses to individuality could be, in some situations, uncalled-for remains true, even though it’s been years since MAD or the National Lampoon appeared on newsstands. For that matter, newsstands themselves are becoming rare sights. But a larger question may be: What happens after disillusionment? What happens after all of this trust in media, institutions, and the human capacity for the amelioration of human ills is broken?

Well, for most of us, it’s re-illusionment. As we pass from the hallowed halls of this kind of often-sophomoric satire (“Any good humor is sophomoric. ‘Sophomoric’ is the liberal word for ‘funny,'” Michael O’Donoghue once said), we grow up, we get jobs, and we begin to believe and trust again. Especially today, when thanks to the internet all of us are members of the media, our tendency is to believe in our own press releases, web sites, and Facebook feeds. After MAD‘s parodies of superheroes more than sixty years ago — which insisted that sometimes strength was weakness, good was evil, and patriotic ideals meshugginah — Marvel Comics is now one of the most successful and influential media companies on the face of the earth. Moronic celebrity we still have with us, more than ever, thanks to that same internet. And Donald Trump made Richard Nixon look like Lincoln.

But re-illusionment wasn’t the result for all of us. In some cases that disillusionment, and the uncalled-for urge to express that disillusionment in humor and satire, stuck with us. (Somehow I never got around to writing satire or parody myself; I don’t know why; perhaps I was never in the right place at the right time, or knew the right people, a lifelong trait of mine; perhaps it was that same cowardice I demonstrated in the WAZL-AM radio booth. Perhaps I was distracted. Perhaps I can still aim at it; I may be no longer young, but I’m still disillusioned. A matter for my therapist, I suppose.) So, after disillusionment, there’s also solitude. But not entirely. There are remnants of that commitment to individuality in small communities of what used to be called free thinkers, even in the print media. Mineshaft (not a humor magazine, but certainly for individual free-thinkers) is one of those communities, and there are others, here and there. And so long as society is careless enough to permit people like myself to raise children, I can pass it along to the next generation. In the meantime, I page through those old issues of MAD, National Lampoon, The Realist, Weirdo, and Mineshaft … biding my time.

Last days of summer

The final days of summer — a long summer — are upon us, and glancing over the past few months, I find they’ve been not been spent poorly. My own corona malaise therapy has consisted of Mark Twain (I just finished The Prince and the Pauper, a fine tale for children of all ages), Scott Joplin (my wife has taken up my encouragement to study a few of his compositions to offer on a possible program or recording), and my children (guiding them through what has been a difficult season for all of us; so far, so good). In New York, we look forward with some trepidation to the fall: a few days of school a week at most, and I continue to work from home. I admit this has not been a productive time, an admission to which the lack of new posts on this blog should be adequate testimony. But onward, ever onward, if not often upward.

In the meantime, a little news from the usual suspects that I’d like to share. Tomorrow night Christoph Mueller, who’s been a frequent subject of these posts, will celebrate the opening of Matters of Mind, a retrospective of his work at the Ludwig Forum in his home town of Aachen, Germany. Alas, I will be unable to attend this feast of original artwork and painstakingly constructed miniatures of Sassafras County’s Green Valley in the early 20th century (a town reminiscent, perhaps, of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio), but anyone on the continent who finds themselves on the westernmost edge of Germany through January 10 of next year, when the exhibition closes, may wish to drop in. More information on the exhibition can be found here; he is also contributing the cover art to the next issue of the fine Mineshaft magazine, due in the next month or two.

Another Mineshaft contributor, R. Crumb, may be looking forward to the publication of Crumb’s World in January 2021, a catalogue that documents the fine exhibition of the artist’s work at the David Zwirner Gallery last year. (I originally wrote about it for this blog, but alas the short essay has gone rambling off.) Curator Robert Storr provides essays about Crumb’s career, setting much of this sometimes difficult work in the context of the culture in which Crumb found himself. Speaking of which, Crumb’s opinion of the current GOP candidate can be found here.

Mr. Crumb plays a mean ukelele, which itself can be heard on Live at the Brooklyn Folk Festival, Vol. 1 from Eden and John’s East River String Band. Just out on both CD and vinyl, this brand new release features the best of their live performances at the Jalopy Theater over the past decade; Crumb, Eden, and John are joined by a variety of other excellent musicians, such as Ernesto Gomez, Pat Conte, Dom Flemons, Eli Smith, Walker Shepard, Geoff Wiley, and Jackson Lynch. The vinyl goes for about 24 smackeroos, the CD for about half that. I’ll be ordering this when the next paycheck comes in, but in the meantime I can keep up with John Heneghan through his highly recommendable John’s Old Time Radio Show. I first wrote about the ERSB here.

Les Choses De La Vie

Christoph Mueller‘s The “Mighty” Millborough: Les Choses De La Vie, published by 6 Pieds Sous Terre just last year, collects over a hundred of Mueller’s adventures of the contemplative isolate Millington F. Millborough, resident of Sassafras County in the 1930s. A polite middle-aged bachelor with a taste for drink, Millborough spends quite a lot of time alone, a solitude that leads him to contemplations about landscape and his place in it. “Some feelings words cannot express,” he muses, meditating on a New England hillside. “Nor music, art or act — only landscape can.” Indeed, a great deal of Les Choses De La Vie considers how the man makes the landscape, and the landscape makes the man. And the book itself, its extreme width and minimal depth, encourages us to approach each page itself as a landscape.

Mueller’s style seems the unholy love child of Little Nemo‘s Winsor McCay and Mutt and Jeff‘s Bud Fisher — backgrounds are lavishly detailed, and his human figures are vaguely ridiculous against it, especially Millborough’s, traipsing through Sassafras County with cigar in hand and lost in self-conscious thought. Of course, it’s this self-consciousness that renders Millborough ridiculous, if sympathetic; it’s the artist who draws character and background together, not the character himself. Although Millborough doesn’t have much luck with the modern world — his battle against automobiles especially is doomed to comic failure — he nonetheless values man-made architectural elegance and grace (more obvious in an earlier, full-color portfolio of Millborough’s adventures). The natural landscape in Millborough’s eyes is prone to surreal transfigurations, as is Millborough’s body in that landscape, the McCay influence; the comic loping bodies of the strip’s characters are straight from Bud Fisher. Millborough’s friends respect him if they don’t understand him — maybe a degree of tolerance we’ve lost in contemporary America, as we’ve lost valuable Millboroughs themselves. Mueller reminds us of what we’ve lost with them.

The “Mighty” Millborough: Les Choses De La Vie has no American publisher, alas, but is available from the French publisher here. (Don’t let the French language deter you; Mueller’s work is just as eloquent without English.) I previously wrote about Mueller here, and tipped my hat to his recent New Yorker cover; a video preview of this particular book is below. It is a gorgeously made collection, inside and out. Pester your American publisher friends, please, about Mr. Mueller’s “Mighty” Millborough.

Air of melancholy

It’s been nearly two months since I’ve posted here — I suppose that the spirit is willing, but the flesh weak, especially working all day from home with the kids in what is laughingly called “school” and the better half also at work all day in a 1,200-square-foot space on the Lower East Side. Instead, in what little spare time remains, I’ve been amusing myself as I’ve had to. In a sense, I suppose, we all need some kind of escape from the stresses and tensions of the period.

In New York, this isn’t easy at the best of times, but I’ve tried. I’ve gotten a lot of reading done on the weekends. Catch-22 remains perhaps more relevant than ever (there’s more than one way to “raise the number of combat missions”; a pandemic and enforced isolation are two); Mark Twain remains a comfort as well, with Pudd’nhead Wilson in the outbox and A Tramp Abroad on the bedside table (nothing like late Twain to confirm one’s cynicism about the culture and the race); Ed Berlin’s Ragtime: A Musical and Cultural History and Rudi Blesh & Harriet Janis’s They All Played Ragtime fill out a little knowledge about a music that I’ve come to love even more, even though it’s over a century old, in 2020.

The friendly postman brought around two CDs from the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra the other day — both fine recordings. The PRO Finally Plays the Entertainer is a collection of band arrangements of tunes by the big three (Joplin, Lamb, and Scott — and the package design by Chris Ware is splendid), but the most surprising pleasure was From Barrelhouse to Broadway, a collection of songs by the great Joe Jordan, who is very new to me. (At the end of this post you’ll find “The Whippoorwill Dance” for your listening pleasure.) I find in the best ragtime a quiet, elegant air of melancholy that suits my constitution well.

For some reason this early American music has captured the affection of several comics artists. Apart from Ware mentioned above, Robert Armstrong and R. Crumb are also smitten by these tunes (I’ve also been listening to a bit of the East River String Band, with whom Crumb has often sit in). Germany’s Christoph Mueller is fond of the period, though I’m not sure if he’s an enthusiast for the music; Mr. Mueller recently contributed a cover called “Shelter in Place” to The New Yorker, his first. Mueller is a post-Crumb artist and this, in an odd way, is an appropriate accompaniment to Crumb’s own “Short History of America.” Although the immediate context is the coronavirus, of course, I think Mueller’s evocation of the isolation of the individual and the isolation of nature in large cities speaks to a much broader solitude and loneliness that transcends the immediate moment. At the moment, Mueller is completing the artwork for the 39th issue of Mineshaft, due later this year. (I hope I don’t have to remind you to subscribe to this, America’s most indispensable magazine.) Mueller spoke with the New Yorker‘s art editor Françoise Mouly about “Shelter in Place” here.

I should also mention that among my pandemic reading was Hillary Chute’s recent history of contemporary comics, Why Comics?, highly recommended.

Finally, my Google searches have been taking me recently to the environs of Dublin, New Hampshire, the home of the Old Farmer’s Almanac. When I glance out of my window now, I often see a facsimile of Mueller’s perspective; how much I’d rather see Dublin. There’s a photo below, and here’s “The Whippoorwill Dance,” as promised, performed by the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra’s maestro Rick Benjamin. I hope to kick up the pace here soon and write a little more about all of this. Until then, save me a place in Dublin.

Town center of Dublin, New Hampshire.

Coming soon: “Trots and Bonnie”

Update (January 21, 2021): I’ve noticed a few hits coming here seeking information on Trots and Bonnie. Since March 11, 2020, when this post was originally published, the publication date for the book has moved rather dramatically. NYR Comics currently notes that Trots and Bonnie will be issued on April 27, 2021. More information here.

Shary Flenniken‘s “Trots and Bonnie” ran from 1972 to 1990 in the late National Lampoon (Flenniken also served as an editor of that magazine from 1979 to 1981). “Trots” contributed a radical feminist and sexualized perspective to the comics styles of the 1930s and 1940s, right down to what Walt Kelly would call the “blunked-out” eyes of its main human character, Bonnie (itself a tribute to Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie). Well, you can now sell those old copies of the Lampoon on Ebay; NYR Comics will publish Trots and Bonnie: A Selection on September 15. Sez the publisher:

Bonnie stumbles through the mysteries of adulthood, as Flenniken — one of the few female contributors to National Lampoon — dissects the harsh realities of American life. Dating, marriage, sex, and violence are all confronted with fearlessness and outrageous humor, rendered in Flenniken’s timeless, gorgeous artwork. After all these years, they have lost none of their power to shock and amuse.

More information from NYR Comics here.

Although it’s true that Flenniken was “one of the few female contributors to National Lampoon,” it should be said that the female contributors to Lampoon, among them Anne Beatts and Emily Prager, were some of the most accomplished writers and artists in that magazine and take the edge off the justifiable accusation of sexism that is often hurled at the Lampoon. In addition, the Lampoon in 1978 published one of the few English-language collections of the work of Claire Bretécher, the fine French feminist cartoonist who recently shuffled off our mortal coil. So, as they say, there’s that.

Below, a few additional notes on the magazine, first published here in 2017.


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 begs 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 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. 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 go from here is still something of a mystery.