It’s very 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, in Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders
Feiffer’s comedy about the human cost of alienation, mistrust, and arbitrary violence in American cities, Little Murders, opened at Broadway’s Booth Theatre on April 25, 1967, and closed four days later; its cast included Elliott Gould, David Steinberg, Barbara Cook, and Heywood Hale Broun. Two years later, it opened off-Broadway for a rather more successful 400-performance run, this time directed by Alan Arkin and featuring a cast that included Fred Willard, Linda Lavin, and Vincent Gardenia. It is a chillingly dark comedy, and I would recommend that you search the 1971 film version out, but it’s exceedingly hard to come by, unavailable for streaming or DVD purchase in the U.S. despite a limited-edition 2018 U.K. restoration. Arkin directed the film, which gathered the best performances from both the Broadway and off-Broadway casts, and Arkin himself contributed a cameo performance as a police lieutenant, originally portrayed on Broadway by the great character actor Phil Leeds. Also appearing in the below clip (which contains Arkin’s full performance) are Elliott Gould as Alfred, Vincent Gardenia as Carol Newquist, and Elizabeth Wilson as Marge Newquist.
While the roots of the literary genre of “black humor” lie in a variety of places (certainly many of Mark Twain’s novels, stories, and essays exhibit the dark, hallucinatory qualities associated with the genre; Jonathan Swift, Nathanael West, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline qualify for the label, and André Breton’s Anthology of Black Humor, gathering more than 40 mostly French specimens, was published in 1940), it wasn’t until 1945 and the post-WWII era that it truly blossomed in the United States. Perhaps it was the development of the atomic bomb that led to a deeper sense of nihilism and pessimism; perhaps it was the increasingly consumerist nature of American culture and entertainment; perhaps it was the yawning gap between American ideals and American reality, becoming ever more obvious after the war, that inspired the writers who placed the absurd lengths to which hypocrisy could extend under their microscopes. Instead of subjecting this hypocrisy to handwringing sorrow, though, the genre subjected it to ridicule. If WWII was supposed to be a war that made the world safe for peace, love, and understanding, it was also a war that generated the weaponry that could destroy the entire human race, and the world it infested, in the space of just a few hours; in the meantime, the corruptions of the culture wormed their way into the hypocritical corruptions of Americans themselves, generating an almost desperate denial of the condition into which the race had contorted itself. The black humorists decided the only sane response was to laugh, especially at themselves, as guilty as the rest of the species.
As I noted yesterday, I blame myself for the corruption of my daughters, budding black humorists themselves; I blame my parents for my own corruption. Among my earliest memories is the night that my parents, wanting to save a few dollars on a babysitter, put my brother and I in the back seat of the car, then drove to a local drive-in theater to see Dr. Strangelove, or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb. Of course, they wanted to see the movie themselves (Bambi was a more acceptable children’s film), and I can’t vouch for the validity of this, but something must have rubbed off, even at that young age. Within a few years I was subscribing to Mad magazine; by the time I was in my teens I’d moved on to National Lampoon, Paul Krassner’s briefly revived The Realist, and R. Crumb, but I was also turning to more literary exemplars of black humor: Joseph Heller (my father owned a well-thumbed paperback copy of Catch-22), Terry Southern, and William Gaddis, as well as their ancestors Swift, Twain, West, and Céline.
Lucky I was to live in that time, because the values which this work instilled in me have stood me in good stead: a rejection of blind, moralizing authority; a healthy disrespect for pretension and arrogance; a preference for difficult and ugly truths over comforting and self-satisfying lies; and the bravery and courage to confront hypocritical authority, pretension, arrogance, and lies with creative, subversive, comic ridicule, preferably accompanied by a good stiff drink. Good lessons, I think, for me to pass along to my daughters, and it’s a joy to revisit these works again in the company of my own children. As Twain himself — speaking through Satan — wrote at the end of his life, more in hope than with evidence:
Will a day come when the race will detect the funniness of these juvenilities and laugh at them — and by laughing at them destroy them? For your race, in its poverty, has unquestionably one really effective weapon — laughter. Power, Money, Persuasion, Supplication, Persecution — these can lift at a colossal humbug, — push it a little — crowd it a little — weaken it a little, century by century: but only Laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of Laughter nothing can stand.
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.
You hear an awful lot about the “fading line between fantasy and reality” in the modern world and I had better put that in fast or else I am not going to get to do any more Forewords. So here it comes. I agree. There is a fading line between fantasy and reality, a very fading line, a goddamned, almost invisible line … Then, too, if you are alive today, and stick your head out of doors now and then, you know that there is a nervousness, a tempo, a near-hysterical new beat in the air, a punishing isolation and loneliness of a strange, frenzied new kind. It is in the music and the talk and the films and the theater and it is in the prose style of Joe Heller and Terry Southern. You can find it in Gogol and Isaac Babel, too, and perhaps they saw it all coming. …
What has happened is that the satirist has had his ground usurped by the newspaper reporter. The journalist, who, in the year 1964, must cover the ecumenical debate on whether Jews, on the one hand, are still to be known as Christ-killers, or, on the other hand are to be let off the hook, is certainly today’s satirist. The novelist-satirist, with no real territory of his own to roam, has had to discover new land, invent a new currency, a new set of filters, has had to sail into darker waters somewhere out beyond satire and I think this is what is meant by black humor.
–Bruce Jay Friedman
Foreword, Black Humor (1965)
Those words from one of the greats, Bruce Jay Friedman, who sailed into rather different waters yesterday at the age of 90. He knew us then, and he certainly knows us today; see, especially, his story “Black Angels,” published in the December 1, 1964, issue of Esquire.
Bruce Weber’s obituary for the writer can be found in the New York Timeshere.
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 NationalLampoon — 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.
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 DrunkStoned 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.