Not So Stupid

Christopher Fowler
When Mad magazine grew too tame for me I ended up reading National Lampoon, which grew out of the Harvard Lampoon and became a powerhouse of intelligent satire at a time when the USA needed an opposing voice. NatLamp parodied the presidencies through Vietnam, Kent State, Spiro Agnew, Watergate and every other social/ political disaster to hit America with an astonishing team of writers and artists who created satires in every conceivable format. They produced a complete parody Sunday newspaper, an encyclopedia and a million-selling high school yearbook, comics, diaries, radio, TV and live spinoffs, climaxing in the smash-hit movie 'Animal House' and causing the creation of 'Saturday Night Live'. I still own every issue of NatLamp from issue 2 to the point where it stopped being funny under Republican PJ O'Rourke, reflecting the 'Me Generation' eighties. This happened with the departure of the original team and the switch away from genuinely subversive wit to the reactionary smut of endless B movies. A chronicle was published called 'Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead' in which staff artist Rick 'Mona Gorilla' Meyerowitz went back to look at the original team and told their story, generously illustrating the tale with examples of their work.
One of the biggest tragedies is how few of the team made it through those turbulent decades intact. The other shame is that a once-brilliant magazine lost its way to end up as a truly horrible parody of itself. Now Netflix is showing a meta-fictionalised version of the story, concentrating on the life of co-founder Doug Kenney, called 'A Futile and Stupid Gesture', with Will Forte and Martin Mull playing Doug, who actually died at 36. It's a far from perfect film but what it captures well is the energy of working with a group of like-minded people, in this case witty, perverse, fast-thinking twenty something outsiders who know they can hothouse great ideas when they sit down together. The curse, of course, is that all such meteoric stories have to include the climactic crash-and-burn years. In much the same way, Carl Reiner's memoir of writing for Sid Caesar has the same seat-of-the-pants jazz to it - sometimes creativity comes better and faster when you work in a group. Reiner was writing one-liners for insertion in a sketch while it was actually playing out on live TV, which must have been intense. Spy magazine took over the political, intellectual approach of Lampoon (in
1988 they described Donald Trump as 'a short-fingered vulgarian') launching extended attacks on Trump, but finally folded for mysterious reasons. Lampoon was filled with writing that switchbacked from Pulitzer-level to low, hilarious cruelties. Highlighting an issue about the gap between the first and third worlds, the most outrageous cover passed uncommented; it featured a starving Congo baby made of Belgian chocolate. The joke was possibly too historically clever for newsstands to stop stocking it. If Punch magazine had been purchased by someone far-sighted instead of Mohamed Al-Fayed it might have re-established itself as a cutting edge satire magazine, a cross between the fogeyish Private Eye and the late Modern Review. What's noticeable right now is that the UK does not have a satire magazine with longform articles just when it needs one most. The present times are hard to parody, although a few online mags do their best to try.


Ian Luck (not verified) Wed, 17/04/2019 - 14:19

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Someone actually tracked that dog down and shot it. Some people are very weird.

J F Norris (not verified) Wed, 17/04/2019 - 15:24

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Didn't Spy fold after repeated lawsuits for libel and defamation of character? I vaguely recall they couldn't deal with all the pending litigations and just gave up.

Roger (not verified) Wed, 17/04/2019 - 19:51

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

"The present times are hard to parody, although a few online mags do their best to try."
It's a time when reality is too grotesque to parody. Boris Johnson is a leading candidate to be our next prime minister because he's known to be idle, irresponsible, uninterested in detail and completely ignorant of money and finances, but is supposedly "a character", but when his rivals make him look like the least bad candidate, things really are bad.

Peter Tromans (not verified) Thu, 18/04/2019 - 08:00

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Satire is vital to democracy. We make decisions, including how we vote, because of emotions. Satire strips the politician to expose him for what he is. It rarely harms the honest and competent, but destroys the criminal and buffoon.

Peter Tromans (not verified) Thu, 18/04/2019 - 08:15

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Eye is an excellent journal, but it lumbers itself with too many facts for effective satire. We need a pure graphic version.

chazza (not verified) Thu, 18/04/2019 - 09:00

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Everything was up for ridicule and satire under NatLamp; too snowflake now to attempt that approach without protests and howls of indignation from the New Puritans. I continue a lone battle by continuing to be utterly offensive to everyone. Nobody deserves respect....I remember fondly the grossly offensive cartoons of Rodriguez...

Peter Dixon (not verified) Thu, 18/04/2019 - 09:53

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Punch was originally very political, tilting against the establishment and pomposity. Unfortunately you often can't understand the jokes before 1910 without a sound knowledge of politics and social mores of the time. It became stultified under the editorship of Richard Ingrams but, for me, reached a peak under Alan Coren who was a genuine wit and an excellent writer.

I used to read it in my school library along with a bunch of friends who valued humour.

Sadly, it failed due to falling sales, falling advertising and the fact that dentists stopped putting back copies of it and National Geographic into their waiting rooms. It certainly lost young readers who thought it was something their grandfathers read. The ads were mainly for high-end spirits, cigars and expensive cars.

Al-Fayed still owns the copyright to the back catalogue and seems to have forgotten all about it as a product.

The Eye works because it is cheap to produce on newsprint stock.

But where would we find an editor today for an equivalent?

I don't see many contenders in terms of written humour - certainly not in the current press.

Maybe Boris Johnson could shift his talents - BoJo Magazine with his caricatured face in place of Mr. Punch.