Not So Stupid
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.