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Book Review: Boomer Humor

Present at the creation of modern comedy.

Dec 6, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 12 • By HELEN RITTELMEYER
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Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead

Book Review: Boomer Humor

The Writers and Artists Who Made the National Lampoon Insanely Great
by Rick Meyerowitz
Abrams, 320 pp., $40

Nothing that National Lampoon produced in its heyday has lodged itself in our cultural memory, apart from its January 1973 cover, “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog.” That was the Lampoon’s “Dead Parrot.” It had no “Spanish Inquisition” or “Ministry of Silly Walks.” It had a Holy Grail—it was called Animal House—but the magazine does not get much credit for it.

Our amnesia when it comes to National Lampoon might be explained by the title of this latest and best anthology of its output: The first few generations of Lampoon staffers started out drunk and/or stoned, and they either turned out to be brilliant—in which case they left for successful careers in Hollywood (John Hughes) and journalism (P. J. O’Rourke, George Trow)—or ended up dead (Doug Kenney). No stragglers were left to plump for the Lampoon legacy. But National Lampoon still has a powerful reputation among men of a certain generation, even if their esteem is short on specifics, and Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead does a better job of backing up their nostalgia with evidence than any of the anthologies that preceded it. Author Rick Meyerowitz is an art and design man, and his lavish attention to graphics is just what a Lampoon anthology required.

The cartoonists and artists benefit from it, obviously, but so do the writers. The Cold War pamphlet parody “Let’s Get America Out of Dutch”—“They’ve been going around cutting all our doors in half, and God only knows what they’re baking in those ovens of theirs!”—just wouldn’t be the same without the smudgy typewriter print, sub-amateur layout, and bad cartoon depicting the “Dutch Conspiracy” as an octopus wearing wooden shoes. Thankfully, that piece and many others are reproduced exactly as they first appeared in the magazine’s pages. In some cases, Meyerowitz has even improved the magazine’s original graphic layout. The cover story of the March 1972 Travel issue is “The Stranger in Paradise,” a glossy photo spread of Hitler in the tropics. Meyerowitz didn’t think the piece quite captured the look of the travel magazines it was meant to mock, so while the pictures are all there— Hitler sunbathing, Hitler sitting around a tribal campfire, Hitler tossing a fresh-picked papaya to his native companion “Freitag”—the formatting has been spruced up a bit. He also includes an introductory essay by the author, Michel Choquette, who tells the story of what happened when one of the magazine’s printers showed the piece to his elderly Jewish mother without telling her it was a joke: “She simply shrugged and said, ‘So? They found him.’ ”

Meyerowitz divides up his anthology by author, starting with the magazine’s Harvard-boy founders, Doug Kenney and Henry Beard. People who are only dimly aware that Kenney “changed comedy forever” (as the subtitle of his biography says) tend to know two things about him: that he had the good looks and early promise of a golden boy but never delivered a masterpiece, and that no one knows whether his deadly fall from a cliff in Hawaii was an accident or suicide. Surely these things are less important than his actual work, which, if the pieces collected here are anything to go by, was excellent. Not only did he think to parody the Code of Hammurabi, he pulled it off:

If a man’s brother-in-law lives under his roof, and does no work and stirs not, after four years he may be considered furniture and sold.

If a man flog his wife, pluck out her hair, or smite and damage her nose, she shall have been flogged, had her hair plucked, been smote, and had her nose damaged.

If a wet nurse substitutes a changeling for a freeman’s son, and the real son returns years later by accident as part of a traveling acrobatic troupe and is immediately recognized by the father by means of a distinctive ring or birthmark, the rights to any resulting poem, song, or bas-relief shall belong to the King.

Next comes Henry Beard, a blueblood whose family background was more Harvard than Kenney’s and whose humor was, too; his work is all unflaggingly cerebral. The centerpiece of his chapter is “The Law of the Jungle,” ostensibly an excerpt from a textbook for animal lawyers, in which the fundamentals of lex fauna are delivered perfectly deadpan: “Articulated legs are patentable, but the technique of using a large number of them in a series is not. See Centipedes v. Millipedes (566 Pests 49).” The fact that it goes on too long—12 three-column pages of tiny type, with footnotes—seems like a mistake only to those who have never read a law school textbook. In all, it is clearly the work of the man who, after leaving the Lampoon, would publish such books as Latin for All Occasions and French for Cats.

Lesser lights than the founders are also given their due: cartoonists Charles Rodrigues and Gahan Wilson, the underappreciated team of Danny Abelson and Ellis Weiner, and even a young Jeff Greenfield, who moonlighted from his real career in political journalism with such pieces as “The Specialist,” about a doctor who gives terminal illnesses to politicians’ relatives when their poll numbers start to slip. Especially appreciated is the chapter on George W. S. Trow. A WASP aristocrat who moved among New York’s cultural and hereditary upper classes, Trow is easy to picture at William Shawn’s New Yorker, where he eventually ended up. It is harder to imagine him at a bomb-throwing countercultural rag like the Lampoon. But the pieces collected here compare well with his later work, particularly “Lady Sings the Scales,” a Billie Holiday parody about Kate Smith in which the fat white singer makes “even the humblest branch manager and the lowliest shareholder proud of their Euro-American ancestry” but is undone by her addiction to eclairs and Mallomars: “The fact is, of course, that dessert was rampant within the white community.” His intellectual preoccupations are here, and in his advertisement for a correspondence course in Euphemism, but he handles them more lightly than he would later.

Meyerowitz humbly claims in his introduction that his book will offer neither a history of the Lampoon’s golden years nor a case for the Lampoon’s place in the pantheon of American humor, but simply as many good pieces as would fit. Meyerowitz delivers more than he promises. The alumni reminiscences he commissioned, taken together, paint a vivid picture of a tight-knit family of twentysomething humorists at the dawn of their careers: their controlled experiments to determine the relative merits of marijuana versus alcohol, their weekends on Long Island when one of them was apt to say, “It looks like it’s going to rain all day, so let’s dress up as pirates and go play mini-golf.” And as far as the Lampoon’s place in history goes, that’s the content’s case to make—and in this anthology, it does so persuasively.

Helen Rittelmeyer is an associate editor at National Review.

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