Book Review: Boomer Humor
Present at the creation of modern comedy.
Dec 6, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 12 • By HELEN RITTELMEYER
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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