The Magazine

Laughing Last

How yesterday’s insurgents became today’s Establishment.

Jul 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 43 • By MICHAEL HEATON
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The new staff of National Lampoon deviants differed from their WASPy, East Coast, Harvard predecessors. The writers on the new Lampoon were almost all Jewish or Catholic. Kenney was a Midwestern kid from Chagrin Falls, Ohio, and P. J. O’Rourke, who would join the staff in 1971, was from Toledo. And these guys weren’t satisfied going after their parents’ tired mores. They were willing and eager to take on the target-rich clichés of their own generation—and the occasional photo of a naked woman with large breasts didn’t hurt sales, either. The magazine caught on fast, engaging the hot-button topics of the Vietnam war, political assassinations, left-wing radicalism, and rock ’n’ roll with aggressive irreverence. (Who can forget the famous cover line: “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog”?)

Each issue was given a theme before being handed off to a writer to plan and execute. The masthead bench was deep, and writers—some wacky, some vicious, others scholarly—gave each issue a fresh and hilarious tone. The humor ranged from run-of-the-mill penis jokes to P. J. O’Rourke’s stylized treatise on cocaine etiquette. In 1972, the Lampoon was offered a record contract for a comedy album and Christopher Guest, who would later produce such classic comedy films as This Is Spinal Tap and Waiting for Guffman, was brought in as musical director for a live comedy stage show mocking Woodstock, called Lemmings. (The jokes were mostly about music and drugs, and John Belushi began his Joe Cocker impression in the show.) From there, the magazine began morphing into other forms of humor/comedy, which would ultimately include the television show that will not die, Saturday Night Live, and such movies as Animal House, Blues Brothers, and the series of Vacation films, which were based on a Lampoon piece by John Hughes, later of The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off fame.

The life story of cofounder Doug Kenney, who died falling off a cliff in Hawaii in 1980, is the thread that connects this impressive, all-encompassing, 50-year history of boomer comedy and the people who created it. A big squirt from the seltzer bottle goes to Stein for her intrepid reporting, squeaky clean prose, and the herding of all these nasty comedy kittens to produce a book that will serve as a cultural reference work for the ages. And a blast from the past to read. 

Michael Heaton writes the Minister of Culture column for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.