Originally published in the 5 December 2016 issue of the Weekly Standard.
The Best of the Harvard Lampoon: 140 Years of American Humor
Simon & Schuster, 2016, 240 pp., $26.00
As John Tyler Wheelwright sat in Harvard’s Holden Chapel listening to Charles Eliot Norton lecture on the fine arts in January 1876, “Ralph Curtis snapped at me a little three-cornered note— ‘Come to Sherwood’s room after lecture. We are to start a College Punch.’ ” From that paper football sprang a magazine that would launch the careers of Conan O’Brien, Fred Gwynne, Robert Benchley, and dozens of writers whose names you’ve never heard of for shows you most certainly have, including The Simpsons and Late Night with David Letterman. The Harvard Lampoon has outlasted the British magazine that inspired it and today is the oldest continually published humor magazine in the English-speaking world.
Wheelwright’s reminiscence is in The Harvard Lampoon Centennial Celebration (1973), a superior anthology in every respect to this one. For one thing, it is bigger. Getting the full effect of the Lampoon‘s justly celebrated magazine parodies (Life, Playboy, Mademoiselle), exact down to the tiniest details of layout, really does demand a book the size of an LP cover. Those parodies are missing, understandably but regrettably, from this present six-by-nine hardback. The older book features an introduction by John Updike, the newer by Simon Rich, who is not even the most talented of Frank Rich’s sons. The older book is entirely devoid of Andy Borowitz.
However, this latest anthology has one major advantage: It covers the years of the Harvard Lampoon‘s greatest national influence. The precise moment its alumni launched their conquest of American professional comedy might be 1970, when Doug Kenney and Henry Beard moved to New York and started the National Lampoon. Or it might be 1976, when Jim Downey was hired as a writer for Saturday Night Live two years out of school. He stayed for the next 35 years, give or take a few gaps, and became “Patient Zero” in Harvard’s takeover of TV writers’ rooms (in the words of Simpsons show-runner and fellow ’Poonie Mike Reiss). But whatever the exact date, this is the first anthology published since the Harvard Lampoon became a name to conjure with in Hollywood . . .