Ivy League Laughs

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.

No surprise, then, that the funniest pieces here date from 1975 and after. The earlier stuff—and the book has nearly a hundred pages of it, going back to 1886—falls into two categories: Some are pieces by authors who became famous as nonhumorists, like a painfully unfunny Charles Kuralt parody by Walter Isaacson or “Hold Up” (1954) by John Updike, which has no more laughs than the average Updike short story and qualifies as a humor piece only in the sense that there is no sex or death in it.

The others were presumably chosen for historical value, such as “The Arms Conference: A Fable” (1924) or the inscrutable “Diary of an Amoeba” (1924), in which the unicellular narrator proposes electing “Amoebess Sanger” to the presidency. He adds: “The Lord knoweth it is not for me to talk, whose descendants have already founded and overfilled four towns.” The second-rate sketch “How I Was Taken at the Cleaners” (1941) by one Walter R. Bowie Jr. can only have been included in order to show just how derivative of S. J. Perelman most of that era’s humor writing was.

But the quality begins to pick up with a theater review of the end of the world by Stephen O’Donnell from 1975:

Bogged down by heavy-handed symbolism and millions of actual deaths, the Second Coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ would have done better to stay a few extra months in New Haven. .  .  . The lyrics are repetitious (“Holy, holy, holy”) and reminiscent to the point of plagiarism of many old church tunes. .  .  . I was also outraged that upon entrance to the show last night I was branded on my forehead with the number 666. A simple inkstamping on the back of the hand would have saved the management and the public a lot of inconvenience.

O’Donnell is not a famous name, having made his career off-camera as a writer for David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel. Most of the standout pieces are from authors of this type—NewsRadio creator Paul Simms (who?), West Wing writer Paul Redford (huh?), Veep writer Alexis Wilkinson (is that a man or a woman?).

The celebrity contributions are lackluster in comparison. Conan O’Brien’s six-panel cartoon “Nader’s Raiders of the Lost Ark” lives down to its premise. The two pieces from Colin Jost, current coanchor of SNL‘s “Weekend Update,” are better than O’Brien’s only insofar as they do not feature a character called “Co-Co, the Legal Aid Chimp.” The exception to the rule is B. J. Novak, a star of NBC’s The Office, whose travel piece parodying magical realism is genuinely funny (“When she served the meal, each bite echoed with the unbearable sadness of Juanita’s limitless heartbreak. It was the worst burrito I ever had”).

One quality that was lost when the Lampoon became more professional in the 1970s was any distinctive Harvard flavor, either academic or patrician. Many entries in the first half of the book are distinctly WASPy—explicitly so in the case of Thomas Feran’s “WASP Jokes,” which is three pages of exactly that:

How can you tell when you’re in a WASP neighborhood?
The homes are very large and well cared for.

Why did the WASP throw his alarm clock out the window?
As a histrionic gesture demonstrating his dissatisfaction with the regimentation of his life.

Henry Beard, the blueblood on the original National Lampoon staff, is represented by a 1964 piece imagining that Harvard’s three-dollar-a-year deans go on strike for a $1.30 raise (“A dollar doesn’t buy what it used to”), leading Lyndon Johnson to threaten to release a stockpile of dollar-a-year men left over in Washington from World War II. Beard himself was very much from the dollar-a-year men’s world: After growing up in the Westbury Hotel on the Upper West Side, and then being sent off to the Taft School, his great act of teenage rebellion was to enroll at Harvard, his father being a Yale man.

No doubt, some of this change was due to demographics. There were simply fewer pedigreed students on campus after meritocracy kicked in. But the Lampoon‘s very success is also partly responsible: Once it became a ticket to a real comedy career, students began to approach writing for the Lampoon as an audition, with a national audience in mind. They were not simply trying to amuse their fellow classmates anymore, with the result that the magazine ceased to be any guide to what young members of the ruling class in particular found funny in any given generation. The later pieces are, therefore, of minimal sociological interest. But they are still, many of them, damn funny.