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The last laugh

The Harvard Lampoon celebrates 125 years of sophomoric – and lucrative – humor.
By Michael Rosenwald

When Kevin Doughten was a freshman at Harvard three years ago, he found himself taking a lot of showers. It's not that he was insecure about body odor. No. He was trying desperately to be funny, and he had discovered that the best place to think up jokes was under streaming hot water.

A good long shower might produce several ideas. He'd bolt back to his desk, dripping wet, wrapped in a robe, and start writing them down, hoping that he wouldn't forget anything. During a particularly tense time, he might take three or four showers a day.

Eventually, cleanliness paid off for Doughten. He won the job he had been trying for: a spot on The Harvard Lampoon, the university's humor magazine. It's a club as private and exclusive as any at the university. A club where you have to be funnier than funny, where most people who go out for the magazine don't make it.

Doughten hadn't come to Harvard looking to be a comic. Back home in Pequannock, New Jersey, about 20 miles from New York City, he had read the comics, especially Peanuts, in the morning, and at night he often lay in bed listening to George Carlin's stand-up routines. He'd never heard of The Harvard Lampoon, though. Then, in the early days of his first year, his roommate dragged him to a meeting he had no interest in attending: an introductory session for students hoping to write for the humor magazine. Hearing the smart, rapid-fire, wise-ass jokes coming out of the writers on staff, he had one of those life-changing bolts from the blue: "This is awesome," he told himself. "I have to be here." And looking around at the other newcomers, he thought, "I can outwrite any of these schlumps."

The arduous tryout turned Doughten's freshman year upside down. He spent more time visiting the Lampoon for writing advice than he did talking to his professors. The English lit major got so many extensions on his papers that he won't say just how many, for fear his parents will learn the truth.

In one piece for the Lampoon tryout, Doughten made a list of reasons why God is better than man: "Man goes to church every Sunday but God is worshiped by man. Man creates such timeless novelty items as the pet rock and the hula hoop, while God creates such timeless novelty items as the universe. Man must pay late fees for overdue library books, while God has an 'in' with the librarian, whose husband coached His little league team."

OK, so maybe you had to be there. But he kept plugging away, and, though it took six tries over two semesters, he got on board.

Now Doughten is a senior. In a couple of months, he will throw on a cap and gown and graduate from Harvard. His diploma will say something about a degree in English. But in reality, like thousands of Lampoon alums before him, Doughten majored in humor writing. And his true final exam comes in two weeks, when he helps put on the massive 125th birthday bash for The Harvard Lampoon, now the oldest continuously published humor magazine in the world.

The party will bring a good portion of the 900 or so past members of the Lampoon to sites in and around Boston. The guest list is a Who's Who of Hollywood and literary star power: authors John Updike, George Plimpton, and John Berendt; late-night television host Conan O'Brien; Henry Beard, a founder of the National Lampoon; former New Yorker staff writer Ian Frazier (whose most recent book is On the Rez); and scores of others not as widely known but certainly as influential. Many are wizards of comedy who, like O'Brien, have contributed heavily over the last 20 years to television's most popular comedies, like The Simpsons, Late Night With David Letterman, Friends, Seinfeld, and Saturday Night Live. A couple of generations of children have grown up with the Muppets and The Electric Company, shows also contributed to by former Lampooners.

Not bad for a magazine that started as the whim of seven Harvard students in 1876. One of them, John Tyler Wheelwright, recalled the magazine's first days upon the occasion of its 25th anniversary, in 1901:

"We worked over the first number in great secrecy - the element of surprise was considered as important as if we were planning a night attack. At last the first issue was ready, and Billy Otis and I, at early dawn, covered the trees in the Yard and Bulletin Boards with posters, announcing the appearance of The Harvard Lampoon, or Cambridge Charivari, Illustrated, Humorous, etc. Our success was immediate, although twenty-five cents was asked for the little paper, and our first edition of twelve hundred was sold at once, from Whiton's cigar store, at the corner of Main and Holyoke Streets."

Looking back at the early humor, it's pretty impenetrable stuff. You really had to be there. Most of the cartoons and text deal with Harvard - very old, puritanical Harvard.

An example in the first magazine, under the headline "Expansion of the Idea of a Harvard Model for the Centennial": "From the humble acorn of the article in one of the last Advocates, entitled 'A Model University,' we already see growing into gigantic forms a Querxotic* (not a misprint for Quixotic) - oh, life-saving idea! ...

"*From Quercus, an oak (Latin Editor). For Freshmen only."

The magazine continued in this vein for a couple of decades, archly satirizing Harvard dorm life, food, and students. As the 100th anniversary issue points out, "No one ... elicited more mockery than freshmen, who for decades played the bathetic stooge, dupe or dumbbell in most of Lampy's two-liners."

By the early 1900s, though, the magazine had stumbled on an idea that is still with it today: parodying other publications. Robert Benchley is said to have invented the Lampoon's magazine parodies by doing one of a humor magazine called Life in 1911.

And the Lampoon started taking more risks. A 1935 parody of Esquire, which featured a full-color drawing of a nude with the caption "What the well-dressed bride will wear" and a Faulkner parody concerning incest, titled "Desire Under the Mason-Dixon Line," was banned by local postal authorities.

The '40s and '50s Lampoon had a more literary feel, with short stories in the spirit of The New Yorker's James Thurber and E. B. White. Plimpton and Updike wrote many of these stories. Updike, perhaps foreshadowing his long relationship with a character named Rabbit Angstrom, wrote a piece in the 1950s titled "The Different One." It begins this way: "Contrary to popular notion, writers, not mother rabbits, name bunnies. The mother of the courageous rabbit thought of him only as the different one, the one who gave her the trouble. We shall call him Elwood."

Around the same time, Updike also drew a now legendary cartoon: An Asian family is celebrating a child's birthday, singing, "Happy birthday, Tu Yu/Happy birthday, Tu Yu."

Then the '60s hit, and the magazine, like the rest of society, entered the age of permissiveness. Hello, four-letter words. Today, Plimpton, class of '48, laughs as he remembers being put on probation for publishing a cartoon that featured a squirrel reaching for some nuts and another squirrel saying to him, "Cough."

"In the '60s, all of the sudden they could print whatever they wanted," says Plimpton, who went on to found The Paris Review and write Paper Lion, among other books.

What kicked off the magazine's emergence into a more flamboyant sense of humor was the 1960 parody of the literary magazine the Saturday Review. Editors at Mademoiselle liked it so much that they asked the Lampoon staff if they wanted to do a parody of the fashion magazine's notoriously slow-selling July issue.

The idea was to take the essence of Mademoiselle - demure, fashion-conscious - and spin it. So the Lampoon editors stuck a fly on the nose of the cover model's Audrey Hepburn-like face. An ad for a svelte woman with gargantuan feet asks: "Why does she look so trim? It's her new Merrimold. It redistributes fat discreetly."

The success of that first fake issue led to requests from Mademoiselle for two more summer parody issues. Emboldened, the Lampoon guys (the magazine had an all-male staff until 1972) romped through the whole world of publishing, parodying Playboy, Time, Sports Illustrated, The New Yorker, and The New York Times over the next decade. The most memorable was the fake Cosmopolitan magazine in 1972, which featured a "centerfold" of Henry Kissinger (his head, someone else's naked body).

These parodies sold millions of copies and resulted in an increase in Lampoon subscriptions in the '60s from 900 to 20,000. Spurred on by their success, some of the writers in 1969 wrote a best-selling book, a takeoff of J. R. R. Tolkien's fantasy trilogy, Lord of the Rings, called Bored of the Rings.

Those successes allowed the Lampoon to take its name and style to the national arena. In 1970, The Harvard Lampoon agreed to loan the Lampoon name, in exchange for royalties, to former staffers Henry Beard and Doug Kenney, both Bored of the Rings authors, and Rob Hoffman, so they could create the National Lampoon magazine. Here the satire was sharper, and no one was untouchable: Dr. Seuss and Julie Nixon Eisenhower were targets of the first issue. Audiences loved the magazine's irreverence. Newsstands couldn't keep it on the shelves; by 1974, circulation was nearly 850,000. But the originators sold off their interest that year, and the magazine eventually shriveled and died.

The reach of Lampoon humor went ever further with National Lampoon's Animal House, a 1978 movie about the debauchery of frat life in the early '60s, written in part by Doug Kenney. One of the highest-grossing film comedies of all time, Animal House is still a video staple on college campuses.

Harvard Lampoon staffers still write book parodies, mostly as summer projects, which are picked up by big publishing houses like Warner Books in New York. Last year, staffers produced a parody of college guides. Next year, they'll publish one about reality TV shows such as Survivor and MTV's Real World.

These days, a typical Lampoon will have parodies of the Harry Potter books and Life's Little Instruction Book, as well as "Popular Words of the Elf Dictionary." For example, "Human: the Elf word for when you have a little piece of green spinach in your teeth."

In keeping with current nanosecond attention spans, Lampoon pieces are frequently one-page lists. ("Come Hell or High Water: Eight Things to Do in Case of a Tidal Wave." No. 6 is an example of how to look on the bright side before the wave hits: "At least I saw my first born graduate high school.")

"You get in, you get out," Doughten says. "It makes the pieces more similar. There's less nuance. But it's more easily punchy."

In spite of the Lampoon's sophomoric underpinnings, it's had a major impact on comedy and popular culture. As New York University cultural critic Todd Gitlin puts it: "Somewhere in [the '60s], they moved from archness to a sort of corrosive attitude in which they shared with their readers the same disdain of their subject matter. ... Instead of standing above the everyday world with upper-class disdain, they spoke with authority about a shared world and a world that was becoming a mass world where that included Nixon as a target of scorn. They found popular culture to be a marketable topic, and they tore it apart."

Today, Lampoon humor reaches deep into popular culture. Jeffrey Sconce, a professor in the school of cinema and television at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, has written about how former Lampoon writers have helped create the sort of sarcastic humor that has been a mainstay on edgy comedy shows. He notes in an academic paper how the magazine Spy, founded in part by Lampoon alum Kurt Andersen, once wrote, "This is the era of the permanent smirk, the knowing chuckle, of jokey ambivalence as a way of life. This is the irony epidemic." Sconce continues: "The most significant architects of the contemporary explosion of smirking cynicism would have to include Andy Kaufman, David Letterman, and, perhaps most significantly, the seemingly endless stream of primarily young, white, male writers and performers affiliated with The Harvard Lampoon and Chicago's Second City."

Robert Thompson, a television expert and professor at Syracuse University, says that the Lampoon, in many ways, is to a joke what the World Wrestling Federation is to sport. "It's really more attitude than anything else," he says. "When you think about it, when you watch Conan O'Brien or Letterman, there's very few jokes in it. It's this ironic attitude, and it's taken over so much of American culture. That in-your-face ironic stance is the order of comedy these days, and just about everything else in society."

On the other hand, Thompson says The Simpsons, written largely by former Lampoon staffers, is "arguably one of the very best television comedies made in the last 20 years. It ranks up there with Mark Twain and Will Rogers as classic American comedy." And, says Thompson, "The Simpsons actually transcends a lot of this irony. It's got all that pop culture, this hip sort of ironic attitude, but within all is a traditional narrative, and it's got warmth and heart to it. Homer Simpson is arguably one of the greatest characters in American art. This is the Lampoon's finest creation. Other Harvard people write books and win Nobel Prizes. The Lampoon can point to The Simpsons."

It's a mystery to Harvard students exactly how a writer gets on the Lampoon, but there are plenty of rumors. One is that you have to buy beer for the staff. Another is that it's all in the writing. Really. Once a writer makes the cut, here's what happens.

On any given night, a small group of students congregate at the Lampoon offices in an odd, triangular-shaped brick building at the corner of Bow and Mt. Auburn streets called "The Castle." They come to work and drink and play loud music and smoke cigarettes and sit around the television poking fun at the peculiarities of the world in which they find themselves. They eat up pop culture as if they were starving.

Many nights, Doughten says, staffers sit around tossing jokes back and forth. Invariably, someone will get out a pen and paper, maybe fire up a computer, and start writing a piece, usually with kibitzing from the others.

Published on slick paper and for all intents and purposes appearing to be a real magazine, the Lampoon gets done when it gets done. It comes out about five times a year at $4 an issue, and the staff likes the idea that it comes out "about" five times a year.

It's a club that, unlike other Harvard clubs, gives students the opportunity not to be intellectuals but to just be funny. The idea is to create pure humor, without topicality - no Clinton-Lewinsky jokes, please - or regard for what Hollywood might find funny.

"The idea of [the Lampoon] being topical really is an impossibility," says Andy Borowitz, who created the TV show Fresh Prince of Bel Air and now writes topical comedy pieces for The New Yorker and the New York Times op-ed page. "In a way, that's pretty scary, but it's also incredibly liberating." He adds: "When you get into Harvard and onto the Lampoon, your need to prove yourself as an intellectual is really sort of over. Once you're in, you spend zero time trying to prove how smart you are. You become anti-intellectual. It's a sublime silliness."

John Aboud, a Lampoon veteran and founder of the popular online magazine Modern Humorist, says, "What makes the whole process successful in spawning professional writers is that the magazine exists in a pure vacuum where it is untouched by market forces. If it doesn't sell, the magazine will still come out. That really allows these kids to find themselves as writers. It lets voices grow and flourish."

But very often people on campus do not find the magazine particularly funny, say Doughten and current Lampoon president Steve Hely, and that's been true since the beginning. They say they think other students on campus find the magazine a bit too self-indulgent. "I think they think we're trying to show just how witty we really are," Doughten says.

He might be on to something. You decide. Here's a sample from a 1999 issue of the Lampoon:

A piece titled "Interview: Primitive Man" opens with a dialogue on the world's oldest profession.

"Q. Is your tribe primarily hunters and gatherers?

"A. We'll build to that eventually. Right now we're fine with everyone being a prostitute.

"Q. Everyone? How effective is that?

"A. I'd say 'many,' on a scale from one to many."

Or take this list, also from 1999, of the "1,000 Least Influential Women of the Millennium." Number 801 is Virginia Woolf: "Often considered one of the most important postmodern writers, people tend to forget that Woolf is actually a character in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? A play. Written by Edward Albee. A man."

Perhaps the quirky nature of the writing can be blamed on the building it is done in. The Castle was built in 1909 with funding from William Randolph Hearst, a Lampoon staffer who had been kicked out of Harvard in the mid-1880s for incessant pranks.

The founders were young, distinguished men of Cambridge who loved the British magazine Punch. Miffed that no one on campus would publish their humor, they created their own publication. They were Edmund March Wheelwright (who was the architect of the building and who went on to design the Longfellow Bridge), his brother, John Tyler Wheelwright, Samuel Sherwood, William Sigourney Otis, Ralph Wormeley Curtis, Arthur Murray Sherwood, and Edward Sanford Martin.

The building is a monument to the Lampoon's mission all these years: essentially, to be funny, at anyone's expense. It's a joke, literally. The founders were fascinated, for some reason, by still lifes from 17th-century Holland. The building's architecture parodies Flemish and Dutch architecture of the 16th century. Wheelwright made the dormers too big and the tower more than slightly out of proportion. Inside are a number of quirky nooks and crannies that also parody the same style of architecture.

It is inside these walls - off-limits to all but staff members or those invited to their famous all-night parties - up a winding staircase, behind secret doors, that the writers do their work.

The staff members don't confine themselves to writing; their reputation for screwing around is legion. They play out elaborate pranks that have landed some of them, handcuffed, in the back of police cars. It starts with the initiation process, dubbed "Phool's Week." Plimpton remembers "a man called Baker" being sent to retrieve a vial of leopard urine. He also recalls invading Harvard's Widener Library with a bunch of animals. "I believe," he says, "that we actually walked in there with goats."

Author John Berendt reminisced about Phool's Week in a C-SPAN interview in 1997: "We played little tricks in public, like locking all the gates of Harvard Yard, all 19 gates, with big chains just before night classes were released so that big crowds would gather at each gate trying to get out. Well, this was hilariously funny to undergraduates."

Over the years, Lampoon writers have played countless pranks on Harvard's student newspaper, the Crimson, putting out dozens of fake issues of the paper, dumping truckloads of manure on the front steps of the building in which it is published. They have repeatedly stolen the Crimson's president's chair (first used by Franklin Delano Roosevelt) and once shipped it to Iceland in the spirit of diplomacy. (The Crimson has struck back, swiping the Lampoon's beloved ibis, the Egyptian bird that sits as part of the weathervane atop The Castle.)

The Lampoon's targets, for the most part, are close to campus. The Lampoon sent letters to students purporting to be from University Health Services declaring massive cases of botulism from dorm food and advising them to bring in stool samples in brown bags. Hundreds did.

When Matt Warburton, 1999 president of the Lampoon, graduated last June, he packed his computer and a stack of his published comedy writing and high-tailed it to Hollywood. There was no job waiting for him, and he had little else to go on besides the knowledge that many of his predecessors tended to do quite well once they landed in the smoggy valley.

Warburton rented a two-bedroom apartment in West Hollywood with another Lampoon alum and started working on spec scripts for TV shows. What separated Warburton and his roommate from the throngs of other would-be television writers was their Lampoon experience, considered by many in the business to be the best launch pad for comedy writing.

OK, so the pedigree didn't get him an instant job. It did get him an agent with the prestigious William Morris Agency fairly quickly, though. It got him a spot at the top of the pile of scripts. And a mere six months after arriving, it got him a job on The Simpsons.

Post-graduation life for Lampoon staffers wasn't always this way. There was no great migration of them toward any particular part of society. Their real influx into popular culture began in the early 1960s, when the magazine parodies opened doors to terrific jobs. Harold Hayes, then editor of Esquire, liked the first Mademoiselle parody so much that he called the editors of the magazine to ask which of these Lampoon staffers he ought to have a look at. John Berendt, they said. Berendt went on to a long career as a journalist for Esquire before he published his best-selling nonfiction book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, in 1994.

Former Lampoon staffers Michael Frith and Christopher Cerf, both class of '63, are key figures in children's television. Frith worked with Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. He went on to work for Jim Henson Productions, designing puppets for Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, among others. Cerf wrote song lyrics for Sesame Street and The Electric Company. Frith and Cerf are two of the creative minds behind the PBS children's show Between the Lions, which is produced by WGBH in Boston. Lisa Henson, daughter of Muppets creator Jim Henson and in 1981 the first woman to be elected president of the Lampoon, is president of Jim Henson Pictures in Hollywood. Al Gore's daughter Kristen, class of '99, writes for Futurama, a recent Fox Network hit.

Jim Downey, class of '74, was the first Lampoon writer on Saturday Night Live. During his career on the show, he hired dozens of Lampoon graduates, helping start what Hollywood circles call the "Lampoon mafia."

In the late '70s and early '80s, Henson says, there was already a strong feeling of the magazine being a feeder for television: "There was a sense that you could go down to New York and really plug in with this stuff. We all knew what Jim Downey had done."

When somebody told Borowitz that Downey was making good money writing for television, "I thought it was the best joke I'd ever heard," he said during a radio interview last year. "I couldn't believe that it was true. That someone would actually pay you for what we were doing at the Lampoon, which was basically sitting around making fun of TV and screwing up our grade point averages. I thought life couldn't be that easy."

Doughten has big shoes to fill as organizer of this year's 125th anniversary bash. For the centennial, for instance, the Lampoon rented a train that brought up dozens of former staffers from New York City, remembers Plimpton.

At the dinner, people were asked to pelt speakers with rolls and pats of butter, and they did just that, firing things even at Updike after he suggested that there was too much excess at the party. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith was presented with a purple and gold Lincoln Continental whose hood ornament was a Castle-like ibis. (Galbraith then donated the car to WGBH to be auctioned off.)

There was the dinner, a parade, floats, and fireworks. Plimpton, who has an affinity for fireworks and, in fact, is New York City's fireworks commissioner, was asked to put on a show. The magazine purchased what Plimpton called the world's largest firework, which weighed something like 700 pounds. Plimpton says he intended to launch it over Cambridge, but changed his mind when informed that the act might land him in jail.

When the 125th anniversary celebration is over and the school year is done, Doughten's Lampoon colleagues, some of them, will head west to try to make their mark on popular culture. Kevin Doughten won't be among them. He has turned out to be, in some ways, a throwback to the Lampoon's gentleman scholars. He hopes to move to New York in the fall and has vague plans of writing long essays and humorous pieces. Doughten devours The New Yorker the same way he ate up the meticulous early prose of Benchley and Updike and Plimpton.

He also seems to feel a kinship to their old lifestyle. One night, a few months before the party, Doughten is talking in a smoky bar, nursing a sidecar, not a collegial beer. It's pushing midnight, and Doughten, who likes to talk, has no interest in stopping. He can get loud, too, so that people are looking over and wondering just what the hell this guy is talking about. It's writing, of course, and Lampoon history - the old guys.

Like many writers, he's somewhat insecure about his talent. Will he go off to New York to storm the gates of The New Yorker? Brag about his accomplishments to any and all? Doesn't seem like it.

"There's that horrible moment in life, you know," he says, "when you realize you can't be the best at what you want to do. But I'm not ready to give up the idea that I can be the best."

Sounds like there might well be a lot of showers in his future.

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