Rag against the Machine
The following are excerpts from "Morning in America: The Rise and Fall of the National Lampoon" by Tony Hendra, who was an editor at the magazine in its heyday.
In the fall of 1971, on one of those washed-clean, windswept, dazzlingly sharp mornings--peculiar to Manhattan and perhaps to America--when the light makes everything glitter with the promise of something utterly new in the course of human events, I was asked by Henry Beard, cofounder and editor of the National Lampoon, to become its first managing editor. In keeping with the egalitarian temper of the times, Henry was not "editor in chief" but simply "editor," and "managing" would soon be dropped from my title, putting us theoretically on the same footing. In keeping with another prevailing notion--that money and in particular capital would soon be obsolete--I was to be paid the handsome sum of $18,000 a year--not much more than I'd earned previously for writing one TV special. The magazine was a year old, with a circulation of 200,000. I accepted the job on the spot.
Joining the Lampoon was my third professional suicide attempt. The first had been to abandon my comedy act in 1969 despite having made a very comfortable living sucking chuckles from the sort of Americans whom Abbie Hoffman was then calling "Pig Nation." That career had ended abruptly during my fifth Ed Sullivan Show appearance, not long after the Tet Offensive. Ed, like most of his showbiz peers, was a passionate hawk on the need to spend young lives in a goose-bumpy rerun of his generation's finest hour. He'd placed a group of recently returned Vietnam vets in the front rows of the audience. All had lost one or more limbs in combat. During the dress rehearsal Ed directed lights and cameras to them and whipped the studio audience into a jingoistic frenzy. When he really had the crowd frothing, he turned to the vets, pumping his crablike arms, and quacked: "Stand up, boys--TAKE A BOW!" The poor guys tried obediently to get up from their wheelchairs. Several listed badly or crumpled to the floor. The APPLAUSE sign flashed. The place went crazy. Then and there, I came to the dramatic, income-shrinking realization that you couldn't collaborate with a system that threw up stuff like this. To do so, in George Carlin's words, was to be a traitor to your generation.
I'd been writing for the Lampoon since its first issues and knew the core group slightly. These were people who had their chops down. They were sharp, sure, and took no prisoners, revving at breathtaking speed, the Formula One of funny.
Nothing I'd done comedically was currency here, which was fine by me; what was startling was the heady lack of respect for the Movement, whose glib worldview "if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem"--had always seemed to me problematic. Habituated to the sanctimonious solons of San Francisco and lugubrious lefties of L.A., for whom the Hollywood Ten were still a hot-button issue, I found this environment hilarious and liberating: an abattoir where the new breed of sacred cows could be eviscerated along with the old. At last, there was no line drawn beyond which things were "just not funny, Tony." Indeed, the Lampoon's humor worked largely because it was about things we weren't supposed to laugh at. Radical, yes, but the radicalism of the White House--or the White Panthers--demanded it.
Henry Beard, a world-class mental athlete, was the head of this operation in every sense and its last court of appeal, though authority sat on him awkwardly. Except when in his cups, he was agonizingly diffident, his most likely response to any editorial suggestion being a sinus--clearing snort and the single word "Tempting," which could mean anything from "Christ in Heaven, that blows chunks" to "I'm about to have a prolonged intellectual orgasm."
Henry's cofounder and co-comic genius, Doug Kenney, could hardly have been more different. With Joe College good looks and shoulder-blade-length blond hair, he would've been the natural leader of this group, except that this group, including him, wanted all natural leaders dead. And he was a terrible editor, given to remarks like: "This sucks but I don't know why." In the first moments after I met Kenney he informed me that all British humor was totally unfunny. Moments later he was improvising flawlessly in the manner of Thackeray--and I mean Thackeray, not Trollope or Mrs. Gaskell or Dickens--and moments after that, he was demonstrating that he could put his entire fist into his own mouth.
Presiding over all this was Matty Simmons, whose grandiosely named company, 21st Century Communications, had backed a Harvard parody when Doug and Henry were there and backed, subsequently, the Lampoon. The magazine could hardly have had a less likely steward. As someone later put it, Matty most resembled "a stripper's agent." Once during the run of the Lampoon's off-Broadway hit, Lemmings, he was asked by its three male stars, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, and Christopher Guest, for a modest raise. According to Guest, he refused, telling three of the more intriguing comedic talents of the late twentieth century, "You guys are a dime a dozen."
And then there was Michael O'Donoghue. Stringy chestnut ringlets surrounded a fierce white face with bloodred lips, death cell of countless Virginia Slims. He wrote with incredible precision, each perfect word set in its perfect place like a razor blade concealed in a mouthwatering amuse-gueule. He had a unique gift for drawing humor from things that normally make people recoil, without ever cheapening them. He was the funniest of the group; laughter followed him everywhere. But yucks didn't do it for O'Donoghue; making people laugh, he said, "is the lowest form of humor."
Click here to go to the article.
You can learn more about Michael O'Donoghue, and Dennis Perrin's biography of him, here.
Here's Hendra's introduction to his book on the humor of the baby-boom generation, Going Too Far.
From a historical point of view, Boomer humor dealt for the first time with subjects that had been completely off-limits in popular comedy. Furthermore, it dealt with them aggressively, challenging rather than confirming attitudes and assumptions. Thus, for example, where the previous generation had made jokes at the expense of blacks, now it was White prejudice that became the butt (in every sense of the word). The cozy ethnicity of the great radio comedians, important in its own way and in its own day, was replaced by self-questioning about the same ethnicity and its social and religious roots. The "traditional" values that family comedy had always affirmed became themselves the object of satire. Stereotypes were no longer familiar cartoons but disturbing caricatures. Titillation was not the object of this comedy - but rather the sexual attitudes that made titillation necessary.
Needless to say, those in society who had appointed themselves to oversee such subjects did not take kindly to this intrusion of their airspace. A category of performers whose social status had up to this point been roughly equivalent to that of professional masseurs had suddenly abandoned their traditional function of kneading the public into a pleasant torpor. Instead, they were doing quite the opposite - disturbing people, making them sit up abruptly when they should be lying down, and what's more doing it in ways that were at least as interesting as those of the self-appointees, and far more fun. These people were pirating their public, trespassing on their territory; these people were Going Too Far.
Tommy Smothers was once told during the period immediately following the cancellation of the highly successful and controversial "Smothers Brothers Hour" that he was "incompetent to make social comment." The person who made the remark was the owner of a television station in the Midwest. Regardless of the merits of the Smothers' opinions, which in this context had mostly to do with the war in Vietnam, what this arrogant nobody was saying was that merely by the expense of capital he had become competent to judge a matter of life and death to the public, but Smothers, who had proved on innumerable occasions that the public was only too delighted to hear what he had to say, was not. Clowns do not comment on wars; clowns make you laugh. Clowns who did comment on wars were stepping out of their floppy shoes and baggy pants, were becoming indistinguishable from station owners, were Going Too Far.
What's important to stress here is that the comments in question were not preachments stuck inappropriately in the middle of a routine. On the contrary, one of the continuing elements in the Smothers' television success was the ability to deal hilariously with public affairs, in particular President Johnson's conduct of the war. In these terms, Smothers proved his competence every time he got a laugh. No other performer except the politician is as sensitive to public reaction as the satirist. He needs no poll to tell him whether he has correctly expressed what his audience thinks and feels about a given issue. If he chooses to comment on such an issue, then he had better get it right, for he is solely responsible for its content, and there is no rejection as devastating as dead silence.
Boomer humor has had to contend throughout its history with station owners, night club owners, theater owners, record company owners, publishing house owners, and studio owners and the owners of those owners. In many ways, the history of Boomer humor has been simply one of struggling to be heard. And once heard, to be accorded the respect that any art should enjoy.
However difficult and dangerous it is to create and perform comedy, and however rare real comedic talent may be, people always seem to have trouble thinking of comedy as an art. It's as if the ironic trivialization that lies at its core is in some way infectious or must be turned back by the audience on its creators. The distinction made by old-time vaudeville bookers between the "comedian" and the "artists" (meaning every other kind of performer) persists, no matter how profound the scope of his piece, or how brilliant its execution, or how far removed it is from two guys hitting each other with umbrellas. It's impossible not to notice how often Boomer humor, usually when it's at its most daring and innovative, has had to contend with such judgements as "childish," "immature," "adolescent," and above all, "sophomoric" (a word Michael O'Donoghue, one of its more daring and innovative practitioners, once defined as "liberal for 'funny'").