Say what you want about National Lampoon. At least it was honest with itself.
Spun off from the Harvard Lampoon in 1969 by editors Doug Kenney, Henry Beard and Robert Hoffman, the now-defunct humor magazine became infamous for its unique brand of wholly uninhibited, and therefore devastatingly tasteless, satire. America had never and has never since seen anything like it, and maybe with good reason.
“All of the editors, I think to a certain degree, are unbelievable racists,” Kenney recalls in archival footage from “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead,” a new documentary chronicling the Lampoon’s tumultuous tumble through American culture.
Given some of the magazine’s articles, though, Kenney’s words don’t seem to go far enough. To name a few: “Children’s Letters to the Gestapo,” “Welfare Monopoly,” “Pornocopia” and “I Survived the Attack of the Krazed Kent Kamikaze Kids.” The average table of contents never failed to — or better, made a point to — inflame enough isms to make even the most open-minded of casual readers turn pink, but think. Pieces like the gruesome “Vietnamese Baby Book,” which included spaces for “Baby’s first bullet wound” and the like, laid out the era’s dirtiest laundry in full view of the neighborhood.
By today’s standards, it was appalling, but then that didn’t matter. At its mid-70s peak, National Lampoon was a full-fledged empire, boasting a nationally-syndicated radio program, an off-Broadway revue, a handful of Grammy nods and, at the center, a monthly magazine second only to Cosmopolitan in circulation.
Appropriately, the documentary is a brilliant eulogy of the Lampoon, but it begs a convincing autopsy. If National Lampoon’s vile frankness could blow the pustular, oversized nose off the face of the day with such success, why isn’t the model viable today?
“One of the things that was sort of the ingredient that made this National Lampoon cocktail so delicious is that they drew on common experiences that people had,” said Douglas Tirola, the documentary’s writer and director. “We were getting our news from three networks … so even if you had different views, you were at least getting the same information.”
Heading into the 1970s, that information went a long way towards greasing the kitchen fire that the Lampoon became. Nearly a decade of stalemate in Vietnam shamed the nation’s most powerful Democrat into forgoing another presidential term. This opened the door for an equally powerful Republican to glide into office, only to resign as a crook five years later.
By the time the Lampoon came about, nothing was sacred in America anymore.
“The Lampoon, obviously during Nixon and Watergate, they went after him ferociously, but they also didn’t shy away from making you take a look at the Kennedys or Che Guevara at the same time,” Tirola said. “That’s unusual, and it’s, by today’s standards, unheard of.”
Unheard of, because of what Tirola dubs the “playlist nation,” a modern culture which functions less like a tube TV and more like Netflix. What was once monolithic pop culture is now curated, personal and unique to You. What the individual gains, though, the masses lose.
“If you think about now, if you have a certain view, turn on this channel to have that view reaffirmed,” Tirola said. “Maybe if you want to get angry, go turn on the other channel that you know is not going to agree with you. But it’s so much set up that way.”
In that way, the magazine’s vital “regular jerk-off” demographic, as longtime art director Michael Gross describes it in the film, is extinct. That, in Tirola’s reasoning, seems to have been the killing blow. Without common experiences to fill it out, the Lampoon’s choke collar on society was too loose and slipped off.
“It was this idea of looking back in this nostalgic way,” Tirola said, referring to the publication’s bestselling “1964 High School Yearbook Parody” as an example. The book featured a cast of characters playing “the same dozen or 18” kids that everybody, supposedly, went to high school with.
“But if everybody’s experiences are so fractured and not similar, then there’s just not an audience as much for that,” Tirola said.
But there’s another question to be asked as far as to whom those experiences were common. Like Kenney, Beard and Hoffman, most — though granted not all — of the Lampoon’s writers’ room was white, college-educated and, reflected in the magazine’s copious amount of female nudity, in hapless possession of a penis.
What looks through one lens to be a Pangaeaic coming-apart of culture, then, could through another lens be a wealth of new perspectives bursting up after centuries spent kept out of view. To Tirola, this is a valid critique, albeit one that misses the point a little.
“Of course I would immediately say, what was the gender diversity or racial diversity at Rolling Stone or Time or any other magazines there are, [because] I think it was pretty much in line with the rest of them,” he said. “Most of what they [the Lampoon staff] write about is young high school and college men’s desire to have sex and then not being able to get it. [It’s] the eternal pursuit of teenage boys, whether they’re in teenage boys’ bodies or teenage boy minds in adult bodies, desiring women and being either too stupid, awkward or shy to make anything happen.”
“In that way,” he added, “there’s a lot in there where they’re making fun of their own audience.”
So by targeting itself in the satiric free-for-all, National Lampoon stood to insure itself against its own bias. Still, it’s hard to imagine that argument holding up under today’s standard of scrutiny, when even the mention of injustice or inequality sets off alarms. Nowhere, interestingly enough, is this more prevalent than in the two realms the Lampoon once held sway over: college campuses and comedy.
Try to decide which of the two is the more progressive. The former, recently, has come under fire for what critics see as an oversensitivity epidemic. Liberal ideals on campus are co-opted into well-intentioned but undiscerning rejection of any speech, action or even thought that excludes, marginalizes or insults any group of people. Depending on your philosophy of it, this comes at odds with the aim of the latter.
“Comedy should be one of those places that’s pushing the boundaries of what you can say in society,” Tirola said. “Comedy shouldn’t necessarily be right down the mainstream. … If you take away comedians’ ability to talk about certain people or certain people’s actions, and to talk about it in a certain way, you’ve just put a really low ceiling on using comedy as social commentary.”
Tirola cited Chris Rock, Louis C.K., Amy Schumer and Aziz Ansari as modern, Lampoon-vein standard-bearers of this. The controversy has gotten so big, though, that even markedly uncontroversial comedians like Jerry Seinfeld are forced to take up arms, and are taking heat accordingly.
But no one is under the impression that this makes Jerry Seinfeld or Chris Rock racists or sexists. Rather, Tirola said, it’s the way that they approach these social injustices that troubles people.
“It’s not political correctness, as far as I’m concerned,” Tirola said. “It’s more the self-censorship I’m concerned with. That’s what I think Seinfeld and Chris Rock were talking about. You lose civil discourse. You lose debate. You lose the chance, if someone really thinks Seinfeld or Chris Rock are doing something wrong, to engage them to explain why.”
“It’s never good to limit speech,” he concluded. “If someone says something really bad, you let them know it. But once it becomes scary for someone to express themselves, that’s not good.”
In that climate, it’s well past impossible to imagine a successful magazine printing, as the Lampoon did, a cartoon of a pointy-toothed Colonel Sanders eating from a bucket of black people, meant to caricature the “Old South.” It wouldn’t pass the editor’s desk.
At the same time, if cultural rifting was the fatal wound for National Lampoon, then this prior restraint on insensitivity might be society’s adamant refusal to suture it, for fear of making it worse. That cartoon is, of course, “beyond tasteless,” the movie admits, but by Tirola’s argument, ignoring it keeps us from moving past it.
Although, maybe we have been moving past it, in our own way. “In the last six years or so, but especially in 2015, we’ve been made to see how trans and bi and poly-ambi-omni- we are,” critic Wesley Morris wrote recently in The New York Times Magazine. “There’s a sense of fluidity and permissiveness and a smashing of binaries. We’re all becoming one another.”
In other words, we’re coming back to a different, more inclusive togetherness. In that way, confrontation may not be the issue. It’s the stark, vulgar brand of confrontation that made National Lampoon a million dollar magazine that’s the issue.
“Why does one laugh?” Lampoon contributor and later editor P.J. O’Rourke asks in the movie. “Laughter is entirely a defense mechanism. Laughter is a defense against hostility, a replacement for hostility, a defense mechanism against guilt, embarrassment.”
Tirola had a story, by way of Lampoon staffer Janis Hirsch. Hirsch, one of three women working for the Lampoon at the time, also used crutches after having polio as a kid.
“When Chevy Chase would come to the office, he would make fun of everybody. It’s just who he is, which is probably not hard to imagine. Whatever, your haircut, your clothes, the fact that you don’t have a girlfriend or a boyfriend, whatever it would be. But he never made fun of her. And it made her feel bad because she knew the reason she wasn’t being made fun of was obviously because she had polio,” Tirola said. “So she talks about that, and somebody must’ve said something, because then he’d come in and he started, like, playing with her crutches and whatever, and she actually felt better about it, because now she felt like everybody else. Because she wasn’t excluded.”
Which is not to say we should all make fun of polio, Tirola added, but the story nonetheless illustrates the movie’s implications pretty well. So many people have spent so long pressed to the margins, but we’re coming around, delicately but steadily, to embracing our diversity, sure, but also celebrating our mutual humanity.
It’ll take time, though, before society is secure enough in that oneness that it can take even the meanest joke about it. At that point, if we can’t accept being revolted but a little amused by the idea of, for example, a baby in a blender, then we probably never will.
“Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead” opened Friday at Kendall Square Cinema.