Friday, July 17, 2009

The Office from Hell: National Lampoon in the 1970s

In the autumn of 1980, a wide array of writers, editors, and actors from National Lampoon's 10-year existence gathered for a somber purpose: The funeral of their colleague Doug Kenney, one of the magazine's founders and a rising star in Hollywood. Almost all of the editors who showed up had waged office battles or were still nursing grudges against the other editors. It was not a reunion to warm the heart. It was more a gathering of people who had argued and feuded and stumbled through a seminal magazine's first decade, doing as much damage as creative good.

Soon after the funeral, the magazine's editor-in-chief, P.J. O'Rourke, would quit his post, saying he was a bad editor anyway -- a verdict that likely met with agreement by some of his former colleagues, many of whom looked back on the magazine's first few years under Kenney and Henry Beard as the golden age, followed ever since with a steady descent.

The story of Kenney's life and death, and the tumultuous and creative experience at the nation's most successful humor publication, is told in Josh Karp's A Futile and Stupid Gesture: How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy Forever (Chicago Review Press, 2006). It's a fascinating look at how the magazine was created, rode the wave of a generation's self-absorption and political awakening, and suffered the effects of immature, unprofessional editors with outsized egos who were nevertheless over-endowed with talent. Though its founders hoped to meld a left-wing sensibility to an irreverent and even anarchic satire publication, such attitudes occasionally brought readers but also much trouble. By 1980, Karp writes, the magazine's circulation was between 600,000 and 700,000 and it was dealing with about $10 million in lawsuits annually. The magazine would continue on throughout the 1980s, finally dying a protracted death in the 1990s under new owners and eventually replaced by its current online incarnation.

For those of us who are obsessed with magazines, Karp's book gives lots of good inside looks at how creative and business talents can come together to produce a successful periodical. Matty Simmons married his advertising and deal-making savvy to Kenney's and Beard's Harvard-bred talents. But there's one place Simmons' deal-making savvy failed him, and that was when he made the original agreement with the editors, agreeing to a buyout in five years at an inflated price. From the point at which Simmons had to pay out millions of dollars to the founding editors, the National Lampoon magazine and company were lurching from one crisis to another, occasionally interrupted by successes such as Animal House, Vacation, and the Sunday Newspaper Parody.

We learn about the creation of such publishing wonders as National Lampoon's 1964 High School Yearbook, which was the single best-selling one-shot magazine in history.
"O'Rourke was the magazine's most junior contributor, and was making a name for himself through sheer tenacity and a willingness to shepherd projects that ranged from the extraordinary ... to the ridiculous.... Everybody said that they'd help [with the Yearbook]. Almost no one did. Doug [Kenney] and O'Rourke prepared for the project by sitting around the Bank Street apartment, smoking dope and talking about high school."

Such was life at the Lampoon. For Kenney, it was a place he spent a lot of time (and sometimes not, as he took unexpected leaves of absence) and created some great humor writing. A regular theme of his was small-town America, the dysfunctional family life and class divisions that would produce his own inner conflicts and would provide fuel for much satire.

The book is, of course, a tribute to Kenney, a talented but uncontrolled (and ultimately uncontrollable) comic talent, who created a great deal of well-received humor in his time (including co-creating National Lampoon's Animal House and Caddyshack) but ended his years in a sad cocaine-fueled slide through paranoia and excess.

If there's a problem with the book, it's probably a problem that would be expected of a book that tries to lionize an individual and an institution: the individual's contributions are greatly exaggerated, while others -- such as P.J. O'Rourke -- are diminished.

As someone who has appreciated O'Rourke's writing for decades, I admit to feeling a need to defend him as I read about the constant sniping about him: he had sold out to the business side of the magazine (my reaction was that O'Rourke seemed to be the only editor who was mature enough to know they were running a business); he lacked the talent -- his own and his staff's -- that Kenney and Beard had (as a long-time contributor during the mag's "golden age" and as a co-creator of the yearbook and newspaper parodies, among many contributions, O'Rourke didn't need to apologize for any talent deficit of his own; also, he brought in John Hughes, who would write prodigiously for the magazine and spawn the company's wildly successful Vacation movie franchise); he was a turncoat, trading in his previous Maoist allegiances for a conservative-libertarian ideology (thank god; going pretty much anywhere from Maoism is an improvement); he replaced the magazine's freewheeling creative ethos with a top-down, dictatorial management style (some of that freewheeling style wasn't really creative bliss; it was often selfish and self-destructive, unconcerned about who else at the magazine was hurt by their actions).

And so on. But Karp's quote from O'Rourke after Doug Kenney's funeral and his decision to quit as editor shows that O'Rourke realized the criticisms weren't all off the mark: "I realized after leaving what a s---ball editor I was. ... People skills weren't in huge supply."

And so O'Rourke and the magazine's other surviving editors and publishers went on to other things in books, magazines, parodies, movies and television.

Those of us who grew up after National Lampoon's heyday -- I didn't start reading the magazine until late in junior high school, something like 1983 -- have had to live with being told by baby boomer codgers that we missed the good stuff, the early years of the magazine. I happen to think that there was still "good stuff" in the magazine in those first few years that I was reading the magazine (though I won't try to defend the magazine's later years).

But we did have the pleasure of enjoying all of the comedy greats that followed that era. We got Mystery Science Theater 3000, The Onion, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report. And through the magic of digitized magazines, we can now read the magazine's entire run in the form of the CD collection (GIT Corp., 2004 -- from which the magazine covers in this blog post are gratefully taken).

Though we lack a print Lampoon of our own today (I think one could still be successfully produced, but it would have to be up-to-date and it would never approach the 1 million circulation of National Lampoon's single most successful issue -- which, BTW, was edited by P.J. O'Rourke), we got the pleasure of the world of humor and satire that was heavily shaped by Kenney, Beard, O'Rourke, Sean Kelly, and the rest.
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