Read This Review or . . .

Forgive me if I open on a personal note: The other night I started laughing so hard I had to leave the room. My daughter was trying to study, and I could see she was getting alarmed. It was kind of scary to me, too, if you want to know the truth. For a moment there, as I made it into the bathroom and shut the door, I thought my body was approaching organ failure, not that I know what organ failure feels like, thank God. You hear people say things like “I laughed so hard I cried” and “I nearly fell out of my chair,” but I had gone well beyond the crying stage by the time my metabolism began to return to equilibrium. And then I realized that I hadn’t laughed so hard in 35 years, since I was a teenager, reading National Lampoon.

American men of a certain age will recall the feeling. What I’d been reading the other night was, no coincidence, National Lampoon—specifically the monologue of a fictional New York cabbie named Bernie X. He was the creation of Gerald Sussman, a writer and editor for the Lampoon from its early days in the 1970s to its sputtering death in 1998. Sussman, it is said, wrote more words for the magazine than any other contributor. I’m sorry I can’t quote any of his pieces here. They’re filthy.

If I’d gone ahead and died the other night, my wife would have known whom to sue. “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead,” in which Bernie X appears, is the work of Rick Meyerowitz, himself a valued contributor to the Lampoon who had the bright idea to gather his favorite pieces from the magazine into a handsomely produced coffee-table book. Mr. Meyerowitz is best known as the man who painted Mona Gorilla, a shapely, primly dressed primate with come-hither eyes and a smile far more unsettling than Leonardo’s original. That ape may be the most celebrated magazine illustration of the 1970s, its only competition being the Lampoon cover from January 1973. The photograph showed a cowering pup with a revolver to its head next to the timeless tagline: “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog.”

As an illustrator, Mr. Meyerowitz has a bias toward pieces with a strong graphic element. This is altogether fitting. The production values of the earliest issues of National Lampoon were rag-tag, but with the hiring of the art director Michael Gross and gifted painters and designers like Mr. Meyerowitz and Bruce McCall, the presentation of a piece of writing on the page became as essential to the joke as the writing itself.

In parodies of everything from comic books to Babylonian hieroglyphs, the Lampoon technique was a dead-on verisimilitude, exquisitely detailed. No matter how absurd the jokes were, how incongruous, abstract, whimsical or—I repeat myself—filthy, they were delivered with the straightest possible face. Great performers, old showfolk say, never let you see them sweat. National Lampoon writers never let you hear them chuckle.

The classic marriage of word and picture, which Mr. Meyerowitz reprints in full, was a 10-page spoof of travel magazines titled “Stranger in Paradise.” The soft-focus prose of the travel writer (“Wild fruits hang from the branches, waiting to be plucked”) transports us to a lush South Sea island where a “modern day Robinson Crusoe” lives in idyllic retirement. Sumptuous, full-color photographs show him dodging the surf, frolicking with the natives, sunbathing nude on the beach. Our Crusoe is Adolf Hitler, complete with the toothbrush mustache, the penetrating stare and a bottom as pale as a baby’s. No one who has seen the sunbathing photograph has ever been able to forget it. I’ve tried.

Amid the belly laughs was an irony so cool that it could sink to absolute zero. “Making people laugh is the lowest form of humor,” said Michael O’Donoghue, who founded the magazine with some Harvard pals in 1969 and later gained TV fame with “Saturday Night Live.” And it’s true that you—meaning me and my friends —sometimes had trouble finding the joke. Mr. Meyerowitz includes all 12,000 words of a parody by Henry Beard, another founding editor, of a typically grim law-review article. It’s called “Law of the Jungle,” by which he means the real law of the jungle, covering torts, trusts and property rights as understood by hippos and boa constrictors. With its high rhetoric, labyrinthine arguments and endless footnotes, it is as flawlessly rendered as any parody ever written—so precise that it becomes as tedious as the articles it was meant to send up.

You have to be very good to fail in this way, and nobody could have doubted the vast talent assembled behind that grinning gorilla. In the 1970s, however, old-fashioned moralists (soon to be extinct) complained about a deep vein of nihilism running through the magazine. Out in the suburbs we irony-soaked, pseudo-sophisticated teenage boys could only roll our eyes at the tut-tutting. We knew, or thought we did, that every sex joke in Bernie X’s monologues was redeemed by the tonally perfect rendering of the cabbie’s patois (I don’t think we used the word patois).

But from this distance the justice of the moralists’ charge looks glaringly obvious. In their more pompous moments, the Lampoon editors could have defended an appallingly tasteless joke about, say, the My Lai massacre or the Kennedy assassination as an effort to shake the bourgeois out of their complacency. Now it just looks tasteless or worse: an assault on the very notion of tastelessness, on our innate belief that sometimes some subjects should be off-limits.

Tony Hendra, one of the most pretentious of the original editors—quite a distinction in an office full of Harvard boys—writes here of the magazine’s “unique high-low style of comedy, incredible disgustingness paired with intellectual and linguistic fireworks.” The juxtaposition, as they proved every month and as Mr. Meyerowitz’s collection reconfirms, can be side-splitting. The mix is hard to sustain, though, and it makes for a terrible legacy. The high, being so hard to pull off, inevitably fades away, leaving only the low. Gresham’s Law—the bad driving out the good—holds true for comedy too.

With a few exceptions—the Onion, a sitcom or two—this seems to be where American humor finds itself now. You have only to wade into the opening minutes of any Will Ferrell movie to be rendered numb by the body-part jokes, unredeemed by the Lampoon’s intellectual or linguistic fireworks. The unhappy state of humor today gives this dazzling book the feel of a nostalgic excursion—back to a purer era, when all you had to do to make someone laugh was threaten to shoot a dog.

Mr. Ferguson is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard.


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