BREAKING THE RULES: The National Lampoon

One of the founding editors of the Lampoon peered at me over his pint of Guinness.

“Our job is to make people laugh hard, go home, realize what they’ve been laughing at, and then kill themselves.”

That was my first writing lesson at the National Lampoon.

I got hired because I could copyedit. As you might guess, the writers of the Lampoon didn’t overthink their grammar and spelling. They needed someone who could prepare the copy for the printer, but NOT kill the joke. (My counterpart in this effort at the time, Glenn Eichler, is now on the staff of Colbert.)

I wasn’t hired to write. But I began pitching and writing quickly. Tonally, my pieces were all over the place. Which is when Sean Kelly took me out, got me drunk, and taught me the above lesson about sending people home to commit suicide.

SAVAGE CANDOR WORKS… IN THE SHORT TERM

At the Lampoon, I learned quite a bit about savagery, cruel candor and brutal honesty in the workplace. By the time I got my gig the place had become a kind of “Lord of the Flies” environment. On Friday afternoon of my first week, one of the editors appeared at the door of my office to tell me that my ideas sucked, I wasn’t funny, I was a drag on the entire office, and I shouldn’t come back on Monday. (A couple of years later, Chris Elliot did the same thing to me at Letterman. I’d like to tell you that I’d toughened up by the time Chris pulled this stunt but the truth is, both times I went home and cried for an hour. I care, dammit!)

Writer’s meetings at the Lampoon were pretty much more of the same. A bad pitch was met with indifference, getting cut off mid-pitch, or outright hostility. I got better really quick. I didn’t want to have to face this bullshit.

The question is: Is it better to be tough, on the verge of cruelty, or to be more positive and supportive?

The answer is, I believe, embodied in the spirit of Doug Kenney, who founded the Lampoon in the 60s with Henry Beard. (Watch “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” on Netflix.)  I never met Doug but, the minute his name came up among those who knew  him, you felt warmth come over the group. “He just made you feel like you were really funny” is what I heard often. And when one of the funniest people who ever lived makes you feel like HE thinks you’re funny… you rise to the occasion.

It’s kind of an accepted fact that Doug was the inspiration for the Chevy Chase character in Caddyshack. Zen. Insanely talented. At ease everywhere and with everyone. The “Be the Ball, Danny” speech is, as I’ve heard it, pure Doug.

Which is not to say you have to put the tough criticism aside. There’s a real place for ripping things up and starting over, for handing people their work filled with red lines and cross-outs. There’s a place for candor, but Savagery will wear you out in the end. (Got that, Ray Dalio?)

FIND ALLIES!

Again, by the time I got to the Lampoon, the founding geniuses had left the building. So, they needed to find new geniuses. Which they did, present company excepted. My generation of writers included:

Kevin Curran
Ron Hauge
Warren Leight
Sherry Flenniken
Mimi Pond
Charlie Rubin
Glenn Eichler
Jack Handey
Charlie Kaufmann

… And many more. (As I write this, I realize I’m going to have to revise this page many times as I hear from forgotten colleagues. My apologies in advance.) I’m still in touch with quite a few of these people.

And yes — it was a boys’ club. I had a chance to do something different when I was at Best Week Ever.

I’d like to say that we forged totally new ways of writing humor. (Well, Kaufmann and Handey did!) We did create really funny stuff within the parameters that were created by the founders.

Which brings me to:

SOMETIMES YOU REALLY DO HAVE TO COLOR WITHIN THE LINES

The primary form for humor in the Lampoon was parody. From “Bored of the Rings” onward, the brand excelled in holding a mirror up to the tropes of modern culture and shredding them apart.

The thing about Parody is — you HAVE to follow the rules! When art director Michael Gross parodied a VW ad (“If Ted Kennedy Had Driven a VW, He’d be President Today”), every detail was an exact copy of a VW ad, from the font to the shadowing behind the car.

Remember how you learned about Haikus and Sonnets in high school and college? How the discipline drove you to creativity? Like that. Which brings me to…

DON’T BE AFRAID TO BE SUPER SMART… AND THEN TELL A FART JOKE

Simulacrum! Synecdoche! Meta! The editorial meetings at the National Lampoon, where people like Sean Kelly and John Weidman went back and forth with Ted Mann and Bruce McGill, ranged from post-modern analysis of Ronald Reagan’s Presidency to dick jokes and Hitler jokes (RULE: ALL WRITERS’ MEETINGS EVENTUALLY DEVOLVE — OR EVOLVE, DEPENDING ON YOUR POINT OF VIEW — INTO DICK AND HITLER JOKES). These guys knew that on the outside, this stuff was there to get a laugh. But on the inside, there was something serious going on.  One of the first editors of the Lampoon was George S.W. Trow, author of “Within the Context of No Context,” who spent the rest of his career at the New Yorker. So there!

When I got to Letterman, I encountered that same kind of overriding intellectual pursuit in Merrill Markoe, who brought her media-saturated / art school approach to that show.

The lesson I learned at the Lampoon which (I hope!) has never left me is that to be really successful creatively, you have to be incredibly smart in your work. Be aware of the larger cultural context. Speak to the smartest people in the room, while also entertaining the groundlings.

TAKE THE CANADIAN DENTIST MONEY

I was broke most of the time I was at the Lampoon. I lived in the offices for 6 months, employing the executive shower before 7am every morning and making best friends with the night watchman at 635 Madison Avenue.

A lot of the editors and writers were kind of broke. But there was always money out there for one-off, crazy projects. The Lampoon was where I learned about Canadian Dentist Money.

At the beginning of almost every editorial meeting, I would overhear the writers and editors talking about how they were doing this or that screenplay or something for an ad agency or a producer or … a Canadian Dentist. Literally.

As it was explained to me at the time, there were lots of people in the world with money who wanted to “get into movies.” Many of them thought they could call themselves producers and pay someone from a place like the National Lampoon to write a script, and they’d be able to make the movie up in Canada and suddenly they’d be a hotshot producer in Show Biz.

Rule Number One: You NEVER turn down Canadian Dentist Money. They pay union scale! They love everything you’re doing, as long as it says “Executive Producer: Canadian Dentist” on the title page. They’re fun! They come to New York. They want to party and go drinking with their writer.

And you NEVER give them a really good idea. You give them the ones you kind of think might endure 120 pages of tortured story. (Kevin and I wrote one screenplay about an audio-animatronic Elvis who broke free from the basement of Graceland. This “Elvis” had only been programmed up to Elvis’ pre-Army days. The “raw” Elvis. I still love that idea, but it was never going to get made.)

Their checks clear. It’s fun. You get paid to learn how to write a bad screenplay. And trust me, your first 6 screenplays are going to be bad, anyway!

PEOPLE ARE WIRED TO JUST FUCK AROUND.

There’s a great Kurt Vonnegut essay where he details an afternoon spent going to the newsstand to get something copied (in the days of xerox machines), buying a stamp and an envelope, going to the post office, then a diner. Just fucking off. He ends by saying that’s what Humans were meant to do on this planet. Just fuck around.

I agree! People — especially creative people — need to fuck around. They need to let their brains go. They need to put feelers out into the world and see what comes back

At the National Lampoon, we worked really hard for about a week and a half every month, when we turned the magazine out. For many of us, the other two and a half weeks followed the following pattern:

Get in around 11 / 11:30.
Ask our assistant Fanny to make a lunch reservation for however many editors and writers were around that day.
Go to lunch. Eat. Drink. Joke around. Talk about shit. Make fun of each other. Make fun of the world. Drink some more.
Get back to the office around 2/3. Take a nap or do some work. Maybe type out some notes on that Canadian Dentist Movie.
4 or 5 do more work. Or sit around and talk about shit. Do what people do on podcasts now: Spend 90 minutes on an episode of TV or an album or a movie.
Once a week, have an editorial meeting.  That was actual work.
Keep working till about 6 or 7.
Go to dinner and a party. Stay out really late.
Go home. Sleep till 10 or 10:30.

A note about editorial meetings: Yes, as I’ve noted above, they could be blood sport. So you worked to be ready for them. Here’s where you’re fucking around but NOT fucking around. Say you have an idea for a comic book parody. You spend a lot of time reading those comic books. Picking them apart, wondering how they work. What’s wrong with them (Tin Tin), what’s right with them (Nancy and Sluggo). By the time you have a pitch, it’s got a certain “bulletproof” quality to it. And you’re ready.

I learned how to live and survive like a creative person while I was at the Lampoon. It was a lot more free-wheeling than creative life is today. I think the world could use a little more fucking around and a little less data and metrics. But I don’t think we’re ever going back there.

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