Rob Knoll, head writer of The Harvard Lampoon, sat in the magazine’s office on a Saturday afternoon in February. He had a writer’s meeting Monday night to prepare for; but, at the moment, a duct-taped mannequin with pins sticking out in every direction was distracting him. It reminded him of the cover of Hellraiser, he said—a 1987 horror movie. It’s an obscure pop culture reference, to be sure, and not the kind of thing you’d find in The Lampoon these days.
The Lampoon became prominent in the Vietnam-era 1970s, a satirical oasis in a national college humor dry spell. Its immensely popular spinoff, The National Lampoon, peaked with a circulation of one million in the same decade. A few years later, college humor magazines across the country dusted off their typewriters and went back to the very serious business of being funny. By 1980, college humor had come back with a vengeance.
Steeped in an aura of secret societies—its members joke that if Skull and Bones met in a dark room with candles, The Harvard Lampoon met in a dark room with candles and a slow saxophone; renowned pranks—lore holds that in the 1950s, after The Harvard Crimson stole the Lampoon’s symbol, the ibis, and offered it to the Soviets, the Lampoon (under John Updike) wrote to Sen. Joseph McCarthy that the event proved The Crimson’s Communist ties; and East Coast schoolboy prep—think Gatsby—college humor magazines were once bigger than their campuses. They produced big names like The Princeton Tiger’s F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Harvard Lampoon’s Robert Benchley (who later quipped, “Defining and analyzing humor is a pastime of humorless people”) and The Yale Record’s Garry Trudeau (who created the prototype for “Doonesbury” while in college).
That golden age of college humor is long gone, but the publications are still around—a little less secret and a little less renowned. They’re still important as the scratching posts of future comic writers and cartoonists and the home of campus humor on the printed page and, increasingly, online. The sixty-four-page Harvard Lampoon, with its vibrant, often bizarre covers (a 2010 cover of the issue “Splatterbrain” shows the Gingerbread Man popping out of a man’s cranium) and short quirky stories (for example, the fake diary of explorer Francisco Pizarro), is defining itself against its own legacy. The young Texas Travesty, with neither the burdens nor the benefits of a long history, fills its twelve tabloid-like pages with mock photos and fake news. And the thirty-six-page Yale Record, the oldest college humor magazine in the country, pairs vivid covers with simple black-and-white pages inked with one-liners, drawings and light parody features (the origin of each of the seven deadly sins, for instance, or the “untold” Aesop’s fables).
Laughter, the old trope goes, is the best medicine. Psychologically, it’s a coping mechanism. It’s a way of dealing with stress or making a shrewd point. Freud argued that humor is a way of “deriving pleasure from intellectual activity.”
“Like wit and the comic, humour has in it a liberating element,” Freud wrote in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis in 1928, during one of the great college humor eras. “Obviously, what is fine about it is the triumph of narcissism, the ego’s victorious assertion of its own invulnerability. It refuses to be hurt by the arrows of reality or to be compelled to suffer.”
But really, Sigmund, humor is simply fun, when it’s done well. That, perhaps, is why it has lasted on college campuses—that last moment before real adulthood sets in, when consequences seem far off and everyone’s looking for a good laugh.
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Jester was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover vice.
—The Harvard Lampoon
So begins a recent Harvard Lampoon “editorial,” a drawing of “Jester”—the Lampoon’s mascot—lounging, with a pint and a lute, at the top of the page. Jester goes on to encounter a carnival (“… what really squeezed his lemon was the feeling he got when he harnessed the power of the mallet”). He eventually takes a job guessing people’s weights (“and could usually get a bigger tip by noticing their haircuts as well”).
The Lampoon today is far from the cute jokes and campus crackups of its 1870s beginnings. Back then, comedy consisted of conversational cutups like
“ ‘Have you taken a bath?’ ‘No, is one missing?’ ” and “Barber—‘Have a hair cut, sir?’ Gentleman—‘Thank you, thought of having several of them cut.’ ”
Now the magazine, with colorful, occasionally semisurrealistic illustrations on the cover, goes for what head writer Rob Knoll calls a more “experimental” brand of comedy. The rules are simple: No Harvard-specific humor. No pop culture references from the last five years. And no typical comedy tropes. If you don’t understand the joke, then The Lampoon thinks it might be doing something right.
What Knoll and Harvard Lampoon President Owen Bates call “idiosyncratic humor,” others have called “trippy” or “elitist.” No matter, though. The Lampoon is famously disliked; it’s part of its shtick at this point.
But how to keep The Lampoon fresh and funny has been a recurring theme since a previous staff of funny—and ultimately successful—people graduated in the early 2000s. These vaunted expectations have crashed head-on with the Internet world. “The Lampoon has had an identity crisis in the digital age,” Knoll said. “We’re lucky in that we’re so ill-prepared to be timely at all and none of us really understands how pop culture works. All we can do is make stuff up that can’t be timely.”
It’s a question college humor publications are facing across the country: to go online or not to go online. When does a magazine with medieval-inspired drawings become an anachronism? Maybe that’s part of its appeal.
As Knoll and Bates graduate and move on to other comedy writing gigs (“I wouldn’t trust myself to be a doctor, so probably yes,” said Bates about a comedy career), The Lampoon goes on. There are “some big Web things” in the works, they hint, and coming from people holed up in a deteriorating castle that is home to explosive parties and overactive fire alarms, dreams cooked up at the 136-year-old magazine seem epic. The next generation of writers, and of the magazine itself, is approaching, but not without a hint of trepidation.
“When Jester was dead, would the next generation be able to keep pulling all the right levers and putting the right amount of syrup in the snow cones?” that recent editorial asked. “After thinking about it all of February and most of March, he decided that they would. All that was left for Jester to do was to fall in love a few times and then it was time to go.”
Philosophy major discovers meaning of life/ Disappointed to discover he missed his chance by majoring in philosophy.
—The Yale Record
The question of identity that The Lampoon has faced in recent years is nothing new. Comedy comes in waves, and college humor isn’t immune to them. Many of the old guard of college humor magazines (The Lampoon, The Yale Record, The Princeton Tiger, The Stanford Chaparral, etc.) come out of the late 1800s or the turn of the twentieth century, inspired by the British humor magazine Punch, and later, the original Life (which was a humor magazine before Henry Luce bought the title to use for his photo magazine). The Roaring Twenties let college humor push a few boundaries with mild references to sex and alcohol; but, for the most part, the realities of the outside world didn’t find their way onto the funny pages. Parody and absurdity ruled.
By the 1950s, two decades of economic depression and war had snapped something in college humor. In 1952, The Princeton Tiger declared, “Funny mags are passé” and re-launched itself as a “serious publication.” When the then-successful Yale Record responded, a war of words played out nationally in The New York Times. “If the staff of The Record want to be the worst magazine in the country, they don’t have to try any more—they are,” wrote John McPhee, then managing editor of The Tiger, in May 1952. Yale fired back in an adjacent Times op-ed: “As Princeton goes, so goes Vermont (if it wants to).”
Ten years later The Tiger would eventually reinstate funny editors, but student protests against Vietnam rocked campuses across the country, and those parlor-humor jokes (“Professor: ‘Well, are we all here?’ Student: ‘No, you’re not all here.’ ”) rang false or, at least, irrelevant.
It wasn’t until the late 1970s that college humor would fully return, bringing the outside world onto the pages. Satire and, God forbid, politics, rubbed margins (The Emory Phoenix wrote, “Our Middle East Policy: We are
loyal/To the ones with oyal.”). The magazines’ comedy echoed the “nothing sacred” aspects of The National Lampoon and, on television, the then-young Saturday Night Live.
“A lot of this is a backlash against the enormous seriousness of the 1960s, all the good vibes and piousness,” P.J. O’Rourke, then editor of The National Lampoon, told Newsweek in 1978. “It’s a fair guess every one of the Lampoon editors was a member of the counterculture back then, but look what happened: After all the folk songs and candlelit marches, it didn’t change a thing. You could argue that the world’s a worse place now.”
Flash forward to today. The National Lampoon is gone, its brand name still funneling royalties to The Harvard Lampoon. Saturday Night Live has waxed and waned in popularity repeatedly. The Onion, a late-1980s college humor publication that began at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has gone national, spreading fake, funny news in print, on websites and through Twitter. On national TV, political satire and mockumentaries are all the rage. Comedy is everywhere—just not as much on the magazine page.
At colleges across the country, many of the old magazines still exist in restored or revamped forms, increasingly online as often as on the printed page. They have a continual turnover of new writers and new readers and, potentially, an important psychological role to play. Reports from UCLA on the mindset of university students say college kids are more anxious and high-strung than ever before. Perhaps that old trope that comedy is the best medicine might actually be true.
“College is a very stressful time and people take themselves very seriously on campuses,” said Joey Green, the 1978 founder of The Cornell Lunatic and a former contributor to National Lampoon. “It’s a way of making fun of all this useless knowledge in your head.”
“Because of a lot of things happening like shootings on campuses,” Green told The Cornell Chronicle at The Lunatic’s thirtieth-anniversary bash in 2008, “a lot more humor is needed.”
Student unsure whether to bring Colt 44 or Beretta M9 to sociology class today.—The Texas Travesty
This appeared in the University of Texas at Austin’s humor magazine after Texas lawmakers in the state capitol pushed to allow concealed weapons on campus. Six months earlier, a nineteen-year-old student wearing a black ski mask and waving an AK-47 had run down busy Twenty-First Street on the Austin campus, blocks from the capitol building. He had fired several shots—hitting no one—and then had run into the library, where he killed himself near the children’s section. The story made national news.
The Texas Travesty, months later, quoted a mock student. “ ‘Ever since they started allowing guns on campus, getting ready for class has been so much more difficult,’ Abrell said, checking the mirror to see if her Colt 44’s ridged chambers matched her mauve shirt. ‘I just don’t know if I’m going to need the Colt’s reliable firepower or the Beretta’s low recoil to defend myself today.’ ”
It’s fake news plus biting satire and a touch of cynicism—the kind of comedy The Travesty has been known for since its inception in 1997, the kind of comedy increasingly common among college humor publications growing up with The Onion to emulate. With a touch of both local and national topic trends (“Nation Rejects SOPA, Opts for ENSALADA”), the “newsmagazine” falls somewhere between The Onion and Mad, said its current editor, David McQuary.
The Travesty is a cautionary tale among humor magazines. At its peak a few years ago, it claimed to have a circulation of 35,000 and to reach 90,000 viewers through its website. Reader polls conducted by the local paper, The Austin Chronicle, named it the best local publication for five years between 2004 and 2010. At the height of its popularity, headlines like “The family that smokes together jokes together” ran across colorful, photo-filled two-page spreads. It was known as the largest college humor magazine in the country.
But, with a current circulation of 7,000 and about 1,000 online views per issue, that old claim to fame is now tongue-in-cheek. “It’s very hard because at times it’s like, ‘Are we even liked enough to keep doing this?’ ” McQuary said. “But you just keep going.”
The Travesty has suffered from problems all college magazines face. It’s a victim of constant staff turnover and talent loss. It’s dealt with changes in the university administration. And it’s lost ad revenue, in part because The Onion, a bigger name with a similar shtick, came to town. The Travesty, once the only game in a college town, now lacks name recognition. Its goal: to keep going and, it hopes, build up enough talent to grow a little.
History is on The Travesty’s side. Most college humor magazines have folded and revived before. While a commercial magazine requires a certain level of success to continue, college publications are often supplemented financially at various levels by college administrations. (McQuary credits the Texas Student Media Board at the University of Texas with helping to keep The Travesty afloat.)
Take a look at the ups and downs of The Yellow Journal at the University of Virginia. Begun in 1912 with the slogans “All the News Unfit to Print” and “Definitively Inaccurate Since 1912,” it shut down in the 1930s under university pressure and folded again after a short-lived reboot in the 1990s. Now “UVA’s little Onion,” as one of its recent re-founders, Steven Balik, calls it, is hoping it’s here to stay.
The Yellow Journal takes the fake news model of The Travesty to another level: a broadsheet newspaper format. A recent article, “Homeless Guy Enters 3057th day of Occupy the Corner,” mocked student support of Occupy Wall Street. “It is unclear when this protest will cease, but for now experts say there is much the Occupy protesters can learn from Peterson [the homeless man],” it said. “His protest is said to at least have specific goals and has unarguably been a success at redistributing whatever is in the pockets of UVA students.”
But with a circulation of 3,000 and only two issues a year, The Yellow Journal remains a fragment of its 1930s scandalous self.
Dear Joe Biden, This is ridiculous.
How long can this recession go on?
Have you tried Rogaine? -Your barber
—The Yale Record
In February, three generations of Yale Record alums gathered in New Haven for the exhibit “140 Years of Yale Cartoons,” which featured cartoons dating back to 1872. Past and present met as Record alumni told stories about their successes and met with current staffers.
“After seeing this exhibit, I wonder if it’s possible that you could dip into any time and find great stuff that people were doing that is now forgotten,” said Robert Grossman (1961), former Record editor and cartoonist. He was at The Record after its glory days but before the counterculture comedy sense developed—a time when people like Harvey Kurtzman, the founding editor of Mad, came to talk to the staff with Gloria Steinem on his arm. Grossman would go on to great success with his drawings for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Rolling Stone and The National Lampoon, among others.
The Record, which collapsed in 1973 at the age of 101, is not only bringing back the old barber joke and revisiting its long legacy of cartoons; to hear the staff talk, Yale is bringing “classic” college humor back—but with a modern take. By “classic” they mean the old college humor magazine format. (The Record’s simple and stylized covers feel reminiscent of The New Yorker, which it influenced back in that Gatsby-era golden age. Its updated website, meanwhile, is something entirely twenty-first century.)
The magazine is a collection of one-liners and headlines (“Scandal: H&M Run by Ghosts of Hitler and Mussolini”) along with fairly uncontroversial features and want ads (“You: A successful woman who knows what she wants. Me: A successful guy who knows what he wants and happens to be a velociraptor.”). The magazine answers those burning questions we all have. (What if Estonia took a Cosmo quiz? Its fill-in-the-blank answers might be “I’m dying to work with … high speed Internet” or “The worst date I ever went on was … Soviet occupation.” How is Paris Hilton coping with the recession? She’s changing her name to “Tulsa Best Western.”)
Cartoons fill space The Travesty would use for photos. It’s literally a modern version of the magazine’s 1913 format, said David Kemper, the magazine’s chair. “I think that was one of the reasons for reformatting,” he said, “to show that we are one continual magazine.”
The other reason? Profit.
The identity change happened about a decade ago, when Michael Gerber, Record alum and magazine consultant, bought ad space and offered suggestions. He’s now the head of The Yale Record Company. With a higher quality magazine tapping into its own legacy, The Record makes an annual profit margin of ten-to-twenty percent each year. “Humor can sell,” Gerber insists. “It really can sell.” Mel Brooks famously said it better: “Funny is money.”
Now 140 years old, The Record is the oldest college humor magazine in the country, but it’s not so far off from its 1950s rivalry with The Princeton Tiger. Turns out, “funny mags” aren’t passé after all. They’re just evolving, sometimes by returning to the beginning (but with websites and multimedia, of course).
“Someone once told me that, looking back, humor is very much like fashion,” The Cornell Lunatic’s Joey Green said. “It changes with the times.” As humor changes, its magazines follow—adapting, redesigning, dying, reviving. Humor magazines may die, but the beauty of college humor publications is that they are so often reborn.
Or, as The Yale Record put it: “Journalism is dead, and by journalism I mean your dog.”