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The Lampoon

The Fourth Estate

By John G. Short

WHO'S PUT the mean in meaningful?

Who put the con into confrontation?

Who put the numb in number?

Why, The Harvard Lampoon, an institution that finally made it back up to par in parody.

Their "meaningful confrontation number," though a little thin for the amount of advertising they got and the time they had to do it, is the best thing they've published in, like, two years. And their latest LP, "The Surprising Sheep and Other Mind Excursions," is a remarkable musical feat that's even been getting air play on Boston radio. All this in spite of the fact that the Lampoon had run upon hard times recently.

Hard times means that the Lampoon didn't make the killing they expected to on their Life parody last fall. As my paternal grandmother used to say about my father, "their eyes were bigger than their stomach." Just before the Life press run, they jacked up the number they would print from 400,000 to 650,000. They could only sell half of them, and the rest are rotting in warehouses from Sheboygan to El Paso. They lost $15,000 on the $200,000 deal. That's big business for you.

Now, the Lampoon has been big business ever since the fall of 1966 when they made over (over!) $100,000 profit from their parody of Playboy (who, by the by, printed it for them and helped them get ads from their own regulars). To say that the Lampoon has been in collusion with the corporate complex of this country's industrial power brokers would be a waste of idealistic breath.

This umbilical chord to the establishment adds a fine touch of irony to their issue on the confrontation. Another is why they did this issue in the first place. After all, the Lampoon had published just a single issue during the first nine tenths of this academic year--the only exception being the "movie worsts" issue (which is not a regular issue, as such, and whose publicity was so pre-ordained that radio station WRKO carried the winners of this year's awards in its headline news).

It seems that the Narthex of the Lampoon went over to "check out the scene" at University Hall at around midnight in the midst of the SDS occupation. He found the radicals so boring that he fell asleep in a big leather chair upstairs in the faculty room with his double-breasted blue blazer wrapped around him. He awoke when the police were at the door; by then the otiose Poonie didn't have a chance of leaving the building as the stairways were crowded with police-ready militants.

To make a long story short, he hired the four oldest lawyers in Boston, who were all prep school classmates of the judge, to get him off, and they did. The judge said that he had been there to cover it for the Lampoon. To make the university authorities believe his reportage, too, the Lampoon published this issue, which bears the red fist of Jester choking Ibis on its cover. Narthex is happy to remain anonymous.

The issue has a telling emphasis on visuals. Gone are the days (at least for the time being) when the Lampoon was staffed by good writers and otherwise cunning yuksters. The current regime is a crew of rock musicians (note the record), film-makers (the Jester-Blot saga is about that this time), and good cooks (they banquet more frequently than they publish).

THE WHOLE PHOTO series on "Expansion!" and "Disruption!" is pretty funny. The "Liberated" documents are really good. This is the kind of thing we'd like to see more of since the Lampoon seems to be good at it and since it seems to have been fairly easy for Mad magazine to handle month after month, year after year.

The funniest things are always those which most closely approximate the truth. Or what our fantasies would like to think might be true. This fact combined with the release of the extraordinary tensions caused by the politics of our times makes David McClelland's cartoon of Nathan Pusey's childhood psychoses just fantastic.

This issue marks the graduation of McClelland, the Lampoon's finest talent. There's not enough one can say to sum up the brilliance of McClelland's years on the Lampoon. His cartoons have been consistently the best work of each issue, and in some of the whole-issues-full of turgid print that have been passed down recently, his work has stood out as really fabulous. Why, he's the Ted Williams of cartoon-drawing. And his final "Inside Straight Nate: a subtle portrait of one of American education's great entertainers" compares to Williams' home run in his last time at bat.

Still appearing in print is one of the Lampoon's graduated greats, Peter Gabel '68, who writes in this issue a play based on the idea that working class laborers dislike the student rebels who claim to be their allies. This is a good example of where the Lampoon's ideas are OK, but not particularly interesting.

I, for example, had an actual dream that really happened to me while I was asleep in my bed. This dream was that Harvard SDS and the Harvard workers--buildings and grounds, the kitchen people, and others--got together and formed a worker-student alliance. They went on a general strike together, and the workers were going around slamming kids on the back saying what loyal friends they were. Now that idea struck me, even while I slept, as being genuinely funny.

* * * * *

ONE misunderstands the Lampoon if he thinks of it as a publication. Aside from being a tax-free museum which opens its doors once a year to maintain this status (but never announces that one date), it is primarily a club. Its members pay dues, which are munched away at the extravagant banquets served around a long table in the high-arched chandelier-strung main hall.

In the months that followed the overly successful Playboy parody, they served dinners there almost every weekend which stretched the limits of gourmet excess. Cases of incredible wines were flown in from France. And the entire interior was fixed up to greater-than-Hearst elegance, including the repair of the rare delphic tiles that cover the walls downstairs, at a cost of about $50,000.

Not that the Lampoon isn't beneficent. Since they came into the coin in '66, every issue has been free to undergraduates. And for years they've been supporting their over-seventy janitor, Elmer Green (who's done nothing but impersonate dignitaries on magazine covers), in their cellar. And as soon as the Lampoon can afford it, they plan to move him to a nicer apartment in Somerville . . . so they can "build a darkroom down there."

There's been a lot of talk about the Lampoon doing a movie one of these days, but that is probably an effort more meticulous than they're capable of. They have come out with a second LP, which was partly inspired by the Lampoon's house rock band, the Central Park Zoo, whose members include Poonies Mark Stumpf and Peter Gabel, and whose single 45 record can be played on the juke-box in nearby Tommy's Lunch. Along with Stumpf, the prime movers behind the new record were Jonathan Cerf, who was once Ibis, and former Hasty Pudding Show writer, Peter Larson.

Parody has a point only if those who are doing the parody are fully capable of doing whatever it is they parody and then if they only make slight changes, which are meaningful rather than merely absurd. Following this logic, almost all parodies of, say, fifties rock'n'roll are just stupid. Bad singing and bad sound simply doesn't parody something that's musically better. The Lampoon's earlier record, "The Harvard Lampoon Tabernacle Choir Sings at Leningrad Stadium," was a drag; the Mothers of Invention records are great. "The Surprising Sheep and Other Mind Excursions" is very good.

It is good because the music is both original and good. If it were a little better and if they had a singer who wasn't so needlessly bad, they could have gotten a hit record out of this and made even more money for their castle, and moved their janitor to Newton, even.

The best songs are "Lazy Summer" and "One Born Every Minute" (two very groovy tunes with lots of chimes, kazoos, concertinas, and other new sounds), "God" (an old Lampoon song about who is responsible for poverty, earthquakes, and the striking of such instruments of Fate as lightning), "The Surprising Sheep" (the title song alluding to the old Lampoon joke: "See the merino standing there with his long shaggy hair"), and "Welcome to the Club" (a song so much like the Lovin' Spoonful that someone ought to do something about it).

The record jacket is quite nice, too.

It doesn't particularly bother me, now that they no longer sell subscriptions, that the Lampoon doesn't publish the eight times a year it pretends to promise. I think that people should write only what they're really up for. And the continued existence of such a thing as the Lampoon in rank, undeserved decadence doesn't bother me either.

But I'm afraid the eyes of the Lampoon have been caught by the men with the money. All they talk about these days are the big deals they're about to get into with all these entrepreneurial adults. Things like the Life parody are done almost entirely to make money. The Lampoon guys are in a rare position of established detachment, and they should either write down what this position inspires them to think, or maybe sponsor some fun and games on the outside.

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