WHEN THE PEOPLE'S HISTORY of late twentieth-century America is written--when archaeologists puzzle over decayed bottles of liquid protein, battered fragments of C.B. radios and faded copies of Jonathan Livingston Seagull; when scholars struggle to tell the difference between Donald Segretti and Jeb Stuart Magruder or between Dan Rather and Steve Garvey; when some future generation finally understands what Billy Beer meant to us--only then will People magazine take its rightful place as the true American chronicle. For better or worse, People is us (not to be confused with Us), the weekly national synthesis of our culture.
And the Harvard Lampoon knows it. The 'Poon has dissected People, pared it down to its vinyl soul and looked inside. The Lampoon did not look for a heart of darkness and did not find one; what appears instead is a catalogue of foibles, not sins, in a nation of genial losers. All is well, if not exactly perfect, in the land of Brooke and Bo. Incidentally, the whole thing is pretty funny.
And that is the surprising part. It would have been so easy for the yuk-meisters of Bow St. to botch this up. The magazine that bears the group's name, that semi-monthly, pseudo-intellectual, masturbatory, unfunny, sub-collegiate journal, gives even sign that the Poonies would use People as a vehicle to make fun of the folks who can't understand the subtle humor of their magazine. But they didn't do that. Rather, they accepted People--and People's people, subjects and readers alike--on their own terms and emerged triumphantly.
As anyone who has read it knows, People is about people--mostly celebrities of the rank a half-step ahead of Jaye P. Morgan (sic.) and a step behind Burt Reynolds. But People is also about jes' folks, once-ordinary citizens, who, through either outrageous good or ill fortune, have come to claim their 15 minutes in the sun. People looks at its flock with an endearing innocence; it sees only good and bad, with little in between. The crucial point about People is that it sees its once-ordinary folks as good, and this is the quality the 'Poon captures so well.
Take, for example, my favorite article in the parody, a feature on the people of Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, whose children have been turned into household appliances by radiation. The tone is perfect--genuine concern for the tragic victims, yet with a sense that everything will turn out all right in the end. The relentless good cheer comes through mostly in the writing. Snappy puns and appealing alliteration make everything seem a little less gloomy. To wit: "Some people, however, are wearing their nuclear designer genes with a smile...(or)...the problem has the Middletown populace as irritated as they are irradiated."
The same oblivious good cheer comes through in a feature called "Young Love Gives Millionaire Sidney Down a New Lease on Life," the story of a Las Vegas stripper's whirlwind courtship with an 87-year-old tycoon. "Sidney took Goldie for a brief spin in his private jet, gave her a $300,000 necklace...But it wasn't until after they'd exchanged vows, back in Nevada, that he revealed his startling secret--that he is one of the richest men in the country." In real life and in the parody, People assumes the best about people--try to think of the last negative word you saw about anyone in its pages--and there is something...nice about it.
THE LAMPOON obviously knew People prose intimately, for the parody's command of its style is masterful. The writing appears to require no thought either to read or write; it glides along effortlessly, often hilarious in its sprightliness. On a six-year-old genius: "Graduating from Harvard at five, the swaddling-swathed summa soon had six degrees safely tucked away under his rompers." In a review of a new Beethoven performance: "Here is another album demonstrating that Beethoven is anything but ready to roll over."
Similarly, the look of the parody is just right. The 'Poon has done a tremendous job of reproducing People's graphics--easy-on-the-eyes letters, clear and direct headlines, snappy and readable captions. The design and photography--by Mel J. Horan and Nevin I. Shalit respectively-- make a big difference in the parody's professional look. The pictures reflect the writing style exactly--clear and non-judgmental, with no attempts at high art or even real insight. Particularly in the Three Mile Island article and a funny (if too-long) feature on a boxing nun, the camera's sympathetic eye gives the pieces an uncanny People feel.
Of course not everything works. Several obvious jokes are beaten laboriously into submission, particularly in the articles on a fat chef, a "liberated" inflatable lady and the Shah in hell. A promising spoof of those insipid People interviews ends drearily when the same joke--the interviewer not recognizing his subject's newsworthy statements--dies from repetition. The parody also slips up in the celebrity department. Probably because it concentrates on the briefly famous folks in People, it never captures the unique flavor of People's celebrity profiles; the parody doesn't look at the amusing laundry list--current success, difficult childhood, early hard-times, current sexual partners--that makes People's cover stories so wonderfully predictable. Bad taste, usually of the sexist variety and a Lampoon trademark, seems pleasantly absent--all the more remarkable because of an apparently all-male production staff. But perhaps I (also all-male) merely missed the offensive parts.
BUT FOR ALL its minor flaws, the parody rates as a definite success. And as such, it begs the question of why it is so much better than its deservedly ignored counterpart, The Harvard Lampoon itself. One thoroughly unresearched and unsubstantiated theory may help explain the difference.
Harvard draws obsessive people by the hundreds. The average Harvard undergraduate seems distinguished by the fact that he is not average in at least one area; the area may be physics, grade-grubbing, writing, egomania or self-loathing. Most everyone here, for better or worse, developed a trait or interest in childhood that made him a little different.
The folks who gravitate toward the Lampoon, however, are obsessive about everything. They are the ultimate transparent eyeballs, indiscriminately bringing in everything they can see, anything that will increase their store of information. And the most obvious target for obsessive youngsters is the part of society that produces stimulation constantly--in short, television. So these guys start to learn everything about television, and, as kids, they gravitate toward the tube's broad horizon of situation comedies. My guess is that you could walk into the Lampoon castle tomorrow, ask the inhabitants to sing the theme song from That Girl or to recite the list of characters in The Addams Family, and get an accurate response from virtually everyone.
So when these kids passed the television-watching years, all that time around comedy convinces them that somehow they can create it themselves. They are often wrong. The written humor they come up with by themselves usually appears forced and embarrassing to the outsider. Great wits they are not.
But neither are they stupid, nor oblivious to funny things. And in People magazine they found a focus that perfectly complements their backgrounds. As many people have pointed out before, People is merely paper-television, with identical subject matter and similar format. In the parody, the Poonies walk on comfortable and familiar ground; they have found a subject wedded to their talents. The glee, combined with the compulsive energy, with which they pursued their task appears throughout the parody in pleasing excess. It may be hard to imagine the Poonies as houseguests, but with the People parody, the Harvard Lampoon has found a home.
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