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Lampoon's Guide to College Admissions
By Editors of the Harvard Lampoon
165 pp., $18
The Harvard Lampoon, a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine, occupies a special niche on the campus extracurricular scene. For most of the year, the Lampoon's editors remain within the walls of what they like to believe is an impenetrable mock-Flemish castle. And then, once or twice every semester, they venture forth to distribute an issue of the magazine, or perhaps a Crimson parody. Their work done, they recede silently back into the shrouded depths of the castle.
Which invites a question: what do they do with the rest of their time? Crimson research has ascertained that there are Lampoon editors inside the castle at virtually all hours of the day. What could they possibly be up to? Campus legend has it that unspeakably depraved acts of arson, noise pollution, and drug abuse are par for the course in the Lampoon's guarded clubhouse.
The Lampoon, of course, encourages such speculation: the editors want very badly for you to wonder what goes on behind their yellow and purple doors. Lampoon editors I have known share three obsessions: Yale secret society Skull and Bones, Harvard's own tight-lipped Porcellian Club, and notoriously secretive author Thomas Pynchon. (The organization claims that Tyrone Slothrop, a fictional Harvard graduate in Pynchon's Gravity Rainbow, was a Lampoon editor.) The Lampoon really, really wants secrecy to be the organization's hallmark. Only invited seniors, enterprising Crimson editors and the select few undergraduates who pass the Lampoon's rigorous comp have ever seen the castle's upstairs sanctum.
With the publication of The Harvard Lampoon's Guide to College Admissions, though, we at least have a clue what they did last summer. A team of nine writers under the direction of former Lampoon president Matthew C. Warburton '00 holed up in the castle to turn out this 165-page parody of college guides. Published Sept. 1 by Time-Warner to coincide with the release of the U.S. News rankings and the start of the college admissions game for thousands of the high school seniors, the book satirizes everything from writing admissions essays to picking a major.
First, it must be acknowledged that the guide is funny. Beginning on page five with a parody of the admissions test at the Dalton School for the Academically Gifted, the book is a witty and occasionally even incisive look at the admissions process. The Lampoon, in this book and in general, is at its funniest when its satire has the bite of social commentary; this is the case at a few points in the college book. The book pokes fun at the advantages for the rich in the admissions process and what it calls "the standardized testing racket" the parody SAT is probably the funniest part of the book (former Lampoon editor and former Crimson editor Michael Colton '97, co-author of Up Your Score: The Underground Guide to the SAT, is listed as a 'special contributor').
Sadly, though, the guide too often falls back on the staples of Lampoon humor we're used to: self-referential inside humor and masturbation jokes, and sometimes even a combination of the two (which may help us account for at least some of what goes on within the Lampoon's walls). For instance, page 78's entry for The Etten Family Home Schooling College named, of course, after 'Poonster Kevin Etten '00, who presumably wrote the section includes a category for 'onanism': 'From masturbating to masturbating with your parents in the next room to masturbating quickly when your parents go out for groceries, most EFHSC students masturbate roughly 3.8 times a day' Etc, etc. Each Lampoon editor seems to have been given his or her own allotment of self-referential and dirty jokes, and used them liberally.
With the college guide parody, though, the rest of us get to be in on some of the inside jokes, which is a nice change. For instance, part of the parody college roommate questionnaire on page 120 reads, 'I want a roommate that is considerate, flexible, amiable, open-minded and Natalie Portman.' Which is extra funny to us, because Natalie Portman goes to Harvard. Get it? And while Harvard comes in first in the rankings parody, Yale finishes at 10,347. Du-huh. That warm feeling you get reading a joke in the guide and knowing that you get it so much more than someone who doesn't go to Harvard - that is what it feels like to be on Lampoon all the time.
The bit about Natalie Portman, however, also points to a more troublesome feature of the Lampoon book: probably inadvertently, the writers forgot that more than half of entering college first-years are not heterosexual men. This is not surprising, given the Lampoon's demographics: only one of the nine editors who helped write the book last summer was a woman. Page 10: 'The life of a Math Teamer is paradise. Wake up, sleep through class, then go home and have sex with hot girls.' Parody of a National Honor Society charter, next page: 'If you see someone say something rude to a lady in the cafeteria, you should kill this person. The girl will then be your chattel.' It stays pretty much like that for the rest of the book. Maybe the Lampoon's market research showed that only insecure heterosexual men with poor social skills would buy a college guide parody book. But probably not. This humor, more than likely, came straight from the heart.
No Lampoon product would be complete without a mention of Thomas Pynchon, and the Guide to College Admissions obliges (see p. 148, and maybe others that I missed). The Lampoon's collective obsession with Pynchon is bizarre, and probably beyond my ability to explain. Pynchon the novelist is inaccessible, just like the 'Poon. Very few people make it all the way through his books, just like very few people can read an entire issue of the Lampoon. And people who do read Pynchon get to feel like they're part of a special intellectual club - just like the Lampoon thinks it is.
Referencing obscure authors seems to be a part of the Lampoon's larger overall strategy, evident in this book, to base their humor on allusions so arcane that almost no one will understand them. To the magazine's credit, more of the latest Lampoon effort than usual is funny on its own. But to get some of the gags you would have to take the same classes at Harvard as the students who wrote the book. The boys at the 'Poon certainly know what they're doing, though: making obscure references the basis for their humor inoculates them against the common charge that they are just not very funny. But, they can retort, the incomprehensible article in five-point type of the last issue was simply hilarious if you've read Gravity's Rainbow. You haven't read it? Well then, it's you own fault that you don't get it. So there.
The Lampoon suffers from a common weakness of undergraduate publications: they forget that they're writing for an audience, not just for one another. Amusing your friends is easy; making strangers laugh is tough. The Lampoon's Guide to College Admissions will be sold to thousands of people whose names they have never heard. Will there be enough genuine humor nuggets mixed in with the inside jokes to keep these unread proles laughing? For once, the answer is probably yes --they got through all 165 pages without even one mention of Maxwell's Demon. If this parody is a harbinger of changes to come, then maybe the Lampoon has decided to start slowly weaning itself from the obscure and self-referential gibberish most students associate with the magazine.
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