Recently, staffers on The New York Times culture desk received an e-mail from their new editor, Steve Erlanger. As a “kind of a New Year’s Gift,” Mr. Erlanger sent along a piece by Jane Kramer from the Aug. 19, 2002, New Yorker entitled: “The Reporter’s Kitchen: A Recipe for Writing.”
“It may strike some of you as a strange thing for a new culture editor to do,” Mr. Erlanger wrote. “But I want to encourage all of us to think more broadly, engage more deeply and, simply, to write and edit better. I’ve been impressed and gratified by some of what we’ve published in the last weeks of the year. But I’ve also been dismayed by some of the flat, careless and inelegant writing I’ve seen, some of which has gotten into the paper.
“There really are no excuses (or, very few, I suppose, including high fever in flu season) for dull and pedestrian leads, especially on stories about creativity, about art, literature and culture,” Mr. Erlanger continued. “I know we can do better; I want to encourage you to try.”
Mr. Erlanger, previously based in Berlin, went on to speak of the importance of culture writing in The Times , particularly given its role as a paper of national and international importance. While well-meaning, to sources within The Times said that Mr. Erlanger’s words caused hurt feelings among members of the culture desk, where the new boss is still a relative stranger.
For his part, Mr. Erlanger declined to comment on the memo, saying it “speaks for itself.” Regarding his plans for the paper’s cultural coverage, he declined to go into details, but said: “What we do in the section matters. I’m concentrating now on understanding how it works before deciding how to make it better.
“I’m trying to approach things with a degree of humility,” Mr. Erlanger continued. “But I’m finding the experience quite exciting.”
It was a late afternoon in Chinatown, and Shawn Coyne-a New York book publisher and the latest quixotic entrepreneur to try to salvage the fabled but wheezing National Lampoon magazine-reached onto a glass coffee table and lifted up a well-worn copy of his personal Bible: the 1964 National Lampoon High School Yearbook Parody , with its infamously bare-assed cheerleader on the cover.
“It all started because of this bare butt,” the 38-year-old Mr. Coyne said, pointing to the tush in question. “This thing has haunted me for 15 years.”
Lampoon- ites know that the Parody issue introduced the seminal character of Larry Kroger, the hapless nerd at C. Estes Kefauver High School in Dacron, Ohio, who later became a pop-culture legend as Pinto, the virgin fraternity pledge in National Lampoon’s Animal House . In fall 2003, Mr. Coyne, the co-founder of Rugged Land Books, and his partner, movie producer Webster Stone, will reissue High School Parody , with updates of all the characters and a new introduction by one of the book’s now-grizzled original editors, P.J. O’Rourke. And if all goes according to plan, Mr. Coyne and Mr. Stone will relaunch National Lampoon magazine, which since 1998 has been as dead as Doug Neidermeyer’s white horse, Trooper.
The reanimation of the magazine Lampoon -where writers like Mr. O’Rourke and John Hughes were published and first exposed to a mass-market audience-has been in the works for some time. Mr. Coyne and Mr. Stone are currently in negotiations with the Los Angeles–based National Lampoon L.L.C., which owns the franchise and the name, to allow them to publish a print product. They have also brought in Deanna Brown-who co-founded the now-defunct Inside.com with Michael Hirschorn and Kurt Andersen-to help search for editors.
“Our times are such that we really need a national humor magazine,” Mr. Coyne said. “I can’t think of anything funnier than National Lampoon from 1971 to 1979, and all the wonderful writers they had on it. I think there’s so much comedic talent, writing talent, people that work for the major television shows that don’t get to do more edgy material. Wouldn’t it be cool to see if we wouldn’t be able to work with National Lampoon ? To see if we can’t put together something that’s fun?”
Said Mr. Stone, 41: “What we had envisioned was not something along the lines of what the National Lampoon was on the way down. It was more along the lines of what the National Lampoon was when it started, with some elements of Spy .”
Mr. Coyne and Mr. Stone wouldn’t discuss their plans in great detail, because they said their negotiations with National Lampoon haven’t been completed. They wouldn’t discuss if they had additional partners, the magazine’s potential frequency or other staffing moves. But they did indicate that the Lampoon relaunch would be gradual, and that they’d try to minimize their spending.
“This will not be a two-million [circulation] launch,” Mr. Coyne said. He said he wanted the magazine to build its buzz in a more “organic” fashion: “We want it to be funny and edgy and cool, so that people will want to buy it and talk about it.”
A new Lampoon magazine will have to do a great deal to match its influential predecessor. Founded in April 1970 by alumni of the Harvard Lampoon , the original National Lampoon was the anti-Nixonian, sexually charged joker of its age. In the years before Saturday Night Live , the Lampoon was the outlet for a young, edgy, humor-deprived populace as G. Gordon Liddy and the boys were fumbling around the Watergate Hotel.
“I think it was the first appearance in print of a kind of satire that had appeared for several-if not many-years in other venues,” said Tony Hendra, a former editor with the original magazine who wrote about his Lampoon experience in the June 2002 issue of Harper’s . “Certainly in nightclubs. And even in movies. To me, Dr. Strangelove is one of the greatest satires ever written. There was bound to come a time where that would find its way into print.”
But as the 70′s and 80′s progressed, and the Lampoon successfully ventured into film with Animal House and the Vacation series, the magazine struggled to regain its Nixon-era vitality. Several people unsuccessfully tried to revive the magazine, including actor Tim Matheson (who played Otter in Animal Hous e) and Daniel Grodnick, who co-owned the magazine from 1989 to 1990, and J2 Communications, which first reduced the magazine’s frequency, then finally killed it off in 1998.
In 2002, the Lampoon made the first steps towards a comeback. Promising a return to glory, financier Daniel Laikin and a group of investors acquired 70 percent of the company, which had been wanting for original ideas (last year, for instance National Lampoon lent its name to the college comedy Van Wilder , but had little involvement beyond that). Former BMG chief executive Stuart Zelnick bought a minority stake, and the Lampoon ‘s Web site sent out a Hollywood Reporter spoof (called The Hollywood Retorter ) to 4,000 people.
Mr. Laikin, now company C.E.O., declined to comment. Mr. Coyne said: “They’re really very much interested in revitalizing the brand. They’re very dedicated and hard-working, and want to do everything in their power to bring National Lampoon back to its glory.”
Still, the recent Lampoon overhaul didn’t necessarily include plans for a magazine until Rugged Land entered the picture last year. Jointly founded by Mr. Coyne, a former editor at Doubleday, and Mr. Stone, the executive producer of the films Gone in 60 Seconds and The Negotiator , the Canal Street–headquartered publishing company was founded on the idea of being a small, independent imprint that could turn its properties into films. In 2002, Rugged Land produced two national best-selling books and came to an agreement with National Lampoon L.L.C. to produce a line of National Lampoon books, beginning in the fall of 2003. After toying with the idea of doing a “one-off” version of the magazine in conjunction with both the re-release of Animal House and the High School Parody , Mr. Stone’s college friend and Inside.com co-founder, Michael Hirschorn, suggested they contact Ms. Brown. From there, Mr. Stone said, things “kind of took on a life of their own.”
Though its would-be re-creators are eager to get the publication going again, not all of the Lampoon ‘s alumni are as enthusiastic. Asked if there was room for a new Lampoon in 2003, former Lampoon contributor Bruce McCall told Off the Record: “No. Emphatically no. You can’t get good people to bother with the laborious process of reading humor. It’s a really doomed cause. I can’t imagine anybody who would think this culture would want that. It’s doomed. It’s stupid. Nobody remembers it. The cachet isn’t there. Nothing’s there. In the late 60′s, with the Harvard Lampoon , there wasn’t any competition. There wasn’t any reasonably hip stuff on television, so the Lampoon took off. The first rule of wisdom is to learn from the past-and there just isn’t anything there.”
Michael Gross, the magazine’s original art director, agreed the Lampoon was better left dead and buried. “I think its over. There are 15 television shows that do the exact same thing. It’s been replaced. You have The Onion . It’s over. It’s in the past. We should leave it there.”
Likewise, Mr. Hendra-who said he toyed with running the magazine under Mr. Matheson-said: “I also have a feeling that this is a beast that’s well and truly dead. In fact, when writing my article for Harper’s , I found people were only really interested in thinking of the Lampoon as a nostalgia item-something that represented their youth or the 70′s, or both. The idea of it once again prowling the land doesn’t excite anyone.”
But Mr. Coyne and Mr. Stone firmly disagree.
“It’s not like we’re launching a rehash of the old National Lampoon ,” Mr. Coyne said. “It’s a whole new sensibility …. The Onion is basically National Lampoon . It’s a take on what National Lampoon started, which is the fake news story. So you have this wonderfully funny franchise based on only one thing the National Lampoon did. I know there’s a whole generation out there that can’t get their stuff published. And wouldn’t it be fun to give people the ability to do original material?”
Newsweek columnist, media entrepreneur and ex– Brill’s Content publisher Steve Brill told Off the Record this week that he has spoken to Maer Roshan, the former editorial director of Talk , about helping to fund Mr. Roshan’s new magazine idea, Radar .
“I’ve been looking at it as a potential investor,” Mr. Brill said. “We’re still talking. I’m really impressed by the prototype issues he’s produced. I didn’t expect I’d have any interest at all, but I think he has an idea that might work.
“I’m a bit of a contrarian,” Mr. Brill continued. “I think it’s a good time to start a magazine. You can get people less expensively. It takes you six months to a year [or] 12 to 18 months-to get the thing going. And by then, the advertising’s back. If I were starting a magazine, this would be a good time to start one.”
Mr. Roshan, who reportedly has lost National Enquirer publisher American Media as an investor, declined to comment.