When Conan O’Brien was tapped to host NBC’s Late Night in April 1993, UPI ran a 190-word story headlined “Unknown Comic Named to Replace [David] Letterman.”
Fans of the actual Unknown Comic, that groany staple of Chuck Barris’ Gong Show, were probably disappointed upon seeing the 6-foot-4, ginger-topped host. (That’s what he looks like under the brown bag?) But at the Cambridge, Mass., headquarters of The Harvard Lampoon, Mr. O’Brien was anything but unknown.
Mr. O’Brien (class of ’85), wrote pieces for the magazine like “Conflict: The Sitcom” and a series of comic strips featuring Abe Lincoln. He served as president of the organization twice (just like Robert Benchley, ’12). In 1984, Mr. O’Brien and a few accomplices (one dressed as the Penguin) stole Burt Ward’s Robin costume from the original Batman series. After graduating, he went on to write for Saturday Night Live, including a skit called “Nude Beach” in which the word “penis” was spoken over three dozen times. He then jumped to The Simpsons, where he wrote “Marge vs. the Monorail,” an episode that managed to incorporate a parody of The Music Man and a cameo from Leonard Nimoy.
Through the door of that hallowed institution’s Mount Auburn Street Castle—a structure invariably dfescribed as “faux-Flemish”—the likes of Benchley, John Updike (’54), William Gaddis (dropout, ’45), George Plimpton (’48), Fred Gwynne (’51) and others who didn’t work in Munster makeup walked, and sometimes pogo-sticked, into the American consciousness. (Before the castle was erected in 1909 with generous funding from former business manager William Randolph Hearst, members like George Santayana were obliged to pogo-stick elsewhere.)
The Lampoon is a whimsical résumé garnish for some, content to be the funniest next possible Supreme Court justice nominee (we’re looking at you, Cass Sunstein). But for others it created the spark for a permanent revolution in American comedy (Trotsky jokes always being funny).
The National Lampoon (Doug Kenney, Henry Beard and Robert Hoffman), Saturday Night Live (James Downey, Pam Norris, among others), and The Simpsons (Al Jean, George Meyer and many, many others) all bear the mark of The Harvard Lampoon, a style SNL’s Mr. Downey described as “sophomoric in the best sense: educated people being silly and bloody-minded.”
Other former members, like the socialist journalist John Reed (class of ’10), had to content themselves with mere “real” revolutions like the creation of the Soviet Union, which, while failed, lasted almost as long as Saturday Night Live. If those poison darts aimed at older brother Lachlan finally hit their marks, James Murdoch (dropout, ’96) might someday take over News Corporation, and a member of The Harvard Lampoon will actually rule the world.
And so, as Mr. O’Brien embarks on his move to 11:35 p.m., it seemed like a good time to stop by the castle and meet the next generation.
A little over a week ago, eight droll young men (some in tuxedoes, which was odd at 2 p.m.) greeted the Observer in the Lampoon’s business office, a woody antechamber on the ground floor of the “Flemish” castle. (You call those mullioned windows? What would Hans Vredeman de Vries say?) The organization is co-ed, but no women were present.
“We write for ourselves,” said Robert Padnick (’09) of the (sort of) five-times-a-year publication the group’s put out since 1876.
“The Lampoon’s gonna go on whether we sell zero or a hundred thousand,” said Nathaniel Stein (’10).
“We can experiment,” added Garrett Schabb (’09). “We can write stuff that’s weird and different.”
“It’s like we’re animals in the zoo. They’re not performing, they’re just doing their own thing, they’re living,” said Christopher Schleicher (’09).
Several of them seemed not only to aspire to comedy, but also to embody comedic tropes: Mr. Schleicher, shades of Will Ferrell’s Blades of Glory, is a competitive figure skater with his younger sister, Molly. Mr. Padnick, who appeared in an episode of Seinfeld as a kid, has a bit of Sammy Glick’s hustle, offering a sales pitch for an upscale rum business he plans to start after graduation. Another member, Kyle Mack, is a Canadian.
A guest would not be invited deeper into the castle or be allowed to sit in the throne from The Dark Crystal (a gift from Jim Henson, father of the first female president, Lisa Henson, class of ’82-83) or thumb through the library’s Bible, personally inscribed by God (class of ’0).
Many of them were barely out of diapers when it appeared, but the Lampoon members were still smarting over a 1991 Rolling Stone article by Dan Zevin that revealed details of the organization’s “Phool’s Week” initiation. Less painful than being jumped-in to the Crips, in its own way Phool’s Week is as cruelly manipulative as the indoctrination scene in The Parallax View. Mr. Jean (’81) of The Simpsons said that while watching a 20/20 segment on fraternities, he had a small epiphany: “The initiation was exactly the same!”
The weekend before, hundreds of alums in black tie had packed into this building (breaking every fire code known to man) for a party celebrating the centenary of the castle. The night began at the Charles Hotel, where 350 members ate a formal dinner, sharing benches at long tables, which was a re-creation of the first dinner eaten at the Lampoon.
“Mastodon or something,” according to Mr. Downey, who said it was surprisingly good.
Mr. Downey (’74) played emcee, which was appropriate since he’s often cited as the man who laid the pipeline between the Lampoon and television. Breaking with 133 years of Lampoon tradition, no one threw anything at him, a fate even Updike couldn’t avoid when he spoke at an event in 1976. Mr. O’Brien addressed the crowd via video, Marshall Applewhite–style.
Mr. O’Brien is notorious for not hiring many Lampoon alumni, but members toil on the staffs of nearly all current scripted and talk shows. A prime example is The Office, which is produced by Lampoon members Greg Daniels (’85) and Michael Schur (’97), with B. J. Novak (’01) in front of the camera.
George Meyer (’78), formerly of The Simpsons, said Mr. Downey “really kicked the door open” to Hollywood. According to Mr. Jean, “If you did a chart like at the end of Godfather II, he’d be the top square.”
Satirizing his image as the man who helped the Lampoon drink Hollywood’s milkshake, Mr. Downey made a cameo in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood as a real estate broker who helped Daniel Day Lewis’ oil prospector grab prime land in the West.
If other comedy cliques have emerged in the last few years to threaten The Lampoon’s hegemony—in 2005, Variety’s Paul Cullum pointed out that “no Lampoon alumni in a decade has produced a breakout hit”—there seemed no reason to tamp down the festivities in Cambridge.
Sure, Judd Apatow (USC dropout, ’87) may rule movies. The Onion, largely staffed by University of Wisconsin alumni, owns print. (“That’s The Harvard Lampoon of today,” said Mr. Downey.) And Collegehumor.com, whose founders went to the University of Richmond, Wake Forest and the Rochester Institute of Technology, grabs most of the low-hanging fruit online. But The Lampoon shouldn’t be tossed in the dustbin of formerly influential groups like WASPS or neocons. Lampoon-staffed shows like The Office and 30 Rock are hits with critics, and sometimes even audiences—if they’re not on against American Idol or Dancing With the Stars.
In 2000, Mr. Meyer was portrayed in a New Yorker article by his friend and fellow Lampoon member David Owen (’78) as something of a comedic boddhisatva, the complicated twists of his mind rivaled only by those of his lanky, yoga-trained limbs.
Mr. Meyer wrote for The Simpsons from 1989 to 2004 and before that created Army Man, perhaps the most important ’zine you’ve never seen. (Don’t worry: Every comedian you like has.) Mr. Meyer’s koan-like aphorisms—“Hard-core is always funnier than soft-core”; “Clever is the eunuch version of funny”—are reverently shared among acolytes. If you’ve ever said “Yoink!” when grabbing a french fry off a friend’s plate, you have Mr. Meyer to thank.
After the party, Mr. Meyer, who now lives in Seattle and is working on a novel (“a modern-day Candide”), was heartened to see that “the spirit of The Lampoon was intact.”
“It’s like a martini,” he explained. “Most of it has to be surliness. And then geniality is the vermouth.”
To all the preprofessional young members (one of whom is already at work on a script he described as “Raising Arizona meets The Bird Cage”), Mr. Meyer has this to say: “The Lampoon is a place to work on your chops. Not get your résumé together.”
It’s also a place to meet your heroes—and not just in comedy. In 2008, the group invited Paris Hilton to accept an award for being “Woman of the Year.”
“It’s literally so exciting,” Ms. Hilton said as she accepted her spittoon-like trophy.
Ms. Hilton’s honor was not without precedent. In 1975, another fresh-faced ingenue named Linda Lovelace received a similarly meaningless prize at the castle. John Wayne was also honored, as was John Kenneth Galbraith, economist and Kennedy-era ambassador to India, who was named “Funniest Professor of the Century” in 1976. (He got a pimped-out purple Cadillac.)
In 1993, the members of Rush were named “Musicians of the Millennium” and awarded medium pizzas from Tommy’s around the corner. Surprisingly normal-voiced bassist Geddy Lee seemed moved, or hungry.
If you’re comfortable partying with porn and rock stars—not to mention economists—as an undergraduate, you’re practically ready for prime time. Or 11:35.
The day after the interview at the castle, a few Lampoon members were scheduled to appear as the opening act at a comedy show in Somerville as part of the Alt-Com festival, sponsored by The Boston Phoenix.
Rain was pounding outside and the management had no idea there was a comedy show planned. A quick count of the audience totaled eight people—three of them worked for the festival, one was a journalist, and another was the daughter of the headliner.
After a shaky start and some awkward paper riffling, the Lampoon’s president, Matt Grzecki, and his cohorts, Messrs. Stein and Schabb, got a few laughs out of the soggy, tiny crowd.
The Harvard Lampoon rises to the occasion, even when the occasion is a dud.