Ellis Weiner chimes in on Sick humor, Lampoon, etc
This comment was too interesting not to surface
Ellis Weiner, ex-NatLamp stalwart, Friend of Bystander and one of the finest parodists of his (or any) generation, had a few thoughts joggled loose by my post last Friday on Sick humor. You can find that post here, but Ellis’ comment was so meaty and likely so interesting to the Greater Bystander Community that I wanted to repost it below.
Where to start...? To me, there were two tribes at Lampoon, although their Venn diagram circles overlapped. (Yeah, yeah--Block That Metaphor. ) There were Doug Kenney blow-job types, and Henry Beard “The Law of the Jungle” types. I was always among the latter. When, in an editorial meeting, we were talking about some kind of macho comic book, and I said something like, "Nick Penis and the Brass-Ball Battallion," everybody laughed and assigned the writing of it to me. I thought: Oh God. What have I done? I wrote it anyway.
I remember asking Henry if, now that he'd left the magazine and could do whatever he wanted, he didn't really want to write a novel. (I assumed that, under those circumstances, I would.) He said no. ME: Really? HE: I don't *care.* I thought: Huh. That sounds like a valid, and even admirable, position.
Meanwhile, great essay, Michael. You could write a parallel one about the difference between Jewish and non-Jewish humor. When I was at Lampoon (76-78) there were the Jews (me, Abelson, Sussman, Kaminsky) and the non-Jews (Hendra, Kelly, Mann, O'Rourke). It's not clear to me what the differences were between the two, although I think the non-Jews (which is to say, the ex-Catholics) were *meaner* than the Jews, in a useful and good way. They, after all, were in rebellion against an all-encompassing system that oppressed them from the cradle to Heaven. We, on the other h., were always much more secular, and couldn't be bothered being outraged that God didn't exist.
As for PJ...He was talented, but his editorial meetings had all the rollicking good times of a lawsuit deposition. Before he became EIC, meetings were fun, loose, relaxed, and natural extensions of the atmosphere that prevailed all day, every day. When he took over, he sat at the head of the table and read from his agenda, quoting things he had recently written to a tense and silent room. As you said, he cultivated Matty Simmons, and was in turn cultivated by John Hughes.
All this reached a climax for me when, at one editorial meeting, PJ announced that we would no longer run parody ads that might cause the reader some confusion as to whether they were real or fake. Hughes immediately agreed and said, "Yeah, it's wrong to fool people."
One of my few professional regrets is that I didn't immediately say, "Are you fucking kidding?" But by then I was free-lancing and I needed the money. Still, you wonder why I have never seen a John Hughes movie? (jk. You don't wonder.)
Fascinating stuff from Ellis, made more so by the fact that this precise period, 1976-78, is where I see the Magic Pixie Dust of the first five years really starting to come off National Lampoon. It’s still a great version of itself, and every issue is chock-full of interesting, well-realized, surprising, literate material. If you look at an issue from this period, it’s impossible not to be struck by 1) how much popular culture still existed in the printed form; and 2) how much each issue offered the reader. So much to look at, so much to read.
Ellis doesn’t know this because I’ve never told him, but simply from his work I’ve always felt that he was probably the guy to pilot Lampoon from the Founders’ exit to whatever would happen next. (I do not know Danny Abelson, who clearly was doing wonderful work as well.) PJ, for reasons made clear above, was definitely not that guy; and the Hendra/Kelly duopoly, while undoubtedly a comedic powerhouse, was destined to implode (as it eventually did); so that the mag isn’t taken down in that Reichstag Fire, you want Sean and Tony installed as Senior Editor/Guru types, not ultimate authorities/arbiters. Tony was too dark, and Sean perhaps too donnish. Plus, there is the whole Jewish/Catholic thing going on here; bridging that rift would have been Job #1.
Were I to write the essay Ellis is asking for, my premise would be that (speaking as an Irish Catholic with tons of alcoholism in my family tree) the angry-meanness that I feel coming off Lampoon’s Catholic contingent was ultimately too cold to sustain the magazine. It’s just not very fun. Meanness is not funniness, and over a period of more than a few issues a reader has to like you—feel you are fair and just, have a sense of proportionality, and wish to entertain—to come along on your satirical ride. I sense that Ellis (and Danny?) could’ve done that?
The beauty of Beard was that he was neither Catholic nor Jewish, and so could see precisely how/where to balance O’Donoghue’s darkness and Hendra’s incisiveness and Kelly’s Jesuitical erudition and McConnachie’s whimsy with his own UNIVAC-of-comedy stuff and Doug’s profound warmth. After Henry skedaddled, I think Lampoon would’ve thrived more if the Jewish contingent had been put in nominal charge; the warmth, both personal and professional, of Gerry Sussman, balanced by Ellis’ own meticulous precision, could’ve been a really winning combo. With PJ at the helm, Lampoon was destined to get meaner and meaner, and also younger and younger, because there’s a certainness to PJ’s stuff that is, to my ear, deeply callow.
Anyway? God bless them, every one. None of this is meant to criticize, only to analyze; they were all brilliant in their ways, and I’m deeply grateful they did what they did.
All the talk about National Lampoon got me searching for digitized versions, and I found a ton of them at archive.org.
It’s fascinating reading these commentaries and then looking at the archive and seeing it all play out. Lots of talented people on the team, maybe a few seasons that didn’t go so well.
It’s similar to my experience reading old stuff from spy and being blown away one minute and depressed the next. Tony Hendra had a finger in that dying pie, too, if I recall correctly.
After reading your original post about sick humor, it got me thinking about Hunter S. Thompson. His earlier work definitely rode the sick humor train along the edge of hilarious political satire. But later on, like in his last two books before he offed himself, the humor was longer there. Similar to how O'Rourke's writing evolved , Thompson's later books became mean diatribes spewing venom in every direction. The drugs, lifestyle and bitterness had taken its toll on his creativity. So no truer a warnings was ever written than yours about how sick humor had to runs its course or else it eats its creator.