I know I’m not the only one whose pre-adolescent mind was warped by National Lampoon and the cartoons of the New Yorker, so it’s a real treat to have seen documentaries about both at the Tribeca Film Festival.
On Sunday, Calvin Trillin kicked off a post-screening panel discussion about Leah Wolchok’s doc, Very Semi-Serious, by confessing that he had a “100 percent turndown record for cartoon ideas at the New Yorker.” Back in the day, aspiring doodlers would submit for 25 years before they were finally accepted, but the documentary makes clear that entry is no longer quite as forbidding.
At some point, Robert Mankoff, the charismatic editor who’s at the heart of the doc, opened his weekly pitch meetings – in which cartoon contributors line up outside of his door to show him their new stuff – to the general public.
In the film, veteran cartoonist Mort Gerberg calls the meetings his “weekly humiliation,” and it’s easy to see why: we get to watch as Mankoff sometimes flippantly rejects painfully punny cartoons (in Gerberg’s case, a king saying “send in the clowns” and getting a row of clones instead) with lines like “I like the idea but not this idea in particular.”
During the Q&A, Gerberg revealed just how conservative the New Yorker used to be, by recounting the time his editor compelled him to tweak a drawing of a Jewish mother holding up a sign that said “My son says we should get out of Vietnam”: “I made the nose smaller, I made her look not Jewish because of what the New Yorker was like back in that day.”
So, yes, under William Shawn the New Yorker displayed a “very, very strong bias toward the sort of mild and the benign,” as Mankoff put it during the panel discussion. It tended to lampoon the “stupid cracker shit” (organic groceries, etc.) that its readers revel in, says Emily Flake, one of the younger, more irreverent cartoonists who’s been brought on board (she described herself during the Q&A as a “not quite housetrained dog that has somehow been allowed into the office”). But Mankoff notes that Tina Brown “definitely shook things up” when she was editor, and David Remnick has brought a “more accessible sensibility.” (One surprising thing that comes to light in the film: after Mankoff’s first pass, Remnick has final call over which cartoons go into the book.)
Remnick says he wants more women, a greater diversity of voices, and younger cartoonists in the magazine, and the result is newcomers like Liana Finck, a former intern who, in her first meeting with Mankoff, explains her mousy manner by deadpanning that it might be Asperberg’s.
The biggest thing that has changed over the years, Mankoff says, is that rather than relying on stock gags, many of today’s cartoons are personality driven – as evidenced most clearly by Roz Chast, who was the sole female contributor during her early days and turns out to be every bit as neurotic as you’d guess from her cartoons (she collects soup cans for their labels and doesn’t like to go outside because “it’s too hot, it’s too cold, it’s too sunny, it’s too rainy”).
Flake’s sensibility also comes through in her work, and it changes a little after she has a baby: “I still submit dick jokes,” she says, “but now they’re baby dick jokes.”
Veri Semi-Serious — a light, laugh-a-minute jaunt that only occasionally dips into the personal lives of its subjects — goes to great lengths to show that the New Yorker is evolving with the times and becoming more sensitive to issues like equal opportunity. That’s definitely not the aim of Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, Douglas Tirola’s documentary about the golden era of the National Lampoon.
During last night’s Q&A, Tirola (Hey Bartender and All In: The Poker Movie) revealed that he became a Lampoon fan in part because his father once took him to see Animal House twice in one night. That spirit of male camaraderie pervades throughout the film, most evidently when co-founder Douglas Kenney hires an art director after asking him just three questions: “Can you get us drugs? Can you get us nude models? And do you have some place where we can go with the drugs and the nude models?” (Photos of topless women fawning over staffers were, after all, a running motif in the magazine.) One of the magazine’s few female contributors, Anne Beatts, admits she got involved through a boyfriend, Michel Choquette: “I got into comedy the same way Catherine the Great got into politics – on my back.”
Using a trove of artwork from the magazine, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead shows how a crew of Harvard graduates founded the magazine, briefly flirted with the hippie comix aesthetic, found early success parodying entire issues of other magazines (Mademoiselle paid them $7,000 to do one), and then finally evolved into something that, per Tirola during the Q&A, “says a lot about where we are today in terms of censorship and self-censorship and how we look at politics.”
Early issues of the Lampoon included spreads like “Stranger in Paradise,” depicting a fully uniformed Hitler lookalike living happily on a Caribbean island. According to one story told in the film, Thurgood Marshall was so upset by “How to Write Dirty,” a pornography primer written using his name, that he called the FBI and asked, “What can I do to them?”
One of the film’s talking heads describes the magazine’s astronomical success in the mid-’70s as a “perfect storm moment of brilliant comic sensibilities hitting the culture at a crisis point,” though at the time Marshall McLuhan argued that it wasn’t as anti-establishment as it appeared, since it was “designed to please and flatter a particular audience of very well-to-do nobodies who can afford to be nobodies.”
As all the in-your-face imagery unspools on the screen, it’s easy to compare the Lampoon to Charlie Hebdo, especially when one staffer deadpans in an old interview, “All the editors, I think, to a certain degree are unbelievable racists. You ask, ‘Are we anti-Pollack?’ Of course we’re anti-Pollack, they’re so dumb.”
But the documentary doesn’t spend much time worrying about whether the Lampoon‘s racial and gender-driven humor was coming from a place of privilege, instead letting a young P. J. O’Rourke have the last word: “Laughter is entirely a defense mechanism,” he says in an archival interview. “Laughter is a defense against hostility, a replacement for hostility, a defense mechanism against guilt, embarrassment.”
True to McLuhan’s criticisms, Lampoon staffers did a hell of a lot of drugging and drinking: at one point co-founder Kenney just disappeared to write a bad novel and drop acid and roll around in the mud on Martha’s Vineyard; later, at the age of 33, he died after falling from a cliff under mysterious circumstances. But it’s clear they were extremely driven. Their output was prodigious as they expanded onto the stage with Lemmings (a pre-Spinal Tap, pre-SNL show at the Village Gate in which John Belushi, Chevy Chase, and Christopher Guest parodied a Woodstock-esque live music festival), then onto the radio with its Radio Hour (a radio theater parody featuring Second City players like Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, and Harold Ramis), and then, of course, into movies with Animal House. The footage from the first two projects is easily the most fascinating thing in the documentary.But there were conflicts as well, most obviously when co-founder Henry Beard left the magazine amid tense buyout negotiations. “Henry’s leaving was very traumatic for us for all kinds of reasons,” former editor Tony Hendra (most will recognize him as the band manager in This Is Spinal Tap) said during the Q&A. “That one line that he said – which he actually did say in his office… that ‘I’ve never been so happy since I got out of the Army,’ at the time in 1975 that was so devastating a thing to say to people you’ve worked with for five very intense years that it left a very considerable emotional scar.”
According to Tirola, Beard – who isn’t on speaking terms with his old colleagues – was the one person he was told he wouldn’t be able to get on camera. But Beard came through at the last moment, as the filmmakers were preparing to submit to Sundance and Tribeca. He appears in the film along with fans like Judd Apatow and Billy Bob Thornton, former Lampoon actors like Chevy Chase and Kevin Bacon, and former staffers like P. J. O’Rourke. It’s said O’Rourke brought more professionalism to the office during his tenure as editor, but it’s also when it “frankly stopped being fun,” according to one former colleague.
“Nobody gets laid from National Lampoon anymore,” Chevy Chase is said to have joked after he and much of the rest of the magazine’s talent were poached for Saturday Night Live (former Lampoon contributors Al Jean and Michael Reiss, the guys who pissed off Thurgood Marshall, went on to produce The Simpsons, are also interviewed). Unlike the New Yorker, whose cartoons continue to thrive, the Lampoon responded to its dwindling popularity by putting “more tits” on the cover, which damned it to the adult section of the magazine rack, and it wasn’t helped by a campaign waged by the Christian Coalition in the ’80s.
What lesson can the New Yorker learn from this downward slide? As it moves in a younger, more irreverent direction, it should probably avoid “more tits.” But we probably don’t need to tell it that.