Rick Meyerowitz | National Lampoon Retrospective

"Let’s look back forty years to when I was in my twenties and attempt to recall what the hell went on there."

 

 

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Writers and Artists Who Made the National Lampoon Insanely Great is a new oversized retrospective edited by Lampoon artist Rick Meyerowitz. It’s a great big hardcover that reprints such perverse gems as Brian McConnachie’s “Heading for Trouble,” a comic strip about a bizarre misadventure involving three drunk guys in mascot costumes (Mr. Peanut, Poppin’ Fresh, and the Alka Seltzer mascot Speedy); Michael Choquette’s photo essay imagining Hitler living out his dotage on a tropical island (yet still dressing daily in a Nazi uniform); and Doug Kenney’s “Mrs. Agnew’s Diary,” in which the Vice President’s wife loses it on LSD.

In the ‘70s, the Lampoon’s glory days, the magazine’s satirical writing and graphic parodies were probably sharper than anything before or since. Amid the hundreds of reprinted goofs are recollections from the writers and artists on what is was like to work in the Lampoon office and create these still-hilarious oddities and memories of great comedic minds that have passed on.

Playback caught up with the editor of this collection, Rick Meyerowitz, who will discuss and sign copies of the book at the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival at the JCC this Monday, Nov. 8, at 7:30 p.m.

Download a copy of the festival brochure.


I really enjoyed the way you and the other contributors described the salad days of working with a team of mad geniuses. What sorts of shenanigans went on at the office? Do you miss that time? Was it difficult to see the magazine taken over by various publishers and witness its decline from awesome to not-so-awesome in its later years?

Oy vey. What a lot of questions you ask! Thank you for the compliments on the book. Let’s look back forty years to when I was in my twenties and attempt to recall what the hell went on there. Shenanigans were few. Despite the ‘Drunk and Stoned’ part of my book’s title, there was the ‘Brilliant’ part, too. They were so smart and so dedicated to doing what they thought was new, and they wanted to smash hypocrisy wherever they found it. They were all hard workers, because if they were not, they’d be outrun by everyone else. Shenanigans are for children. There may have been some arguments and juvenile behavior, but they were all grown-ups, not children.

Do I miss that time? Do I miss being in my twenties when I could get out of bed in the morning and no body part fell off and nothing hurt, and I had a full head of hair and young children and was sleeping with a woman who was also in her twenties? What do you think? It was not difficult to see the magazine go under. Painful, maybe, but not difficult. By then it was obvious to anyone who looked that its time had passed.

What was it like to work with Doug Kenney, Henry Beard, and Michael O’Donoghue—three acknowledged comic geniuses—and, as described in the book, guys very much dealing with their own demons, too?

Just mind-boggling to speak and work with those guys. You’d come away from any conversation with your head spinning and the sense that you don’t know a damn thing about anything in comparison. I wrote that talking to Michael O’Donoghue was like having cold seltzer poured directly on my brain; something I recommend you do not try.

How did it feel to have your iconic painting “Mona Gorilla,” (depicting a gorilla as the Mona Lisa), become the de facto emblem of the magazine?

It feels great. The "Mona Gorilla" was recognized in the seventies, but now she is once again having a renaissance, if you will. One writer called her "one of the enduring icons of American humor." And the Wall Street Journal wrote, "That ape may be the most celebrated magazine illustration of the 1970s." I can’t argue with that.

Describe the response at the time to the 1973 “If you don’t buy this magazine we’ll kill this dog,” cover.

There was no PETA, but if there had been, they would’ve bombed the offices at 635 Madison Avenue and killed hundreds of people to express their outrage over the magazine having fun with the pup. You know, that dog was a beloved pet of one of the editors. He had a fine time, got fed plenty of dog biscuits. How else could they make him pose so wonderfully?

The nudity in the magazine guaranteed a certain readership, but it seems the  creators may have had mixed feelings about it. Was there a general feeling that the T&A was pandering?

They were guys in their twenties. They did not mind female nudity. They liked it. But they mixed it up with some very high level humor. The magazine wanted to attract a wide audience, and like it or not, naked girls were an attraction to boys and come to think of it, some girls too.

There are anecdotes in the book about working with John Belushi for the National Lampoon Radio Hour, Lemmings and Animal House. How well did you know him?

Not well. We had a few meals together and went to a movie together and I saw John around the office many times, and we sometimes talked when he wasn’t asleep on the floor. He was a hard-working guy who did not get much rest at night because he never went to bed.

The Lampoon’s cartoons are so wonderfully perverse they’ve been collected in a number of compilations. I don’t think we’ll ever see the likes of so many terrifically deranged cartoonists working for the same outlet again—do you?

No. I think cartoons—smart, socially pointed cartoons—are fading from the scene, and that’s puzzling because everyone loves cartoons.

TV humor is monitored before broadcast by network censors. Was the Lampoon ever censored before publication in any way?

The publisher or ad manager might beg the editor not to publish something because they’d lose an advertiser. It rarely worked and many advertisers left. But others replaced them. Read Christopher Cerf’s essay about this in his chapter. It contains the memorable line, "You called my queen a dyke!"

Did you have any idea that what you were doing would prove so influential to the American comedy scene as a whole, for example, to SNL, Animal House, SPY magazine, The Onion, The Simpsons and everything else spawned in its wake? Is National Lampoon the print magazine forgotten in these days of TV, film, and online comedy videos?

See into the future? We could barely see to the next issue. No one thought that way at first. But we grew up and moved on and out and saw the world change as we moved into the eighties. Natural selection is the way of the world. Magazines on paper—in the day of the iPad? I don’t think it’ll work. The National Lampoon magazine may have been in danger of being forgotten, but now it won’t be because I wrote this beautiful book! And, by the way, we are working on the iPad version. Look for it next year when the softcover is released.

Anger about the Vietnam War and Nixon’s slimy activities seems to have fueled a good bit of the Lampoon’s fire. Is it possible to harness that feeling of doom in the zeitgeist today and use it for satire, or was the Lampoon capturing lightning in a bottle?

The answer to your question is yes. Look around you. The world is ripe for making fun of. Look at us, the great American people in all our varied guises. Aren’t we the sorriest bunch of noodniks you ever saw in your life? We’re ripe for lampooning. There may not be a National Lampoon, but there are plenty of other venues for humor. | Byron Kerman

Image courtesy of National Lampoon Inc.

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