One of my first tasks when I realized my Comedy Nerdom was hunting down as many issues I could of the National Lampoon on eBay. But I was more than a little sketical about the appeal of a movie about the founding of the National Lampoon. And I have a comedy blog.
But every bit of casting I've heard about the upcoming Netflix film "A Futile & Stupid Gesture" — based on the Josh Karp book of the same name — gives me hope. Let's run through them:
Most of these people are professional funny people... so they don't have to be looped in on what it is to be a funny person for a biopic. But more important is that the film will be directed by David Wain from a script by Michael Coltion and John Aboud.
That's a big deal because Wain, as a founding member of the State, knows what it's like to create a humor instituion right out of college. And as Harvard Lampoon alums, Colton and About know more a little of how rare and hard it is to create a humor institution with their attempt at creating Modern Humorist in their post graduate years. Everyone is close enough to the material to get who Doug Kenney was because they've lived a bit of it themselves, albeit at a smaller scale.
So at the very least we won't be getting someone treating comedy like Aaron Sorkin did in Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Perhaps they might be too close to the experiences of the material to do it justice, but my National Lampoon-collecting cynical Comedy Nerd heart is starting to believe.
A Futile & Stupid Gesture starts production later this month.
A new parody hit the stands this week with a rather delicious premise entitled My Wall Street Journal. The “My” part refers to News corp mogul Rupert Murdoch who acquired the esteemed financial paper late last year. Many cringed at the inevitable changes that would come to the paper under Murdoch.
Tony Hendra, formerly of the National Lampoon and Spy, decided he’d best satirize it before reality caught up with him. The paper begins as the Wall Street Journal and then, as Fox News and NY Post style makes its presence known, the paper turns into something else entirely. I believe the word Hendra used is “travesty.”
A small confession, I’m a contributor - in a small way - to said travesty. But there’s a lot of far more brilliant folks than me involved with it including Terry Jones, Richard Belzer, Andy Borowitz, Jeff Kreisler, Todd Hanson, Rob Kutner, Ian Lendler and Bonnie Datt. They’re all very talented folks and well worth your $3.95.
Murdoch doesn’t just get it in print. The fun has continued online as well. Besides the website, there’s this:
There’s been some suggestion that the paper might be hard to find because the satirized are buying up all the copies. Haven’t had a chance to check to see if that true at the stands myself, but if it is, the parody can also be bought on Amazon.
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The entire issue of MAD this month in monkey themed. The parody of Monk is Monkey, with the Tony Shalhoub character replaced by an ape. Spy vs Spy becomes Spider Monkey vs. Spider Monkey. Even the staff has been replaced by monkeys, as illustrated by Tom Richmond. Even if there’s probably too many poo-flinging jokes (isn’t one too many these days?), it’s nice to see that they are beholden to this month’s movie or TV parody and can instead throw themselves into something completely ridiculous.
The current strike by the Writers Guild of America is incredibly unfortunate. Though the internet is a relatively young medium, the writers are right to insist that they get compensated for sales/viewings on the web - particularly after making the sacrifice they made in 1988 to support the equally young at the time DVD market. There are far better sources out there for the why and the wherefores of the strike, so I’m not going to talk much about it. Readers should definitely check out Deadline Hollywood and United Hollywood, the first a good source for what’s going on and the second serving as a web arm for the writers’ voice in this mess. What I’m interested in is what might come out of this strike - by looking back at something that was part of the last.
Many say the 1988 strike set the stage for reality programming, but I think it’s arguable that it also was influential in creating the next paradigm in comedy - that being “The SImpsons.” At the time, George Meyer, who had talken a self-imposed withdrawal from the industry after stints at SNL and Late Night with David Letterman, starting toying with a photocopied newsletter called “Army Man.” At only 8 pages, it’s still coveted by comedy writers today.
“Army Man” had a ramshackle layout with several short typewritten jokes scattered throughout the page, but it was all pro when it came to the writing. I have copies of the three issues produced and each one I’ve poured over numerous times, digging into the little details - appreciate the economy of the comedy.
Here’s a taste of what Army Man was like:
That woman in the Virginia Slims ad is cute, but she smokes.
Due to the tiny volume of mail we receive, we are able to acknowledge every submission with a heartfelt personal note, and occasionally even a gift.
Okay. Here it is. The caption says, “Honorarium.” And it’s like an aquarium, only it has little trophies and plaques swimming around. Can’t you just picture it? I hope so, because otherwise I’m in deep trouble.
Army Man was begun before the writers strike, but after the first issue the strike was certainly on. And several comedy writers, who had jokes they wanted to tell, ended up contributing to Army Man - as contributor Ian Frazier relates here in this interview with Believer.
Once the strike was over, SImpsons producer Sam Simon, who was a big fan of Army Man staffed some of the Simpsons writers room with Army Man contributors including Meyer, John Swatzwelder and Jon Vitti.
Writers write. If the strike goes on for any length, they’ll start making stuff again but for themselves. Stuff like Army Man. And this time, it would be photocopied 200 times and handed among friends. It’s going to get to the rest of the world through the web.
Predictions have been that a long strike could be good for web entertainment and if the audience does go looking, and the writers are writing, they’ll find each other. There will be a direct connection between creator and audience. So a side project that’s creatively fulfilling like Army Man could become something that has demand in the marketplace. Demand that the studios could be totally cut out of.
Now of course, with broadband video maturing, that creatively fulfilling strike side project doesn’t have to be Army Man. It could be the Simpsons.
I’m not sure how close we are to this yet. I think the key would be getting a writer-created show sold through something like iTunes. Or some micro-payment structure equivalent to what ZeFrank did with the show and Jonathan Coulton does on his site. I can see this more likely in some ways for a sci-fi show, which has cult audience that will be loyal to something - but with many writers also being the performers in comedy, they have a chance to go beyond cult - attracting a general public who’s missing new work by them.
But if I was among the producers, I’d be looking to solve this faster, before writers start writing for themselves. Because it seems like to me, the longer this is drawn out, the producers resistance to giving up a residual looks like a risk at giving up the entire pie.
Note: If you want to see more joke from Army Man, Maud Newton typed up a bit of it a while back, here’s a larger version of page 1, issue 1 and The Believer put issue one in the middle of the book, the same issue where they interviewed Meyer and Fraizer.
I’d love to put all the issues online myself, but I’d rather have some kind of permission first. However, after the jump, you’ll find my favorite cartoon from “Army Man” ever…
Kurt Andersen is a novelist and host of Public Radio International’s Studio 360. But prior to that, Kurt and current Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter were co-editors of the much-imitated humor magazine Spy. On the occasion of what would have been the magazine’s twentieth anniversary, a retrospective has been released entitled “Spy: The Funny Years.” The book gives a fascinating peek at the birth of Spy and contains many of the pieces that made it entertaining and vibrant. As someone whose collection of back issues is spread over two states, to have much of my favorites at my fingertips again is a real joy. In the interview, Kurt touches upon Spy’s links to Mad, the end of the Irony Epidemic and the so-called Harvard Lampoon mafia.
Exaggeration is one of the best tools a comedian can have, but it seems to me when you’re doing a more journalistic brand of humor like Spy that exaggeration is out. How was exaggeration a component of Spy and if it wasn’t, how did you compensate?
In terms of the journalism, the fact based stuff, which is, granted, most of the magazine, I guess we compensated by… until you said this, it never occurred to me, and I don’t think it occurred to anybody then, that “hmm, we’re lacking this important tool in the comic arsenal. What can we do to compensate?” I guess what was the de facto compensation is that you find real facts that are striking or, even better, astonishing in their truthfulness and that somehow is the surrogate for normal satirical comic exaggeration.
Also it seems like the decade that Spy was most associated with—the ‘80s—so much of it was exaggerated.
That’s true. And I think what began in the late ‘80s of a kind of living largeness and over-the-top exaggeration of life and lifestyle, I actually think, with small downticks along the way, that it looks to be like we’re still living in that era.
But I think that’s right. I think suddenly that’s what it seemed. That life itself was suddenly becoming cartoonish and clownish. And if you could just capture glimpses of it and when the lily didn’t need to be gilded, don’t gild it. That’s what we were doing instead of exaggeration.
So many people were so big themselves that you certainly didn’t have to worry about that.
When [exaggeration] could be done, with cover images and such, we certainly did that.
With this, one of the things you mention in the book is how Mad Magazine was a big influence on Spy. And Mad Magazine is very rooted in exaggeration. So where is Mad Magazine in Spy’s DNA?
In the close textual analysis of humor way, it probably isn’t much. Although that the density of the pages and in the marginalia-type things…
Sort of like Sergio Aragones cartoons…
Yeah, exactly. But I would say more than that, when I was a kid first reading Mad in 1962, it was pretty much the only comedy channel, venue, piece of media for kids. So that was the way in which it was influential.
And the other thing for me - and probably for Graydon living in Canada, but for me living in Omaha – it was this shot of what struck me as a quintessentially New York thing. So it was the New Yorkiness. And it’s various flavors of sarcasm, snideness, clued-in-ness, smart-aleckyness – all that stuff. I don’t want to sound like an old fogey but there was no Nickelodeon, there was none of this stuff. It was the only place in the mainstream media as an 8-year old or a 10-year old in Omaha, Nebraska, that this was a sensibility and a way at looking at the world.
Filed Under Humor Magazine
Recently, Cracked hired Jay Pinkerton from the National Lampoon to consult on their burgeoning website. Pinkerton has done some great stuff online. I first became aware of him when his silly-filthy remixes of the Spider-Man comic strip went viral last year. He’s definitely a great hire, like previous acquisition Neal Pollack, though I’m not sure exactly where their two sensibilities intersect (save for each writing for McSweeney’s).
Though supposedly focusing on the web, Pinkerton posted on Cracked.com’s message board and asked visitors what they wanted to see in a humor magazine. To give some context, later in the same thread, Pinkerton classifies humor magazines into four categories: Lad (Maxim, Stuff), Catty (Spy, Radar), Ironic (McSweeney’s) and News (Onion), different directions from the one Cracked once was - Comic-based (Mad). The responses to the thread are interesting and I’m hard pressed to see much of a concensus other than a fair amount of calls for a redesign and the dropping of the mascot, Sylvester P. Smythe.
Print humor magazines have been pretty difficult to maintain in the marketplace… the only one with any longevity has been Mad and, arguably, Cracked, simply because their audience has always been younger kids, a constantly renewing resource that doesn’t have aspirational expectations from a magazine, nor the fickleness of hip. When they’re older, a fair amount grow out of it and the next set of kids discover the mag.
The Comedy lifestyle approach that Cracked has talked about taking is a real smart one - hopefully they can find a line that appeals to both the layperson and the comedy nerd. An argument might be made for focus grouping something to death, but I think getting insight on what’s appealing to the most interested/obsessed (afforementioned comedy nerds) is a good start for something that seems a fragile as a print humor mag. If you know what will make you plunk down $5 at the newsstand for the humor magazine, you should definitely post on their message board. The revamped magazine’s first new issue arrives in January.
Full disclosure: I was a former editor at Cracked in the 90s and have talked with the new management about working with them, but with no real agreement. I do plan on submitting material to the publication.
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Though I’m no longer as rabid about it as I was in the 90s when I first discovered a discarded copy of the print version in my building’s vestibule, I still dread that The Onion will, simply, start to suck. They’ll forget the lessons of Spy and National Lampoon, become tone-death and start picking targets that don’t merit the satire. An unfortunate harbinger of the downfall of both of those previous humor giants was a redesign, usually indicating that the editors and writers are bored or confused, uncertain of what was the magazine’s original appeal.
The Onion’s new redesign avoided that mistake entirely. As documented in “The Funniest Grid You Ever Saw” and “Making New Fake News”, The Onion gets that the closer they simulate the look of a real newspaper, the better the comedy is. I’ve heard some believe the print version is superior simply because it more closely mimics the USA Today-local paper hybrid world each issue creates. Thanks the explosion in online news, after this redesign I don’t think many could argue that the online version is not the definitive way to read the Onion.
I particularly enjoy the right hand column, which has new stuff every weekday… including a fake cover for a typical Sunday insert “The Onion Weekender”, something that’s great for creating more quick jokes stabbing at the pedestrian feel-good content that’s less valuable than the 25¢ coupon for Tide it’s stuffed next to.
I was also pleased to see them drop of the subscription service - as a humor magazine junkie, even I couldn’t see clear to paying online for the content. Good stuff it all was to be sure, but I generally think, like most people, I read the headlines alone and then if one article seems promising, I’ll click to continue. Paying for material that I’m likely to just scan for a chuckle was just pointless. With the archives completely opened up and the right column going to fresh daily content, the paper becomes more than my late Tuesday distraction. It’s a regular weekday read.