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The Algonquin Round Table with a Couple of Wobbly Legs
THEY CAME FROM THE COUNTRY’S finest families and belonged to its most exclusive clubs. Yet in 1966, it was exceedingly difficult for a member of The Harvard Lampoon to get laid. It wasn’t just because of their withering sarcasm, bookish awkwardness, and fumbling, pre–sexual revolution anxiety (although that certainly didn’t help). It was also because the place where they spent most of their waking hours didn’t allow women.
Built in 1909 thanks to the deep pockets of William Randolph Hearst, The Castle is a three-story, medieval-looking tower with leaded-glass windows and fortress-grade wooden doors smack in the middle of Bow Street in Cambridge. Perched atop its domed roof is the figure of an ibis—an ancient Egyptian bird that doubles as the Lampoon’s cryptic mascot. In the light of day, the strange building looks like a cross between a squat, brick lighthouse and some half-mad architect’s idea of a practical joke. The Lampoon’s history, however, goes back even further than Hearst’s East Coast Castle. Established in 1876, The Harvard Lampoon is the country’s oldest college humor magazine, with a roster of famous alumni that includes such urbane wits as Robert Benchley, George Plimpton, and John Updike.
The Lampoon’s headquarters had always been an insular place, a sort of patrician social club of high IQ gentleman smart-asses biding their time before they graduated and headed off to Wall Street or to join the family law firm. The summer of 1966 was no different. As antiwar demonstrations broke out on college campuses across the country, the undergraduate rascals inside The Castle were more likely to thumb their noses at the patchouli-scented protesters outside than march alongside them. When not occasionally putting out a magazine, they held to the hermetic, tribal traditions of the past: secret weekly black-tie dinners, Caligulan feats of alcohol consumption, and the fine art of delivering a perfectly crafted cutting remark—an intellectual one-upmanship that bordered on a blood sport. Catching a glimpse of a willing woman in the nude, however, was not one of these extracurricular activities. For that, one had to buy a copy of Playboy.
By the mid-’60s, Hugh Hefner’s glossy men’s lifestyle monthly was nearing the peak of its popularity, with 6 million subscribers. There were Playboy Clubs from Los Angeles to London and Miami to Manila, all operating on the swinging CEO’s pipe-and-silk-pajamas “Playboy Philosophy.” If the members of The Harvard Lampoon didn’t possess the savoir faire to embody that hedonistic worldview, why not do the next best thing—the thing that they did better than anyone else: make fun of it?
The Lampoon had a long tradition of shooting satirical spitballs at stuffy, mainstream publications. It was like Mad magazine with elbow patches instead of Yiddish puns. But by the ’60s, their one-off parodies were still pretty parochial affairs—essentially private jokes told within the seven-square-mile echo chamber of Cambridge. Now, with a target as big and buxom as Playboy, ambitions were scaled up. What if they put out a professional-looking publication to be sold on newsstands from coast to coast? Walker Lewis, who was then the president of the Lampoon, and Rob Hoffman, the son of a well-to-do Dallas family with a mind for business as precise as a Swiss watch, approached Playboy gauging how receptive it might be to some good-natured ribbing. They fully expected the answer to be: Not very. Either that or: Go to hell. As they predicted, The Bunny threatened swift legal action. Lewis fired back, saying they looked forward to all of the free publicity that a lawsuit would bring. Not long after, the phone rang inside The Castle. Hugh Hefner was on the line.
After giving it some thought, Hefner had recognized the value of free publicity on his end, too. Not to mention the priceless measure of Ivy League literary respectability a Lampoon parody might bring. He not only gave his blessing; he offered to whip out his checkbook and help finance it. Hoffman’s Dallas connections had already agreed to underwrite the printing bill, but they did take Hef up on the offer of using his distributor. An unprecedented and wildly optimistic 500,000 copies of the Lampoon’s Playboy parody (featuring a Little Orphan Bosom comic, a photo of Henry Kissinger splayed out on a bearskin rug in a thong, and a pinup model in a slightly scanty jester’s costume on the cover) landed on newsstands on Labor Day weekend in 1966. It sold out in a week.
Henry Beard, one of the issue’s key contributors, who, along with Doug Kenney, was also one of the Lampoon’s rising young stars at the time, recalls walking with Hoffman to a bank in Harvard Square with a check for $155,000 to be deposited into the Lampoon account. “The whole way we kept saying, ‘What happened here? This could be the start of something!’ It opened our eyes to the possibility of doing a national humor magazine.”
* * *
After the Playboy parody, three things quickly happened at The Harvard Lampoon. The Castle, which had fallen into utter disrepair, got sorely needed updates to its wheezy heating and electrical systems that had basically been left untouched from the days of the Depression. Second, its subscriber base finally spread beyond mere Harvard alumni to a national audience. And third, Beard and Kenney were anointed as the magazine’s resident enfants terribles. The whip-smart yin-and-yang hopes for the next generation. They couldn’t have been more different.
Henry Beard (class of ’67) was, in fact, the genuine WASP article. The great-grandson of James Buchanan’s vice president, John C. Breckinridge, he grew up in the Westbury Hotel on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. His father was a Yale-educated Wall Street accountant who was the heir to a family woolen mill in Canada. Before enrolling at Harvard, he attended the prestigious Taft School, where he gave the impression of being a middle-aged curmudgeon while still in his teens. He looked like an exotic baby bird in horn-rimmed glasses, baggy Brooks Brothers tweed blazers, and a pipe clenched between his teeth. There wasn’t a lick of irony in the pose.
Doug Kenney (class of ’68) had a decidedly different background. He grew up in the improbably named Cleveland suburb of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, where his Irish-Catholic father was a tennis pro. Or, at least, that’s how Kenney chose to tell it. In truth, his father had long given up a career of stringing rackets and taken a position as a corporate personnel manager. But his murky blue-collar background made for vivid self-mythologizing. Either way, Kenney had spent his high-school summers working at private clubs, a middle-class kid waiting on blue-blood members not unlike the Beards. Despite Kenney’s brilliance, his father had deeply preferred Doug’s older brother Daniel—a beloved all-American type who would pass away from kidney failure in his twenties. Doug worshiped him and felt as though his parents saw him as a pale consolation prize—that he should have been the one to die rather than Daniel. At school and at home, he felt like an unloved misfit.
If Beard was a model of wry, cerebral preppy sobriety, Kenney was a hard-to-pin-down wild card, enthralled by the carnal libertinism of the Summer of Love and the dope smoking that came with it. When he entered Harvard in 1964, grass was a taboo recreation punishable by a steep jail sentence. Just a few years later, you couldn’t walk down Massachusetts Avenue without getting a contact high. Plus, marijuana seemed to calm Kenney’s manic, ever-pinwheeling mind. He could expound on eighteenth-century English literature one minute and astound you with his signature party trick of sticking his entire fist in his mouth the next. While Kenney could inhabit the role of the Gatsby-esque swell as if it were his birthright, he was a chameleon—fair-haired, hysterically funny, and a genius … but a troubled one.
Flush with the success of its Playboy send-up, the Lampoon briefly flirted with the idea of moving full-time into the parody business. Their follow-up was a riff on Life magazine, Henry Luce’s photo-heavy standard-bearer of square, Middle American vanilla complacency. If Hefner’s centerfold bible was a buzzed-about cultural lightning rod, Life was the polar opposite. It was so staid and past its prime, it gave off the scent of mothballs. It was a magazine no one much cared about anymore. Parodying it was like picking on the most invisible schoolyard kid at recess.
It didn’t help that the country wasn’t exactly in the mood for levity. By the fall of 1968, when the Lampoon’s “End of the World” Life parody issue appeared, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy had been gunned down; the street-hassle beatings at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago had exposed the toxic rot of the Silent Majority, which was now speaking quite loudly with police batons; and the Black Panthers had taken up arms in Oakland. Then there was the election of Richard Milhous Nixon. It truly did feel like the end of the world. The Life parody would only sell half of its newsstand run, losing nearly $75,000 and sinking The Castle back into the red. But one good thing lay at the bottom of the Lampoon’s fiscal sinkhole: Beard and Kenney had been introduced to Matty Simmons.
Simmons was an old-school, cigar-chomping Brooklyn self-promoter with brash gambler’s instincts, an outsize, heliocentric sense of himself, and a Barnum-esque flair for hype. It was hard to imagine someone less Ivy League. He’d been part owner of the woeful Philadelphia Warriors basketball team, had once purchased a stable of harness-race horses, and had made a small fortune in stock with Diners Club, the world’s first credit card giant, where he published the company’s vanity magazine with a partner named Leonard Mogel. When Simmons and Mogel left Diners Club in 1967 and sold their interest, they used the windfall to launch Twenty First Century Communications, a start-up publishing company that, in short order, failed to get a psychedelic magazine called Cheetah off the ground and eventually found a steady money maker (albeit not a very sexy one) in Weight Watchers Magazine. Simmons was hungry to expand what he was bold enough to call his empire.
In the summer of 1968, as Kenney and Beard were putting together their Life parody, and Rob Hoffman was hustling up and down Madison Avenue trying to gin up advertisers, Simmons got a call from Harold Chamberlain, a mutual publishing-industry acquaintance, asking if he would help out these three Harvard students on the business end of their latest venture. Simmons was in the middle of his weekly poker game at his apartment at Park Avenue and 83rd Street. Wanting to keep the conversation short and return to what he thought was a winning hand, Simmons agreed to meet “the boys.”
“I was enormously impressed by them,” says Simmons. “Rob Hoffman was the business man of the group and did most of the talking. Henry was from a family of millionaires. He was a genius, but quiet. And Doug … Doug was harder to peg. He was outgoing and handsome and charming, but I don’t think I ever thought that he would end up becoming the foremost humorist of his generation.”
It was a little late in the game for Simmons to be of much help with the Life parody. By that point, costs had already spiraled out of control and it was more or less doomed. But he was intrigued, and maybe a little dazzled, by these kids who were young enough to be his sons. The idea of teaming up to start a national humor magazine came up, but it was quickly tabled. After all, Kenney and Beard had bigger concerns weighing on their minds.
Like a lot of college students at the tail end of the ’60s, they were terrified of the draft. Kenney and Beard had enrolled in ROTC at Harvard (figuring it was better to wind up in the Army Reserves than be shipped off to the front lines). But not surprisingly, both wound up getting kicked out. In Beard’s case, the expulsion was for failing to attend the military ball and giving a poorly received lecture on why the US could not win the war in Vietnam. They both had to figure out quickly how to avoid being called up. Beard admits that he might have slid a small amount of money to an officer to regain a place in the Reserves, while Kenney hatched a more devious scheme.
Having heard rumors that the one disqualifying ailment that couldn’t be medically diagnosed was epilepsy, Kenney began studying the Merck Manual, memorizing the medical reference book’s laundry list of disorders and symptoms. He would become the most convincing non-epileptic epileptic the Army had ever seen. He visited a shady Boston doctor to get a prescription for Dilantin, an anti-seizure medication that he ingested with the commitment of a Method actor. He sat Beard down in the ratty postgraduate apartment they were sharing in Cambridge and briefed him on all of the telltale manifestations of his “condition” (foaming at the mouth, eyes going sideways). Kenney gave Beard’s name as a reference to the draft board in case it needed a witness to back up his phony ailment.
In the end, it was moot. It turned out that Kenney’s eyesight was so poor that he never would have been drafted in the first place. He was 4-F before he ever popped his first Dilantin. “He went through this whole charade for nothing,” says Beard, who graduated a year ahead of Kenney. Both men felt as if they had dodged a bullet. And Beard felt doubly lucky having just been rejected by Harvard Law School, where he didn’t want to go in the first place. With their undergraduate years behind them, the question became: What were they going to do now? They couldn’t just hang around the Lampoon forever. Or could they?
By 1969, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings had become mandatory reading for enlightenment-seeking college students between midterms and bong hits. An unlikely cult sensation written by an aging Oxford professor of medieval literature, the patience-testing saga set in Middle Earth was so self-serious and steeped in arcane furry-footed mythology that it was an obvious target to deflate. Kenney, a pop-culture savant with an occasionally cruel gift for mocking the things his peers felt most passionate about, quickly recognized that it would be their next victim. To him, Tolkien’s book was the height of flaky stoner stupidity, its popularity utterly dumbfounding. Their title was as dead-on as it was pithy: Bored of the Rings.
Having already proved their financial and creative value to the Lampoon, Kenney and Beard were given small stipends to live on by the magazine after graduating. Their job was basically to brainstorm new parodies that might turn into the next Lampoon golden goose. In addition to their Tolkien takedown, they moved forward with a parody of the venerable Time magazine with Simmons and Mogel on board as partners. Bored of the Rings and Time came out within a week of one another, and both became huge hits. With a shamelessly commercial cover of a half-naked blonde underneath the heavy-breathing line “Does SEX Sell Magazines?,” the Time one-off quickly earned $250,000 for The Harvard Lampoon. Its racy cover provided a lesson Kenney and Beard would tuck away for future use. The profits from Bored of the Rings, however, were of a totally different magnitude.
At Hoffman’s suggestion, Kenney and Beard had penned a fawning fan-boy letter to Tolkien careful to namedrop some of the Lampoon’s more hallowed alumni, essentially asking for his blessing. The subtext of the letter, of course, was that if they got that blessing, it would protect them from whatever copyright issues popped up from Tolkien’s litigious publisher. To their surprise, Tolkien wrote back, saying that he had no idea why anyone would want to parody his book, but by all means, have at it and God bless.
“We sat across from each other at a double desk at the Harvard library, and each of us had a portable typewriter facing one another,” says Beard. “Doug would type 1,000 words just like that. I’ve never seen anything like it. He could make 2 plus 2 equal not 4, but 22. He basically wrote that book. It was staggering. I think we wrote the whole thing in four or five weeks. We just clicked.”
Beard recalls that when he and Kenney went to New York to deliver the manuscript to their publisher, “It was like he wanted to pick it up with fireplace tongs. He didn’t even want to hold it, he thought the idea was so horrible.” In their slim, pun-packed paperback, for example, Bilbo Baggins is named Dildo Bugger. Thirty-two editions later, Bored of the Rings has sold 750,000 copies and has been translated into more than ten languages.
By June of 1969, Simmons had become more sold than ever on the idea of kick-starting a national humor magazine. The boys were on a hot streak, and the time to strike was now. He summoned Kenney, Beard, and Hoffman back to New York. It was time to figure out their next move. In the back of his mind, he surely thought: Why should these guys make The Harvard Lampoon rich when they could be making me rich?
The three young men arrived at the cramped Broadway offices of Twenty First Century Communications with Hoffman, the sharpest negotiator of the three, assigned to do the talking. Simmons proposed a deal in which he would put up all of the seed money (about $350,000) and in return would get 75 percent ownership of the fledgling publication. Kenney, Beard, and Hoffman could split their 25 percent however they saw fit. Since they planned to call their new venture National Lampoon, they hammered out a side agreement to give The Harvard Lampoon a small royalty from the magazine’s newsstand sales.
The Harvard Three worried that with a minority stake, editorial control might be a problem—a notion that was especially disconcerting since Simmons’s hopelessly square idea of humor seemed to run along the lines of Bob Hope and Milton Berle. So Hoffman, a deceptively boyish-looking pit bull in a J. Press suit, countered with a buyout clause that allowed Kenney, Beard, and himself to cash out their shares at the end of five years at eighteen times the magazine’s earnings. It was like a prenuptial agreement between two parties who weren’t convinced that they wanted to say “I do” in the first place. Not to mention that it bullishly assumed that the National Lampoon would be earning anything at all in five years—or even be around. Simmons, desperate for a flagship magazine for the empire he envisioned, reluctantly agreed.
Five years later, he’d end up kicking himself.
Calling Hoffman a “tough, unrelenting Yuppie,” Simmons now admits that he was outmaneuvered. “Rob Hoffman was smarter than me. No question about it.”
* * *
Doug Kenney and Henry Beard moved to New York at the beginning of October 1969, sharing two floors of a brownstone on East 83rd Street. They each paid $400 a month. By then, Kenney had grown his dirty-blond hair past his shoulders, letting his freak flag fly. He’d transformed yet again, this time from ersatz WASP into instant hippy in wire-rimmed granny glasses and a burning joint rarely out of reach. Kenney lived on the second floor with his girlfriend and soon-to-be wife, Alex Garcia-Mata, the daughter of a South American financier. The monastic Beard lived just above them. They were play-acting at being grown-ups in the big city.
The most pressing of their newly acquired adult responsibilities was assembling a staff of off-kilter, like-minded humorists who could crank out copy at a breathless clip—pitched somewhere between the juvenile idiocy of Mad and the sophisticated wit of The New Yorker. They needed people who were willing to work herculean hours and fill ninety-six blank magazine pages every month. And for cheap. At the time, the magazine business was exploding. The newsstands were fat with advertising. New niche publications such as Circus and Creem, which aimed at the same baby-boomer market that Jann Wenner had tapped into with Rolling Stone a few years earlier, were constantly popping up. But few were able to duplicate the innovative New Journalism of Wenner’s rock ’n’ roll bible or its plugged-in authenticity. Kenney and Beard knew the National Lampoon had to speak in their voices, not Simmons’s or anyone else’s.
Kenney and Beard initially shared a claustrophobic office at Twenty First Century Communications’s midtown headquarters before the whole shop moved to 635 Madison Avenue shortly after the New Year. They began casting the net for outside agitators and simpatico bomb throwers, asking friends and friends of friends for writers who were willing to gamble on what Beard only half-jokingly called “one of the ten worst business ideas of 1969.” That’s when two old Harvard pals, Christopher Cerf and George Trow, first mentioned the name of Michael O’Donoghue.
O’Donoghue was the son of an industrial engineer from Buffalo. Expelled from the University of Rochester in his junior year for failing to attend classes and stealing a campus police car, he had a dark streak as wide as the Niagara River and should have come with a warning sign that read CAUTION—DOES NOT PLAY WELL WITH OTHERS. Cerf, the son of famed Random House founder Bennett Cerf, had thought that O’Donoghue’s taste for the jugular might make an interesting counterweight to the Harvard grads’ brainy irreverence. His street smarts might add a serrated edge to their book smarts.
O’Donoghue was slightly older than Kenney and Beard, and he looked like an urban guerilla in a torn Army surplus jacket, thinning unkempt hair, and a slim brown More cigarette constantly dangling from his mouth. He had made an underground splash writing for Evergreen Review and by publishing a lewd, offbeat comic strip parody of adventure stories called The Adventures of Phoebe Zeit-Geist (which Garry Trudeau would later cite as an inspiration for Doonesbury). But O’Donoghue thought of the Cambridge crowd as “a bunch of Harvard snot faggots who thought it was wrong to shed blood.” He preferred to think of comedy as a cruel, venomous attack on propriety—a baby-seal hunt in which no subject, no matter how taboo (cancer, the Holocaust,… baby seals), was off-limits. He was especially fond of saying that “making people laugh is the lowest form of humor.” It was generally agreed that if Kenney and Beard wielded a surgical satirical scalpel with their writing, O’Donoghue used a chain saw.
Desperate to mock up the first issue of the National Lampoon by the early spring of 1970, Kenney and Beard were relieved to discover that O’Donoghue had, for years, kept methodical metal filing cabinets full of unpublished pieces and ideas for pieces that had never found an outlet. The three of them essentially wrote all of the magazine’s first issue, with Kenney writing the whacked-out dirty stuff, Beard writing the rapier-edged intellectual stuff, and O’Donoghue writing the corrosively outrageous, dangerous stuff. They were part Three Musketeers and part Three Stooges. On their good days, at least. On their worst, Kenney was prone to mysterious disappearances and the short-fused O’Donoghue to ripping phones out of walls when he detected some petty slight against his inarguable genius. Beard was left to mediate, the calm center of the storm.
Eventually, other malcontents and literary sadists would find their way to 635 Madison. In addition to contributions from Christopher Cerf (now an editor at his father’s shop, Random House) and George Trow (cozily ensconced at The New Yorker and writing under the pseudonym Tamara Gould), there would be the wicked-witted boyfriend-girlfriend tag team of Michel Choquette and Anne Beatts; the absurd, bow-tied eccentricity of Brian McConnachie (who, Kenney insisted, was so strange that he hailed from a distant alien planet); the surly, Cambridge-educated British former stand-up performer Tony Hendra; the gonzo retro visual genius Bruce McCall; and Chris Miller, a gifted short story writer with a sweet tooth for filthy-bordering-on-pornographic male sexual fantasies.
Sean Kelly, an Irish-Catholic college professor in Montreal who would join the ranks shortly after the National Lampoon’s inception, recalled that “meeting Henry was like meeting Holden Caulfield. He had that preppy disheveled thing going on, sucking on a pipe. And Doug was obviously some kind of superstar. When you met him you knew that he was not average. He was the brightest star in whatever room he was in. But he was so uncomfortable in his own skin. There was nothing he couldn’t do, but he was always second-guessing himself. I think he probably always thought he was getting away with something.”
With Kenney, Beard, and O’Donoghue working around the clock (Rob Hoffman, always more of a businessman than a writer or editor, was receding into the background), the fourth floor of 635 Madison would soon start to feel like the Island of Misfit Toys—the Algonquin Round Table with a couple of wobbly legs. Just as the National Lampoon’s debut issue was about to hit newsstands, in April 1970, Newsweek ran a four-paragraph story about the brash publishing-world newcomer under the headline “Postgraduate Humor.” It was a pretty rote Lampoon origin story, but it wraps up on an oddly cynical, downbeat note. The Newsweek writer predicts: “Putting out a monthly that will entertain the nearly-30s may make the three youthful editors old fast.”
The article wasn’t wrong. The debut “Sexy Cover Issue” in April features a come-hither model wearing a dark, military-green one-piece bathing suit in front of a visually muddy orange-brown background with a cartoon duck leering off to the side (Kenney’s misguided attempt to mimic Playboy’s bunny mascot). The first issue was aggressively ugly, and its contents more sophomoric than smart or titillating. It sold less than half of the 500,000 copies that had been run off the press. Inside, though, what would soon become the Lampoon’s DNA of generational in-jokes and sacred-cow slaughtering was evident, if a little unfocused. There was Aristotle Onassis’s lost, pidgin-English love letters to Jackie Kennedy, a gallows-humor piece titled “The Case for Killing Our Aged” (penned by O’Donoghue, naturally), and a lewd, self-pleasuring Dr. Seuss character named Seymour the Splurch. The two brightest standouts were a pair of Kenney contributions: the fictitious Letters page (from correspondents such as fusty Nobel Prize–winning author John Galsworthy, and Renaissance portraitist Hans Holbein begging for smutty pictures) and “Mrs. Agnew’s Diary”—a column ostensibly penned by Vice President Spiro Agnew’s wife, Judy, that paints the inhabitants of the White House as paranoid, tight-assed rubes who dine on meat loaf and cottage cheese. Both would become recurring features.
Back at Harvard, Kenney and Beard’s stumble out of the gate was met with a not-surprising degree of schadenfreude. A recap of the debut issue in The Harvard Crimson reads, “It seems that The National Lampoon staff culled the poorest secondary school bathroom graffiti to paste together their April issue.” It continues, “The National Lampoon will be chalked up as a business failure unless the overall quality of the publication improves soon. Plain curiosity helped sell the first issue. The May edition will need some original ideas and more mature humor in order to hold its own on the nationwide newsstands.”
Things would get worse before they got better. With Simmons calling the shots on the business side, Hoffman decided to return to Harvard and get an MBA before joining his father’s soft-drink-bottling business. Meanwhile, Doug Kenney and Henry Beard were, just as Newsweek predicted, getting old very fast indeed, scrambling to fill the magazine every month.
“That was the hardest time,” says Beard. “It felt like you had a deadline every eleven days. It was so constant and frantic. The question wasn’t: Should we publish this? It was: Can we get two more just like it?”
That June, Kenney and Garcia-Mata got married at her parents’ home in the wealthy, white-bread suburb of New Canaan, Connecticut. The two had met as undergraduates while Garcia-Mata was studying at Radcliffe. She was smart, beautiful, and cosmopolitan in a manner to which a self-conscious working-class kid from Chagrin Falls could only aspire. Still, all of Kenney’s friends couldn’t fathom why he would want to walk down the aisle at twenty-three, especially with someone who couldn’t seem to keep pace with his rocket-fueled sense of humor. Kenney himself wasn’t quite sure either.
His best man was the musician Peter Ivers, one of his closest friends and confidants at Harvard (in 1983, Ivers would be found in his LA apartment mysteriously bludgeoned to death with a hammer at the age of thirty-six). Lucy Fisher was Ivers’s girlfriend at the time, and she recalls asking Kenney shortly before his wedding day why he was getting married so young. “I’ll never forget it,” she says. “He said, ‘I have no idea.’ I remember feeling even then that he already seemed a little lost.” On the morning of the nuptials, Ivers and Kenney smoked a joint and Ivers offered to call off the wedding, all Kenney had to do was say the word. But, in the end, he went through with it.
“It was a product of momentum rather than determination or intent. One thing leads to another and suddenly you’re up there and someone’s saying, ‘Do you take this woman…’ and you’re like, ‘Wait, what?!’” remembers Henry Beard.
In a sense, Kenney now had two spouses wrestling for his attention: Garcia-Mata and the magazine where he was now spending ninety to one hundred hours every week. The first five issues of the Lampoon would be soul-crushing commercial and creative disappointments. That would all change, though, with the September 1970 issue, the magazine’s sixth. Simmons had decided that the magazine’s original art directors, an underground band of long-haired, knicker-wearing hash smokers from Cloud Studios who operated out of an East Village storefront, had to go. In came Michael Gross—a twenty-six-year-old Pratt Institute graduate with more aboveground credentials, including a stint at Cosmopolitan.
The shake-up instantly cleaned up the magazine’s design. The duck mascot was eighty-sixed. The focus sharpened. The covers started to pop. In fact, the cover of that month’s “Show Biz” issue was adorned by the image of Minnie Mouse opening her dress like a 42nd Street flasher and revealing a pair of microscopic rodent breasts covered by daisy-shaped pasties. It jumped off the newsstands but not without causing a major headache for Simmons.
The Walt Disney Company sued Twenty First Century Communications for $8 million—way more than the highly leveraged company had in the bank at the time. Not used to humbling himself, Simmons reluctantly groveled at Disney’s feet, promising never to parody one of its wholesome characters again. Privately, though, he delighted in the gallons of free ink that the dustup with the Mouse House had produced. It was a marketing masterstroke. Nothing was sacred, not even Minnie freakin’ Mouse. National Lampoon was suddenly dangerous. Circulation began to slowly take off, and within three months the Lampoon would finally nudge its way into the black. Advertisers, who had once turned up their noses, were beginning to circle back and sniff around.
By late 1970 and into the first half of 1971, the Lampoon was on a roll, smashing taboos and breaking fine china with each new issue. “It was like there was this big ironbound wood door that said ‘Thou Shalt Not!,’” says Beard. “We touched it, and it just fell off its hinges. It was incredible.” The new misfit-toy recruits were humming with inspired ideas that were tweaked, jazzed up, and spit-polished by Kenney. Although Nixon and his posse of inept West Wing cronies were frequent and obvious targets, liberals (from John Lennon and Yoko Ono to the radical student left) weren’t immune from the staff’s merciless piñata swings.
“Some people thought the Lampoon was a counterculture magazine,” says Chris Miller. “God knows we went after Nixon tooth and claw. But we also raked Teddy Kennedy over the coals. It wasn’t like we were anti-Republican, pro-Democrat … we were just anti-asshole.”
Between the exhausting all-nighters, Kenney’s increased consumption of alcohol and pot, and a tense marriage that seemed to skip the honeymoon phase altogether, made him begin to show disconcerting signs of becoming unglued. It didn’t help that he’d carelessly launched into an indiscreet affair with a female coworker that had become public knowledge around the office. The guilt ate at him. For the most part, he stayed away from home. Beard urged him to slow down. His wife urged him to see a psychiatrist. Instead, Kenney just stepped on the gas pedal.
By early summer, the Lampoon’s editorial staff was beginning to brainstorm ideas for its upcoming August “Bummers” issue at its favorite drinking hole, a rank-smelling dive called The Green Man. One of the ideas being kicked around was a hilariously offensive takedown of our neighbors to the north, titled “Canada, the Retarded Giant on Your Doorstep.” For the issue’s cover, the staff decided to take a cheeky swipe at Esquire’s now-infamous 1970 portrait of a smiling Lt. William Calley Jr. posing with Vietnamese children. Calley was a US Army platoon leader who was convicted of murdering 109 unarmed, innocent South Vietnamese civilians in the My Lai Massacre. In the Lampoon version, Calley would be portrayed by gap-toothed Mad magazine poster boy Alfred E. Newman, whose famous catchphrase (“What, me worry?”) was turned into: “What, My Lai?” It was right in the Lampoon’s wheelhouse: stealthily thought-provoking, slightly profane, and more than a little offensive.
Unfortunately, before the issue hit newsstands there would be a more serious bummer closer to home.
Copyright © 2018 by Chris Nashawaty