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The ‘Lampoon’: Harvard’s Inside Joke

Is the the oldest humor magazine in the nation still funny or just phoolish?

National Lampoon Flag, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts

National Lampoon Flag, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Visions of America/UIG/Getty

“Hey, hey, ho, ho, Harvard College, way to go!”

The sun is shining on the venerable yard, and a circle of the nation’s best and brightest has gathered on the steps of Widener Library for some sort of … pep rally? The students are banging drums, smashing cymbals and waving colorful posters for all the crowd to see. “Harvard #1,” says one; “354 Years Old and Still Running the World!” reads another. A third one reads, somewhat curiously, “U.S. News and World Report, We [love] You!”

“We’re here today to thank the editors of U.S. News and World Report for ranking Harvard the top university in the nation,” the rally leader yells. “But it is blasphemous to rank Harvard with the proletarian universities. For we are gods, and they are our children!” The crowd, numbering at least 100 by now, applauds wildly. “God did not rest on the seventh day,” the leader shouts. “He went to Harvard!” Queen’s “We Are the Champions” blasts from a boombox, and the audience begins to sing along. Streamers fly through the air. The ralliers embrace one another, leading the group in a spirited cheer: “Ve-ri-tas! Ve-ri-tas! Ve-ri-tas!”

***

Back in the castle, Jon Beckerman sprawls on a couch near the fireplace in his private den, grinning smugly. “The rally was fun, but it wasn’t one of our best pranks,” he says, brushing the straggly dark hair out of his eyes. “You’ve got to hand it to them, though. I think the bullhorn really pissed off a few librarians.” Beckerman, a senior philosophy major who favors army surplus over J. Crew, is president of the Harvard Lampoon, which, depending on your point of view, is either the oldest humor magazine in the nation or “a semisecret Bow Street organization which occasionally publishes what they claim are humor magazines.” (The latter courtesy of the campus newspaper the Harvard Crimson, the Lampoon‘s longtime rival.)

The 115-year-old Lampoon is a magazine and so much more. Operating behind the locked doors (painted purple, yellow and red) of their mock-Flemish castle in the middle of a Harvard Square street, Poonies have enjoyed a long history as Harvard’s bad boys — and since 1972, girls. With Vanitas as their motto (a play on Harvard’s Veritas, meaning “truth”), they have prided themselves on ruffling Ivy League feathers ever since member William Randolph Hearst unleashed hundreds of screaming roosters into Harvard Yard one quiet morning in 1884.

Today’s Poonies are carrying the madcap torch, and this afternoon’s fake rally was just an example. Harvard’s merry pranksters have also replaced stacks of tedious Crimson issues with far more engrossing facsimiles. “Mysterious Vagina Appears on Epps’ Penis,” read a recent headline, referring fearlessly to Archibald Epps, dean of students. And who could forget last semester’s Guide to the Final Clubs, a tongue-in-cheek directory of Harvard’s exclusive gentlemen’s societies. While Poonies snickered, gullible freshmen pondered entrance forms that asked questions like “Have you ever had to have a job?” and “Would you ever take a job, for any reason?”

Then there’s the magazine, which — when it comes out (publication is scheduled five times a year, but only one new issue appeared in 1990) — showcases the fuck-’em-if-they-can’t-take-a-joke humor that prevails among Poonies past and present. A recent issue featuring Christ cartoons and “Confessions of a Closet Paraplegic” went over especially well with both the right- and left-wing campus papers.

“We don’t tend to take anything very seriously,” says Beckerman, who shares the distinction of Lampoon presidency with such luminaries as George Plimpton, class of ’48, John Updike, ’54, and Herman Munster (a.k.a. Fred Gwynne), ’51. Dave Lorsch, a junior and the Lampoon‘s sackbut (all Lampoon officers have cryptic titles), offers a more direct statement of purpose: “Harvard has always had this giant pole up its ass. We’re here to remove it.” The merry pranksters’ latest pole-removal project, a 192-page parody tentatively entitled A Harvard Education in a Book: Was $80,000 — Now Only $7.95.!, is due out from Putnam/Perigee this summer. “It even comes with a lifelike, pullout diploma,” says Beckerman, who spent last summer working on the project with six Poonies who split an advance of $25,000. With an estimated first printing of 75,000 copies, the book (Putnam/Perigee’s lead title for the fall) is sure to add even more money to the Lampoon staff’s already sizable — and tax-exempt — budget of approximately $125,000 to $150,000 per year.

The money comes not only from national-magazine and book parodies but also from a nifty licensing arrangement with National Lampoon, which pays its Harvard predecessor for the use of the name “Lampoon.” Although each member pays dues of only seventy-five dollars a year, the entire organization is worth at least $4.5 million, according to business manager Steven Karan.

But money has never been much of a concern at the Lampoon. As Beckerman puts it, “All this place is, is a bunch of people who want to get together and work on a humor magazine and be part of a cool club.”

***

It may seem at first that the Lampoon is out of step with the generations of economists, historians and assorted Masters of the Universe who have set forth from the big H to run the world. But the Lampoon has a legacy all its own, one that includes wild and crazy contributors ranging from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to the founders of National Lampoon.

Today that legacy includes five writer-producers for The Simpsons and three writers each for Late Night With David Letterman and Saturday Night Live. Others work at the HA! network and for shows like Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Married … With Children and In Living Color, to name a few. Spy magazine cofounder Kurt Andersen was a Lampoon vice-president in 1975. Lisa Henson, known as much for becoming the first female president in 1981 as for getting her father, the late Jim Henson, to donate to the castle a creepy throne from The Dark Crystal, is now a senior vice-president at Warners. The Lampoon‘s latest success stories come from last June’s staff: One member is a writing apprentice at SNL, and another is an editor at National Lampoon.

In media circles, all this success has led to a lingering suspicion that the Poonies have formed their own pipeline to Hollywood. “Kids writing for the Harvard Lampoon these days just assume that the next step is to call up the 50 graduates working in Hollywood and hit them up for a job,” said Simpsons executive producer Sam Simon in a recent Variety article. But 1976 Lampoon grad Steve O’Donnell, now head writer for Letterman (where, up until a few years ago, five out of eight writers were also Lampoon alums), has a simple retort. “I’ve also noticed that a lot of engineers seem to come out of MIT,” he says. “Employers don’t always have the time to scour the country looking for talented young writers, and the Lampoon is one source they’ve heard about.

“The Lampoon is and isn’t a comedy pipeline,” O’Donnell says. “It wouldn’t be honest to deny that there’s an advantage and a privilege to working there, but no lame-o member has ever gotten a job undeservingly just because he was one of our buddies.

“The flip side,” O’Donnell admits, “is that when writers send us their résumés, we can’t exactly tell them to go to Harvard first for some experience. In that respect, the Lampoon can sound elitist”

***

Poonies tend to cringe at the word elitist. It smacks of everything they hate about Harvard, everything they’re there to make fun of. “The biggest misconception about the Lampoon is that it’s this exclusive club dominated by white, affluent males,” says senior Jeff Schaffer, one of the Lampoon‘s funniest writers. When a fellow staffer reminds him that out of thirty-six members only one is black and four are women, he gets defensive. “Okay,” he says, “but it’s not a bunch of rich, WASPy people.”

“Not at all,” says Adam Lane, the castle’s resident Brit. “It’s a bunch of rich, WASPy and Jewish people.”

And so it seems our merry pranksters find themselves in the midst of a semisecret identity crisis. But don’t worry. They’re having a hell of a good time working it out behind those locked purple, yellow and red doors.

***

“Would you like some caviar?”

Alison Umminger, a junior in a tight black cocktail dress and with a cigar in her mouth, is hosting one of the Lampoon‘s traditional Thursday-night dinner parties. She’s surrounded by about twenty-five fellow Poonies and their dates, all dressed in tuxedos and evening wear. You can tell the members from their guests immediately; they’ve got bronze medals dangling Olympic style from their necks. It’s cocktail hour in the warmly lit library, and the Poonies are feeling fine.

And why shouldn’t they? For these are Harvard’s jesters, and this is their private castle (nonmembers must enter to the left): a house of tricks complete with hidden meeting places, sliding walls, secret passageways and the eerie Elmer Room, a cavernous dungeon named for the seventy-three-year-old janitor who used to live there. While the rest of the school is in the cafeteria staring at macaroni and cheese, the Poonies are here, helping themselves to another glass of punch, or another serving of shrimp cocktail, or another cold Corona. There’s Adam Lane, breaking them up in the corner with his imitation of an American accent. Brian Reich, the narthex (vice-president), is by the caviar plate with the president, sharing a few chuckles over Beckerman’s upcoming Nerds issue. And, look, there’s circulation manager Vanessa Ward (of the Manhattan Wards), giggling politely at Jeff Schaffer’s clever banter.

To an outsider, the scene might look an awful lot like a swank soiree thrown by one of those hoity-toity groups the Lampoon mocks in its Guide to the Final Clubs. And no wonder. It turns out that several of the Poonies here tonight are actually members of those clubs — including the one who wrote most of the parody.

But here’s the inside joke. These Thursday-night gatherings are actually meant to lampoon those elitist bastions of breeding. Get it? As Reich tells it: “Even though we’re doing it, we’re aware that the pretentiousness is kind of ridiculous. We’re aware beyond being absorbed in it. And that’s the pleasure we get out of it. The enjoyment of these things is not always on the most simple level. We can see the absurdity.”

To an outsider, it seems that the lines between parody and reality have blurred a bit.

Dinner is served. The Poonies file up a winding staircase to the Great Hall, an enormous function room where tapestries hang from the cathedral ceiling and priceless antiques grace the floor — not the least of which is a thirteenth-century samurai suit of armor that wacky George Plimpton wore as a catcher’s suit in a 1948 Lampoon-Crimson Softball game. The long, wooden dinner table looks like something out of a German beer hall, only it’s covered in white linen and set for a banquet, with two bottles of wine — one red, one white — placed between each setting. Here is where staffers dined with Malcolm Forbes after their Forbes parody was published in 1989. Here is where they’ve dined with Robin Williams, John Cleese, Steven Wright, Jay Leno — all of whom have been summoned to the castle in recent years to accept some Lampoon award or another. And here, by candlelight, with soft dinner music playing in the background, is where the Poonies dine tonight — courtesy of Siam Garden, the Harvard Square restaurant that has provided tonight’s elaborate Thai banquet in exchange for free advertising space.

When the last toast has been made, Jon Beckerman stands on his chair and babbles something about the delicious meal. Then, smash! He throws his plate to the floor, shattering it to bits. Narthex Reich follows suit. Smash! Then Adam, Jeff, even Vanessa — everyone — is smashing their plates to pieces in wild abandon, tossing in a wineglass here and there for good measure. It sounds like an earthquake until suddenly the noise gives way to something even louder — the first few bars of “Good Lovin’,” by the Grateful Dead. The Poonies are up on the table, dancing in gleeful debauchery.

“I guess it’s all pretty excessive,” says business manager Steven Karan. “It’s supposed to be a parody of polite society, but when you look around Harvard Square and see all the homeless people begging for a quarter, and here we are breaking plates, that stops being a great excuse. Still, I pardon the Lampoon for its excesses, and I’m proud it sticks to these outdated approaches. The Lampoon is the last real bastion of decadence at Harvard.”

***

And how does one gain entrance into this decadent bastion of pranks, parodies, pipelines and parties? Oh, a little sleep deprivation here, a little masturbation simulation there, nothing too unusual. But, shhhhh … that’s all part of the biggest, wackiest semisecret of all: Phools’ Week, a bizarre parody of fraternity hell weeks, that proves some people will do anything for a laugh.

Before the week, however, comes the comp (as in competition), held each semester to choose from about 100 candidates who apply for the thirty-five or so positions on the magazine’s lit (editorial), art and business staffs. The compers who survive first cuts based on the pieces they submit or the ads they get receive invitations to the castle — nonmembers, enter to the left — for a black-tie Candi-cox (candidate cocktail party) with the staff.

In the month that follows, compers turn in another round of submissions, staffers decide second cuts, and a follow-up Candi-cox is held in honor of the fifteen or so compers who remain. As for those whose manuscripts are returned by comp directors with constructive criticisms such as “Blow me” scrawled across the top (a favorite of years gone by), they’re free to try again the next time; and they do — sometimes two, three, four semesters in a row. Sure, the process of peers judging the talent of peers can be humiliating for those compers who never make it. But the real humiliation is reserved for those fortunate few who do.

Which brings us back to Phools’ Week.

***

“Mind fuck” is the most detailed description Poonies are willing to offer regarding Phools’ Week, and considering that at least two students have experienced acute psychotic episodes during the week, it’s no wonder they want it kept a secret.

The Phools — the handful of candidates who make it to final cuts — are invited to stay at the castle for a five-day process that culminates, staffers tell them, with final elections. When they get there, they find they are expected to demonstrate absolute commitment to membership in the organization. This entails being confined in close quarters where they are kept awake through the night (clanging pots do the trick) by staffers who barrage them with 115 years’ worth of Lampoon lore. Whether they are elected will be determined by their ability to define the true meaning of the Lampoon, they are told, and they are given a series of cryptic riddles that will lead them to that meaning. But don’t worry, Poonies tell the Phools, we’ll give you the information you need to solve those riddles. You’re here to learn.

One of the most exciting things each candidate learns during this week — besides how they look covered in liver pâté — is his or her personal Phool’s name, which is actually a limerick that describes oneself in language that could make a Geto Boy blush. Upon command, Phools must drop to their knees and recite their new names, which is especially amusing when they are escorted outside to introduce themselves to startled passersby.

When things start getting a little slow around the castle, Poonies direct Phools to act out skits such as this hilarious favorite, performed at the most recent week, in December: Phool 1 has to go to the bathroom but must walk through several rooms to get there. He knocks on the door to the first room, where he discovers Phool 2, massaging a pair of prosthetic breasts. He knocks on the door to the next room, where he discovers Phools 3 and 4 pretending to have anal sex. Finally, he knocks on the last door, where he discovers Phool 5, who is simulating masturbation with an artificial penis.

By Wednesday night, most of the Phools are exhausted, and more than one is slightly inebriated. They’re completely confused as to what any of this has to do with the true meaning of the Lampoon. And they’re worried. Worried that they might not get elected. What better time to subject them to the one test they are told will determine their final fate: a pseudo-Spanish Inquisition in which candidates must get down on their knees in submission, sometimes for hours, and prove themselves worthy of election. They must do whatever they are asked by the panel of inquisitors (composed of Lampoon alumni back for a taste of their old college days), which can be anything from reciting the names of all past Lampoon presidents or reciting the entire sonnet “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” in the time it takes for a match to burn out to finally answering the dreaded question “What is the meaning of the Harvard Lampoon?”

Considering all the “learning” the Phools have done in the past days, it would seem that they would fare well during such interrogation, but — surprise! — it turns out that the Poonies have been feeding them bogus information all along. And now, still kneeling, perhaps feeling more paranoid than ever, the Phools are asked the “one heinous question that strips you of all your ethics,” according to one alum: “Who among your fellow Phools do you think is unworthy of election?”

“That one is actually really funny because we’ve been stressing Phools’ unity all along, and suddenly we’re asking them to turn in one of their peers,” says a member. “Everyone usually ends up naming someone, though.”

The inquisition ends when the Phools are escorted back to their dorm rooms. Elections will be decided the following evening, the Poonies remind them. And sorry about that little mix-up in there.

In the hyperreality that is Phools’ Week, election night represents the biggest mind fuck of all. The Phools are led into a small, pitch-black room in the basement, where Bach’s Mass in B Minor (get the death symbolism?) is playing so loud that they can’t hear one another. They stay there up to two hours, while elections are ostensibly being held in the castle’s upstairs chambers. When it is their turn, Phools are led, blindfolded, upstairs to the Ibis Room, which overlooks the elegant Great Hall.

If their blindfolds are removed here, they look down upon the Great Hall in all its candle-lit resplendence, where formally dressed Poonies and inquisitors are sitting at a lobster banquet in their honor. Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus plays in the background (get the rebirth symbolism?). They have passed final elections. Smash a plate, it’s party time!

Here’s the punch line: There aren’t any final elections. All the Phools’ blindfolds are removed because all the Phools were actually elected as soon as they survived second cuts. What fools! “It’s the ultimate prank,” says one member who participated in December’s festivities. “Nobody stresses it, but you could really go home at any point during the week and you’d still get in.”

In retrospect, most Poonies look back at this initiation in high regard. But Peter Clateman, who graduated from Harvard last June, has a less flattering impression: “Phools’ Week is hazing. It’s humiliating; a mild form of mind control based on seeing another person at their most pathetic.” As part of his initiation, Clateman says, he jumped on the back of a moving truck. “They told me to do it, so I did it,” he says. “In this day and age, that’s like hazing.”

***

What any of this has to do with publishing a humor magazine is anybody’s guess, but the Lampoon, clearly, is not just a humor magazine. At the oldest and most exclusive college in the country, tradition and ritual die hard, and nothing is just anything. Is the Crimson just a campus newspaper? Is the Hasty Pudding Club just a campus theater group? Is Harvard just a college?

“There’s this weird thing that happens to you once you’ve been selected for admission at an elitist institution like Harvard,” Clateman says. “You start wanting another, separate distinction that shows you’re no longer just another plebeian Ivy Leaguer. The Final Clubs and the Lampoon have the same function in that regard. They’re like second applications to Harvard.”

In January, Alison Umminger began her term as the Lampoon‘s fourth female president in 115 years. “At this point, my main goal is just making sure the magazine gets out more than twice a year,” she says. “We were in a slump for a while, but now people are more excited than ever to write. I want to make the castle not only a fun place to hang out but a place where a magazine gets printed and we can contribute something to the Harvard community.” Umminger says she is equally excited that two women were recently elected to the magazine’s lit staff (a traditional male domain). Another important goal, she says, is attracting more minorities to the magazine.

As for plate breaking and mind fucking, Umminger is less than enthusiastic. “The Lampoon is steeped in years of tradition,” she says, her tone suddenly less colored with that coed pep. “You can try to improve what you can, but there’s a Lampoon way of doing things. It’s different, but I wouldn’t want to change it.” 

In This Article: Comedy, Coverwall, Harvard

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