Thursday, July 07, 2005

National Lampoon's Vocation

This New York Times article on the rise and fall of National Lampoon prompted me to dig out my copy of "This Side of Parodies", a 1974 paperback collection of the best parodies from the early, funny years of the Lampoon. Many of them are by Canada's own Sean Kelly (who now leaves the Lampoon off his resume, according to the article); a former English teacher, he was fantastic at capturing and caricaturing the stylistic nuances of whatever writer he was parodying, from Robert Frost's overuse-- of-- dashes-- to James Joyce's coy wordplay. Among my favorites of Kelly's poetry parodies are his absolutely pitch-perfect sendup of Thomas Hardy:

We might have met on Ramsgate Strand
Or waved from passing trains;
Instead, we met in Flanders, and
Blew out each other's brains.

And his take on R.L. Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses, "A Child's Garden of Castration Anxieties," which is hilariously rude and also an excellent slam on Stevenson's Victorian moralizing; it also contains a fine spoof of Edward Lear, "Wipe That Lear off Your Face":

The Pribble who has no Dong
Once had one excessively vast,
But his uncle Roberto, one callico time,
Took it off with a mixture of beeswax and lime
To use on his boat for a mast
(An act which was morally wrong).

The Prebble who has no Dork
Once had one as cute as a cob,
But his half-cousin Clarence McClovis McClutter
Thought a carving knife perfect for smearing on butter
And utterly bungled the job
(Which proves that one should use one's fork).

The Porbul who has no Dink
Once had one as surely as you,
But his parents neglected to keep their young sprout
From diddely doodely dinkling about,
And it fell off one day in the loo
(Which gives one occasion to think).

Part of the appeal of the early National Lampoon is the way it sort of fused together the sick-joke humor of the '60s, the Lenny Bruce, take-no-prisoners style, with the more youth-oriented style of Mad Magazine. Take a story like "Telejester" by Chris Miller (included in the parodies book because it's written in the style of Damon Runyon), about a druggie who discovers that he has the power to project any image he wants onto national television. Basically it's just a wild, silly catalogue of crazy stuff he does to the Nixon government -- dressing Ron Zeigler in a Gestapo uniform; putting pictures of Haldeman and Ehrlichman on Miss Alabama's breasts -- but for those readers who are familiar with Runyon, there's also the fun of seeing that style of narration applied to a different and far more drugged-out milieu, and there's also an unsettling serious undercurrent to the story: in a way it's a bitter satire of satire itself, a large-scale acknowledgement of the fact that you can't actually drive bad leaders out of power by making fun of them. It's like Mad Magazine with an R rating and a college degree.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I fondly remember "Telejester", as well as other Chris Miller stories. I can't get the image of Nixon slowly sagging over his desk, and an aide stepping into view to wind up the key sticking out of his back.

As you said so well, an R-rated MAD magazine with a college degree