Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Frozen Smiles




You know something's wrong when Gilbert Gottfried gets more attention than Michael O'Donoghue. Especially at a National Lampoon event.

There were many things missing from the New York Public Library's party for Rick Meyerowitz's new book, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, the latest Lampoon history. It seemed thrown together, loose strands exposed. Elements of the Lampoon's brilliance burst through, inescapable when Brian McConnachie, Sean Kelly, Michel Choquette, Tony Hendra, and Christopher Cerf read and performed classic pieces.

Other living alumni like Anne Beatts, Chris Miller, and Henry Beard didn't show (Beard never talks about nor appears at anything connected to the Lampoon). Ted Mann, who found success in Hollywood, sent a video that few if anyone could hear. The New Yorker's Hilton Als read a tribute to the late George W.S. Trow that was better suited to a dry, somber gathering than to a (supposedly) anarchic affair.

Appreciations were wildly uneven. Early Lampoon editor John Weidman read from a parody of TV Guide by Gerald Sussman, who died in 1989. Not content to give us a sampling of Sussman's piece, Weidman went on and on, garnering plenty of laughs (many of the mock listings are tiny absurdist gems), but in the end, it's just a parody of TV Guide. (Television peddles bottomless crap? Apparently so.) Weidman's tenacious flogging of Sussman's jokes was part of a larger effort by several Lampoon vets to elevate Sussman's comic reputation. They apparently feel that Sussman hasn't received his proper due, so they're going to remind us of it at every opportunity. Fair enough, but this night, Weidman's tribute to his underappreciated friend canceled out remembrances of other significant Lampoon talents.

Beatts was barely mentioned. A clip from Animal House, a pan-and-scan version which cropped about a third of the picture, eliminating several visual gags and expressions, inspired a passing nod to the film's co-writer Chris Miller. John Hughes received no notice. Bruce McCall flew by in a blink. Ed Bluestone, who conceived the famous Lampoon cover "If You Don't Buy This Magazine, We'll Kill This Dog," fared little better. Cartoonists Sam Gross, Gahan Wilson, Shary Flenniken, M.K. Brown, Charles Rodrigues, and Frank Springer were shoved to the side, if noted at all. But one glaring omission was any reference to P.J. O'Rourke.

Now, I'm not a big fan of O'Rourke's right wing humor or reactionary politics. He sicced the Lampoon on women, gays, Blacks, Arabs, and anyone else who wasn't a straight white male, Ted Kennedy excepted. O'Rourke trashed liberal sensibilities for simple shock value rather than confronting entrenched power. (Kenney, O'Donoghue, Beard, Beatts, Hendra, Kelly, and Bluestone also skewered liberal pieties, but theirs were deeper, more balanced attacks.) Still, O'Rourke was a notable Lampoon player.

He collaborated with Kenney on the 1964 High School Yearbook, with O'Donoghue on The Encyclopedia of Humor, and oversaw the underrated but brilliant Sunday Newspaper Parody. His Lampoon enjoyed a circulation bump thanks to Animal House, but instead of finding anarcho-comic aggression, new readers were treated to O'Rourke's Republican-friendly humor. He may have been despised by older contributors like Hendra and Kelly, yet P.J. O'Rourke was a significant part of the Lampoon's history. This should have been acknowledged, but wasn't.

However, the biggest oversight was any real tribute to Michael O'Donoghue. This simply floored me. Before the show, a few photos of Michael flashed on the big screens adorning the stage, but that was it. Tony Hendra, of all people, mentioned Michael during his presentation, which was ironic given that Michael hated Hendra to the end of his life.

Other than Hendra's brief remarks, Michael wasn't honored. Why? The man was a major influence on the Lampoon's voice and tone, rivaled only by Doug Kenney. You'd think that Rick Meyerowitz, who certainly knows this, would have invited someone to remember Michael's contribution. As the evening wore on and we moved to later Lampoon periods, I fought the urge to take the stage and deliver my own tribute. If O'Donoghue's biographer isn't asked to do so, then get one of Michael's contemporaries to speak. Big fail, as the kids say.

The Lampoon's steady decline was well represented. Early-80's editor Fred Graver gave an amusing, self-deprecating speech, joking about how uncool it was to run the Lampoon at that late date (Graver didn't mention Jack Handey, whose Deep Thoughts first appeared in that Lampoon). Then came Larry "Ratso" Sloman, who ran the mid-80's Lampoon, a hollow, dingy version that was as far from the original magazine as Ceres is from the Sun.

Sloman tossed around names that he hoped would write for his Lampoon -- Paul Krassner, R. Crumb, Charles Bukowski -- but settled for talent like Gilbert Gottfried, whose unoriginal cunt jokes Sloman delivered with an appreciative smirk. It was easily the evening's lowest point. Not even a performance of "Papa Was A Running Dog Lackey of the Bourgeoisie" from the 1973 Lampoon show Lemmings, which featured original cast members Alice Playten and Paul Jacobs, fully washed Gottfried's shit material from the stage. Gottfried, sitting near the front, appeared content.

Afterward, there was a small reception in one of the NYPL's ornate rooms, Chilean wine, fruit and various cheeses on offer. I hung with Brian McConnachie, whose piece about a boxing priest who pummels parishioners every time the church bell rings received enthusiastic laughs. Brian and I were getting wine when Michael Reiss, longtime producer and writer for The Simpsons, approached Brian and asked why only a few panels of Kit 'n' Kaboodle were included in Meyerowitz's book.

For those new to this, Kit 'n' Kaboodle was Brian's 1973 parody of Tom and Jerry -- the cat-vs-mouse concept as directed by Sam Peckinpah. Brian's ultra-violent cartoon "inspired" the Itchy and Scratchy segments on The Simpsons, though Brian received no credit for the idea. Reiss is aware of this, but said nothing to Brian about it. His query reminded Brian that Reiss' lucrative show "borrowed" the old Lampoon bit. Reiss then flashed a goofy grin and bounced off.

Already pissed about O'Donoghue's lack of attention, I became angry on Brian's behalf.

"The nerve of that motherfucker!"

"What's that?"

"The Simpsons ripped you off, man! Why the fuck does Reiss bring this up to you?"

"It seemed odd."

"Either he's rubbing your nose in it, or he's so fucking clueless that he has no idea how that comes across."

Brian smiled. "Eh. What are you gonna do?"

I tapped into Brian's gentleness and calmed down. He was right: there was no point in getting steamed. It wouldn't change a thing.

The rest of the reception proved pleasant. I had nice conversations with Sean Kelly, still sharp and witty as ever, Sam Gross, and Christopher Cerf. I met Mark Simonson, curator of Mark's Very Large National Lampoon Site, who was very generous to me when Mr. Mike came out. And I caught up with Tony Hendra, who was being shunned by a few of his former colleagues, a remnant of old Lampoon feuds. Tony seemed on edge, but we had a friendly chat. He laughed at one of my bits, adding "That's good." Whatever Tony's sins, I confess being happy in making him laugh. These were the legends who inspired me. Personal imperfection is part of the deal. There wouldn't have been a National Lampoon without it.