Brilliant To Dead: The High Art Of 'Lampoon' Satire In the spring of 1970, a daring new product hit American newsstands. It was called National Lampoon, and it made its name with sex- and drug-laden satire of everyday American life. Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is Lampoon contributor Rick Meyerowitz's account of the magazine's best years.

Brilliant To Dead: The High Art Of 'Lampoon' Satire

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

In the spring of 1970, a new, slick, humor magazine appeared on America's newsstands. It was the National Lampoon, a glossy, daring, product of alumni of the Harvard Lampoon.

The new magazine took the satire of a Mad magazine and spiced it with sex and drugs. And along the way, it launched the careers of writers and artists who found their way into mainstream media.

Artist and writer Rick Meyerowitz was one of the people responsible for the Lampoon. And is the one who has gone back and collected the best of the magazine in a book called "Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Writers and Artists Who made the National Lampoon Insanely Great." Rick Meyerowitz, welcome to the program.

Mr. Rick Meyerowitz (Author, "Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Writers and Artists Who made the National Lampoon Insanely Great"): Thank you, Robert. Quite a title, isn't it? It's very long.

SIEGEL: It is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: And we should point out that much of what is contained in this coffee table book we cannot describe on the radio 40 years after the magazine began. How hard was it to get the nudity, the sexual content, all of that into print back in those days?

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: Well, not all that hard to get it in at the beginning, and at the end, as easy as can be because by the time the magazine was nearing its end in 1990, when it stopped publishing, it was mainly nudity and kind of unpleasantness, if you will. But at the beginning, it was a really smart magazine.

And that's the thing that I felt needed to be said in this book was not just how funny these people putting this magazine together and starting this magazine were but how smart they were. The conversation was: What can we say thats going to bring down the roof on the house of pretensions and, you know, all around the country?

There were not left or right. They were these guys wanted to recognize hypocrisy no matter which side it was coming from.

SIEGEL: There are things that the National Lampoon lampooned that just were so incredibly surprising. There's a parody of the Yellow Pages. There's a parody of the New York state bar exam. There are lots of send-ups of comic books, though, and terrific artists doing them. One of my favorites is sort of the World War II action comic, but this one is called "Frontline Dentists."

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: Right, created by Michael O'Donoghue, and there's a great quote in there where there's a tooth sitting on it's Mr. Happy Tooth, and he's sitting on the shoulder of FDR, and FDR says: Tough teeth make tough soldiers. And the tooth says: You said a mouthful, Mr. President.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: There's the 1940s right there in a nutshell. Here's another feature. This one's by George Trough(ph) on how to learn to speak with euphemisms.

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: Do you need euphemism? Read these sentences. You're a Jew, aren't you, Mary?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: Thank God I'm rich. And, so many people of your age seem to be dead.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: So it's an ad: how to avoid unpleasantness, how to avoid, you know, speaking like that. It's very George was very funny. And he went on to have an incredible career at the New Yorker after he left the Lampoon.

SIEGEL: Another one that we loved here was the mock-hate newsletter. This was actually and to make a joke out of racist groups like the, you know, the Ku Klux Klan or the American Nazi Party seems tough, but Christopher Serf(ph) did it by issuing a hate letter against the threat from the Dutch.

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: Right. There's one piece with Dutch Schultz bursting into a house.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: He was a gangster, Dutch Schultz, not especially Dutch, but...

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: This one has a machine gun, a Tommy gun and wooden shoes, and he says: After I drill 'ya, I'm gonna saw your doors in half and kill all your elm trees.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: It was it's just a wonderful thing. These guys had such wide interests. I don't know if you saw Henry Beard's(ph) amazing piece called "Law of the Jungle."

SIEGEL: Yes, a law book on the law of the jungle. For example, in the law of the jungle, under Section C: Torts, a good example is the case of Spider Monkey v. Giraffe, 26 Mammals 44, in which plaintiff Monkey accused defendant Giraffe of negligent nibbling on the branches of the tree in which he was sleeping.

It's huge, page after page of this stuff, with animals in (unintelligible)...

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: Freedom to screech.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: Or the case of Tyrannosaurus Rex vs. North American Ice Sheet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: It's I mean, it drove the copy editor nuts. And she wrote an essay for this book about this, copy editing this article, and she says: I knew no law and I knew no Latin - and there's a lot of Latin in this piece - by the time I was finished with "Law of the Jungle," I wasn't sure if I knew any English.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Now, you describe the real heyday of the National Lampoon as being from its launch in 1970 really through the late '70s, and after that, you find it losing its edge. What actually was the connection between the magazine the National Lampoon and National Lampoon's "Animal House" or their National Lampoon movies?

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: Doug Kenney and Chris Miller, two of the great Lampoon contributors, and Doug was one of the founders, were two of the three writers of "Animal House," along with Harold Ramis.

And "Animal House had an enormous effect on the culture, but what "Animal House" gave the culture was this heavy dose of Lampoon humor. And suddenly it was available not just in the Lampoon and not just on "Saturday Night Live," which was staffed with Lampoon performers from their shows and from their Lampoon had a radio show.

But this Lampoon humor was available all through the culture, and people didn't have to go to the Lampoon anymore to find it. And what happened is it weakened the magazine somewhat. And in searching around for ways to bring in readers, they maybe cheapened some of the content of the magazine.

And what I thought it had and what I tried to do in this book is show what that edge was in the 1970s, and particularly the first five years, and then up to "Animal House" in 1978, how sharp this magazine was, how funny it was, how important it was to the culture.

SIEGEL: When you would go to the offices of the National Lampoon, was it funny? Were they funny to be around, or was it all business in the office?

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: Robert, it was electric. It was like putting your hand on some thrumming, giant electric cable, the sense of energy and the ideas that were thrown around. And we had these incredible editorial meetings.

The meeting would take place on the run from office to office and resemble a crowd of drunken guests at a barbecue. Going up to the office was not dull. It wasn't all business. It was exciting, and there was a sense of we're in this together. And that was pretty great.

SIEGEL: Well, Rick Meyerowitz, thanks a lot for talking with us.

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: Well, thank you, Robert. It's a pleasure to talk with you.

SIEGEL: Rick Meyerowitz was talking about his book "Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Writers and Artists Who made the National Lampoon Insanely Great."

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