If You Don’t Read This, I’ll Kill The Dog
“Making people laugh is the lowest form of humor,” said Michael O’Donoghue, one of the wits behind The National Lampoon (and a substitute English teacher at my high school). But making people laugh hysterically was the goal and success of The National Lampoon, which picked up where MAD magazine left off.
Now an insightful and entertaining new book chronicling the Lampoon titled Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Writers and Artists Who Made the Lampoon Insanely Great by Rick Meyerowitz (designed by Laura Lindgren) provides the first in depth look at the art of Lampoon art and art direction. See Meyerowitz talk about it here.
Meyerowitz contributed a few of the Lampoon‘s most iconic covers, including Mona Gorilla. In this book, he documents the major contributions of the other writers, artists and designers and frames it in the free-wheeling, rule busting context of the times that Lampoon helped define.
Speaking of the Lampoon, I had a dream once:
What would I have given to become the art director of The National Lampoon? My left arm? My right knee? My pinky toe? Yes, yes, and yes. I would have slashed these and more essential body parts off just to land the best art direction job a poor boy from Stuyvesant Town in the backwaters of Manhattan could hope to get. I so loved the Lampoon when I first saw it – at least the concept – that it became my dream job. From the first issue, designed by Cloud Studios, I was confident I could do better – much, much, much better. In fact, I was already doing Lampoon-like things for underground newspapers, so I figured I was a shoe-in, if only I could get my shoe in the door.
It was not, however, ever to be. By the time I received my Doctor Martins, Cloud was out and Michael Gross was in. His art direction was cleaner and tighter than the previous anarchy, and his typography combined with visual acuity enabled the Lampoon spirit of parody to shine. Yet under his reign I longingly wanted even more to be hired by the Lampoon (in whatever high ranking design position I could get). So I did what any red blooded, ambitious, go-getter would do. I tried to copy it in other publications I was working on.
I became art director of Screw magazine, which published an offshoot zany rag called Mobster Times (subtitled “Crime Does Pay”). It was just before Watergate blew the top off President Richard Nixon’s administration. I tried so hard to make MT in the mold of NL. But lo and behold, I didn’t have the lightness of touch that Gross had. My hand was heavy, my type was crass, my attempts lacked nuance.
Nonetheless, every year for three years I took my portfolio up to the Lampoon anyway, where I was pleasantly rejected with one of those great “we have your telephone number” responses. Instead, I was hired as art director of the New York Times Op-Ed page – and the Times is where I remained for almost 33 years. Still, I often have a recurring dream that I was art director of the Lampoon after all – and with all my appendages intact.
About Steven Heller
Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.