Comedy

Who’s Laughing With the Harvard Lampoon?

Can an age-old institution built on secrecy, debauchery, and anti-political correctness still be funny in 2019?


Illustration by Nigel Buchanan

Before Jenny Baker even laid eyes on the latest issue of Harvard’s storied student humor magazine, she doubted it would make her laugh. On a Saturday night in mid-May, with finals season under way and her spring semester winding to a close, a friend had tipped her off that the Harvard Lampoon featured a racy Photoshopped image depicting—of all things—Holocaust diarist Anne Frank. She sat, floored for a moment. This can’t actually be a thing, she thought. Making fun of the Holocaust? But over lunch the next day in the ornate dining hall at Kirkland House, her friend cracked open a copy of the magazine so Baker could see for herself.

Amid jokes about 9/11 and school shootings, wedged up in the corner of a page, Baker saw a photo of the face of the teenage victim, cut-and-pasted onto the body of a large-chested swimsuit model. “Gone Before Her Time: Virtual Aging Technology Shows Us What Anne Frank Would Have Looked Like if She Hadn’t Died,” the headline read. “Add this to your list of reasons the Holocaust sucked,” followed the caption. Baker was aware of the Lampoon’s reputation for irreverence, but seeing something like this in print set her off like a bomb. “I knew they would put somewhat problematic things in their magazine,” she says, “but that just seemed like it was so unbelievably inappropriate to me.”

Baker marched under gray skies back to her room in Leverett House and spent Sunday afternoon drafting a Facebook post, hoping an open letter might make a splash on campus and spark a conversation about the Lampoon and how it had, in her eyes, gone awry. She chose her words carefully and asked for suggestions from friends to make sure her message had the proper oomph. “Try to find other ways to be funny rather than sexualizing and trivializing the murder of a young girl and an entire population of people,” she wrote near the end of her 300-word post, tagging the nation’s oldest and most notorious comedy publication to make sure its members would get the message. “This is trash,” she added, before attaching a photo she’d snapped of the image, which she’d traced on her computer in red. Then she hit publish. “I wasn’t trying to make national news or anything,” Baker tells me, but “within a few hours it had totally blown up.”

That night, as word on campus trickled into the maw of the Internet—a place where the joke, to put it mildly, did not land well—a full-blown scandal erupted. Condemnations poured in from the Anti-Defamation League, which accused the Lampoon of using “humor as an excuse to trivialize the Holocaust.” Dispensing with the usual euphemisms, the Crimson dubbed the photograph plainly “anti-Semitic.” The head of Harvard Hillel, the campus Jewish organization, likened the magazine to Der Stürmer, a virulently anti-Semitic tabloid of the Nazi era. Even the New York Times got in on the coverage. In no time, the world was tearing the joke, and the club that allowed it to happen, to shreds.

Meanwhile, inside the magazine’s distinctive castle walls on Bow Street, the Lampoon was entering crisis mode. Editors rushed to emergency meetings with Hillel and Harvard’s diversity office, and by Tuesday, a WBZ news crew was outside the magazine’s front door, listening to undergrads fret about the “slippery slope of making jokes about genocide” and hassling Poonies for interviews. “I love you all. Please reach out if you are having a tough time,” Lampoon “half-president” Jack Stovitz wrote in an email to his staff, who’d been advised to dodge the reporters posting up outside their castle and not to answer the door without first peering through the peephole. “These are most likely going to be a rough couple of days.”

That afternoon, the group published the last thing you’d expect from them, or their rambunctious forebears, who have gleefully pissed off everyone in their path for nearly 150 years: an apology. Splashed across the front page of the publication’s website, as sincerely as they could muster, the editors acknowledged the “many whom we hurt” and included a pledge to “approach the content of our magazine with greater care.”

It was the Lampoon’s biggest shitstorm in a generation, but perhaps it’s not surprising. At a time when more voices from more backgrounds than ever have a platform and sensitivities seemingly intensify by the hour, jokes that misfire are often interpreted in the least charitable light possible; one screw-up can put the people who tell them in an intense, uncomfortable spotlight. The Harvard Lampoon, for all of its faults, is undeniably a factory for mainstream comedy, with alums in the upper echelons of the entertainment world, including Conan O’Brien and Colin Jost, and in writers’ rooms for some of the biggest brands on television, such as Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons, and Veep. But the campus institution, which has gotten accustomed to answering to no one but itself, is suddenly on the defensive. Which makes it hard not to wonder: What is humor in 2019, and can the Lampoon still be relevant—and, most important, funny—in a world that seems to have passed it by?

The Lampoon was almost a century old when soon-to-be comedy luminaries Doug Kenney and Henry Beard showed up on campus in the mid-1960s. As editors, they kicked off what arguably became the club’s most influential era, a time defined by a cultural revolution and a war in Vietnam. The institution wasn’t perfect, of course—it didn’t admit women until 1972—but members were bright, brash, rebellious, and sought to aim their brand of absurdist humor at powerful cultural and political targets. “The ethos, really broadly put, was that nothing was sacred and that anything was allowable as long as it was funny,” says Josh Karp, the author of the Lampoon biography A Futile and Stupid Gesture, which inspired the Netflix movie of the same name. “By definition anyone who had authority was the enemy or was an idiot: the administration at Harvard; the people who had started the war in Vietnam; the people who had institutionalized discrimination and Jim Crow. The adult world was the enemy and these guys were smarter than the adults.”

They were working in a rich tradition. In 1925, an infuriated Cambridge Police Department yanked copies of the club’s magazine from newsstands for “improper display of the American flag”—apparently horrified at a cover that parodied Washington Crossing the Delaware, including a soldier fishing a bottle of booze out of the water—not to mention the obscene redrawing of a Manet painting that was tucked inside. Two decades later, meanwhile, not-yet-famous journalist George Plimpton rode on horseback to a speech given by then-Governor Robert Bradford, snatched the microphone, and yelled, “Disperse, ye rebels” to a deeply confused crowd.

Using the lessons they’d learned on campus, Beard and Kenney famously founded the National Lampoon in 1969, but if they were worried their jokes might rub people the wrong way in their new publication’s pages, they didn’t show it. There was the “Stranger in Paradise” photo essay, for example, starring a Hitler lookalike lounging in Martinique, as well as a fake ad showing a VW Beetle floating in a lake, along with the caption, “If Ted Kennedy drove a Volkswagen, he’d be President today.” Then there were bits like the ghastly “Vietnamese Baby Book,” replete with blood-splattered images of milestones such as “baby’s first shrapnel” and “baby’s first funeral.” And National Lampoon–produced movies such as Animal House and Caddyshack set the tone for an entire era of comedy. “There were pieces of it where you’re like, ‘That’s really funny,’ or ‘That’s really harsh but honest and telling, and an uncomfortable but worthwhile look at something,’” Karp says. “They weren’t afraid to offend people, but they weren’t out to offend people.”

While the National Lampoon was sparkling on the national stage, the Harvard Lampoon’s stock also grew. By the ’90s, the club had become synonymous with The Simpsons and SNL, which both borrowed from the Lampoon’s point of view and stocked its writing staff with alums. Once a place where brainy freaks could feel at home on a buttoned-up campus, the Harvard Lampoon morphed into what is still considered a stepping-stone to an entertainment career.

Today, the Lampoon’s comedy is arguably still trying to grapple with the horrors happening around the world. The cover for the issue with the Anne Frank image included an illustration of Santa Claus flying his sleigh into the World Trade Center. Another comic depicts a girl wielding an assault rifle in what appears to be a high school auditorium, with a line that reads, “School shootings are an appropriate joke subject!” Other jokes are less confrontational: Right next to the Photoshopped image of Anne Frank, there’s a short review of what it’s like to eat a microwaved banana in a Harvard dining hall. How you read into all of this depends on how much slack you’re willing to cut the Ivy League jokesters. They’ve had to live with an endless parade of school shootings and endure an entirely post-9/11 upbringing. Like their lionized predecessors, aren’t they just trying to skewer a world gone mad?

Critics, though, say that today’s Lampoon has appropriated the ethos of its predecessors but lost the moral compass that made the humor really work. The result, they say, is a toxic product that’s incompatible with 2019’s sensibilities, one that reaps the benefits of the Lampoon brand but has lost touch with its mission. (A poll run by the Crimson this year found the group’s favorability rating at 13 percent.) Some of its most outspoken critics, among them Cat Zhang, once editor in chief of Harvard’s other humor magazine, Satire V, say the Lampoon’s storied brand is as much a distraction as it is a font for its comedy. “This is obvious, but at a basic level comedy should be about writing jokes, and creating a culture where people can write jokes,” Zhang says. “When it’s saddled with so many other concerns, like ingratiating yourself to higher-ups or going through strange rituals, it’s no longer about creating good comedy, but about exerting power.”

The club’s outlandish initiation rites, called “Phools Week,” offer a window into that culture, which in turn informs the group’s comedic sensibility. An internal Lampoon document, for instance, offers upperclassmen instructions on “mind-fucking” new recruits, including depriving them of sleep and subjecting them to public humiliation by superiors. Among the many bizarre rituals are performances that include plenty of nudity—and, according to multiple members, at least one instance of “full-on sex”—and a skit that involves a play-acted ritual beating of a man in drag. When a recruit remarked that the latter looked a lot like domestic violence, “they were immediately shot down,” a Poonie tells me. “One of the cool guys said something like, ‘Well this is funny, and that’s what matters.’ That’s how it works.” (The Lampoon presidents declined to comment for this article.)

To some, it’s an organization that’s not merely stuck in time, but almost feels like it’s regressing. The countercultural stance that inspired Poonies to skewer the architects of the Vietnam War has, some say, devolved into a sullen, pouty slouch. If the shtick is just to defy the conventions of the time without contributing to the culture in some way, is it really a joke worth telling? Lampoon members seem to think it is. “They feel like the world outside is wrong, and the world doesn’t get it,” says a current member who asked not to be identified. “You walk in and it’s like everything’s in black and white and you’re back in the 1920s.”

Critics say that today’s Lampoon has appropriated the ethos of its predecessors but lost the moral compass that made the humor really work.

A half century removed from the Lampoon’s heyday, what’s funny has changed…a lot. For starters, today’s Harvard freshmen were raised on the Internet, which prizes obscure memes with bizarre subject matter—the more indecipherable to adults and those who aren’t tapped into Instagram’s latest obsessions, the better. Yes, call-out culture is a force, but one counterbalanced by an ironic detachment to reality in some corners of the Web that makes it fashionable to say horrible or nonsensical things you don’t mean—be it plotting to storm Area 51 or pretending to crave Tide Pods. Those who are a little too comfortable in this marketplace are said to be suffering from “irony poisoning,” having a brain so knocked off-kilter by Internet discourse that it no longer functions properly in the real world.

While the Lampoon might be the best-known comedy organ at Harvard, it’s far from the only one looking for a laugh in this new comedy landscape. There are seven other clubs focused on humor, including three improv troupes and one dedicated to video-news satire, and each practices a distinctly different approach from the Lampoon. “Our general rule is that our humor has to punch up,” Zhang says. She says new recruits to the staff are taught that no subject is off-limits, but the rule is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” just like the National Lampoon did a half-century ago, but maybe with a little more reluctance to offend the marginalized. Being aware of how comedy can be harmful isn’t a hindrance; it’s just a challenge that Zhang wants her writers to meet. The cries of PC policing, she says, “feel like a lazy catchall that prevents us from actually considering any new voices or ideas. Who dictates what it means to be able to take a joke?”

It’s a question the whole comedy world is grappling with. Comedians are more on edge than ever about whom their jokes might offend in an age when it can feel like the whole world is waiting for them to screw up. Lines shift over time, says Kurt Andersen, a former Lampoon editor who went on to found the satirical magazine Spy and now hosts the public radio show Studio 360. But it seems like the stakes are higher these days. “Social media kind of makes the line more electric,” he says. “When you step over it, it’s not just going to fade away into oblivion because who cares about a college humor magazine?” Comedy that’s too safe, and doesn’t make anyone mad, probably isn’t any good—but good comedy knows why it’s making people mad. “Part of being young and the learning experience is to figure out how your moral compass is set, and what’s important to you, and what your values really are,” Andersen says. “That’s what being 18 to 22 is.”

Right now, though, there are plenty of people on Harvard’s campus who are unwilling to chalk the Lampoon’s indiscretions up to experimentation, and have a more thorough reckoning in mind. Harvard student-activist Danu Mudannayake has circulated a petition calling for an official investigation and reforms at the Lampoon, including that the club hold public meetings so students can air Lampoon-related grievances. She’s gotten results before: Last winter she organized protests that helped lead to the rescinding of a deanship from Harvard Law professor Ronald Sullivan Jr., who lost the confidence of some students after he joined Harvey Weinstein’s defense team. Still, she says, “I feel bad that people think Harvard kids are the super-duper PC police—I don’t agree with that.” She, too, is trying to figure out where the line should be, admitting, “It’s a debate I’m having in my own head.”

Having to reckon with its audience could do the Lampoon some good. Michael Jeffries, a Wellesley researcher who wrote a book on inequality in comedy, tells me he sees the Lampoon like he sees the rest of the industry, as a “social endeavor.” “This idea that comedians are up somewhere in some ivory tower deciding what’s funny…that’s not true,” he says. But while comedy can offend, it can also be a forum for talking about uncomfortable things and bridging the gap. “It’s not that every time someone is offended, you should be forced to apologize,” Jeffries says, “but you ignore your audience’s reaction at your own peril.”

The Lampoon has prided itself for a century and a half on being a world apart from Harvard, but in 2019, beating against the cultural tide seems more perilous than ever. Whether Lampoon editors like it or not, they may be forced to give critics a seat at the table and try to make nice. All along, they’ve insisted the Anne Frank image that started all of this wasn’t intended to be anti-Semitic, but something clearly went wrong. Perhaps worst of all, the joke wasn’t even an original attempt. It’s “a Xerox of a Xerox of an Onion joke,” says Seth Simons, a journalist who covers comedy. “If a lot of people don’t like your jokes, then it’s on you to write better jokes.”

This fall, the Lampoon has another chance to experiment and write better jokes. The club has said it’s heard its critics and is starting this academic year with a new perspective. There’s plenty of reason to pull for them. After all, it’s pretty safe to say that everyone these days could use a good laugh.

[Editor’s Note: After this story from our October issue went to print, Mudannayake joined a group of students in a demonstration outside the Lampoon castle on September 13, calling on the club to be more transparent. On its website, the Lampoon has also announced a series of reforms for this academic year, including the addition of two members to a section of the group tasked with making it more inclusive, as well as unspecified new “mechanisms to ensure wider oversight of the content published in the magazine.”]