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America Laughs With Harvard Accent, But It Doesn’t Know It : Humor: From “Saturday Night Live” to “Letterman” to “The Simpsons,” graduates of the venerable college are leaving the country in stitches.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

As a college-bound senior known for his wit, Mark O’Donnell was given some advice by a high school teacher: “Don’t go to Harvard. It’ll ruin your sense of humor.”

On the contrary. O’Donnell graduated from Harvard in 1976 with humor intact. So did his twin brother, Steve. They’ve since learned a profitable lesson: Not only is there humor at Harvard, there’s humor after Harvard. And much of America’s in on the joke.

Mark O’Donnell’s writing credits include Esquire (Dubious Achievement Awards), “Saturday Night Live” and “Spy.” Steve O’Donnell is head writer at “Late Night With David Letterman.” They’re among 40 or 50 Harvard grads who have parlayed cultural cynicism and a love of lowbrow into high-paying comedy careers.

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Harvard’s comedy Mafia accounts for about 10% of television’s full-time humor writers. Harvard grads write for Spy magazine and The New Yorker, “Late Night” and “Saturday Night Live.” They write and produce the animated prime-time hit “The Simpsons.” They are or have been on the staffs of “Dinosaurs,” “A Different World,” “In Living Color,” “Married . . . With Children,” “Designing Women” and “Coach.” They write movies (“House Party,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”) and best-selling books (“Miss Piggy’s Guide to Life.”) And they’re about to become more influential than ever.

“This is the year when the Harvard grads are starting to be in charge,” said Al Jean, ’81, a writer-producer for “The Simpsons.”

Two new series by Harvard alumni are on the fall schedule: “Great Scott” by Tom Gammill, ’79, and “Out All Night” by Andy Borowitz, ’80, and his wife, Susan Stevenson Borowitz, ’81, creators of “Fresh Prince of Bel Air.” Several others are being readied as pilots and could join the schedule as mid-season replacements.

What’s so funny about Harvard?

Nothing whatsoever, graduates say.

“Harvard is one of the stuffiest, unfunniest places I’ve ever been,” said Mike Reiss, ’81, of “The Simpsons,” where Harvard men account for more than half the writing staff.

Indeed, 19th-Century Harvard students found the place so dour that they created a secret society of pranksters, the Lampoon, to send a message--"Lighten up!"--behind the ivy-covered walls.

The Harvard Lampoon is housed in a jaunty little castle marooned on an island just off Harvard Square. With its little round turret and harlequin paint job, it looks like a caricature, a cartoon. In a sense, it is.

Unlike Harvard, Lampoon Castle is funny. Designed by Edmund Wheelright, it boasts secret passageways, hollow beams and hidden rooms, not to mention such comic artifacts as Mark Twain’s pipe and a Bible autographed by God (“Messy handwriting,” says Lampoon staffer John Aboud, ’95.)

Today’s comedy writers attribute their success to having spent the bulk of their college days--and nights--in the castle, “riffing, joking, trying to be funny. It’s the world’s greatest pre-professional comedy training course,” said former stand-up comic Craig Lambert, ’69. An associate editor of Harvard Magazine, Lambert has written extensively about Harvard comedy.

The castle’s importance can’t be discounted, he said. “Other schools have humor magazines that meet in the cafeteria. Lampoon has this marvelous building, a social center and clubhouse.”

Much of the Lampoon’s antics go on behind the castle’s closed doors. But five times a year, in “a twisted, acid dream version of a newsroom,” as Robert Carlock, ’95, describes it, students produce the magazine that started it all, 116 years ago.

Harvard Lampoon, the world’s oldest humor magazine still publishing, is famous for dead-ringer parodies of Cosmopolitan (“19 Ways to Decorate Your Uterine Wall”), Newsweek (“Nuclear Arms and Terrific Legs: The Atomic Threat to America’s Cover Girls”) and others.

Each year, scores of students compete to join the staff, but only a handful are judged twisted enough to be chosen. In 1974, they included a disconsolate premed student named George Meyer.

“I really think I might’ve had to drop out if I hadn’t discovered a place like Lampoon,” said Meyer, who parlayed a biochemistry degree into a job writing “The Simpsons.”

Such convoluted career paths aren’t unusual. Steve Young, ’87, set out to become a psychiatrist and wound up writing for Letterman. Parents who sent their little geniuses off to discover a cure for cancer only to see them end up writing “Married . . . With Children” have undoubtedly come to grips; the going rate for a half-hour sitcom script is a minimum $13,000.

“I was pretty miserable until I came across the Lampoon in my freshman year,” Meyer said. “Premeds are pretty humorless.” At the castle he found “like-minded people who were similarly sullen and cranky about their college experience. I felt like I’d come home.”

Finding one’s niche at Lampoon can be a mixed blessing, he adds. “Spending most of your waking hours shooting the breeze and making people laugh tends to hurt your grade-point average.”

“The great irony,” said his colleague, Al Jean, “was that people thought Lampoon was destroying your lives. And there they were, wasting all their time taking these economics courses.” Go figure.

Do ex-Lampooners identify with quintessential wise guy Bart Simpson? “Most of us were nerds, whereas Bart’s really cool,” Jean said. “No, the character we’re closest to is Lisa Simpson, a tormented kid who reads a lot and hopes for a better life.”

There weren’t any Simpsons in the ‘60s, when Henry Beard was honing his comic skills. There were only sappy sitcoms, and what self-respecting Lampooner wanted to write for them?

“When I was going to school, that career didn’t exist,” said Beard, ’67. “It wasn’t perceived to exist. You’d go to Wall Street, or medical school, be a teacher, or just try not to get killed in Vietnam. Nobody said, ‘Or you could go to Hollywood.’ ”

That began to change in the late ‘60s, when a series of projects brought the Lampoon national prominence. First, a 1966 parody of Playboy sold all 550,000 copies in a matter of days, swelling the Lampoon treasury “from about $3,000 to $150,000, which in those days was more like $500,000,” said Rob Hoffman, ’69.

Lampoon staffers followed up with a successful parody of Time. Then Beard and Doug Kenney, ’68, collaborated on “Bored of the Rings,” a sendup of J.R.R. Tolkien that has sold 750,000 copies.

That, in turn, led to the founding by Beard, Kenney and Hoffman of the National Lampoon, a Harvard Lampoon for the masses. A humor magazine characterized by its utter contempt for popular culture, it reached new heights of cynicism with its very first issue, which took aim at everyone from Julie Nixon Eisenhower to Dr. Seuss. It was just the beginning.

The founders of National Lampoon saw American culture as a cornucopia of forbidden fruit, all of it ripe for skewering. As Beard told Harvard Magazine, “There was this great big door that said, ‘Thou Shalt Not.’ We touched it, and it fell off its hinges.”

The founding of National Lampoon was the turning point in contemporary American comedy, Lambert said, “because that was the vehicle that broke with the past, in the sense of violating old taboos.”

Pushing the boundaries of taste was an appealing notion in the America of the 1970s. “Is Nothing Sacred?” asked the January, 1972, National Lampoon. Nothing was; that issue featured Son ‘o God comics and a dead kitten calendar.

In the hands of the Lampoon crew, Cosmo’s Helen Gurley Brown (“Step Into My Parlor”) was transformed into Helen Cleveland Brown (“Step Into My Bidet”); smarmy poet Rod McKuen was reborn as Rod McPouf (“The lone$ome choo choo of my mind i$ warm like drippy treacle on the wind$wept beach. . . .”); and T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” became Sean Kelly’s “The Love Song of J. Edgar Hoover (“I grow old . . . I grow old. . . . Some who I sent up for life have been paroled.”)

Clearly, National Lampoon had awakened America’s appetite for cynicism. By 1974, the magazine boasted a circulation of 830,000. It also had spun off a weekly radio program, “National Lampoon Radio Hour.” The cast included Chevy Chase and John Belushi, who would soon push the envelope further in an outrageous new TV show, “Saturday Night Live.” Both were fresh from another Lampoon offering: the off-Broadway hit “Lemmings,” which made fun of the Woodstock concert.

In 1974, burned out from the pace, National Lampoon’s founders sold their interest for $7.5 million. Kenney went on to co-write “Animal House,” the most profitable film comedy ever made. His death in Hawaii in 1980 hasn’t diminished his reputation as the most talented of the Harvard humorists.

Rob Hoffman runs the family bottling company in Texas but remains on the Harvard Lampoon board. He attributes the phenomenal success of National Lampoon to a blend of sociology and serendipity.

“In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, there was incredible unrest in the United States. A lot of it took the form of marches, protests. It was deadly serious. People were pretentious in their sincerity. It was easy to make fun of that and make a point at the same time. Thus, a bunch of people who are relatively intrinsically clever suddenly have a point of view and a medium,” Hoffman said.

It didn’t hurt to be the only game in town. “There was Mad and there was Peanuts. There was no sophisticated adult humor. A whole group of people had never had an outlet. Suddenly, it was as if all seven planets lined up with the moon.”

The third founder, Henry Beard, remains in the humor business. The author of 20 books, he puts his Ivy League education to use crafting such epics as “French for Cats.”

The progression from page to stage came naturally. Not so the move to the small screen, Jean said. “The idea of writing for television was akin to going to the North Pole. You didn’t know anyone who’d done it personally.”

Then, his senior year, two Harvard grads got jobs on “Saturday Night Live.” Once they had a toehold, it didn’t take long for a network to form. “It’s since gone from one or two to 40 or 50 in the Writer’s Guild,” thanks in no small part to the creation of the Fox Network. “If it didn’t exist, we might all be unemployed losers,” Jean said.

Are today’s Lampoon staffers tomorrow’s humorists? Sophomore John Aboud is noncommittal. On the one hand, he says, the godfathers of the comedy Mafia “are not coming back and stoking the coals. Not at all.” On the other hand, David Mandel, class of ’92, landed a job at Comedy Central.

As always, Harvard Lampoon is being written primarily by white males. As always, the humor leans toward the sophomoric. That’s appropriate. Many of its staffers are, after all, sophomores.

But that doesn’t stop talent agents from dropping by the castle in search of the next Doug Kenney or Henry Beard. Instead, says Robert Carlock, a sophomore, “They find a bunch of college kids sitting around saying, ‘Hey! Want some pizza?’ ”

At the same time, he points out that a Lampoon crew spent part of the summer on Martha’s Vineyard writing a pilot for a TV sitcom, a reminder that this is not your typical college club.

It’s not your typical college, either. Should the bottom fall out of the comedy industry, it’s comforting to know that at least two of the current crop of Harvard humorists have some skills to fall back on.

Carpentry and auto repair?

No. Corporate law (Sandy Frank, ’76) and applied mathematics (Ken Keeler, ’83, Ph.D., ’91).


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