Is Nothing Sacred to Henry Beard? : Nope--This ‘Lampoon’ Veteran Will Nail <i> Anything </i> We Hold Near and Dear
Humorist Henry Beard, co-founder of the National Lampoon and author of such literary milestones as “Miss Piggy’s Guide to Life,” golfed his way into town recently to offer a Beard’s-eye view of life in Los Angeles, poetry written by cats, the state of American comedy and, of course, the War of 1812.
There wasn’t time to give him a full tour of Southern California, so we did the next best thing: CityWalk at Universal Studios, the surreal “mall on acid” that one reviewer called “a combination of Rodeo Drive, Melrose Avenue, Venice Beach and Hollywood Boulevard manifested in the form of shake-and-bake architecture.”
Strolling past such oddities as a neon King Kong, jets of water that randomly spray out of the ground and a mondo-sized Wolfgang Puck pizza peace symbol, Beard starts skewering away. What on Earth, he wonders, is a UCLA Extension center doing at a mall? Recruiting students?
“Is UCLA like a Moonie cult now? Are people going to come up and start engaging us in philosophical conversation and slowly lure us into (enrolling and) selling all our possessions to pay the tuition?”
And what’s with the boutique called Things From Another World? How about Things You Don’t Want at Prices You Can’t Afford , suggests Beard, who once played with the idea of opening a store near his East Hampton, N.Y., home called Chickens and Chain Saws, which would sell nothing but frozen fowl and power tools.
Question: What country should we invade next?
Answer: Rule No. 1 is never invade a country you can’t spell. That would take care of Bosnia-Herzewhatever. Did you know we invaded Canada twice and lost? Once was at the time of the American Revolution. (The attack) was led by Benedict Arnold--before he switched sides. The other was in the War of 1812. We invaded and burned the Parliament (building) in (Toronto). That’s why (the British) came and torched the White House and Dolly Madison had to save the paintings. It was just simple revenge. . . . (Next), we should invade someplace we want to go to. Someplace with golf courses.
At the west end of CityWalk, various electronic appliances and parts have been formed into big animals, creating a wacky, albeit motionless, merry-go-round. Beard, co-author of “The Official Politically Correct Dictionary and Handbook” (sample entries--" Looting: non-traditional shopping” and “ Murder: health alteration”) pauses to note that “the politically correct term for merry-go-round is concerned -go-round.”
Next, he slips into a group photo of Taiwanese tourists, then wanders into Country Star Hollywood, a country-kitsch kitchen for hungry urban cowboys. Beard dubs the decor “hitching-post modern” and suggests--after watching customers work on laptop computers while listening to the twangy tunes--that the phrase “country and Western” is outmoded. “ Which country and Western?” he asks. “NAFTA and Western?”
Q: Is it getting harder to satirize real life, what with kamikazes flying into the White House, former football stars leading police on low-speed chases and other things you never could have dreamed up at the National Lampoon?
A: Absolutely. . . . You’ve heard that quote about how those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Well, there’s (another) saying that history does repeat itself: First it’s tragedy, then it’s comedy. I think we’re in the comedy phase. . . . When Chris Cerf and I (started brainstorming for) “The Official Politically Correct Dictionary,” we came up with 20 of what we thought were funny politically correct terms. We later found out that 18 of them actually existed. When you come up with jokes that are already out there, you start thinking about retirement.
Narrowly escaping the horrors of “Hee-Haw” haute cuisine, Beard returns to the main shopping plaza, which he is now referring to as “the mall in sheep’s clothing.” Standing next to a life-sized photo of Capt. Kirk and Mr. Spock, he reveals his theory about what powered the Starship Enterprise: “The key to interstellar travel on ‘Star Trek’ was the split-infinitive drive: ‘ to boldly go where no man has gone before.’ ”
He also declares that CityWalk should have its own congressional district, “represented by Michael Huffington, the man who fell to Earth.”
A few doors down from the Enterprise is Wolfgang Puck’s pizza palace, with its pop-out facade of ‘60s images and Benjamin Franklin flying a neon kite. “Seems to be a pretty mixed message, culturally,” says a befuddled Beard. “Then again, I guess pizza does represent freedom of choice: Anchovies or no anchovies.”
He adds later: “The terrible truth is, these aggressively huckstering commercial places are much more fun than the most beautifully designed ones . . . (maybe because) Americans love theme parks. I think, for a lot of Americans, heaven would be like Disneyland--good crowd control and big soft-drink machines.”
He also likes CityWalk’s policy of validating parking: “One thing you can get in L.A. is validation. That’s something New York should have--someplace you can go for validation.”
Q: Have you ever thought of writing anything serious?
A: No. And the world is a better place for it because--although I have the ability to say some things--I have absolutely nothing to say. Humor writing isn’t easy, but it’s better than being a stand-up comedian. If someone wants to throw a tomato at me, they have to FedEx it. Or they can fax me a picture of a tomato.
Beard, 49, grew up in a TV-less home in New York City. His father, a transplanted Southerner, was a former Yale literary magazine editor and great-grandson of John C. Breckinridge, who ran for President against Abraham Lincoln in 1860.
“I really come from a previous generation,” says Beard, whose earliest stab at teen-age rebellion was going to Harvard. “My father had gone to Yale and I wanted to piss him off.”
It changed Beard’s life. At Harvard, “I didn’t really go to class, I went to the Lampoon,” the venerable campus humor magazine. There, he collaborated on a hugely successful parody of Playboy and--with Doug Kenney, who later worked on the movie “Animal House"--wrote “Bored of the Rings,” a clever sendup of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
After Harvard, Beard and Kenney (who died in 1980 after falling off a cliff in Hawaii) launched the National Lampoon. Among its achievements: a photo spread of Adolf Hitler surfing and relaxing in his South American hideaway, the much-copied canine-with-a-gun-to-its-head cover (caption: “If you don’t buy this magazine, we’ll kill this dog”), and an unusual menu of profanity (“We were the first national magazine to print every bad word,” Beard boasts. “Even Playboy hadn’t done that”).
Critics called it “120 pages of relentless hostility,” Beard says. “We’d get letters and bombs and stuff . . . but, in retrospect, what we did then looks tame. I don’t know how you would outrage anyone today . . . (and) if nobody cares how far you go, a little bit of the drama is gone. Part of the power of the kind of parody and satire we were doing then was that there was still a sense of outrage.”
Q: Thoughts on the O.J. case?
A: Trials are really performance art. Clarence Darrow, one of the greatest defense attorneys who ever lived, used to light up a cigar during the prosecution’s (closing arguments) to the jury. But what he had done was slip a common pin into the cigar, so as he smoked, the ash became longer and longer and longer. After the ash got to about two inches, every eye on the jury was on it. The (prosecutor) is trying to say how some S.O.B. killed 19 people, but the jury is just looking at the cigar. . . . Now, of course, nobody can smoke in California courtrooms, so what can you do? Get your fax machine to keep spewing papers?
Since leaving the National Lampoon in 1975, Beard--who drafts his manuscripts by hand on yellow legal pads--has cranked out a stream of spoofs: A porcine muppet’s guide to life. A golf instruction video starring Leslie Nielsen.
Parody handbooks on gardening, cooking and sports (“The shortest distance between any two points on a golf course is a straight line that passes directly through the center of a very large tree”).
There also are language guides: “French for Cats,” which lists such useful feline phrases as Ai-je attrape cette souris ou est-ce que c’est moi qui suis en fait pris au piege de l’obligation de ma propre nature? (“Have I caught this mouse, or is it not in fact I who am trapped by the obligations of my own nature?”) and “Latin for All Occasions,” including bank robbery: Catapultam Habeo. Nisi pecuniam omnem mihi dabis, ad caput tuum saxum immane mittam (“I have a catapult. Give me all the money, or I will fling an enormous rock at your head”).
His newest offering is “Poetry for Cats,” which contains such immortal feline verse as Robert Frost’s cat’s: “His chair is comfy, soft and deep / But I have got an urge to leap / And mice to catch before I sleep / And mice to catch before I sleep.”
Q: What’s next on the parody front?
A: Maybe nothing. Part of the reason I left the Lampoon after only six years was because we . . . ran out of material. We went through an entire generation’s recollections and shared cultural experiences at a rate of speed you cannot possibly believe. Every comic book, every “I Love Lucy” show, every single solitary piece of printed information--driver training manuals, Monopoly game instructions, high school yearbooks, magazines. . . . We even did parodies of coffee-shop place mats and menus . . . anything that anybody had seen from the cradle (to college). What scared me toward the end was when I realized I’d written my third parody of a Rosicrucian ad.
(Today), I don’t know how many more of these high-brow things I can pull off . . . (because) parody depends on your potential audience having read the original . . . (and) I’m not sure people read that much anymore. . . . If “Poetry for Cats” works out, that’s probably it. I suppose computers (could be a subject) for parody, but hey, I’m too old to spoof Nintendo.