Natonal Lampoon's 1964 High School Year Book: from an era of brilliant comedy
May 23, 2009
Before National Lampoon devolved into a brand name for films about college hijinks, it was a magazine of some of the most brilliant satire ever written in a monthly format. Riding the crest of the counterculture wave, it was a hip and irreverent view of anything and everything. Each issue had a theme, from politics, to death, crime, science fiction, kids, religion, and sex; but often they overlapped. At the mercy of some of the most inventive minds ever, sometimes you couldn't tell where the satire ended and reality began. I'd bet every National Lampoon fan remembers the Volkswagen ad with a photo of a classic VW bug floating in a river. Volkswagen was running an odd ad campaign around that time, that featured the VW's capacity to float. In the National Lampoon version of the ad, the photo was accompanied by the wry observation, If Ted Kennedy had been driving a Volkswagen, he'd be president today. Did Volkswagen actually approve such an ad? I don't know. But it was funny as hell, regardless. The magazine was consistently distinguished by this level of ingenuity, almost front to back, no space wasted. It would take you nearly the whole month just to read it all.
As an avid National Lampoon reader, I bought into a lot of their other stuff, including a parodic rock festival album, which further illustrates what protean talents these guys were. In 1974 — in retrospect, the peak of their creative powers — the team published a magazine-sized softcover book titled National Lampoon's 1964 High School Yearbook, and it became a two-million-copy bestseller. It was brilliant piece of work, but if you weren't tuned to that level of pop culture, you'd easily miss it.
The first stroke of ingenuity in this comic masterpiece was the cover itself. If you had browsed a magazine rack, you'd have seen the full title, clearly identifying it as a National Lampoon product, which included a picture of some cheerleaders performing a spin at a pep rally (and one cheerleader is not wearing underwear). But that's just a way to identify it on the magazine rack. Actually, you flip it over, upside down, so that the back cover is now the front cover, and complete immersion into the satire has begun. You have in your possession a copy of the Kaleidoscope, the 1964 yearbook for the C. Estes Kefauver High School, in Dacron, Ohio. It looks identical to a high school yearbook in every way, except for the fact that upon closer inspection, some of it is totally ridiculous. And once you've made that flip, there is no further reference to National Lampoon until you get to the back pages, where the writing credits are listed.
The brilliance here is that the yearbook isn't just a facsimile that parodies the self-conscious bittersweet motifs of a graduating class. This particular copy of the yearbook belongs to "Lawrence Kroger" and it's really about him, his pathetic senior year. A larger piecemeal narrative is woven through the student biographies, club memberships, candid photos of student activities, and teacher and student autographs. The winners and losers are implicitly identified, stuffy attitudes are laid bare, and the identity of a notorious prankster is revealed. However, if you don't read it from front to back, you could miss those stories, and Larry's story in particular. Very little is explicitly written; it's always alluded to through these tidbits. It was truly ingenious.
If this had been something else besides a softcover newsstand item, it would be deemed a must-read comic masterpiece. Yes, that sounds a bit hyperbolic, but I stand by it. It made such a strong impression, I've caught myself thinking about certain parts again and again and again. Mostly I thought about that brilliant embedded narrative. I went looking for it on eBay, where I found a few early-print editions. To my joy, I also discovered that in 2005, National Lampoon had published an updated version, the 1964 High School Yearbook: 39th Reunion Edition. I opted for the newer edition, as an original would probably be dilapidated after forty-odd years, especially if someone loved it as much as I did. Missing from the newer edition is the trick cover. This time they bypassed that neat gimmick, marketing the book toward a nostalgic readership. The fake yearbook cover was just another page in the book, behind the National Lampoon cover.
Also, the reunion update is illogically added at the beginning of the book, before the pages of the original faux yearbook begin. Unless you've got a steel-trap memory as to everyone's names and what they represented as characters forty years ago, it's best to bypass this until you've reread the original stuff. The reunion material is very funny, but you'll need a refresher to get the humor.
It's great stuff, and I'm happy to see it again after all this time, and have mentioned it to so many people in the interim. Sadly, there's nothing like National Lampoon on the market these days (as far as I know). It was slick and smart, parody and satire aimed at discriminating grownups. I guess the idealism of the anti-establishment milieu that made mocking things so much fun has turned to cynicism, and the national mood is too dark and divisive for this sort of humor (in a periodical format, anyway). Now, all that remains of the National Lampoon brand is what's associated with adolescent humor obsessed with drinking and sex, stuff indistinguishable from dozens of movies about horny teenagers.
How the hell did it come to that?
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About the reviewer
Alric Knebel (Alric_K)
May 15, 2009
May 21, 2012 11:59 PM UTC