Boomer Humor: The Way We Laughed

The gap-toothed, jug-eared idiot gazes out from the cover of the magazine, lost in a state of moronic bliss. The face is familiar, for sure—with that stupid smile, like Ron Howard's Opie with a lobotomy—but it is not quite Alfred E. Neuman, the iconic simpleton of Mad. This is the August 1971 issue of the National Lampoon, and for the occasion illustrator Kelly Freas has created a portrait that, as much as any single work can, captures the essence of boomer humor. The idiot, with his ludicrous apple-cheeks and shock of red hair falling across his forehead, is wearing the uniform of the United States Army, with crossed rifles and matching gold U.S. insignia on the collar of his green jacket and a blue combat infantryman's badge over the left pocket. The name tag over his right pocket reads CALLEY. Neuman's imbecilic motto—"What, me worry?"—has been rewritten and emblazoned across "Calley's" chest in black type: WHAT, MY LAI?

It is as good as a joke can get, and more than 35 years later I can still recall the deep awe I felt the first time I saw it. First of all, it's shocking, a masterpiece of bad taste that links the mass murder of innocents during wartime with the blank visage of America's best-known dolt. (Lt. William Calley was convicted of murder in 1971 for his role in the 1968 My Lai massacre, in which hundreds of Vietnamese women, children and seniors were shot to death by American soldiers. Photographs from that period confirm the vague resemblance to Neuman that Freas zeroed in on and immortalized.) Dark and ruthless, the Calley-as-Neuman cover (or is it Neuman-as-Calley?) makes it clear that absolutely nothing was sacred to the Lampoon editors. The cover is timely and news-driven, as the best humor often is, and it addresses one of the most important issues that boomers ever faced—the Vietnam War. At the same time, it acknowledges the past with a tip of the hat to Mad, the bible of irreverence where many boomers first learned that it was OK to make fun of ... everything. Finally, it includes a great pun. It is, in other words, a classic.

Thanks to shared experience and a unique set of comic influences, we baby boomers can count as part of our legacy a distinct brand of humor that at its best (National Lampoon, "Saturday Night Live," "Animal House," "Eddie Murphy Raw," "Seinfeld," "Curb Your Enthusiasm") actually fulfills the promise of our much-touted, often disappointing generation. Iconoclastic, in thrall to the absurd, self-absorbed, self-effacing, angry, truth-seeking—boomer humor may not always have a point (David Letterman's Velcro suit comes to mind) but it is usually funny, often smart and almost always well crafted. It also links the radio days of pre-World War II America with the age of the Internet, where I recently enjoyed Dan Aykroyd's classic sketch from the first season of "SNL," the "Super Bass O'Matic '76." (Turns out that chopping up stuff in blenders is quite popular these days on YouTube.)

Looking back, the most striking thing about our formative years is the paltry number of media options available to us. In the New York metropolitan area, the white-hot center of the broadcasting industry in the 1950s and '60s, we had exactly seven TV channels to choose from, including the three major networks—CBS, NBC and ABC. As a result, we all ended up watching the same stuff. Despite the dearth of choices in those pre-cable years—because of the dearth, in fact—"mass media was its most mass," notes best-selling author and former Lampoon editor P. J. O'Rourke. "It hadn't broken up into all of its microniches. We're probably the one generation on earth with the most points of reference in common."

The roots of boomer humor are sunk deep in the 1930s, when scores of short subjects featuring the Little Rascals and the Three Stooges were originally produced. These black-and-white classics were repackaged for television in the 1950s, and impressionable young boomers like myself were soon immersed daily in the chaos and anti-establishment antics of Moe, Larry, Curly, Spanky, Alfalfa, Buckwheat and the rest of their motley cohort. Rich in Depression-era details—horse-drawn ice wagons, pug-faced truant officers, electric fans with open blades, flypaper—the films introduced us to a world where responsible adults were in short supply and authority figures existed for the sole purpose of being defied and undermined. The race-blind Rascals, black and white, stuck together to overcome bullies and pompous rich kids alike. Ingenious (ducks helped power their boat) and resilient, they never gave up and never gave in. The Stooges, best known for bashing each other, spent an equal amount of time making fools of cops, lawyers, doctors, businessmen and any other stuffed shirts or mustached blowhards who crossed their path.

We also enjoyed a steady diet of cartoons from the same period, featuring such masters of mayhem as Popeye and his archnemesis Bluto, whose tornado-like fistfights punctuated each episode. As if to offset the relentless diet of violence they were feeding us, the Popeye cartoons constantly promoted the nutritional benefits of spinach, especially when eaten directly from the can, which could be blowtorched open with a superheated corncob pipe if, for example, you happened to be wrapped in an anchor chain and pinned to the ocean floor.

But boomer humor may owe its greatest debt to Mad magazine, which, befitting such a boomer touchstone, was created in 1952. "Like a lot of us, I grew up with a hard-nosed dad," says veteran comedy writer Danny Jacobson, who, among other credits, was cocreator of the 1990s boomer sitcom "Mad About You." "Depression era, World War II, all of that. And when I looked at Mad magazine, I knew it was OK to think like this, to laugh at s--t like this." Mad liberated a generation by ripping every institution, organization and idea that our parents, teachers, priests and rabbis held out to us as deserving of our respect and obedience. School, any and every form of government, the military, organized religion, life in suburbia, the rich, the middle class, the poor, all of it was fodder for satire and parody. Gloriously sophomoric at times, stunningly cynical at others, Mad also attacked our favorite athletes (Mickey Mantle), movie stars (Humphrey Bogart), TV shows ("Bonanza") and comic-book characters (Charlie Brown).

It made fun of the cold war and what seemed at the time to be the very real possibility of nuclear annihilation; when you are 9 and air-raid drills are part of your third-grade routine, it's not so easy to laugh at a joke in which the punch line is a mushroom cloud. But what else could we do? "I've got some Emmy nominations and a Golden Globe award," says Jacobson, "and all that stuff's great. But the most flattering thing to me was that two of the shows I had a big hand in—'Roseanne' and 'Mad About You'—were parodied in Mad. Those are my Emmys."

In the early 1960s, young boomers also grooved to what were called "party records." These LPs, which our parents actually played during cocktail parties, included stand-up routines by Redd Foxx, Bob Newhart and others, weird stuff like a "farting contest" record I used to listen to at a friend's house ("He worked his way to America on a cabbage boat," went one unforgettable line), Allan Sherman's "My Son, the Nut," with the briefly inescapable "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh," and, of course, "The First Family," starring JFK impressionist Vaughn Meader. At the same time, we were watching people like Shecky Greene and Alan King riff about drunks and stewardesses on "The Tonight Show" (a rare Friday-night treat) and "The Ed Sullivan Show." And comic Lewis Black remembers the surreal style of Jonathan Winters. "He was really the wild card in the bunch," says Black. "I'm not saying he was insane, but what he did was find the comedy in insanity."

It was all very cool, in a skinny-tie, sharkskin-suit sort of a way. Then the Beatles arrived, "the sixties" really started and the final pieces of the boomer humor puzzle fell into place. The Sullivan-style variety show morphed into "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" and "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In." The Firesign Theatre comedy group (and, later, Cheech & Chong) reinvented the party album for pot-smoking college students. Richard Pryor and George Carlin, the godfathers of boomer humor, abandoned the Vegas-style approach to stand-up, with its emphasis on bits and gags, and started talking about life in America's ghettos, Vietnam, drugs, politics and other loaded subjects. Thus marinated, the boomers were finally ready to make themselves laugh.

The counterculture was a few seasons past ripe when the first issue of the National Lampoon was published in April 1970. The Manson Family murders (August 1969) had already happened and the Kent State shootings (May 1970) were just around the bend. Woodstock's peace and music (August 1969) had been quickly followed by the discord and murder of Altamont (December 1969). Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin would both be dead before the November issue hit newsstands. What more could a bunch of brilliant humorists ask for?

Founding editors Doug Kenney and Henry Beard (who met at the Harvard Lampoon, which has since become a kind of training ground for TV writers) and their colleagues worked with familiar tools—comic books, album covers, yearbooks, Sunday supplements—all the usual flotsam and jetsam of American culture. But this was something different and new. The debt to Mad was clear, but the Lampoon—written by boomers for boomers—was hipper, smarter and nastier than its ancestor. It obliterated obvious targets like Spiro Agnew and Playboy (rendered as "Playdead," with a flatlined centerfold in a hospital bed), but also took down hippies and the peace movement. And lest anyone attempt to detect a master plan, Anne Beatts, who joined the Lampoon in 1970 (and was also an original member of the "SNL" writing staff), offers this: "The Lampoon was a job for people who couldn't get any other jobs and couldn't get up early. It was people who were basically unemployable rejects of the system who fell into comedy like it was a bathtub."

In the early 1970s, while the Lampoon was at its coruscating best, Pryor and Carlin continued to give concerts and release landmark albums. Their groundbreaking work in this period helped spark a new era in stand-up. Among the boomers who followed them to the stage: Jay Leno, David Letterman, Roseanne, Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Garry Shandling, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Eddie Murphy, Ellen DeGeneres, Bill Maher and Al Franken. One way to appreciate the reach of boomer humor is to make a list of all the TV comedies, talk shows, concert DVDs, books and movies generated by that crowd of "comics" over the past 30 years.

Though it's no longer a boomer show, and hasn't been one for years, "Saturday Night Live," which debuted with Carlin as host in October 1975, remains the ultimate expression of boomer humor. A lot of what John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Aykroyd, Murphy and the rest of the "SNL" team produced in the first decade of the show was really funny, and some of it was more than that. Radner's energy and extraordinary range erased all doubts about whether women could be funny. Murphy as Buckwheat, singing his incomprehensible "greatest hits," with helpful subtitles, a perfect confluence of boomer comedian and boomer source material, was timeless.

None of this is chiseled in stone, of course. Jon Stewart, born in 1962, is technically a boomer, but "The Daily Show" (which echoes and improves on "SNL's" 31-year-old "Weekend Update"), can hardly be considered boomer humor. And there is plenty of so-called humor produced by boomers that, well, we would prefer not to think about, including some unmentionable Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy movies. ("The Adventures of Pluto Nash," anyone?)

And that's it. I've made the points I wanted to make about boomer humor. I expect people to disagree with me, to nitpick and complain about things I've included and things I've omitted. But I'm not concerned. As this gap-toothed, jug-eared idiot I know might say ...