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The Life And Death Of A Comic Genius

Illustration for article titled The Life And Death Of A Comic Genius

Head on over to the Stacks' weekend spot over at the Daily Beast and dig Robert Sam Anson's 1981 Esquire cover story on the co-founder of National Lampoon, Doug Kenney:

By the end of 1971, National Lampoonwas solidly in the black and well on its way toward an eventual circulation of eight hundred thousand. Its staff was doing less well. They were a quirky group, even in the best of circumstances. For one thing, many of them, like Kenney, were fallen-away Irish Catholics, a condition that set them apart from the Jewish mainstream of comedy and tinged their view of the world with darkness, myth, and not a little guilt. If the Berles, Allens, and Steinbergs regaled their audiences with tales of their psychiatrists and ex-wives, the Kenneys, O'Donoghues, and McConnachies savaged theirs with, as one notorious Lampooncover had it, threats to shoot the family dog. Nothing was sacred. Once, when one of their number received an emergency phone call from his father informing him that his mother had lost a toe, the comedian didn't miss a beat. "Didyou look under the refrigerator?" The Lampoonstaff also liked to repeat the story about the contributor who had walked through a plate glass window and plunged several stories to his death. "What's the difference between David McClelland and a pizza?" the line went. Answer: "A pizza doesn't have glass in it."

It was shark-bait humor, a lunge after the gut, trapped in the feeding pool of the Lampoon, where the Dickensian nature of working conditions was surpassed only by the sheer impossibility of the demands. The predictable happened: the sharks devoured one another. Fights were frequent, blood oaths more so. At one point, fully one half of the staff was not speaking to the other. And in the middle, presiding over it all, "like the prime minister of a bad European parliament," as Beard put it, was the editor in chief, Douglas C. Kenney.

Nothing seemed to rattle him. Phones could be ringing, typewriters clacking, editors cursing, Matty baying, and there would sit Kenney, a bemused, half-stoned, half-sly smile tracing his lips. To him they came with their problems and petty jealousies. To him—and only to him—they listened. "Doug," says Chris Miller, "was like type O blood. He went across the board." With few exceptions, he seemed to like, or at least tolerate, everyone, including, to the astonishment of the staff, even Matty, whom Doug came to regard almost as a substitute father. As an editor he was no less catholic in his tastes. Sitting across a desk—or, more typically, propped cross-legged on it—he was not so much a boss as the old coach, gently schooling the initiate in the fine art of comedic lobs and smashes. "Well, uh," he would fumble when he encountered a particularly ham-handed bit of prose. Then he would smile at the writer, drag deeply from an ever-present joint, joke about his own supposed ineptness, scratch himself, cough, and, with more body language than words, precisely pinpoint what was wrong, how to fix it, and often as not, do it, all the while giving the writer, however harebrained he might be, the ineluctable impression that it was his brilliance, and his alone, that was saving Doug Kenney's pitiable rag of a magazine. "You could write absolute crap," says former Lampoonwriter Brian McConnachie, "and he would respect it. Better yet, he would make you respect it." "When it came to editing," adds writer Michael O'Donoghue, "Doug was the master safecracker. He left no fingerprints."

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