Sam Gross, probably the most iconic of all the single-panel National Lampoon cartoonists, has died at the age of 89.
Sam’s work appeared in the magazine almost from the beginning, starting with the May 1970 Vol. 1, No. 2 (“Greed”) issue, and then regularly thereafter, well into the 1990s when it finally ceased publication.
He is probably best known to Lampoon readers for his “frogs’ legs” cartoon (above), which first appeared in the December 1970 Vol. 1, No. 9 (“Christmas”) issue. It appeared more prominently—and in color—on the cover of the album “That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick” (1975) and was later sold as an art print by the magazine.
Gross could be counted on to create some of the funniest and sometimes sickest cartoons in the magazine. And sometimes they were just plain weird in the funniest possible way. Here are some of my favorites:
(I wanted to post his “tampons from outer space” cartoon, but was unable to find it. If anyone knows which issue it appeared in, let me know in the comments below and I’ll add it here.)
Gross was incredibly prolific. The bulk of his cartoons were done for other magazines, particularly The New Yorker, but even for family-oriented publications like Parents. But his NatLamp work was Gross at his uncensored best.
Bruce McCall, a frequent contributor to National Lampoon in the seventies and into the eighties, has died at age 87.
McCall both wrote and illustrated most of his articles and was especially known for what he called “retro futurism”, which he described as a vision of the future seen through the eyes of the past.
It was, in fact, McCall’s work that first drew me in to reading National Lampoon when I was in high school. First from seeing one of his “Bulgemobile” pieces in one of the anthologies on a magazine rack at K-mart, and then on the cover of the first copy of the magazine I bought, the August 1973 “Modern Times” issue, for which he was the guest editor.
I must have spent hours poring over his Popular Workbench piece in that issue, a parody of a typical issue of Popular Mechanics c. 1938. My grandfather had piles of those magazines in his basement and I used to crack up reading them when I was a kid. All McCall really did was to turn it up a notch.
His work made fun of the techno-optimism of the mid-twentieth century. Comparing his artwork with the illustrations from 1930s issues of Popular Mechanics or Popular Science, they’re only a little bit more ridiculous, but McCall had a knack for pushing things over the edge into hilarious absurdity. His ’58 Bulgemobiles weren’t just longer and wider than normal cars, they took up two lanes and made the adults driving them look like children. He came from the automotive advertising world and did the same thing with the copy with lines like, “So All-Fired New They Make Tomorrow Seem Like Yesterday!” and “FIREBLAST! Twice the car you’ll ever need—and that goes double for the new four-door FunTop!”
Sean Kelly, editor of National Lampoon in the seventies and early eighties, has died at age 81.
Sean Kelly was involved with National Lampoon from nearly the start. His earliest byline appears in the July 1970 (Bad Taste) issue. He was soon on staff, eventually becoming Senior Editor in 1977 until he left the magazine in 1984.
A native of Montreal, Canada, Kelly was a radio actor, newspaper reporter, advertising writer, and English teacher before he was introduced to the magazine by early NatLamp contributor and fellow Canadian Michel Choquette.
He is perhaps best known for his talents as a lyricist and poet, penning such classics as “Overdose Heaven,” the James Joyce parody “Finnswake Again,” and the lyrics for well over half of National Lampoon‘s song parodies.
He collaborated often in the early years of the magazine with Choquette, Anne Beatts (also Canadian; also brought in by Choquette), and Tony Hendra. He and Hendra co-wrote and co-directed Lemmings, the magazine’s off-Broadway mock-rock concert and its first foray into show business.
On top of his responsibilities at National Lampoon, he became founding editor of Heavy Metal magazine in 1977. HM was sister publication to National Lampoon, and was essentially an English-language version of the French science-fiction/fantasy comic Metal Hurlant.
After leaving National Lampoon in 1984 (and even before), Kelly has wrote a vast number of books and did quite a bit of writing for television, particularly children’s television, and mainly for PBS, and has written for many other magazines, including Spy.
I met him briefly, at an event held for the launch of Rick Meyerowitz’ book Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, in 2010. He was shorter than I expected and seemed like a warm and friendly guy.
Obit: NYT, reposted here if you are unable to access it.
He began writing for the magazine in 1972, became executive editor in 1973, managing editor in 1976, and finally editor-in-chief from 1978 through 1981. As far as I know, he never contributed anything to NatLamp after 1981.
I was a fan of his work, especially earlier on, in the “golden age” of National Lampoon. This included his work on the fantastic 1964 High School Yearbook Parody and Sunday Newspaper Parody special issues. He seemed to specialize in topics that appealed to me as a male baby boomer, like cars, model kits, and anything to do with boyhood or adolescence (he was issue editor for the infamous and highest-circulation-ever October 1974 “Pubescence” issue featuring the classic Boy’s Life parody and sex-ed comics.). He often collaborated with Doug Kenney in the mid-seventies (including on the yearbook parody) and artist Alan Rose (First Model Car in the Pubescence issue and Battling Buses of World War II in The National Lampoon Encyclopedia).
O’Rourke was a bit of an outsider at the Lampoon, a mid-westerner in the midst of former Harvard Lampooners. But as some of the founders and early major contributors (Henry Beard, Doug Kenney, and Michael O’Donoghue in particular) left in the mid-seventies, O’Rourke took the reins alongside editors such as Gerald Sussman, Tony Hendra, and Sean Kelly, none of whom were Harvard Lampoon alums. Hendra, in his book Going Too Far, doesn’t seem to have liked O’Rourke much, characterizing him as a bit of a hack who often sided with NL publisher Matty Simmons. But I think this is partly because Hendra was a fairly left/liberal Brit who saw O’Rourke as a right-wing reactionary.
In fact, O’Rourke was a libertarian who criticized the right almost as much as he criticized the left.
To be honest, even though I have considered myself a libertarian since the eighties, I never paid much attention to O’Rourke’s post-Lampoon writing career, which, ironically, is what most people now know him for. This is probably because my embrace of libertarianism came after he was at the magazine, and much of his writing and the direction he was taking the magazine in the late seventies didn’t appeal to me at the time. His passing has reminded me of this gaping hole in my libertarian readings. I have some catching up to do.
R.I.P., Peej. If I were still a drinker, I’d raise a glass of fine Irish whiskey in your honor.
You may have noticed that, while I do provide listings (some of them detailed) for many issues of National Lampoon, they only cover the first five years of the magazine—1970–1975, or what I call the Golden Age. Obviously, the magazine continued to be published for another twenty plus years. So, my listings aren’t much help if you’re looking for something you remember from after the January 1975 issue.
Miguel Angel Ferreiro has come to the rescue with a comprehensive online listing of every issue of NatLamp that was published, from April 1970 (Sexy Issue) to November 1998 (Failure Issue). It’s maybe not as nicely formatted as mine, but it’s way more complete and will be a great help for those looking for an article they remember or who wish to wade through a time capsule of their misspent youth.
Miguel has split the listings into sections covering spans of several years. Click on these links for each section:
Anne Beatts, regular contributing editor in the early years of National Lampoon, has died at the age of 74. She was also one of writers of Saturday Night Live in its first few seasons and created the tv series Square Pegs in 1982. (NY Times obit here.)
She was born in upstate New York, but moved to Canada with her mother and attended McGill University. While working as an advertising copywriter in Montreal, she met writers Sean Kelly and Michel Choquette and became romantically involved with Choquette. The three of them began writing for National Lampoon in 1970 and 1971, Beatts sharing bylines with Choquette at first. Later, she and Micheal O’Donoghue paired up and the two of them left the magazine and went to Saturday Night Live.
One of her best known pieces in National Lampoon was the infamous Volkswagen ad parody (based on an idea by Phil Socci) in The Encyclopedia of Humor (1973). It showed a VW floating in water (real VW ads around this time actually used this gimmick) with the headline: “If Ted Kennedy had driven a Volkswagen, he’d be President today”. (Volkswagen sued because they used the VW logo.)
Interview with Anne Beatts on Maximum Fun from 2007: Part 1, Part 2
After leaving the magazine, he continued to be active in humor and comedy. In 1979, with Christopher Cerf and Peter Ebling, he wrote the book The ’80s: A Look Back, which presented a fictitious history of the eighties from the year 1990, and, a decade later, The ’90s: A Look Back. In 1983, he and Sean Kelly wrote Not The Bible, a parody of, you know, The Bible, and some other parodies, including Not The New York Times and Off the Wall Street Journal.
He wrote some other books that weren’t parodies or humor books, including the bestselling Father Joe in 2004. The only one I’ve actually read is Going Too Far (1987), which in many ways inspired me to make this website in the late nineties. Going Too Far was a history of what he termed “boomer humor” since it was dominated by baby boomers. This included things like anti-establishment comedians such as Lenny Bruce and Mort Saul, Second City, the Smothers Brothers, Woody Allen, National Lampoon, Saturday Night Live, and Animal House. In particular, this was the first in-depth history of National Lampoon that I’d ever read. I was already kind of a NatLamp nerd, but this book put it into high gear. This site probably wouldn’t exist otherwise.
Aside from writing, Hendra will also be remembered for his portrayal of the band manager Ian Faith in This Is Spinal Tap (1984). He was also the producer (with Matty Simmons) of the National Lampoon HBO special Disco Beaver From Outer Space in 1978 (but airing in 1979).
I came close to meeting Hendra a few times. Back when I worked as a graphic designer at Minnesota Public Radio and he was promoting Not The Bible in 1983, I saw him waiting in the lobby with Sean Kelly. I didn’t have the nerve to approach them. Another time was at the New York Public Library event to promote Rick Meyerowitz’s book Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead in 2010. Hendra was there with dozens of other former Lampoon alums, many of whom I did talk to, but I somehow never managed to talk to him.
Jerry Taylor, who was National Lampoon‘s associate publisher from 1971-72 and publisher from 1973-75 (the Golden Age) has died at the age of 85. He was also executive producer on most of the National Lampoon record albums, such as Radio Dinner and Lemmings. Aside from Lampoon stuff, he was creator, publisher and executive editor of the Harvard Lampoon parodies of People and Newsweek as well as parodies of Playboy, Cosmopolitan, and Rolling Stone, and was involved on a similar level with many other magazine-related things throughout his career.
Like many of the business staff at National Lampoon, he was sometimes used as a model in photo shoots. The most prominent example was the Kelly Girls parody from the November 1975 (“Work”) issue, where he was featured as an executive demonstrating the “Henry VIII desk” on the opening page.