The Simpsons: A Perfectly Cromulent Oral History, Part 1—Inside The Harvard Lampoon
The beginning of a series chronicling the making of the first decade of 'The Simpsons,' as told by its writing staff.
Picture the scene: Homer Simpson is dozing on his couch in a robe and slippers as his living room burns around him. The fire started when a cigar fell from his drooling mouth onto a pile of magazines and cables. Spreading through the power lines, the blaze reaches a large box in the basement, conspicuously labeled “oily rags,” and erupts to consume the house. After vainly attempting to remember the lyrics to a song about surviving such an event (“Something, something, then you’ll see, you’ll avoid catastrophe.”) Homer collapses from smoke inhalation.
Fortunately, Ned Flanders, his pious Protestant neighbor, is passing by outside. Homer has been rudely rejecting Ned’s efforts to sway him back to Christianity after abandoning the faith to start his own religion. Yet Ned kicks the front door down and enters the house, his compassion for Homer undimmed. Placing Homer on his shoulders, he begins to carry him out, but collapsed beams obstruct his path. Improvising, he drags Homer upstairs to his infant daughter’s bedroom, breaks a window, and heaves a mattress through it to the ground below. Lifting Homer up, he utters a prayer: “Dear Lord, may your loving hand guide Homer to the mattress square and true.” He shoves Homer through the window, but the mattress fails to cushion his fall, instead propelling Homer back into the living room as Ned watches exhaustedly.
It’s a perfect moment: hilarious yet unpredictable, informed equally by strong characterization and zany slapstick. And it encapsulates everything brilliant about The Simpsons, the first scene that comes to mind when I think of the show. Since 1989, the antics of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, Maggie, and their misfit peers in Springfield have placed middle America in a funhouse mirror, blending social satire with emotional drama to parody the post-Reagan United States. In one regard, “Homer the Heretic,” the episode in which that scene appears, is a sharply observed commentary on faith, institutions, and community. Beyond that, it is an exploration of family and friendship driven by the tensions created by Homer’s blasphemy. Throughout, it features a profusion of inspired gags. But what’s remarkable is that the same could be said of countless other episodes.
As The Simpsons presses on amid our bizarre cultural moment, defiantly confronting society’s new absurdities, even its oldest seasons continue to hysterically reflect real life. Before the turn of the millennium, more than 10 seasons were produced, each stylistically distinct. This was at the hands of perhaps the finest team of writers ever assembled in comedy, who built upon a foundation laid and subsequently deepened by series creators Matt Groening, Sam Simon, and James L. Brooks.
For those with an unhealthily keen interest in humor, the Simpsons writers’ room is Edenic; a mysterious workshop where miracles are made. Its existence from 1989 to 1999 can be divided into five individual eras determined by showrunner, and appreciating the differences between each showrunner’s approach is vital to understanding the development of the show. From 1989 to 1991, Groening, Brooks, and Simon served as executive producers on the series. Writers Al Jean and Mike Reiss succeeded them that year before stepping down in 1993, allowing Hollywood director David Mirkin to fill the role until 1995. Longtime writers Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein took over until 1997 and selected comedy veteran Mike Scully to take their place. He brought the decade to a close.
This series of articles will explore how the Simpsons writers’ room evolved in its first decade. In their own words, the writers who brought Springfield to life will chronicle the history of the show, the making of many memorable episodes, and the feeling of what it was like to shape the direction of the show. As it turns out, writing for The Simpsons was a rewarding but deeply unglamorous occupation, characterized as much by enclosed spaces and artery-jamming snack foods as witty repartee and close friendships.
The story of the writers’ room, however, does not begin at the Fox studio lot in Los Angeles. Before the original Simpsons writing team was assembled, many of the writers who would later shape the show’s sensibility honed their abilities as students at Harvard University, where they edited the undergraduate humor magazine, the Harvard Lampoon. The Lampoon has become America’s foremost training ground for aspiring comedy writers since its founding in 1876. Its building is a cartoon made corporeal; a mock-Flemish fortress decorated like a discarded set from The Wizard of Oz, featuring hidden passageways, a vast library, and a grand dining hall where Dadaist flags hang from the ceiling and items of comic ephemera line the walls. As much a secret club as a publication, non-members are excluded from the Lampoon’s interiors, and a secretive, rigorous application process prevents most hopefuls from joining its ranks. But tales of wild pranks, extravagant parties, and strange traditions have spread far beyond the boundaries of Cambridge, Massachusetts, captivating the imagination of comedy obsessives worldwide.
More than 20 full-time Simpsons writers from across the show’s history have served on the Lampoon, but it must be stressed that many writers of equal significance to the series either did not attend Harvard or received no higher education at all. Nonetheless, the atmosphere of the Simpsons writers’ room remains rooted in Lampoon culture; one cannot be understood without the other. In the first part of this series, alumni of The Simpsons and the Lampoon will provide an inside look at the enigmatic magazine and the culture that surrounded it. To begin, they recall what it was like to gain admission to Harvard in the first place.
When many of the early Simpsons writers applied to college in the 1970s and ‘80s, things were less demanding than today.
Jon Vitti (writer/producer, The Simpsons, 1989—2005): It came as news to me that I could even think about going to Harvard. When I took the SAT and the scores came back, a bunch of guidance counselors came to me and said that I could think about things like the Ivy League. I had never thought of myself as an Ivy League type. And that’s an odd thing about the Harvard Lampoon writers. The original group—the ‘80s guys, the guys who were on The Simpsons—we didn’t go to Lawrenceville or Eton or Andover. We were public school kids who did well on our SATs.
Jeff Martin (writer/producer, The Simpsons, 1990—1993): It wasn’t exactly easy to get into Harvard 40 years ago, but I don’t remember the kind of desperate, cutthroat competition you see now. I feel sorry for kids today. I had some interesting extracurriculars—putting on skits for pep rallies, summer job as a caricature artist—that I guess helped me stand out enough to get accepted.
Rich Appel (writer/producer, The Simpsons, 1994—1998): I have kids who are 27 and 21, so they’ve both been through the process. And it’s crazy just watching them and their friends with the prevalence of test prep and tutors and private college counselors. Then there are things that are available online to everyone that rank colleges, and all the research you can do now that you really couldn’t do when I was in high school. Back then you applied to the greatest hits. You knew that Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were the great schools. I think I applied to four or five colleges versus the 10 or 12 that a lot of my children’s friends apply to now. I knew it was a hard thing to do. And I was very excited when I got in.
Josh Weinstein (writer/producer, The Simpsons, 1992—1995; co-showrunner, 1995—1998): If you did well on your exams, had good grades, and did some interesting extracurriculars, you would probably get into some college of your choice. So I wasn’t too concerned and applied to a ton of colleges. I didn’t apply to Harvard—I went to Stanford because I wanted to get away from the East Coast, where I grew up in D.C. That was the only reason, and it was a bad reason.
Bill Oakley (writer/producer, The Simpsons, 1992—1995; co-showrunner, 1995—1998): I did not want to go to Harvard. Josh and I went to high school together—we were best friends and we worked on the school newspaper. At the end of junior year, the seniors decide who’s going to get what position. They didn’t give me the position I wanted, which was editor of the back page, so I was like, “F*** you guys, I’m starting my own magazine.” I had a book from one of the owners of National Lampoon about how to publish a magazine, and [Josh and I] did it. We sold ads, it was a huge success. And that was primarily what I hit upon in my application to Harvard. Doing alumni interviews over the past 20 years, I’ve discovered that what Harvard is looking for is people who are what they call “well lopsided.” A person with good grades, but also a person who has a specialty that they excel in, especially if it’s something unusual like being the world’s greatest trombonist or whatever, so that Harvard can go on and take the credit for it.
Josh Weinstein: Bill and I were both obsessed with college humor magazines. We knew the history of humor magazines at colleges like Harvard or Stanford. So when I visited every college as a prospective student, I would go by the humor magazine offices. When I visited Harvard I went on my own and knocked on the door of the Lampoon. This nice young guy opened the door and talked to me for a bit and gave me a bunch of magazines. That guy was Conan [O’Brien], who I think was president at the time. [O’Brien was a writer on The Simpsons from 1992—1993.] I also visited Stanford and talked to the people at the humor magazine there, The Stanford Chaparral, and really liked it. So the humor magazine was actually a determining factor of what college I would go to.
Rich Appel: I knew what the Lampoon was before I got to Harvard. By the time I was 14 I knew I was interested in writing comedy, but I didn’t have a clue how to pursue it as a career. I knew Harvard had a humor magazine, and you’d read about this ridiculous mock-Flemish castle that was built in the early 1900s, smack dab in the middle of Cambridge. I still say without any embarrassment, just because I was a part of it, that I don’t know a cooler student club or publication building in the country. So that added to its allure.
Steve Young (writer, The Simpsons, 1996; writer, Late Night with David Letterman, 1993—2015): In the true, WASPy power of Harvard, people from wealthy families just had the means to say, “You know what we should do? We should build a castle near Harvard Square and fill it with European antiques, and it’ll be our little place.” I became aware that the Lampoon was in this strange building, and I was intrigued by that, because I was kind of a funny kid in school. Harvard had the trappings of what it was like to be in The Great Gatsby or something from that era where people walked easily through these halls and felt that the world was for them. And it was fun to play-act with that. We knew it wasn’t true anymore. But having this amazing piece of architecture and just going into that castle was so much fun.
Dan McGrath (writer, The Simpsons, 1992—1994; producer, 1996—1998): I heard about the Lampoon as a kid while reading the Tolkien parody Bored of the Rings after I had just finished nerdishly reading the actual Lord of the Rings nerd books. These guys talked about hanging out in a castle at Harvard, and I thought it was an imaginary joke, just as I thought that Harvard was an imaginary, semi-fictional place. But when I got to Harvard in my first semester, I took one look at the castle and, being an arrogant obnoxious a**hole, I said to myself, “I’m going to take over that place.”
Jeff Martin: Someone in my freshman dorm was going to a Lampoon comp meeting and asked if I wanted to come along. I loved National Lampoon but didn’t know the connection. Information was hard to come by in those pre-internet days. I thought Harvard’s main comedy institution was something called “Hasty Pudding.” Andy Borowitz was Lampoon president then, and that immediately raised my interest because he had written and staged a really funny, professionally done sketch revue and was clearly going places.
Jon Vitti: The week before freshman year started, I was walking around campus and a very cool, hippie looking type guy—who later turned out to be George Meyer—was selling issues of the Lampoon for $1 a copy. [Meyer, one of the most revered comedy writers in history, was a writer and producer on The Simpsons from 1990—2005.] I had sort of heard of it and so I bought several issues. And he just went, “Hey, thanks buddy,” in a way that made me realize that the Lampoon is free, and George had stolen $3 from me. But then I got back to my dorm room and I started reading them. And a lot of pieces, especially George’s, I just thought were so brilliant. It was one of the very first things in college that called out to me, and it hadn’t been an expectation at all. I didn’t think of myself as a particularly funny person, and I was worried about coming out of college with a saleable skill.
“Sorry, no Homers.”
As attractive as the Lampoon was to many Harvard students, joining it was no easy task.
Bill Oakley: I had a miserable time my first three or four months at Harvard. I wanted to be in the Lampoon, but I arrived and immediately found you can’t just walk in to almost any of the extracurriculars at Harvard. You have to apply and go through this process. I had already done a lot of cartooning and I was pretty good at that, so I decided that I was going to comp through the art board.
David Sacks (writer/producer, The Simpsons, 1993—1995): There were three ways to get onto the Lampoon. One was on what they called the lit board—short for literature, meaning you’d write pieces—the other was through the art board, and there was also a business board where you could sell ads for the magazine. If you were a humor person, that was considered maybe not the premier way of getting on. It certainly was legitimate, but if you really loved humor, you’d want to get on through the lit board. I tried to get on through the business board, but I found that I was terrible at selling ads. I think I sold two, and one of those my father sold for me.
Bill Oakley: For the standard comp process we had then and that I think has returned, you’ve got to turn in six pieces. They’ve modified it dozens of times, but the canonical process for writing and art was you turn in three pieces, then there’s the first cut. You turn in three more pieces, then there’s a second cut. But then there’s the election, and that’s what it all culminates in. For business, you’ve got to sell a certain number of ads, and usually they take one or two people who sell the most dollar-value ads or get other things like trade deals for restaurants.
Josh Weinstein: The Chaparral doesn’t have a tryout process like that because so few people are interested. If anybody wants to work on the magazine you’re like, “Please do it!” The Lampoon’s comping process is very competitive because everyone wants to work on the Lampoon. But with the Chaparral you’re happy to get whoever because you know that if anybody actually wants to work on the Chaparral, they’re going to be a delightful weirdo. The people who aren’t right for it eventually drop out and you end up with a staff of men and women who really get along.
Bill Oakley: Back then, you’d bring your pieces in, you’d throw them on the floor of this living room space that’s old and weird, and the members would come in and read them and leave comments on the back. Depending on the member, the comments could sometimes be really brutal. We’d actually have to stop certain people from writing, because it doesn’t help to say, “You suck and you’re an a**hole” on the guy’s piece. Some of the comp directors would also have office hours where they would give you some advice and you could rewrite the piece perhaps. So everybody would read the pieces, make comments on the back, and then the comp directors would have their cut. During the election, the comp directors say, “Here are the people we recommend you vote for.” Presumably the members have read the pieces or looked at the art, and usually they vote for who the comp director recommends.
Dan McGrath: During the comp there was always a series of cuts where we got rid of the obvious unfunny non-starter types. If you made it past the cut, you received in the middle of the night a mysterious, highly engraved, very polite invitation to a private cocktail party in the castle library, with a scrawled, handwritten warning at the bottom: “BUSINESS SUITING. NO GUESTS!!!” That made me think, “I want to join these people, and then rule them!”
Jonathan Collier (writer/producer, The Simpsons, 1993—1997): I went straight to the Lampoon as a freshman. And I comped and I didn’t get in, which is very, very common. So you go there, you write your heart out, you do all this stuff, and then you get your heart broken. No one was outright nasty. And boy, it’s much kinder than the booming silence you often get out here when you submit something. At least someone was reading and responding. To a certain degree, these are all good, toughening exercises. It’s very competitive to get into a place like the Lampoon, but it’s also really, really hard to have a career out here. It was great preparation.
Dan McGrath: The comp is just hard because Harvard is hard: Nobody just gets to knock on the door of the castle and ask, “Hey, can I kinda-sorta join your magazine?” It’s just hard in the same way that being an Olympic gymnast is hard. Not everybody makes the cut. I was the comp director several times and I poured beer on people’s submissions and put out cigarettes on them, and wrote my comments in French and Japanese and insane stick-figure comix. You wanna go to community college, it’s right there down the street.
Bill Oakley: The election is not necessarily the last step in the process. It ends with Phools’ Week, which is basically the equivalent of a fraternity hell week where you have to do all this stuff. There’s a lot of learning about the history of the place, there’s performances, and there are pranks too.
Dan McGrath: Phools’ Week is not at all cruel or brutal, it’s actually extremely funny and silly. It mimicked some of the easier tropes of a bad frat boy initiation, but it was actually a sort of crash course in the theory and practice of comedy. You learn more about writing in a week of Phools’ Week than you do in a whole year of film school.
Steve O’Donnell (writer, The Simpsons, 1998; writer, Late Night with David Letterman, 1993—1996): The initiation is time-honored hazing; I don’t know how much of it has persevered. You learn a filthy limerick that involves your own last name; I think they have phased that out. Some of them were quite clever and some of them were not. Then you have to do things. You would sometimes get very obscure little tasks like, “Phool O’Donnell, by five o’clock today, I want you to bring me a bag of horehound drops. And if you don’t, you’re going to get demerits in your little black book.” First of all, you have to find out what that is, and it turns out it’s some ancient candy that can only be purchased at some 240 year old Boston apothecary. But you would do it.
Jonathan Collier: It was tremendous fun for four days or something that kind of took me out of my regular run of classes. Suddenly it was just this heavy immersion. You and all the other people in your group were pretty much expected to spend the whole day at the castle doing skits and sketches and pranks, and to some degree learning about the magazine’s history and all the illustrious people who had come out of it. It was kind of an immersion into the possibilities of the place, but also just really trying to make a cohesive group out of the people who were all coming in. The hope was that you come out of it feeling like you’re a group that’s learned to trust each other in the dark hours of confusion.
Steve O’Donnell: There was a little bit more mystic mumbo jumbo: candles and “Why are there no mirrors in the Lampoon?” and that kind of thing. Some of the iconography of the Lampoon is a skull and the word “vanitas.” What is above satire? Do we not take life seriously and make fun of it because it all ends in death and oblivion? When you’re 18 or 19, you go like, “Yeah, wow.” And then later you realize that no one ever cared about that stuff; it was just to f*** with the Phools.
Students who successfully comped the Lampoon were rewarded with a place in a bizarre, robust social scene.
Steve Young: After Phools’ Week I was sworn in by Conan O’Brien—there was an actual oath you had to take—and signed a book of some sort. And I felt like, “I’ve really accomplished something.” I don’t know if this is 100 percent going to be the path for the rest of my life. But I have a strong feeling it could be.
Bill Oakley: David Cohen and I were both freshmen and we became friends during the comp process. [Cohen was a writer and producer on The Simpsons from 1995-1999.] We both got on when Conan was president and then I was like, “Okay, now I’ve found the place.” This is the best thing I’ve ever been involved in. This is the only thing about Harvard that I like. And I spent my entire Harvard career in the Lampoon doing Lampoon stuff, and in many cases barely holding on to my enrollment. I actually ended up doing pretty well at the end, but I was almost kicked out twice for either bad grades or for disciplinary things in the process.
Jeff Martin: I got on the Lampoon towards the end of my freshman year, and instantly went from being perfectly fine to being very, very happy. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by a bunch of people whose abiding obsession was comedy. I met Mike Reiss, Al Jean, Jon Vitti, Tom Gammill, Max Pross, John Bowman, Pam Norris, Andy Borowitz—all good friends to this day. When somebody really makes you laugh it’s like falling in love, and everyone was extremely quick and funny, eager to crack jokes and riff on silly premises for hours.
Rich Appel: You’d go to your classes in the morning to the early afternoon, generally. But I think a lot of us got in the habit of by midafternoon just spending much of the rest of the day at the castle, going over to some nearby dorm or house for dinner. But people would watch movies in the castle. We were writing pieces and producing a magazine, it was always a part of what was going on, but rarely a dominant part of it. It was a lot of social time and just hanging out in one room or the other. There was a humor-themed library that you could poke around in if you were curious. And there was wonderfully cool stuff there. But it was just fun and low pressure and a great way to sharpen yourself just by being up against your friends in a friendly way. We’d hang out and have beer. You felt like you could be yourself and come up with ideas that might seem silly.
Jon Vitti: It really felt like we were a bunch of nerds who found each other, and to a large extent we hid out in the Lampoon and watched TV shows together. I think everyone learned a lot from the marathon TV watching sessions. I hadn’t even been a huge Brady Bunch fan as a kid. But every day at five, Channel 38 in Boston would show an hour of The Brady Bunch and there was a daily Brady Bunch club for people who probably should have been doing their reading but instead were analyzing the logical problems in the show. It was something you thought that only you had noticed, and finding a group of really smart, really funny people who had spent their childhoods the same way I think was hugely formative.
Jonathan Collier: This was the ‘80s and we had one of the only VCRs that could actually show tapes. That was a huge thing. No one could afford a VCR.
David Sacks: I wouldn’t say I lived inside of it but I was pretty much there every day. It really was a training ground for television writing because the repartee was very fast and very smart. You really had to have that ability to keep up with these comedic minds. And that type of rapid-fire banter is the stock and trade of writing rooms in Hollywood. So in a very sort of unexpected way, by just hanging out and having conversations with the people there, you were being trained to write for television shows.
Jeff Martin: Lampoon writers develop the same way you get better at a sport, by practicing but also by coming up against people who are better than you. I suppose I was the top comedy writer at my high school, but then I don’t recall anyone else vying for the position. Comping forces you to sharpen your game, as hack jokes are mocked mercilessly. Then you read pieces in old issues by people like Patty Marx and Jim Downey and George Meyer and realize you have to bring up your game.
Josh Weinstein: Working on the Chaparral from day one gave me everything I needed to know about working on a collaborative comedy enterprise. From working really late hours to working with people you really like, and also just going for it while other people may hate you or dislike what you’re doing. That was my most valuable college experience.
David Sacks: The Lampoon really had all the trappings of a club—it was very difficult to get in and then there were all these traditions and private aspects to it—but it wasn’t a club. The reason why I’m emphasizing that point is because Harvard did have clubs called Final Clubs, and they’re very socially elite organizations. There’s several of them and they all have different personalities. This one is for very wealthy Europeans. This one is for people whose ancestors came over to America on the Mayflower. This one is for the sons of corporate titans. The Lampoon was sort of like the anti-club in a way. It was just this electro magnet for weirdness, just oddballs and people who really didn’t fit in anywhere. I had a fantastic time.
Bill Oakley: The Final Clubs have all these glamorous parties where everyone’s in tuxedos and stuff like that. The Lampoon has those parties where everyone wears a tuxedo—or an evening dress if they’re a woman—but it’s not that type of people. It’s a type of people with our sensibility, including some of the biggest weirdos, outcasts, and freaks you’ve ever met wearing tuxedos and drinking martinis. It’s so fun to have that, and for many of those people it’s the only experience of their life like that where you, being the weirdo you are, get to live this glamorous lifestyle.
Dan McGrath: The main thing to understand about that whole kooky atmosphere was this: Lots of top-line colleges and universities in America select mainly for academic and intellectual excellence. But Harvard is a bit unique in that it selects for both academic excellence and also a kind of temperamental arrogance and self-confidence which can often border on being obnoxious or pathological. Everybody at Harvard, as the old joke goes, is a legend in their own mind.
Bill Oakley: One thing that is very different now is that for the past 30 years, everybody’s been extremely concerned about insurance liability. So the people who were in charge of the Lampoon, the board of trustees, have reduced or eliminated a lot of the really fun stuff because they’re terrified of being sued. During the ‘80s, the trustees were basically absent or came once a year to make sure that we were paying the gas bill or whatever. And so it was the clowns running the circus to the best possible extent. The culture of Harvard also changed. The administration had kind of a “boys will be boys” attitude back then, which is unkosher today. But one of the deans of Harvard came to all the parties and was the person who got us off the hook for stuff. That was the way things probably operated from the 1930s all the way up to about 1990.
Steve Young: It was sort of the middle class kids of the 1980s play-acting at being rich masters of the universe from a century before. Before the parties, we would have these lavish, banquet-style dinners on very long tables. It was traditional to, at the end of the dinner, throw your crockery down onto the stone floor of the great hall and smash the plates and glasses and throw everything around, and food would be thrown wildly in all directions.
Jonathan Collier: Having to dress up in black tie every month for a dinner was a huge thing. You don’t normally do that at the age of 19 and throw all your plates on the floor. It was the excess and the volume of it. The fact that we would pull out all the stops for the parties. We indulged our own antisocial tendency, our own weirdness.
Dan McGrath: [We would] really smash everything, but somehow casually, almost as an afterthought, without any sense of violence or aggression. This always surprised the dinner guests. I brought a couple of girlfriends to these dinners who didn’t know what was about to happen, and suddenly after I had finished eating I would sort of shrug and then throw the plate across the room and smash it, and all the other members did too. Outsiders didn’t know it was going to happen, and they were a little, um, surprised.
Steve O’Donnell: The cooking was done by members, and while I was there it was very fortunate how good the cooks were. Someone generally wears a jester costume and runs around the castle during the dinner. I remember one time when my brother Mark was doing it, he would actually step in people’s plates while he was running up and down the table. It was anarchic, but it was some combination of the medieval and the Dada.
Lobster was a signature dish. In fact, the first time I ever ate lobster was at my Lampoon initiation dinner. It had to be explained to me how to eat it, and the guy sitting next to me happened to be the first Mormon I ever met, from Salt Lake City, Utah. He explained what part I could eat and what part I should leave alone. And I’m still friends with that guy. That was one of the first restaurant meals I had as the pandemic began to wind down: We met and I had lobster as a little tribute.
Josh Weinstein: The Chaparral doesn’t have wild parties, but it does have a secret society founded in 1906 that you can get on if you’re a really hard Chaparral worker. There were a number of members of the Chaparral secret society who were also members of Bohemian Grove. There’s no great conspiracy, no great control of any industry at all, but it’s a secret society that every year would have a banquet. And that was really great, because as somebody who’s 18 or 19, you get to meet people in their 50s and 60s who have since gone on to have whatever careers, but still gather every year for a banquet because that magazine meant so much to them. And they’re really funny people.
Bill Oakley: There was a lot of dancing on these tables that were slick with melted butter from the lobster. Everybody I know fell off and got injured at one point. I fell off and bit a big hole in my lip. David Cohen I think fell off and had a concussion. In the castle, it was a complete free space.
Dan McGrath: There was a rule that non-members who were not invited dinner guests could never come upstairs into the prexy, the great hall, or the ibis room. But there was an unspoken (and quite true) rumor that the back window of the sanctum on the ground floor was always left unlocked, and that girls who were enterprising enough to climb through and sneak in would be welcome upstairs. You’d be surprised at the number of famous Hollywood actresses (who will of course remain unnamed) who took us up on the offer, snuck in through the window, and received a very courteous reception. It was all very civilized: We were always impressed by anybody who could figure out an ingenious way to get upstairs, and we usually had drinks on hand for them.
Rich Appel: I will flash ahead 20 some odd years to my son, who was also a member of the Lampoon. He texted his mother and me at 10 p.m. one night when we were at a dinner, which was 1 a.m. ET: “I’m all right, but I’ve broken my wrist.” He stepped onto a table and it was just waxed, and fell onto a hard tile floor and landed right on his wrist. So he was in a cast for a couple of months. At one point they had a mantle where someone danced and fell off, and they literally took down the mantle because no one honored the rule of no dancing.
Dan McGrath: The music at the dinners was nearly always classic Motown/Hitsville USA, old R&B and Sun Studios, and classic ‘60s/‘70s soul. The two standardly-required songs were Smokey Robinson’s “Tears of a Clown” and “Baby Love” by the Supremes. Even though many of us were punk rockers and avant-garde music weirdos by inclination, it seemed like the classics were more in order. Although Conan used to do an extremely funny parody version of that 1980s German song “99 Red Balloons”: “Everyone is very mad! The world is crazy, bombs are bad!”
Steve O’Donnell: You’d wander around and at some point in the evening, 1:00, 2:00, or 3:00 a.m., somebody would go by covered in blood because there’d been flying glass or they’d fallen off something. Luckily there were no serious injuries when I was there, but I do remember walking around on one occasion, looking down at my own hands and going, “Oh, I’m the bloody one tonight.”
Bill Oakley: The police would almost always come because the neighboring dormitories across the street, or even public buildings, would call about music blasting at three in the morning. Sometimes the fire alarm would go off and the fire department would come. There was always singing—generally sometime late at night the staff would gather on the front steps and sing the songs that we all learned during the initiation loudly and that would annoy the s**t out of people in the neighboring buildings. They’d open their windows and hurl stuff at us.
Steve Young: At one point I had the elected office of sanctum, which meant I had to take care of the building. And this meant largely arranging for electricians or cleaners or whatever people to come in and just keep on top of the repairs. But I did a fair amount of maintenance myself where I could. We had these chandeliers that actually had candles, they weren’t electric. So before a big party you’d have to put all the new candles in. At one point I was up on a ladder, taking out the stubs and cleaning off the globs of wax. And I saw what looked like a very large, dirty blob of melted candle wax. It turned out it was a piece of fried chicken that had been launched into the chandelier several weeks before and had just mummified there. So that was the sort of debris you might deal with.
“If you were running for mayor, he’d vote for you.”
Like most undergraduate organizations, the Lampoon had a variety of leadership positions. Some were conventional, others less so.
Jon Vitti: There was an election for Lampoon president, and for the other staff roles. We took it so seriously. When you look back now, the elections and the comps were so brutal. We really should have relaxed. I think it probably served us well in the long run that comedy was an incredibly serious matter to us at age 18, but they were such high pressure events. There was a point where I ran for president of the Lampoon against Mike Reiss, who’s one of the most perfect comedy talents of my generation. If we could do it again, I would vote for Mike Reiss. But it probably helped me learn the business to do those things. The best people, somebody like Mike Reiss, was always going to have a great career as a comedy writer; he could have not gone to college at all. He just has a gift. But then a lot of the rest of us benefited so much by being around those guys.
Josh Weinstein: At the Chaparal you have the editor in chief, the assistant editor, the art editor, the business manager who’s in charge of selling ads. I was the editor in chief, and it was a business. We got a small amount every year from Stanford’s student government, but the rest was made on ad sales. So it really did teach you about running a comedy business because we had to sell a certain number of ads to publish a glossy magazine a couple times a semester.
Jeff Martin: I was elected Lampoon president, same as Vitti, Reiss, Meyer, and O’Brien. The job involves overseeing production of the magazine. You go off into another room while people vote, but anyone who “ran” for the office would be laughed out of the room.
Jonathan Collier: I was the sackbut, so I was in charge of buying the liquor. I think it probably meant a lot to people’s careers and their pride if they were president, but I don’t go around telling everyone that I was the sackbut of the Harvard Lampoon.
David Sacks: I was elected to a new post, which was called librarian. I found out years later that this has now become a prestigious post. But when I was elected to it, it was a very sorry post, sort of like, “Okay, I guess we’ll make you an officer, but not because we really want to.” I think they just felt sorry for me. If you can think of any shred of a responsibility that might have been involved you are already way off the mark.
I tried to become president the first year Conan was elected. Conan was elected for two terms. It was usually at the end of the junior year when they had the elections and then you’d be president as a senior. But Conan ran as a sophomore, which was very unusual. And he got elected, which is even more unusual, and then he ran again as a junior and got reelected. I think he was the first person in 100 years or something like that that had been elected president twice after Robert Benchley. It was well deserved, and everybody knew that Conan was a superstar.
“Then we roll him up in a carpet and throw him off a bridge!”
Over the years, the Lampoon has gained particular notoriety for its campus pranks.
David Sacks: I was part of the prank Conan orchestrated where we stole Burt Ward’s Robin costume. His feelings were so hurt. It was so sad. After we took it, I always remember he was like, “There’s a time to kid and a time not to kid. Give me back my suit.” It was so typically Lampoon. Burt Ward was visiting campus to give a speech. One of the big lecture halls called the Science Center had seats for hundreds and hundreds of people. And a lot of Lampoon guys, just to make some extra cash, had become campus security guards. So some of the guys who had the uniform, which was just a shirt, showed up, and the idea was that someone would hit the little keypad to shut out the lights so it would be black in the room. Then someone would whisk in, take the costume, and the lights would go back on.
But what would trigger the person to shut off the lights—and I came up with this line, so I was very proud of it—was that someone else would stand up in the middle of the speech and ask Burt Ward, “When is a security guard not a security guard?” like the Riddler. Then the lights were supposed to go out. So someone asked it, and then someone else started punching at the keypad and nothing happened, because we were all absolutely incapable of pulling anything off right. Someone just sort of fumbled up and picked up the suit right in front of his eyes. And he just assumed, since it was a security guard, that they were putting in a safe place.
Jon Vitti: I remember trying to trick Bill McKibben, the editor of the Crimson [Harvard’s college newspaper and the Lampoon’s historic rival], into printing some false story that he totally wasn’t fooled by. He later became one of the great environmental writers of our time. And there was an hour in his life where he had to sit in a room with me doing my terrible college junior attempt of trying to get him to print a fake article. I don’t think I came close.
Rich Appel: I was also an editor of the Crimson, so people accuse me of being a double agent. It was still in the day of landlines, and at one point a group of Lampoon editors went into the Crimson and unscrewed all the receivers so that they would answer the phone and no one could hear the people on the other end, and they’d be yelling until they figured that out.
Steve O’Donnell: We had a celebrated cellist perform a free concert that we advertised in a public park in Cambridge. But it was supposed to be experimental new music which included a couple of us backing him up by throwing fireworks into a garbage can and breaking bottles. It did draw a crowd because people thought, “Oh, a free concert.” When you’re an undergrad, you think you’re almost a grown up. But when you’re pulling these stunts and one of you is dressed like Jesus while someone else is dressed like Buddha and you’re having a showdown in front of the college library, no one thinks, “Oh, this is really something.” They just go, “Oh, look, it’s two 19 year olds being morons.”
Josh Weinstein: We tried, very ineffectively, to play pranks at the Chaparral. Berkeley—which is a great school, I wish I’d gone there—is the rival of Stanford because it’s the other really smart school in the Bay Area. And Berkeley, at least at the time, had a humor magazine called The Pelican, which had been around since the 1900s. So at one point—I think it was around the time of the stupid rivalry called Big Game, where Stanford plays Berkeley in football and nerds like me could care less—we tried to break into the Pelican offices but couldn’t. There was a statue of a pelican outside, and someone found one of those big cement hand rollers they use to pat down grass and tried to run it over. Obviously, that didn’t work. And then we just left. So that was our one prank that accomplished nothing, which is probably good because we ended up not doing anything illegal.
“Those magazines create a dangerous amount of laughter.”
Although scripts on The Simpsons were always collectively rewritten, Lampoon writers tended to craft their jokes independently.
Jeff Martin: The writing for the magazine was sporadic, and mostly done on one’s own. Unlike a Simpsons episode, the person with the “written by” credit actually wrote it.
Bill Oakley: There’s five issues per year. Not always, but there’s supposed to be. Each issue is assigned generally by the president or the executive board to one person to be the editor of. The editor says, “This is going to be the science issue.” He chooses the theme. And then the writers write pieces if they want to. Artists are either assigned to draw or draw whatever they want. And the issue editor is the person in charge of that. There wasn’t very much collaborative writing like there was on The Simpsons. You handed in your piece and then the person editing the issue edited it a little bit. There were very few occasions when people would work together, at least during that era. Usually we’d just have a meeting to go over ideas.
Josh Weinstein: At the Chaparral it’s less collaborative when you’re writing a piece. But where it does get collaborative is with the actual layout of the magazine. In the ‘80s, there were computers, but you didn’t really do layout on the computer. You actually had to cut and paste the article and then put it out with art. So the senior editors, and I know this is true on the Lampoon, would be either in the basement of the Lampoon or layout room of the rundown Chaparral offices, and you’d be together with anyone who worked hard on a magazine, maybe six or seven people, for two or three days straight putting the magazine together. We didn’t want to do cheap, topical campus humor like, “Let’s make fun of food service” or, “Let’s talk about different types of dorms.” We wanted each magazine issue to have a theme. One was about kids, one was about food, one was about farming, and everything within an issue had to do with that topic. We wanted it to stand the test of time. That’s a great rule for The Simpsons, too. We were told when we started that because each episode takes like a year to produce, you can’t really do topical humor. But that’s what helps make The Simpsons so timeless.
Bill Oakley: The Lampoon is not very good. If you read it as a civilian, it’s pretty crummy. It’s a pretty amateur hour publication. And it’s because, first of all, the people are learning—a lot of the material that appears in the magazine are actually comp pieces—and it’s not really written to appeal to a broad audience. We wanted big tent ideas that would appeal to a giant audience. When Dan Greaney was president in my junior year we did a parody of USA Today, which was a huge, huge deal. [Greaney has been a writer and producer on The Simpsons since 1997.] Whereas with the magazine you can be as niche as you want, because it’s only distributed on the Harvard campus. And most people don’t even read it.
Steve Young: USA Today had only in recent years become a very dominant national newspaper with all its very identifiable graphic designs and tropes and motifs. We wrote the parody over the summer, and the company actually helped us lay it out and produce it so it looked dead-on correct. That was a very satisfying thing. The summer projects were a cut above the regular magazine because we were reaching nationally.
Steve O’Donnell: My twin brother and I did a parody of Sports Illustrated, in which we portrayed two conjoined twin brothers who played sports but at different colleges. One of us was out sick for the season, so there was a stage photograph of me in a football uniform pushing my way down to the gridiron while Mark was in a gurney, attached to my side, rolling down the field. There were a lot of embarrassing photo sessions for that.
Dan McGrath: I did a summer project with Conan, Greg Daniels, and Lauren MacMullan where we wrote an insane computer game at a time when gaming was still just becoming popular, but was not yet huge in the way it is now. The genre almost did not exist back then (I was designing computer games and interfaces at MIT at the time, so I was aware of the limitations). What we came up with was actually far too complicated and far too disturbing for the programmers to handle at the time, and frankly I think it scared the publishing company, which backed away slowly. Ask somebody at Simon & Schuster about Jamblicus the Clown and watch them hide under their desks.
Jon Vitti: The summer projects are very happy memories. There was one where we just had no money and we had to sleep in the castle for three weeks. It was really depressing. But somebody staked us to enough money where we could rent a little house for law school students, and around five of us shared the house for the summer. We went to Fenway Park at night and played softball when we were done with our pieces. It was a really special experience. I’m not comfortable saying they learned so much from me. I can definitely say I learned so much from them. It was a non-random thing that a lot of us from one place wound up in the business. It wasn’t just people hiring each other.
Jonathan Collier: Jim Downey was the first Lampoon writer to, in 1975 or so, go down and work on Saturday Night Live. There was no thought that you were going to go off and be a TV writer if you were on the Lampoon before that, but then it started to be a thing. It ultimately became a pre-professional school while we were there.
Jeff Martin: Everything [on TV] seemed to be coming from an older generation’s sensibility. Then Saturday Night Live debuted and that felt like our show, created by people who grew up staring at the small screen. We were all acutely aware that Jim Downey was working on SNL, then Tom Gammill and Max Pross got hired there immediately after graduating [in 1979]. That really sharpened the focus; guys I actually knew, only a few years older, landing what seemed like the coolest job in the world. Then Late Night with David Letterman came on, staffed mostly with Lampoon people, and the gold rush was on. I feel sorry for the Lampoon generation before me, bunch of doctors and lawyers.
David Sacks: When I got on, I started writing pieces with Rob LaZebnik, who became my writing partner. The two of us decided that we wanted to apply for jobs out in Hollywood together. When we applied, we were the first from our class—the class of ‘84—to get a job in Hollywood. Before then, it was one per class—Andy Borowitz, Gammil and Pross, Downey. The dam hadn’t broke yet in terms of the sheer volume of people going up. And so when Rob and I got our job, it was like, “Wow, we’re another example.” And then like 98 other people joined us. We got a chance to feel special for about three minutes.
Rich Appel: When I was there, it was around the period that the Lampoon itself started to be something of a credit in trying to get an agent or even a job in Hollywood. It was just around that period a few years before I arrived that people like Al Jean and Mike Reiss left Harvard and got jobs with Johnny Carson. In my class , Conan O’Brien and Greg Daniels became writing partners and went out to LA, got jobs to pay the rent, eventually got a job on an HBO show, and then went to Saturday Night Live. And they were my exact contemporaries. We had a little bit of a grass is greener thing. I went to law school after college, and when I was working as a prosecutor, they would sometimes come down to see trials and thought it was really cool. And I’d go to Saturday Night Live occasionally and think, “Oh, I want to do that.”
In 1987, as Lampoon alumni descended on California, the Simpson family appeared on television for the first time in a series of shorts on The Tracey Ullman Show. The shorts proved so popular that creators Matt Groening and James L. Brooks—alongside producer Richard Sakai, Hollywood veteran Sam Simon, and writers Jay Kogen and Wally Wolodarsky—began to discuss adapting them into a standalone show. The Fox Broadcasting Company was receptive and production commenced. Two years later, on December 17, 1989, The Simpsons premiered to the second highest rating in the network’s history. Throughout its first season, the show honed its sensibility and consumed American culture. By the time season two debuted in October 1990, it had become a phenomenon. The next article in this series will explore these formative years.