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Editor's Choice: The Best of the Harvard Lampoon

"The Best of the Harvard Lampoon; 140 Years of American Humor" with an Introduction by Simon Rich, Touchstone, 254 pages, $26.

The BEST of the Harvard Lampoon? Really? I think not.

The book is certainly representative and and fascinating and chronological but this doesn’t have the ruthlessly “elitist” earmarks of a “Best” of anything but rather a protective presentation of a famous cultural “brand.” Even so, information is not easy to come by here. You would think it would be more prominently forthcoming but it isn’t. Nowhere in this book will you find the actual names of those who edited the book i.e. chose the particular selections used from the Harvard Lampoon’s 140 Years of existence. Obviously, the Lampoon “brand” comes first. Nor is there any attempt to answer the feloniously obvious question “why the devil did an anthology of this sort take so long to appear?”

In Simon Rich’s introduction, he is drolly  eager to let us in on the “knowledge” that “the biggest change in the Lampoon’s history, aside from its decision to let in Irish people, was its shift to television writing. Since the 1970’s, Lampoon alumni have written for....'SNL,’ ‘Late Night With David Letterman,’ ‘The Simpsons,’ ‘Seinfeld,’ ‘Friends,’ ‘30 Rock,’ ‘The Office,’ ‘Parks and Recreation,’ ‘Girls,’ ‘The Mindy Project’ ‘Futurama’ and many bad ones which we won’t bring up.”

Let’s not even mention a genuinely disreputable (and brilliant) little thing called “The National Lampoon” which sprang from Harvard’s answer to Punch and once featured a cover with a little dog cowering with a gun aimed at its head and the line “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Shoot This Dog.” So who’s included (all, with their middle initials,): George Plimpton, Fred Gwynne, John Updike, George W. S. Trow, Ian Frazier, Patricia Marx, Walter Isaacson, Kurt Andersen, Andy Borowitz, Shannon Gaughan, Conan O’Brien, and B. J. Novak, among others. A fair amount of this warrants the dismissal often reserved for “undergraduate” writing. But then no one would be the least surprised by a 1954 Updike story that began thusly: “Although Fred Calder’s Service Station and Ford Agency was a place everybody in town stopped by from time to time during the day, Fred himself was often lonely.”

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