The Cambridge Castle of Comedy

Inside The Harvard Lampoon , where getting in could be your ticket to Hollywood — or not
By MIKE MILIARD  |  November 2, 2006

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ON THE LAUGH TRACK: Today’s Lampoon members might be the future of American comedy.

“I have a summer castle out on the Cape,” says Harvard senior Kyle Berkman. “But for most of us, this is our only castle.”

He’s standing in the dusky, dark-wood-paneled, circular library of the Harvard Lampoon’s storied headquarters on Bow Street — you know, the ersatz-Flemish building whose domed roof, topped with a short spire upon which sits an ibis statue, makes it look a little like Kaiser Wilhelm on safari. And he’s being funny. Berkman, after all, is the Lampoon’s Sackbut. (Which, when you consult the masthead of the world’s oldest humor magazine, you discover is inferior in rank to the exalted triumvirate of President, Ibis, and Narthex, but superior to such titles as Hautbois, Sanctum, and Blot.)

Berkman’s got big shoes to fill. The Lampoon may be insular, an exclusive private club at an exclusive private college. It may be little read beyond Harvard Yard, if it’s even read there much anymore. And, oftentimes, it’s not even very funny. But its influence is immense. Its cachet huge. Depending on whom you ask, the Harvard Lampoon — and the National Lampoon juggernaut it spawned in 1970 — is singularly responsible for the seismic shift in American comedy since the mid ’60s. Certainly, at the very least it’s been a wellspring of writers and comedians, from the urbane (Updike, Plimpton) to the, uh, not so urbane. Animal House. Caddyshack. Saturday Night Live. Letterman. Conan. The Simpsons. All indelibly marked by the Harvard Lampoon.

But even as recent grads make their mark on TV (see Newton’s B.J. Novak, ’01, who writes for and stars in NBC’s The Office), one wonders what the Harvard Lampoon means these days. For a legendary magazine, an incubator for incisive satirists who’ve helped reshape American entertainment, the Lampoon can also seem like little more than a really cool place for privileged Ivy Leaguers to tie one on.

Anyway, why would a Harvard student want to read a magazine that comes out “about” five times a year, that has a negligible online presence, and that has been accused more than once of having an arcane, inside, haughty sense of humor, when they could get their yuks from a million other places?

Though maybe that’s taking things too seriously.

“Less a magazine, more of a belief system,” says senior Peter Limm, the Lampoon’s librarian. Asked to clarify, he pauses for a second. “I guess when we say something like that . . . ” His friend Alex Pearson chimes in: “It means we’ve been drinking.”

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TOWER OF PRIVILEGE: The castle decked out for Halloween.
Highfalutin society
On a recent Friday afternoon, hanging out in the castle library with eight of the Lampoon’s 30-some-odd members, not drinking, I ask them to talk about the club’s long history. Pearson pipes up. “Well, established in 1876 . . . George Santayana . . . Conan O’Brien . . . and, uh, that brings us to today.”

“It’s all been thrown in our face,” says current Lampoon president (and former Phoenix intern) Adam Moerder of the club’s long and illustrious list of accomplished alums.

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