It sounds like the set-up for a joke: at an illustrious Ivy League University, famous for taking itself seriously, one student magazine's staff devotes itself to publishing parody, pulling pranks and causing general mayhem. Yet here's the punchline: 142 years after its founding, The Harvard Lampoon, remains as relevant as ever, the wellspring of so much comedy in America today. Over the years, the Lampoon has changed in some ways: a long-time male preserve, three of its last five presidents have been women. In other ways, it has stayed true to its roots, poking fun at the powerful - including the current occupant of the Oval Office, the recent victim of a sly Lampoon prank. While their straight-laced and straight-faced classmates may aspire to become Supreme Court justices, hedge fund titans, and curers of cancer, for a core group of Harvard undergrads, the Lampoon offers vocational training for careers as comedy writers. We got a rare glimpse inside the place this winter and caught up with some of the Lampoon's cast of characters, past and present.
A winter night in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As the temperature drops, a line of undergraduates forms outside the castle at 44 Bow Street.
This is the headquarters of the Harvard Lampoon, part comedy magazine, part secret society…and these students want in.
Akin to rushing a fraternity, the pledges are called compers, for the competencies they'll have to demonstrate before landing a spot on the magazine staff and literally scoring keys to the castle. The first test: can they make their upperclassman judges laugh?
Our cameras were invited into the castle library to watch upperclassmen put compers on the spot. And, right off the bat, Lampoon staffers seized the opportunity to poke fun at us, too. Using a fake microphone, they subjected compers to spoof TV news interviews, prodding them to tell their best stories and playfully reminding them of our presence.
But the real criteria for admission here: applicants must be funny on paper. They submit six pieces of humor writing, to be critiqued by Lampoon members, including Liana Spiro, current Lampoon president.
Liana Spiro: It's a whole semester of writing comedy and then having other people earnestly read it and spend a lot of time, you know, telling you what they think about it. I believe in it strongly. I think people are funnier by the end.
But only the funniest survive. Out of about a hundred pledges last semester, six compers made the cut. The semester before that, only three. The initiated will see their name on the masthead of the Harvard Lampoon, an eclectic periodical, full of original illustrations and niche advertising. One recent issue on the theme 'Just Friends'—those two words no college kid ever wants to hear—includes a dialogue piece on chance encounters, a comic about phone etiquette and – in a typical random beat – an ode to TV meteorologists.
The Lampoon is published five times a year, with a circulation barely extending beyond Harvard's gates. Members are under no illusions about the magazine's impact.
Liana Spiro: There's a sense here that we are writing the magazine for ourselves and that no one is reading it. And that, I think actually, is one of the most beautiful things about the Lampoon. That we feel like no one is watching and we can just dance however we want.
Jon Wertheim: You're doing this for yourself. Not the kid across the hall or the kid in the dining hall.
Liana Spiro: Yeah, we could print you know five copies of the magazine. And it would still be worthwhile and I think everyone would still be here just as much trying to be just as funny.
Officially, members major in everything at Harvard from math to poetry but the Lampoon is their real area of concentration. Take Alice Ju, philosophy student and former Lampoon president.
Jon Wertheim: What percent of your time here at Harvard is devoted to the Lampoon versus regular school work?
Alice Ju: Like 99% Lampoon and then 1% sleep I guess. And then 0% regular school work.
Jon Wertheim: I'm sure your parents are pleased to hear that.
Alice Ju: Yeah, I mean they've already given up, so. I have a younger sister who will be like, doing all the right things while I do this.
Most aspire to a career in comedy—and the Lampoon serves as their first writer's room. Just as iron sharpens iron, you might say that here, irony sharpens irony. The Lampoon has a rich history of deploying that irony in special edition parodies of other publications. Name a popular magazine, and be assured it's been the victim of a Lampoon send-up. This parody of Cosmo – complete with Henry Kissinger centerfold – endures as a classic in the genre. Their latest is an absurdist parody of Harvard's daily student newspaper, The Crimson, but that's just the physical product.
Pranks – cooking them up and then carrying them out - are as much a part of the Lampoon tradition as actual humor writing. Lampoon staff invited us to see how it's done. We watched as they fanned out across campus, taking that parody issue and scheming to swap it out with the real Crimson. It's the kind of thing they live for.
For decades, the Crimson has been the butt of Lampoon hijinks. Liana Spiro's crowning achievement so far, when Mark Zuckerberg returned to Harvard to give a commencement address, she hacked into the Crimson's website.
Liana Spiro: We wrote up hundreds of these fake headlines about Mark Zuckerberg in the silliest comedic tone possible, extremely dumb. Basically the crux of the humor was just changing his name to like Mink Singletock like, over and over again.
Our amusement went unshared by the Harvard Crimson.
Jon Wertheim: How upset were they?
Liana Spiro: They were fairly upset. My roommate is actually on the Crimson. And this was the only time that she really was upset at me. She had worked, you know, weeks on a very long piece, like 10,000 words about some corner of Harvard's administration. And then I had worked, you know, two hours on some headlines about Mink Zinkletonk.
Liana Spiro: But I'm super pro pranking them all the time.
Every once in a while, the Lampoon will pull off a prank so bold, it achieves comic glory. And Tom Waddick, currently a senior, may have set the new standard. This one started late one night. Waddick recruited some Lampoon conspirators to break into the Crimson headquarters and steal the paper's famous President's chair.
It was the summer of 2015 and Donald Trump had just announced he was going to run for President. Pretending to represent the Crimson, Waddick contacted the Trump campaign and offered up the student newspaper's endorsement. Would Mr. Trump like to pose for the accompanying photo in the Crimson's chair?
Tom Waddick: They say, "This seems like something that Mr. Trump would be very interested in."
Waddick and crew raced from Harvard to Manhattan and parked a few blocks from Trump Tower. They lugged the chair in a freight elevator, and made it to the 25th floor.
Tom Waddick: By the way, the chair's about like 150, 200 pounds, so it takes like two, three people to carry it anywhere.
With an eye on the chair, Trump welcomed students he believed to be Crimson editors.
Tom Waddick: He was very nice. He had his hair fixed.
Jon Wertheim: While you were there?
Tom Waddick: While we were there they had sort of hairspray and combed it over and stuff. And he said "People don't think my hair is real, but you can all testify this is very real".
Once the cosmetics were complete, it was time to capture the moment.
Tom Waddick: So he said, "Everyone do the thumbs up," so we're all doing his sort of signature thumbs up around him. And I was just like "We got it."
Not quite. A few days later, as he was preparing to publish the endorsement, Waddick received a call from Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen. The Trump campaign realized they'd been had.
Tom Waddick: He says, you know, "I'm gonna come up to Harvard. You're all gonna get expelled. If this photo gets out you'll be outta that school faster than you know it. I can be up there tomorrow."
Jon Wertheim: What's that like?
Tom Waddick: I mean, it was terrifying. He asked me to send my Harvard ID so he could have my identity, my information.
Jon Wertheim: Did you send it?
Tom Waddick: And I sent it right away. I was so afraid that if I didn't, he might actually be crazy enough to fly up here.
The Trump campaign never did follow up. The Crimson, good sports that they are, published the story of the prank later that summer, complete with photo. And with that, Tom Waddick and company gained a measure of Lampoon immortality. Which is saying something, given the alumni rolls. Early generations count everyone from William Randolph Hearst to George Plimpton to John Updike.
The modern era produced Conan O'Brien and Colin Jost, currently co-anchor of Weekend Update for Saturday Night Live. But most Lampoon stars are not stars at all. David Mandel, class of '92, has written for shows from SNL to Seinfeld. He's currently the showrunner for HBO's Veep, Emmy winner for outstanding comedy series three years running.
Jon Wertheim: What made you want to join the Lampoon?
David Mandel: The building. You kind of, you can't help but notice it. You see a lot of other organizations. You go to a lot of other meetings. And there's this one place that happens to have a castle. And it definitely hits you.
It's hard to overstate the importance of the castle. Built in 1909 in a style described as "mock-Flemish" – whatever that means – the exterior almost winks at you, foreshadowing farce. And inside, the Great Hall, site of Lampoon parties so legendary, movies have been made about them.
In real life, the Great Hall, along with most of the castle, is strictly off-limits to non-members. Our cameras were not permitted anywhere but the library, no matter how many times we asked. We did however track down the unofficial godfather of the place. Jim Downey, class of '74, cuts a mythical figure within Harvard Lampoon circles.
The guy responsible for that Kissinger centerfold fondly recalls his late nights at the castle.
Jim Downey: We thought it was the funniest thing on Earth to pointlessly put the word frankly into any answer to a question. So it could be like, "What bus goes up Tenth Avenue?" "Frankly, the M-11." Or, "what planet has the most eccentric orbit?" "Frankly, Mercury." You know, it's just – see I mean you're laughing.
Downey made a career of mining humor from the mundane. Frankly, he has also written some of the most enduring political satire of the last 40 years.
For decades, Downey's sketches cold-opened Saturday Night Live. Yet, ask Jim Downey about his most memorable moment in comedy, and he hearkens back to January of 1974, when he and the Lampoon invited John Wayne to campus and it became news.
Wayne not only accepted, he rode through town on a tank that Downey and accomplices had borrowed from a nearby military installation.
Jon Wertheim: You still recall the party that night?
Jim Downey: It's traditional for people to get up and dance on the table. And Wayne was right up there, didn't have to be coaxed.
Downey's most lasting contribution, he opened an employment pipeline, hiring and referring countless Lampoon alumni who now fill writers' rooms at shows from Curb Your Enthusiasm to Silicon Valley.
Al Jean, class of '81, came through the Downey pipeline and now runs the Simpsons, the longest-running comedy in television history. Half his writing staff is former Lampoon. So it is that more than a few subversive references to their alma mater make their way into Simpsons episodes.
Al Jean: I'll be honest, I read scripts to hire people, and-- I'll read and script, and I'll go, "Oh, that's great." And then I'll look at the background of the person, and I'll go, "Oh, no, Lampoon. I didn't wanna hire another one."
Jon Wertheim: Why, "Oh, no"?
Al Jean: Well because I want the show to be more diverse.
Jon Wertheim: You're not actively seeking out Lampoon alumni?
Al Jean: Never, never actively.
We found a motley crew when we visited the castle last May. But the Lampoon pipeline to TV writers' rooms has been called a mafia, one that favors Lampoon alumni to the exclusion of more diverse voices.
Liana Spiro: When alumni come back, they're almost all men. Sometimes they all feel like clones of each other. It's like, white men of varying ages who are into comedy and you just feel like, "none of these people look like me".
Jon Wertheim: What do we do about that?
Liana Spiro: I think just like saying to the world that we have noticed that we're not diverse. And that we aren't happy with that and want to change could do a lot.
Back in Hollywood, David Mandel is watching, and reading, this current generation. He has two pieces of sage advice.
David Mandel: Make me laugh. That's all I care about. Make me laugh. Is it funny? And then just kinda hoping that the undergrads don't burn the place down.
Jon Wertheim: You're carrying the torch now. Your job is not to burn down this place.
Liana Spiro: Yes.
Jon Wertheim: Can you handle that challenge?
Liana Spiro: Well, the fire alarm has gone off-- four times in the last year. So that would indicate perhaps no. But The Lampoon is still standing. So we'll see.
Produced by Nathalie Sommer. Associate producer, Emily Hislop.