P.J. O’Rouke is often described as the token conservative at the National Lampoon, the seminal joke magazine that played like an R-rated — and way, way more politically and culturally savage — version of Mad Magazine. He served as managing editor starting in 1973, and subsequently worked at such not-quite-conservative publications as Playboy, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and, today, The Daily Beast, where he files pieces funny to both sides of the spectrum.
O’Rouke is one of the talking heads in “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon,” a rollicking doc that looks at the zine’s influence and many brilliant pieces. Now living in “the middle of nowhere” in New Hampshire, O’Rouke talked to us about how the offices weren’t as wild as you’d think, the non-state of conservative comedy, they heyday of the New York culinary institution Elaine’s and what he thinks of the presidential race (spoiler: not much).
The film paints the early days, at least, as being somewhat hedonistic.
The really wasn’t true. First off, I had been through all that. I had my own Delta House experience, and I’d been a hippie. By the time I rolled into Lampoon, I was 25 years old. It’s not that I wasn’t going to smoke a joint again, let alone never have a drink again. But I had my fun. To me it was a job, first and foremost, and a chance to write. Really, it was pretty tame over there. We’re talking about boys who came from Harvard back when Harvard was all boys and they carried their books funny and got silly on two Singapore Slings. Michael O’Donaghue said the guys on the staff would say, “Mike, we’re having a party. Know any girls?” [Laughs]
In the doc, writer Tony Hendra compares the early days of the depiction of Paris in “A Moveable Feast,” where if you got two writers together something magical would always happen.
He’s full of s—. It was an office! [Laughs] It was not “A Moveable Feast.” What mainly went on there was work, although people did a lot of that at home too. After work we’d go out and have a few drinks — whoopee. Just like Wall Street guys.
You’re often described as having been the token conservative at Lampoon, or at least one of them. Did you get into many political arguments there?
It wasn’t that kind of place. Some of us were friends and some of us were not. We didn’t spend a lot of time talking about politics in the office. What humorists do when they’re in a group — besides act like jerks to each other — is somebody would say something really funny, and the response would be, “Yeah, that’s good, let’s do that for the October issue.” It’s like doctors. One doctor doesn’t say to the other, “YOU SAVED SOMEONE’S LIFE, I can’t believe it!”
John Hughes has also been described as one of the Lampoon’s token conservatives.
We weren’t token; we just happened to be conservative. There were other people, especially writers and illustrators who had the same general outlook. Hendra and [Sean] Kelly were the only two who had any pretense to being real leftists. Some people were sort of liberal and others didn’t give a s— at all. It wasn’t a tiny minority. O’Donaghue was not political. I suppose if someone twisted his arm he would have fallen in line with showbizzy sort of liberalism-lite. It wasn’t a big issue.