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]
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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.
You’ve been the token conservative at a lot of publications that have been at least liberalish.
Lampoon wouldn’t be an example of this. A better example would be me and Michael Kinsley when Kinsley was editor at Harper’s and then The New Republic. I never had any trouble working with him. Mike Kelly was at least nominally Democrat when he took over The Atlantic. We never had any tiffs about stuff.
And your own beliefs aren’t the kind that totally alienate the left. I think both sides can agree on a lot of things being funny.
Oh, I guess — if someone’s acting like a jerk. I don’t think anyone has to make a distinction about their political beliefs to land on Donald Trump with both feet.
It seems back then people on both sides could find something to agree with.
I would say the ’70s were more to-hell-with-everybody-and-everything than now. They were less partisan. Even the most staunch conservative had trouble stomaching Richard Nixon. And even the most staunch liberal was still growling with embarrassment at Johnson’s behavior during the Vietnam War. It wasn’t a great society, we weren’t all hokey-dokey. There was a feeling that nothing was working and nobody was worth a crap.
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There is a wave today on the left of being very touchy about hurting people’s feelings, and on the right there are still people complaining about political correctness and not being able to say things would consider bigoted.
But why should you? You can live without that. [Laughs] I’m not Chris Rock. But I can still say “white trash.” Those were my people!
Unlike back then, today we’re led to believe we always have to be in constant fisticuffs.
Yeah, what’s that about? Especially when you have people like Hillary and Trump running. You’re gonna fly this flag? [Laughs]
There’s not really anyone to be passionate about on either side.
Poor Joe Biden, that’s not happening. Joe’s a great guy, but this isn’t happening. It’s not happening because of opposition to him. It’s the Democrats themselves who aren’t going to let that happen.
Bernie Sanders seems like he could stir people like Obama did, but that really seems unlikely.
Oh, no, impossible. Impossible. The problem with Bernie — I was talking to someone who knew him pretty well, a friend of mine up here, he used to live in Vermont. He’d been a Bernie supporter. He said, “Personally, the guy is just an a—hole. I contributed to his campaign, I supported him. But I tell, you, he’s an a—hole. And the minute he starts getting enough public attention for that to be clear to the public, it will be all over.” So that doesn’t look good. [Laughs]
It looks like it will be a grim election. But it will be funny!
What’s bad for the nation is good for me!
What do you think about conservative humor today?
What conservative humor?
There isn’t much, and most attempts to get something like a conservative Daily Show have failed spectacularly. It seems there should be more funny conservatives, and not only by the law of averages.
There are a couple. They don’t get out much, which is kind of a shame. Andy Ferguson can be very funny. He’s a senior editor at the Weekly Standard. He does bend over backwards to do it, but he wrote a book about getting his son into college, which is called “Crazy U.” And it’s hilarious. There’s another guy who writes for The Weekly Standard, Matt Labash, who is also hilarious. But they don’t make a big deal out of it. Andy doesn’t like to be on television and Matt is terrified of it. Matt is terrified of going on the radio. He had a book out, a collection of essays, called “Fly Fishing with Darth Vader,” which is the name of a piece about spending a week with Dick Cheney. I remember Matt saying, [puts on nervous voice] “I have to go on the radio at 4 p.m., can I have a drink?” “You have to go on the radio?” [Laughs]
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A lot of the Lampoon alum wound up going into movies — not just “Animal House” and “Vacation,” but John Hughes recreated himself as a singular filmmaker. You only have one big credit: the Rodney Dangerfield movie “Easy Money.” What were your experiences?
I didn’t like it. I just didn’t like it. I think it had to do, as much as anything, with my ego. You’re in New York, you’re a writer, you’re the top of the food chain. Yeah, you’re broke; yeah, you’re living in a broom closet. But you’re the top of the food chain. And especially back in those days when Elaine’s was still around. You’d go into Elaine’s and Donald Trump, he’d be sitting in the kitchen. And right up front were people making $10,000 a year, maybe. Because Elaine loved writers and writers loved her. I was broke in the ’80s, after I left Lampoon, and Elaine would say, “Put it on your tab, collect the cash.” I would live for a week off the cash I collected from Elaine’s. She’d put it on the tab so I could pay her back. Not only that, but what you paid for your dinner entirely had to do with how well you were doing. When I was chief of Lampoon, my dinner and drinks would cost me $100, which was money in those days. I quit — Elaine didn’t approve of that — but I quit, I went to Elaine’s, my bill, the same dinner, same drinks: 50 bucks. It was great. You go out to Hollywood, you were like the Polish actress who went to Hollywood and f—ed the writers. [Laughs] I was just made to feel like s—.
So it wasn’t like the novelists who went out there in the ’40s and ’50s to score a mint writing movies.
Yeah, that worked out really well for them. [Laughs] The “F. Scott Fitzgerald Health and Fitness Program.” You ever read his hobby stories about being a screenwriter? They’re the best. They’re much funnier than you’d think F. Scott Fitzgerald could be. It’s a whole other side to him: bitter and unhappy.
I always worry when funny people become content and happy.
I’m happily married, got three great kids. I just have to remind myself that life sucks. Otherwise I wouldn’t get any work done.