If you’re one of those who, like me, spends a lot of time sitting around puzzling over when exactly the decline of American civilization became irreversible, I have terrific news: I’ve found the answer—or part of it anyway. It lies in the National Lampoon 1964 High School Yearbook parody, which (more good news) has recently been reissued for the first time since its initial publication in 1974.
Back then, the yearbook parody was, in a phrase people were just starting to overuse, a “major cultural event.” It sold more than 2 million copies on the newsstands, blanketing the American suburban middle class and intoxicating its sullen young. If you couldn’t afford a copy yourself—it cost nearly $5, if my memory is right; the new edition goes for a perfectly inflation-adjusted $19.95—it was certain you had a friend who owned one, and the two of you could retreat to the paneled rec room in the family basement, away from the eyes of clueless parents, and spend several hours in a giggling fit. The text is so densely layered with jokes, in fact, that you might read it through again and again and still, months later, discover things you hadn’t noticed before. And when at last you emerged from a session with the yearbook parody, everything in your life—your mom and dad, your gym teacher, your sexual yearnings, your career ambitions, everything—looked slightly absurd. Sometimes this happened even without the aid of marijuana.
Originally published as a special issue of National Lampoon magazine, the parody was mostly the work of two of the magazine’s editors: Doug Kenney, who would go on to co-write the screenplay for Animal House before his death, at age 34, in 1980; and P.J. O’Rourke, who would go on to become P.J. O’Rourke. (My friend O’Rourke is still alive, of course, though he does live in New Hampshire.) Others associated with Lampoon in its early days made contribution s to the yearbook, too: Michael O’Donoghue *, Henry Beard, George W.S. Trow, Christopher Cerf, and the designer Alan Rose. Many of the magazine’s founding editors were veterans of the Harvard Lampoon, which had become nationally known in the 1960s for sublime parodies of such magazines as Playboy, Cosmopolitan, and Life—the textbooks of mid-’60s mass culture. The Harvard Lampoon’s method was to emulate the target publication as soberly as possible, while tweaking each graphic element just to the edge of absurdity. The foldout in the Playboy parody, for example, was faithful in every detail, as though Hef himself were its art director. The usual far-fetched pneumatic seminude crouched with the unavoidably tossed-about hair, the same implausible come-hither look … except her bikini tan lines were reversed, so that her breasts and bottom were darkly tanned, and everything else was as pale as typing paper.
This method—a nearly flawless graphic rendering, perverted—reached a kind of consummation in the yearbook parody. It helped that only two or three publishers in those days produced high-school yearbooks; if you’d seen one, therefore, you’d seen them all. Rose heightened the verisimilitude by drawing the pen-and-ink illustrations with his left hand, the better to capture the incompetence of yearbook artists everywhere. The photography, by David Kaestle, was suitably out of focus and ill-lit, and the chaotic design was barely competent enough to convey the subject matter, which was nothing less than the entirety of life in an American high school—in this case, the fictional Estes Kefauver Memorial High, in Dacron, Ohio—as it developed during that first gusher of mass prosperity in the decades after World War II. This was suburbia captured in the minutes before the 1960s became the ’60s; this is what America looked like when the Beatles stepped off the plane.
The yearbook records student activities: “Students Aid in Organizing Student Organization Activities To Aid All Students With Active Organizations.” There’s the Slide Rule Club, the Tuba Club, and the Esperanto Club (which has no members), along with Future Stewardesses and Future Homemakers for the gals. The assistant superintendent of schools writes his congratulations to the senior class: “Let me offer a small piece of advice: You are leaving high school but you are entering ‘Life School.’ ” Athletes are honored: “A trackman’s real competition is always with himself, so no one can say that anybody else beat our ‘sharp-shoes’ in ‘64 even if the KHS Kangarunners’ hotly contested constant striving with their own abilities and courage was occasionally marred by losing all the time in every meet. …”
The yearbook, unexpectedly, tells a story, or several stories. It derives its momentum from its cast of characters—archetypes, really: the sexy Spanish teacher, the Falangist principle, the rich kid, the slut, the mental defective, the greaser, the jock, and of course the average kid, the everyman. (His name here is Larry Kroger, and he would later reappear as the hero of Animal House.) They emerge in intertwining plots, developed in cunning ways, as you go from page to page. The identity of “The Mad Crapper,” a mysterious figure who has left his droppings around the school all year, is slowly revealed to those who have the patience to unpack the clues while the tale of Larry’s disastrous prom night—ditched by the class cupcake, he finally invites the plump girl who has a crush on him—unfolds in all its ineluctable horror.
What’s being satirized above all is the relentless tedium and mediocrity of suburban life, at least as seen through the eyes of a clever and irritable adolescent, along with the totalitarian cheerfulness that its boosters employ to make it tolerable. The yearbook parody is a pitiless critique of life in these United States—every bit as forlorn as Winesburg, Ohio or Spoon River Anthology. But it is even more insidious because you can’t stop laughing. Since its publication 30 years ago, the ironic detachment with which affluent baby boomers have saturated the culture has become old news, of course, and a bit tedious itself. Yet it has seldom enjoyed so exquisite an expression as in the Lampoon yearbook. And the country has never recovered from it.
Correctio n, Jan. 9, 2004: This article originally misspelled the name of one of the contributors to the National Lampoon 1964 High School Yearbook. He is Michael O’Donoghue, not O’Donahue. (Return to corrected sentence.)