Parody Of: Life. Title: “Life.” Parody In: Harvard Lampoon.
Date: March 26, 1896 (Vol. 31, no. 1), pp. 10-11. Length: 1 page (on 2 Lampoon pages).
Contributors: W. Ames ’95, J.P. Welch ’97. Availability: Lampoons from the 1890s turn up periodically (pun) on the web; good luck finding specific issues.
“Life, a national comic weekly founded by Lampoon graduates, was the perfect target for the very first magazine parody, which appeared in a regular issue in 1896. Later that year the Crimson was parodied for the first time and other magazines were assailed in turn by the ‘Lampy’s Contemporaries’ series.'” — Harvard Lampoon Hundredth Anniversary Issue, February 1976, p. 8.
Life the humor magazine — sometimes called “the old Life” — was launched on Jan. 1, 1883 by a group of Harvard grads, two of whom, Edward S. Martin and John Tyler Wheelwright, had helped start the Lampoon seven years earlier. The two magazines stayed close: Life began as a kind of national Lampoon, so to speak, and as Life’s circulation grew the Lampoon began to resemble its offspring.
This displeased the Crimson, which wrote sternly in 1887: “The [Lampoon] is a college paper and should retain its character as such and should not aim to be a cheap copy of a paper that has no more originality or excellence than is found in Life.” The Lampoon echoed the “Crime’s” putdown of Life in the parody’s “Editorial,” which took some nerve: Life had started running one-page parodies of Punch, The New York Tribune and others under the heading “Some of Life’s Contemporaries” in 1885. The Lampoon’s only variation 11 years later was to drop “Some of.”
Unlike its rivals Puck and Judge, which ran full-color political cartoons every week, Life stuck to chaste black and white and affected to be above party politics. Editor John Ames Mitchell advocated Good Government by the Better Sort of People, a kind of Gilded-Age version of Limousine Liberalism. He hated vivisection, child labor, and impoverished English Lords who cynically marry beautiful American heiresses for money. The last is an oddly specific issue, but Life was obsessed with it.
Robert Benchley and Gluyas Williams targeted Life’s foibles in 1911 in the Lampoon’s first issue-length magazine parody, then went on write and draw for the real thing in the ’20s. But when they and other members of Algonquin set moved to a new magazine called The New Yorker, the Lampoon’s affections followed. The Depression killed Life’s ad revenues, and it folded in 1936 after selling its name to Time Inc.’s new picture magazine for $92,000. Thirty-two years later, ‘Poonies Henry Beard, Doug Kenney and Rob Hoffman quarterbacked a parody of that “new” Life, which got them thinking of producing a second national Lampoon. It debuted in April 1970, this time with the “N” capitalized. — VCR