Parody Of: The New York Times. Title: “The New York Times”
Parody By: Harvard Lampoon. Date: March 7, 1968. Length: Front page only?
Contributors: Rob Hoffman, Jonathan Cerf, Peter Gable. Availability: Very rare; reprinted in the Harvard Lampoon Centennial Celebration (pp. 38-39) and 100 Years of Harvard Lampoon Parodies (pp. 30-31).
Fifty years ago today, on March 7, 1968, the Harvard Lampoon pulled off one of the great college pranks, replacing the 2,000 copies of The New York Times distributed in Cambridge with a year-old paper inside a fake front page. Among the headlines: “Khesanh Airlift Proves Mistake,” “Governor Warns of Water Surplus,” “Ancient Parthenon Topples As Quake Rocks Greece.” Only a few items hinted something might be amiss: A one-sentence notice that the Times would begin printing funnies, for instance, or the bland headline, “Walrus in Central Park Zoo Speaks.”
“Most fake newspapers err on the side of burlesque, but the 1968 Times is masterfully subtle.” Neil Steinberg wrote in If At All Possible, Involve a Cow. “The stories are alarming — with headlines such as ‘Castro Seizes U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo’ — but not implausible…. There were some ludicrous touches … but you had to stop and read the thing to catch them. In all, it made for a neat package that caused a lot of momentary puzzlement.”
The Lampoon recalled things more dramatically: “In a daring 4 a.m. maneuver, Poonies had substituted their version of the morning news for that contained in the March 7 Times, and then sat back to watch the impact,” Martin Kaplan wrote in 1973’s Centennial Celebration. “One woman wept to learn of the Parthenon’s collapse, and amazed students combed page 30, column 2, to discover what the Central Park Zoo walrus had actually said. Most disturbing of all, however, was the reaction of one faculty club member who carefully read the entire bogus front page and the year-old Times it enclosed without any distress whatsoever.” Three years later, in 100 Years of Harvard Lampoon Parodies, the weeping woman had been replaced by “Harvard’s senior classics professor [who] was so grief-stricken at the Parthenon’s collapse that he cancelled his classes.” (Steinberg, a stickler for facts, says there “no evidence” for any weeping professor stories.)
The Lampoon put as much care into distributing its “Times” as it did into creating it, maybe more. The plot almost unravelled at the start, when the Poonies’ order for a thousand copies of its March 2, 1967, issue raised eyebrows at the real Times. “Inquiries were initiated, and members of The Lampoon explained that delft wall tiles had been ordered and delivered defective and that The Times was considered ideal for wrapping them to be returned,” the Newspaper of Record wrote the day after the parody appeared:
“Then Mr. [Rob] Hoffman, a sophomore, and his two key assistants, Jonathan Cerf, son of Bennett Cerf, the book publisher, and Peter Gabel, son of Martin Gabel and Arlene Francis, went more deeply underground. A few weeks ago, as deadline time neared, several of the Lampoon’s trusted spies were assigned to trailing distributors of the genuine Times, noting which newsstands were major drops.
“Wednesday night, other valiants from The Lampoon went to Times Square area and gathered up some 500 copies of the Thursday morning paper shortly after they hit the street. With these papers they flew back to Cambridge. In this the men of Lampoon were being particularly devious. They reasoned that many Harvard students who got the fake edition of The Times might turn first to the sports page and realize the hoax. Those 500 copies are this morning’s Times except for Page One.
“But no such precautions were taken for Cambridge residents who get their papers from newsstands. Those copies had the false Page One wrapped around the edition of last year’s March 2 edition.
According to Sheldon Cohen, operator of the newsstand kiosk in Harvard Square, no one has requested a refund for the parodied Times.” (“The Times Gets a Lampooning at Harvard,” NYT, March 8, 1968, p 36.)
The same day the Times‘ unsigned but obviously inside-sourced account appeared, the Lampoon’s old adversary the Crimson tried to spoil the party: “The New York Times Company announced yesterday afternoon that it will sue the Harvard Lampoon for $175,000 for ‘willful deceit, commercial libel and commercial defamation’ in its March 7 Times parody,” wrote the Crime’s James R. Beniger. “U.S. Justice Department officials are presently studying the parody to determine whether they will file criminal charges for ‘willful fraudulent claim of copyright.’ It is a federal offense to appropriate copyright for material not clearly a parody.”
The story went on to claim the Lampoon might also be sued by Time Inc. and Murray’s News Agency, the latter seeking the return of 800 stolen copies of the real Times. It ended: “Thomas S. LaFarge ’69, Lampoon president, said last night his organization would not return the 800 newspapers stolen from Harvard hallways. ‘We sold them to a waste paper dealer for $2.37,’ LaFarge said. ‘It was our biggest sale since the Playboy parody.’