Parody Of: Columbia College Today. Parody By: Jester of Columbia.
Title: “Columbia College Toady.” Date: April 1969. Format: 8.375″x11″ stapled magazine, 32 pp. + covers. Availability: Very scarce.
The Columbia Jester’s 1969 parody of the school’s alumni mag is no match for such classics as “Liff” (1948) and “Reader’s Dijest” (1949), but the wonder is it exists at all. “Columbia College Toady” was Jester’s only issue of any kind between fall 1967 and April 1971. It was also the last major parody produced by a magazine not named Lampoon during the Golden Age of college humor, and one of the few to address the upheaval that helped bring that age to an end.
The spark for “Toady” was the real Columbia College Today’s coverage of the student uprising in the spring of 1968. What started as a protest against putting the school’s new gym in Harlem’s Morningside Park became national news when radicals led by Mark Rudd, head of Columbia’s chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), occupied five campus buildings on April 23rd, including president Grayson Kirk’s offices. For six days administrators dithered, then let police forcibly evict the protesters, which satisfied no one and led to classroom boycotts and a second, shorter occupation in May. The year ended with canceled exams, competing graduation ceremonies and bad feelings all around.
In response, editor George C. Keller held off publishing the Spring CCT until he could complete a long, detailed and sometimes personal account of the Recent Unpleasantness. When the issue finally appeared in January 1969, still dated “Spring 1968,” Keller’s “Six Weeks That Shook Morningside” filled most of its 96 pages. The cover showed a red flag flying over one of the occupied buildings, Mathematics Hall. Inside, every sidebar, photo, drawing and pull-out quote dealt with the uprising and its aftermath — usually disapprovingly. Even the Annual Fund ad sighed, “College today is a different world.”
Keller’s report won him an Education Writer of the Year award from the Atlantic Monthly, but on campus it pleased almost no one. Columbia Daily Spectator reviewer Robert Friedman called it “the worst thing that I have read on the events of last spring. … The issues are minimized and the crisis is blamed on the manipulative tactics of a small band of militant radicals.” Activist faculty demanded the school “publicly repudiate” Keller’s “errors of fact, distortions of history and assassination of character.” Later reviews have been kinder. James C. Shaw, a freshman in Spring ’68, praised Keller in CCT in 2008 for his “research, serious discussion of ideas and his obvious passion and anguish,” and found his portrait of Kirk and Co. about as harsh as you could expect from a mag aimed at old grads and potential donors. (You can read Shaw’s article here.)
Enter Jester. “We are presently at work on a malicious, vicious, and nasty parody,” the editors said in the February 14 Spectator. “We are anxious to meet malicious, vicious, and nasty people. You can bear your fangs in Room 304 F.B.H. [Ferris Booth Hall] at 10 p.m. tonight.” Turnout must have been poor, for a second ad in late March began: “Many people have been asking whatever happened to Jester. The three or four people left on the staff have been working on a parody of Columbia College Today for several weeks. However, there is a limit to the amount of work that four people can do. If you are really interested in seeing this issue come out — and it is an issue which promises to be the funniest in years — you can show your interest by attending the staff meeting tonight … If we do not get your help, we will not be able to publish a complete parody.”
The parody finally appeared in mid-May, a month after the cover date, with the cover line, “96 Pages That Distorted Six Weeks That Shook Morningside.” Most readers were underwhelmed. “A Great Idea, But…” ran the headline of David Rosen’s review in the Spectator, which praised the writers for capturing “the pompous, overblown style of the Keller original,” but faulted them for not having a point of view. “In their version of the Great Disruption, everybody, from Kirk to Rudd, comes out looking like an idiot,” Rosen wrote. “Some of the resulting caricatures — Dean [Henry] Coleman as the dumb jock, Kirk as the bumbling fool, Rudd as the wild-eyed revolutionary — are fairly amusing, but these, like everything else in the issue, are entirely predictable.”
Some of the problem was structural: When the report appeared, Jester editor Tom Kramer parceled it out in chucks to his “three or four” staffers for rewrites, then knitted their contributions together. The result is less a parody of Keller than a condensation peppered with jokes and insults; it sticks too close to events to admit the fantasy and nonsense that are college humor’s strengths. The best bits are the briefest: the photo captions, the obscene poems attributed to faculty luminaries, and the wheedling desperation of the fake Annual Fund appeal.
“As I sat there, with CCT in one hand and ‘Toady’ in the other, I found it increasingly difficult to determine which one I was reading,” Rosen wrote. Both publications seem unhappy with the tasks they set themselves: Keller strains after objectivity despite identifying with one side of the conflict and being largely clueless about the other; the Jester crew spell out Keller’s implied disdain for The Kids and throw their own barbs at The Man, but often they seem on autopilot. Individual jokes land but don’t build, and the whole thing lacks exuberance. For all its rowdy disdain, “Toady” feels distant from the passions that had convulsed Columbia the previous spring.
Tom Kramer told James Shaw in 2008 that the parody “was more a reaction to the reaction to [Keller’s] issue than to the issue itself.” When meta-commentary reaches this level, humor tends to gasp for air. “None of us was terribly political,” Kramer also said. That may help explain why only “three or four” Columbia students thought a humor magazine was worth their time in 1968-69. — VCR