College humor magazines and college newspapers were natural enemies back in the day. They still are at Harvard, where the feud between the Lampoon and the Crimson is now in its second century. “Opposition to the Crimson . . . makes Lampy what he is,” the Lampoon said in its Hundredth Anniversary Issue, saluting “The Crime” as “a dependable butt of practical jokes [and] an inexhaustible source of unintentional humor.” For its part, the Crimson has ID’d the Lampoon as “a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine” at every opportunity for the past six decades.
“Crimson parodies . . . are occasionally supplied to the student body in deference to the overwhelming demand,” Eric Rayman and Jim Downey wrote in 100 Years of Harvard Lampoon Parodies (1976). “As popular today as they were then, Crimson parodies are governed by just one rule: they may never appear on April First.” No one knows exactly how many times the Lampoon has made fools of the paper on other days, but two things seem beyond dispute: (1) The Lampoon was the first college comic to issue a full-size, full-length fake issue of a college newspaper, and (2) it first did so 120 years ago this spring, on May 30, 1901, Memorial Day.
Back then Memorial Day was always May 30, and in 1901 it fell on a Thursday. Knowing the Crimson would take the day off, the Lampoon assembled a four-page substitute under an ill-gotten Crimson nameplate and left it in the usual locations. Earlier Lampoon press parodies had occupied one or two pages in regular issues; the 1901 “Crimson” not only looked like the real thing, it was understated and strewn with enough half-plausible misinformation to create one of the great college pranks.
“The whole Cambridge community was for a time in turmoil,” the Bookman magazine recalled ten years later. “Information that the janitor of one of the college laboratories had upset a jar of microbes and that all those who had been near the lab should report at once to the college doctor . . . was given with the utmost gravity.” Other straight-faced reports said the school had changed its mind about giving President McKinley an honorary degree and that a lit bomb had been found in Memorial Hall. But it was an item about the Crimson itself that raised the biggest ruckus: Because the paper’s prosperity was threatening its non-profit status, it said, all paid-up subscribers who came to the office that afternoon would get half their money back. “A sign hung in the night over the Crimson office reiterating this announcement was another part of the hoax,” said the Bookman. “Its complete success was for long the talk of Cambridge, and the forbidden subject of conversation in the Crimson sanctum.”
The Bookman credited the parody to a “suggestion” by Lampoon writer Richard Washburn Child (1881-1935, class of ’03), who later became U.S. Ambassador to Italy and a leading American cheerleader for Mussolini. That fact likely went unmentioned in 1941, when the Poonsters of ’01 reprinted the parody for their Fortieth and sent a copy to President Roosevelt. FDR, who had been a freshman Crimson editor at the time, recalled it as “the first and only successful attempt on the part of the Lampoon to get really funny at the expense of the Crimson.”
The credulous reception of the first parody suggests such things were new and strange in 1901. Further evidence of priorty comes from all the dogs that didn’t bark. Though other college mags were more than happy to take the Lampoon down a peg or two, not one ever claimed to have beaten it to the idea. The earliest similar item I’m aware of is “The Cornell Deadly Sin,” a 1906 spoof of the Daily Sun by the Cornell Widow.
Eight years passed before the Lampoon’s next assault: a two-page insert in the real Crimson that was “as convincing if less spectacular than the pseudojournal of 1901,” according to The Harvard Lampoon Centennial Celebration. The pace eventually picked up but remained erratic: The Anniversary Issue counted “nineteen full-length Crimson parodies and three one-page sheets for insertion into legitimate issues” over the previous 75 years. My source in the Castle said a few years ago that the Lampoon “produces a parody of the Crimson (sometimes multiple issues) every January/February,” but isn’t sure when they became annual events.
The most explosive parody was a “Football Extra” handed out during the 1926 Princeton game, where the visiting Tigers blanked Harvard for the third straight year, 12-0. It carried the truthful but premature headline, “Princeton Wins” and a fact-free report that the school’s coach had expired in the game’s final minutes from holding his breath too long. The parody was “the second half of a one-two punch,” the Anniversary Issue recalled: “On the day before the game, one of the most notorious Lampoon issues ever had appeared . . . [portraying Princeton men] as pigs, homosexuals and bond salesmen.” The two Lampoons, plus a snide reference in the real Crimson to Princeton’s “inferiority complex,” so inflamed the school it cancelled all athletic contests with Harvard, a move that made the front page of The New York Times. Relations didn’t resume until 1934, when the Tigers returned for a fourth consecutive shutout, this one 19-0.
The 1926 parody made headlines by being outrageous; the 1933 issue made them by being plausible. On February 22, when the Crimson was off for Washington’s Birthday, a four-page “Extra” reported the Harvard Corporation had chosen Midwestern businessman Henry Eliot Clarke ’04 to succeed retiring President A. Lawrence Lowell. Lampoon editors then took over the Crimson’s empty office and spent the day assuring the Associated Press and other callers the extra was legit. “The story was picked via by the wire services and printed in all parts of the country before a suspicious AP staffer discovered that the Harvard Corporation had not selected a new president, that the Crimson had not published an extra, and that there was no Henry Eliot Clarke,” the Anniversary Issue notes.
The Lampoon soon confessed to the hoax, which it claimed was motivated only by a desire to free its “distinguished contemporary” from “the crysalis of drab and schoolboy journalism.” The U.S. Congress responded by passing a law making it a federal crime to knowingly send false information through the news wires. Since then, fallout from fake “Crimsons” has seldom spread beyond Cambridge, though a 1946 report that Harvard would drop football and perhaps all other sports prompted headlines and official denials. Other issues have claimed Memorial Hall would be razed (1939) and Harvard’s president would become Postmaster General in the Nixon Administration (1968).
But the chief target of the Lampoon’s mind games has always been the Crimson itself. The ’01 parody infuriatd the paper’s editors — “Crimeds,” in Lampoon-speak — by reproducing what the Bookman called “certain typographical errors for which the Crimson had become notorious.” In 1966, when Radcliffe junior Linda Mcveigh became the paper’s first female Managing Editor, the Lampoon broke the news a day early in a perfume-scented, pink-tinted extra that misspelled her name in the headline and claimed the entire Board had quit in protest. (The Lampoon, meanwhile, stayed all-male for another six years.) The next parody in September 1967 was “written entirely in sub-par high-school journalese . . . and distributed to freshmen the day before registration” — perfectly timed to blight the annual drive for new staff and subscribers.
On the eve of the Crimson’s elaborate centennial celebration in 1973, the parody uncovered an issue from 1872 that proved the party was a year late. “Crimson editors, who the night before had unsuccessfully attempted to sabotage the prank by hijacking the issue from the Lampoon’s printer, were not amused,” the mag recalled in its own 100th birthday number; “some even talked of going to court to prevent future parodies of their newspaper.”
Such talk came to nothing, and the two sides resumed swapping insults and abducting each others heirlooms and editors. Only once did the Crimson respond to a parody in kind: In November 1958, when the Lampoon was at its most exclusive and its sales had hit a postwar low, the paper came out with a 16-page magazine insert called “The Harvard Lampoo” (no “n”) that was snobbish, unfunny and even a bit smutty. John Berendt, chief Lampoon versifier and future author of Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil, disputed the last point in a poem-to-the-editor that ended:
Your parody’s often obscene;
Now really, that’s being quite mean.
The Lampoon is cruelish;
It’s morbid and ghoulish
But one thing it’s always — is clean.
Fearing readers were catching on, the Lampoon in 1963 put out Crimson parodies on consecutive days: The first, on November 10, reported that female guests would no longer be allowed in student housing; the second “humorlessly dismiss[ed] the fake of the day before and darkly warn[ed] of repercussions,”according to prank historian Neil Steinberg.
The same trick worked even better in 1972, during President Nixon’s historic visit to China. On Sunday, February 20, an unimpressive one-page “Extra” appeared claiming the trip had been cancelled. The next day — another Crime-less Washington’s Birthday — a very convincing six-page issue reported that the Lampoon’s prank had so offended the Chinese they’d cancelled the trip for real. “Even Crimson editors, who the day before had sniffed at the Lampoon extra, were forced to admit that the Monday edition was a success,” says the Anniversary Issue; “the kicker above the Crimson logo on Tuesday’s issue assured readers, ‘This really is … the Harvard Crimson.'”
In recent decades, the parodies have largely traded hoaxes for hilarity. Reactions only get heated when the jokes misfire — as happened in 1990, when back-to-back issues “designed to startle Harvard out of its complacency about a few persistent social problems” were accused of exhibiting the same homophobia, sexism and anti-Semitism they claimed to ridicule. The last time Poonies made headlines impersonating the Crimson — in 2015, when they fooled Donald Trump into accepting a fake endorsement — they did so in person and spread the news on a parody website. Current fake “Crimsons,” like real ones, appear simultaneously in ink and pixels.
In 2018, the Lampoon set a new record by issuing full-length “Crimsons” three days in a row and vowing to maintain the pace for an entire year. The ongoing lead story was more bizarre than clever — something about a freak mutation of actors Paul Rudd and Mila Kunis — and on Day 3 the staff admitted defeat in a report headlined “Harvard Lampoon Can’t Do This Shit Anymore.” “A recent Crimson survey revealed that zero people on campus have ever expressed interest in reading a parody version of the Crimson,” the story claimed, but the 2019 edition came out right on schedule. It’s the most recent edition on the Lampoon website, but parodies will surely return as the pandemic recedes. Just don’t look for them on April 1. — VCR
This list has many gaps, especially post-1976. I’ll add more info as I find it. Items with asterisks(*) are discussed more fully in the text.
March 30, 1901: First stand-alone Crimson parody; bacteria escape laboratory.*
Spring 1909: First single-sheet insert in real Crimson.
Nov. 6, 1926: Princeton wins but coach dies at game.*
1928: Unknown content; production process recalled in Centennial Celebration (p. 241), which says 1,400 copies were printed.
Feb. 22, 1933: Nonexistent “Henry E. Clarke” named Harvard President.*
Feb. 22, 1939: Memorial Hall to be razed for student housing.
April 26, 1946: Harvard drops football, may drop all sports.*
Spring 1961: Half those accepted into Class of ’65 decide to go elsewhere.
Nov. 10-11, 1963: The first back-to-back parodies. Female guests banned; reactions to previous day’s hoax.
Jan. 16, 1966: Crimson Board quits over female editor.*
Sept. 17, 1967: Very unimpressive Crimson given to incoming freshmen.
Nov. 11, 1968: Harvard President Pusey named Postmaster General.
Feb. 20-21, 1972: Back-to-back parodies. Nixon’s China trip cancelled; China trip really cancelled.*
Jan. 23, 1973: Crimson misses its own centennial.*
Feb. 1975: Boston doctor Kenneth Edelin vows to “appeal his conviction in a widely-publicized abortion trial on grounds of self-defense.” (Hundredth Anniversary Issue)
Spring 1978: Unknown content; the Crimson later contrasts it with a “notably more witty, insightful, professional, informative, innovative, colorful, intelligible, and legible” Crimson parody done at Dartmouth.
Early summer 1979: Unknown content; the Crimson later calls it “one of their best efforts.”
April 23-24, 1990: Back-to-back parodies, the second attacked as offensive.*
Jan. 21, 2000: The fate of the Crimson president’s chair, which Poonies had stolen.
Feb. 2011: All classes cancelled when building keys lost.
Feb. 4, 2015: First parody to appear in print and on fake Crimson website (link now defunct).
Jan. 30, 2016: First inclusion of Crimson blog Flyby in the website parody. Flyby’s verdict: “Nice Try, Lampoon.”
Jan. 2017: “Most Interesting Seniors” feared missing. This and later parodies dated by month only.
Jan. 2018: Three Crimson parodies in as many days, all covering Paul Rudd-Mila Kunis mashup.*
Jan. 2019: Harvey Weinstein defends dean’s decision to defend Weinstein.