Jester of Columbia, to use its formal title, wasn’t the first publication at Columbia University to include humor, but it was the first to exclude everything else. It debuted on April Fool’s Day, 1901, twenty-four years after the birth of its sternest critic, the Columbia Daily Spectator (whose archive supplied much of what follows). Years later, the Spectator described Jester’s early issues as “small drab booklets of advertisements, with a sprinkling of reminiscent jokes,” but the mag quickly grew into one of the leading campus comics.
Early Jester staffers included Rockwell Kent (class of 1904), Bennett Cerf (’20), Corey Ford (’23) and Lynd Ward (’26), but the most famous in his day was 1916-17 editor Morrie Ryskind, then a fire-breathing socialist, later a Broadway and Hollywood writer (Of Thee I Sing, Animal Crackers), and eventually a co-founder of National Review. Ryskind was ejected from staff and school in March 1917 for his blistering attacks on the Big Names urging the U.S. to enter World War I – one of the Biggest being Columbia President Nicholas Murray Butler. Later alumni include writers Herman Wouk (’34), Thomas Merton (’38) and Allen Ginsberg (’48); painter Ad Reinhardt (’36); playwright Tony Kushner (’78); and cartoonists Charles Saxon (’40) and Ed Koren (’57).
Jester flourished from the 1920s through the ’50s, though wartime paper rationing forced an awkward merger with the literary Columbia Review in 1943-45. The early-’40s Jester “reached an all-time high (or low) in the use of licentious wit,” said the Spectator, but more often the goal was New Yorker-ish sophistication. The magazine was named best in the country by the Association of College Comics in 1936-37 and ’37-38, the last years that award was given. It faltered in the 1960s, however, as off-campus ads and on-campus interest dried up. The first issue of 1966-67 didn’t appear until December. That spring, members of the school’s Afro-American Society confiscated 1,500 copies of the May issue and publicly burned 30 to protest a piece that, among other things, “satirically” called a new, all-black fraternity “a sort of haven for the noble savage” and predicted its members would soon turn the place back into a slum.
By 1969 Jester was struggling to come out once a year; by 1973 issues were little more than pamphlets. The college-humor revival sparked by National Lampoon’s Animal House provided a temporary reprieve — students named Jester their favorite campus publication in a 1979 poll — but issues were few and often unfunny: An uncredited 1986 fantasy about a male student slaughtering a “disgustingly obese girl” in one of his classes led to protests and a pledge to start running bylines. After a 1989 parody called “The Columbia Daily Defecator,” featuring a full-page photo of a toilet in a bathtub, the magazine disappeared for 12 years.
An ambitious revival in April 2001 fizzled, but another in 2006 seems to have stuck: More than 20 issues from the past decade are archived at columbiajester.com, including two from spring 2017. Like most surviving campus comics, Jester appears online and in print, carries few ads, and makes heavy use of lists, fake news items and other fast-acting humor formats. Unlike most, it has competition: The Federalist, which started as a conservative alternative to the Spectator in 1986 and by 2003 had evolved into an Onion-like monthly.
The earliest Jester parody to catch the Spectator’s eye appeared in April 1913, though the paper seemed unsure what it was looking at; the anonymous reviewer called the issue “a sort of Ladies’ Home Journal Number” containing “a much larger number of articles apropos of the title” that usual. Unfortunately, he saw little humor in “all the features written in Ladies’-Home-Journal-esque style…. The really entertaining articles are those having no connection” with the main theme.
Seven years passed before the paper reviewed another Jester parody, this time approvingly: “[T]he editors of Jester have more than succeeded in producing a campus edition of Ben Franklin’s popular sheet, the Satevepost,” wrote “N.McK.” and “S.W.R.” on January 16, 1920. “From the Leyendeckerian cover … to the inevitable Arrow Collar (adv.) boy on the back, George Joker Macy and gang have produced a really clever burlesque of George Horace Lorimer’s great American failing, that, in our opinion, goes the Harvard Lampoon’s recent Cosmopolitan venture two or three better.” The parody proved so popular it was reprinted twice, though the covers of the third printing were lost on a freight train “somewhere between Troy and New York.”
The 1922 “Columbia Alumni Dues” was unusual for being commissioned by the Alumni News to fill its October issue, rather like the Harvard Lampoon’s later parodies of (and in) Mademoiselle. Jester cut a similar deal with the Columbia Review in 1941, replacing all the November issue’s usual contents except two main feature articles. One contributor, a shadowy figure called “Jefferson Berryman,” may have been poet John Berryman, a former Review editor. Other notable stunts included the launch in 1934 of a fake rival to Jester called “The Columbia Calliope,” which lasted one issue, and a 1963 parody of Playbill, the Broadway magazine. Like its model, “Playbile” doubled as a theater program and was only sold at performances of the 69th annual Columbia Varsity Show, a musical travesty of Hamlet called Elsinore! The Spectator said “Playbile” mocked “every aspect of the magazine — the advertisements, the columns, the features, and ‘Who’s He in the Cast.’ … [I]t’s worth going to the Varsity Show just to pick up a copy.
Jester hit its parodic peak in the decade or so after World War II. The winning streak began with a 1945 takedown of Fortune featuring a seven-color cover, a “Fortune Survey” of Caramba (i.e., Columbia) College and a “behind-the-scenes look at the new Klopfinger Dam on the Dugong River in North Twang.” It ended in 1956 with a “trim and merciless” evisceration of Saturday Review, then as ever a bastion of well-meaning middlebrow liberalism. “Sanitary Review’s” targets included former Jester editor Cerf — a.k.a. “Scurf” — and SR editor Norman Cousins, whose editorials were skewered for their “pious partisanship and righteous naivete.”
The most successful parodies — and two of the best ever produced by any college mag — were the back-to-back takeoffs of Life and Reader’s Digest in 1948 and ’49. Both owed much to 1948-49 editor Bernard Shir-Cliff, who later packaged the first Mad paperbacks at Ballantine Books and contributed to the Sports Illustrated parody in Harvey Kurtzman’s Trump. Jester’s 48-page, oversize “Liff” sold out in May 1948 and was reprinted in August, eventually selling 20,000 copies nationwide. Pocket-size “Reader’s Dijest” did even better, with 30,000 copies distributed on 120 campuses. Both featured art by Burton Silverman, whose later works included covers for Time.
Almost as good was “Laddies’ Home Journal,” originally scheduled for December 1951 but delayed twice, the second time when the Federal Trade Commission ruled the cigarette ad on the already printed back cover was deceptive. (The ad claimed Camels had never caused a single case of throat irritation, which even then was a bit much.) Camel agreed to pay for a replacement cover, and the parody finally appeared in May 1952. The delay plus a 50-cent cover price apparently cut into sales: Jester ran ads for the next decade urging readers to buy leftover copies.
Later parodies earned mixed reviews, including the last really ambitious effort: a point-by-point rejoinder to Columbia College Today’s 96-page report on the student occupation of the university in the spring of 1968. “Six Weeks that Shook Morningside” occupied an entire issue of CCT in fall 1968 and earned its author, CCT editor George Keller, the Atlantic Monthly’s Education Writer of the Year award. In May 1969, Jester responded with its only issue of the school year: “Columbia College Toady: 96 Pages that Distorted Six Weeks that Shook Morningside.” Spectator reviewer David Rosen praised Jester editor Tom Kramer and his staff for perfectly capturing “the pompous, overblown style” of the original, but found much of the humor “tired and hackneyed.” Still, he noted, the writers “managed to avoid taking sides. In this version of the Great Disruption, everybody, from [President Grayson] Kirk to [student radical Mark] Rudd, comes out looking like an idiot.” Years later, Kramer admitted that was intentional; the parody “was more a reaction to the reaction to [Keller’s] issue that to the issue itself,” he told CCT in 2008. “None of us was terribly political.”
Few old Jesters are posted online or listed on eBay; this list represents the best I could do without going to Morningside Heights and poring through the archives. (Any volunteers?) The Spectator wasn’t above ignoring Jester’s jokes at its expense, so some parodies of the paper may be missing; also missing are any parodies done by The Fed or by the Spectator itself. The word “in” before a date means the parody didn’t fill the entire issue but was one feature among many, like the four-page “Jester’s Own Police Gazette” of December 1919. One issue from spring 1937 may have started out as a parody of Judge but ended up a grab-bag of miscellaneous items, including a brief jab at The New Yorker, so it’s flagged COVER ONLY. As always, additions and corrections would be welcome.
Columbia Jester Parodies, 1913-1989:
Ladies’ Home Journal, in April 1913
Columbia Daily Spectator, 1919
Police Gazette (“Jester’s Own Police Gazette”), in Dec. 1919
Saturday Evening Post (“Saturday Evening Jester”), Jan. 1920
Columbia Alumni News (“Columbia Alumni Dues”), Oct. 1922 [published in the News]
La Vie Parisienne, in Feb. 1924
Typical tabloid newspaper (“Tabloid Number”), spring 1927
Columbia Daily Spectator (“…Daily Jester”), in Jan. 1933
“The Columbia Calliope: Jester’s Own Rival Publication,” Apr. 1934
Columbia Review, April 1935
Judge (“Fudge”), May(?) 1937 — COVER ONLY [but inside is a 3-page New Yorker spoof]
Police Gazette (“Police Gazette Jester”), in Nov. 1939
Columbia Daily Spectator, Nov. 1940
Columbia Review, Nov. 1941 [published in the Review]
Fortune, May 1945
Life (“Liff”), May 14, 1948; reprinted Aug. 15, 1948
Columbia Daily Spectator, Feb. 17, 1949
Reader’s Digest (“Reader’s Dijest”), [May] 1949
Ladies’ Home Journal (“Laddies’ Home Journal”), [May] 1952
Saturday Review (“Sanitary Review”), May 1956
Ivy, March 1958
Playbill (“Playbile”), May 1963
Columbia College Today (“Columbia College Toady”), April 1964
Fact, in November 1964 [“a short satire” of Ralph Ginzberg’s mag]
Columbia College Today: “Six Weeks that Shook Morningside” (“Columbia College Toady: 96 Pages that Distorted Six Weeks that Shook Morningside”), May 1969
Columbia Daily Spectator (“…Defecator”), February 22, 1989 —VCR