Transitions: Michael Gross (1948-2015). Before there was Saturday Night Live there was National Lampoon, a humor magazine founded by former members of the Harvard Lampoon along with a random, wild-bunch group of writers, illustrators, humorists, photographers, most of whom were educated at East Coast Ivy League colleges and all of whom possessed a very healthy (and for quite some time) very commercial outlook on the inherent zaniness and humor of the American culture. From National Lampoon came the great humor writers of the last part of the twentieth century, lead by Doug Kenney, the Editor-In-Chief who would go on to write two of the funniest and most iconic films of all time, Animal House and Caddyshack. National Lampoon was not so much a publication as an attitude and the Golden Rule at the magazine was that “no one gets a free pass..not your mother, your father, the President, the Pope, your wife, your ex-girlfriend. Everyone is a target.” Realistically, that’s the only way such a publication can approach editorial content, because if anyone gets a pass–i.e. is not subject to withering scrutiny and humor–then the nasty issue of joke favoritism comes up and, well, that’s not funny.
The co-conspirators at National Lampoon, besides ringleader Kenney, included PJ O’Rourke, Henry Beard, Michael O’Donoghue, Anne Beatts, George W.S. Trow, John Hughes, Chris Miller, Gerry Sussman, Sean Kelly, Tony Hendra and many others. The talent pool was astounding and smart (dumb people are not funny intentionally…..it takes a very smart person to produce great humor). You can read the history of National Lampoon in Rick Meyerowitz’s terrific book, Drunk, Stoned, Brilliant, Dead (you would not necessarily think that humor writing is a hazardous task but it is, not because of the work itself but the lifestyle that generates such a mindset). From this group came, eventually, the long-running hit TV show, Saturday Night Live , which was born out of the National Lampoon Radio Hour, Lemmings, a live National Lampoon stage show that brought us, among others, John Belushi, Dan Ackroyd, Chevy Chase, Harold Ramis, Christopher Guest, or in short, a good portion of the original cast of Saturday Night Live. The talent, risk-taking, and generally dangerous attitude of the contributors combined to create a super-nova of humor, whose influence has been felt for over 40 years now.
Organizing the editorial material of a publication like National Lampoon was a next to impossible task–the content was random, and always right on the deadlines and the budgets could fit in a coffee shop change jar– and ultimately the job went to Michael Gross, a California-born art director/designer who brought a strong streak of professionalism to a publication that personified the credo of “making it up as we go along”. A National Lampoon idea session (editorial meeting) was just as likely to evolve into an uproarious cocktail (and other substances) party as a formal meeting, but out of those sessions came the ideas and concepts that turned the publication into a legend. Gross was noted in his New York Times obituary as the designer of the logo for the Ghosbusters movies (he became an accomplished film producer), probably because that’s the piece of his work that is most widely known. But to those who followed National Lampoon it was Michael Gross’s ability to communicate humor with a single image or to parody something as iconic as a high school yearbook with perfect pitch. The Times obit covers the broad span of Gross’s eclectic career, but to many people, the cover above that Gross produced for the magazine, is the very best magazine cover ever. Michael Gross was a very big part of American culture and we all laughed a lot because of it. He will be missed, but he will not be forgotten.
The Fine Print: the writer contributed to National Lampoon and has one (tiny) piece featured in Would You Buy A Used War From This Man. A Collection of Political Humor from National Lampoon. He doesn’t remember much about the experience and will neither confirm nor deny any stories about that era of his life.