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America Laughs With Harvard Accent, But It Doesn't Know It : Humor: From "Saturday Night Live" to "Letterman" to "The Simpsons," graduates of the venerable college are leaving the country in stitches.

September 20, 1992|NANCY SHULINS | ASSOCIATED PRESS

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — As a college-bound senior known for his wit, Mark O'Donnell was given some advice by a high school teacher: "Don't go to Harvard. It'll ruin your sense of humor."

On the contrary. O'Donnell graduated from Harvard in 1976 with humor intact. So did his twin brother, Steve. They've since learned a profitable lesson: Not only is there humor at Harvard, there's humor after Harvard. And much of America's in on the joke.

Mark O'Donnell's writing credits include Esquire (Dubious Achievement Awards), "Saturday Night Live" and "Spy." Steve O'Donnell is head writer at "Late Night With David Letterman." They're among 40 or 50 Harvard grads who have parlayed cultural cynicism and a love of lowbrow into high-paying comedy careers.

Harvard's comedy Mafia accounts for about 10% of television's full-time humor writers. Harvard grads write for Spy magazine and The New Yorker, "Late Night" and "Saturday Night Live." They write and produce the animated prime-time hit "The Simpsons." They are or have been on the staffs of "Dinosaurs," "A Different World," "In Living Color," "Married . . . With Children," "Designing Women" and "Coach." They write movies ("House Party," "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?") and best-selling books ("Miss Piggy's Guide to Life.") And they're about to become more influential than ever.

"This is the year when the Harvard grads are starting to be in charge," said Al Jean, '81, a writer-producer for "The Simpsons."

Two new series by Harvard alumni are on the fall schedule: "Great Scott" by Tom Gammill, '79, and "Out All Night" by Andy Borowitz, '80, and his wife, Susan Stevenson Borowitz, '81, creators of "Fresh Prince of Bel Air." Several others are being readied as pilots and could join the schedule as mid-season replacements.

What's so funny about Harvard?

Nothing whatsoever, graduates say.

"Harvard is one of the stuffiest, unfunniest places I've ever been," said Mike Reiss, '81, of "The Simpsons," where Harvard men account for more than half the writing staff.

Indeed, 19th-Century Harvard students found the place so dour that they created a secret society of pranksters, the Lampoon, to send a message--"Lighten up!"--behind the ivy-covered walls.

The Harvard Lampoon is housed in a jaunty little castle marooned on an island just off Harvard Square. With its little round turret and harlequin paint job, it looks like a caricature, a cartoon. In a sense, it is.

Unlike Harvard, Lampoon Castle is funny. Designed by Edmund Wheelright, it boasts secret passageways, hollow beams and hidden rooms, not to mention such comic artifacts as Mark Twain's pipe and a Bible autographed by God ("Messy handwriting," says Lampoon staffer John Aboud, '95.)

Today's comedy writers attribute their success to having spent the bulk of their college days--and nights--in the castle, "riffing, joking, trying to be funny. It's the world's greatest pre-professional comedy training course," said former stand-up comic Craig Lambert, '69. An associate editor of Harvard Magazine, Lambert has written extensively about Harvard comedy.

The castle's importance can't be discounted, he said. "Other schools have humor magazines that meet in the cafeteria. Lampoon has this marvelous building, a social center and clubhouse."

Much of the Lampoon's antics go on behind the castle's closed doors. But five times a year, in "a twisted, acid dream version of a newsroom," as Robert Carlock, '95, describes it, students produce the magazine that started it all, 116 years ago.

Harvard Lampoon, the world's oldest humor magazine still publishing, is famous for dead-ringer parodies of Cosmopolitan ("19 Ways to Decorate Your Uterine Wall"), Newsweek ("Nuclear Arms and Terrific Legs: The Atomic Threat to America's Cover Girls") and others.

Each year, scores of students compete to join the staff, but only a handful are judged twisted enough to be chosen. In 1974, they included a disconsolate premed student named George Meyer.

"I really think I might've had to drop out if I hadn't discovered a place like Lampoon," said Meyer, who parlayed a biochemistry degree into a job writing "The Simpsons."

Such convoluted career paths aren't unusual. Steve Young, '87, set out to become a psychiatrist and wound up writing for Letterman. Parents who sent their little geniuses off to discover a cure for cancer only to see them end up writing "Married . . . With Children" have undoubtedly come to grips; the going rate for a half-hour sitcom script is a minimum $13,000.

"I was pretty miserable until I came across the Lampoon in my freshman year," Meyer said. "Premeds are pretty humorless." At the castle he found "like-minded people who were similarly sullen and cranky about their college experience. I felt like I'd come home."

Finding one's niche at Lampoon can be a mixed blessing, he adds. "Spending most of your waking hours shooting the breeze and making people laugh tends to hurt your grade-point average."

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