Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #37: National Lampoon's Big Book of Love

I've been using the tongue-in-cheek tag "The War Between Men and Women" (note the Thurber reference) here for a few years now, calling out posts about love and gender roles and related odd things. But it has never been so appropriate as today.

According to the powers of Google, I've used variations of the word "misogyny" only twice before in the history of this blog -- once to talk about an undercurrent in Howard Chaykin's comics, and once about H.P. Lovecraft. This post, I'm afraid, will probably shatter that record.

You can't talk about National Lampoon's Big Book of Love without talking about misogyny -- you probably can't talk about the classic National Lampoon without at least mentioning misogyny, frankly, but this book is a collection of the most blatantly misogynistic pieces from that magazine, as if its purpose was to distill the brandy of misogyny from the thinner wine of general NatLamp content.

(See: I told you. That's 5 in just three paragraphs. It can be horrible to go back to things you liked in your youth and see just how problematic they really were. For example: I'm not going to even mention a single one of the many, many rape jokes.)

Big Book of Love was assembled in 2004, during one of the periodic Frankenstinian attempts to jolt life back into NatLamp's corpse and extract some more value out of its intellectual assets for whichever hedge fund or group of shadowy investors owned it at the time. The book was edited by Scott Rubin, Sean Crespo and Mason Brown, who also provided a few new pieces to add contemporary spice to the collection. But 90+% of the material here appears to be shot from the original magazine film -- wasn't there a big digitized collection of the whole run of the magazine around that time? this looks very much like a brand extension from that work -- and the book itself does not have page numbers at all.

The positive spin is that all of the pieces in here are parodies of the depicted misogynistic attitudes, and that is basically true. That can help to explain, but it doesn't excuse: nearly all of this is by men, nearly all of it takes those attitudes as being as natural as air, and nearly all of it is trapped in a hellish Platonic version of the '50s, where the boys have D.A. haircuts and raging libidos, while the girls are virginal creatures who have to be coerced or tricked into sex. (Well, a very few of them enjoy sex, because they're whores -- we all know the drill. And by "whores," I mean, tautologically, the standard '50s definition of "women who enjoy sex.")

It should be said here that NatLamp was always juvenile in its enthusiasms and very energetic in pursuit of those -- it was deliberately loud, raucous, taboo-breaking, and obnoxious. That was the point. It was very, very juvenile about sex, because that's what it did. But, even given that the writers were primarily Boomers in the twenties and early thirties looking back at their own teen years, it's remarkable how much of a '50s artifact this book is. None of the pieces feel like they were about the '70s, even though that's when they were written and originally published.

Obviously, it isn't the '70s anymore -- hell, it's not even 2004 anymore, when this book was assembled. And Big Book of Love reads quite differently after #MeToo than it did at the time.

Well, it does for me. And, I hope, for many other men. But I'm sure a lot of this was ugly for a lot of women longer ago than I realized.

So Big Book of Love has a lot of forty-year-old humor that has aged really badly, with attitudes towards women that range from fart-at-the-dinner-table unfortunate to avert-your-eyes horrific. It includes several pieces by John Hughes (yes, later the director of Breakfast Club), including the famous "My Penis," which must be read to be believed. Other famous names from that era of NatLamp, like P.J. O'Rourke, Doug Kenney, Michael O'Donoghue, Henry Beard, Ed Subitzky, Tony Hendra, and Michael Reiss are also represented. As far as I can tell, there are only two women (aside from the naked ones in the "Foto Funnies" and on a couple of old covers): Shary Flenniken ends the book with a four-page "History of Sex" in comics form, and Anne Beatts wrote a four-page piece purporting to be the world's first "stroke book for women." Both of those are better than the average here, which isn't difficult.

I have several other NatLamp books sitting on my shelf, and I hope to get to them during this Book-A-Day year. So I'll make a prediction here, and see if it turns out to be true. I think -- or maybe I'd like to think -- that the political humor in NatLamp, or the general social humor, was stronger than these lazy (and, yes, often misogynistic) war-of-the-sexes pieces. I want to believe that this book was put together quickly out of the most obvious pieces to fit the pre-chosen title, and that there is stronger NatLamp work, which will not read as horribly out-of-date in 2018.

But I'll have to see about that. This book, though, I can only recommend to those who were teenage boys in the mid-70s and have remained so since then.

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