P.J. O'Rourke puts out National Lampoon, which at first blush sounds like a dream of a job but the more you think of it does not.
The latest wild success of this publication, which is satirical, gross, vulgar, loyal, courteous and kind, was the parody of a newspaper. It appeared last summer with its Living Life section, its Swillmart advertising supplements, etc., and O'Rourke said he relied heavily on The Washington Post for inspiration though, needless to say, it is impossible to detect this in his parody.
The editor is 31 years old and gazes forth with direct gray eyes beneath a lot of silky brown hair arranged somewhat like a Lhasa's.
He lives in Manhattan and has a New York complexion because of the air there, and was clad yesterday in a Brooks Brothers blazer, striped shirt and in general looked as if he might be on his way back to visit his old chemistry master at prep school.
But beneath the ordinary exterior beats a deep-seated vicious hatred of everything on earth,or, as he said, "a deep-seated vicious hatred of everything on earth."
He addressed the Advertising Club of Washington at lunch -- they had lighted candles in silver sockets all over the place, but that's advertising for you -- and had a liberating influence on the ulcer set.
Sure, he said, of course his magazine is sued all the time, but usually they manage to con their way out of court.
Volkswagen, he said, sued them for $60 million for a little parody ad they ran showing a Volks floating in a flood and bearing the bright message that if Kennedy had had one -- etc.
Many felt this ad was tasteless.
"Well, how did you get out of that one?" he was asked.
"Well, my God, $60 million. We went to Volkswagen and said okay, what do you want -- girls, drugs? You name it."
Volkswagen said they wanted the magazine taken off the newsstands. Right now.
O'Rourke said it had already been on the stands three weeks, and the flap over the parody ad insured that the remaining copies sold out promptly.
Some have averred O'Rourke's magazine is white male, chauvinist, sexist and not progressive.
"Well, yes, a magazine did once say we were hostile to homosexuals, always attacking them in parodies and things.
"And we have one guy who is married to a woman who is swept up in the National Organization for Women. He is always saying he thinks we ought not print this, that and the other, which might be construed as antifeminist. Whenever he really protests, we feel sure we are right on target."
"Yes, but are your really hostile to women, blacks, homosexuals and those types?" he was asked.
"Not really hostile. Though I can see the grounds for the accusation, all right. I think it is humor, the nature of humor.If you stop to think of it, humor is essentially conservative.
"You don't make fun of a guy's clothes unless they are different from everybody's.
"The truth is, people do have these feelings about things, however much they try to hide them. White people do fear blacks, and the feeling is mutual.
"People worry about oil and Iran, for instance. If you start sounding off about camel-traders, etc., you are being an ass. If I do, I have done half a day's honest work."
But a life of sounding off is not all catsup and cream by any means.
"Sometimes I want to be serious. Sometimes I want to talk about life insurance. Term, straight, the kind that would be best for me. But if I see an insurance guy he won't take my problem seriously, He just wants to tell me his new Polishe pope joke.
"And you have no idea what it's like to come in the office with a terrlible hangover, only to find your secretary laughing like mad and dressed up in a gigantic bird suit."
And then there are those dark nights:
"When you ask yourself what you are doing with your life. When you have self-doubts. Most guys when they have had a hard day can shrug it off, blaming it on the tension of business anxiety and dealing. But if I have a terrible day, I have to acknowledge it's because we spent half the day looking for a photograph [of some outrageous thing suitable for a parody]."
When he can, O'Rourke gets out of New York and goes to a ski slope (if it is winter) or hunts partridges in New Hampshire. Mostly he just works.
But even on those dark and doubting nights, you might ask him, surely there is some comfort that possibly his satires help people let off steam or keep at least part of the world from suffocating on high seriousness?
"Yes. There's that," he said.
"If people were not by nature swinish, I'd be out of work. I don't mind saying I voted for Nixon in 1972. My livelihood was at stake.
"Or you take Woody Hayes. I was distressed the day he poked the ballplayer in the jaw. Here was a momemtous a -- h ---, and he's slipping from public life."
All these are sad moments for a parodist. So is the Carter White House:
"They've got one of everything. Brother Billy and the sister who is the evangelist and the one in jail and so on. It's a regular William Faulkner White House."
He said he did not mind the White House being full of characters -- a typical Amercian family -- but he did mind when the first family was a living competition to him as editor of the National Lampoon.
His rise to supreme editorial authority followed the classical American boy pattern, up from hardship to riches:
He left Toledo and his family at the age of 14 -- "a real mess," he said; he and his girlfriend once figured that between them they had had 17 parents -- and then to Chicago to live with a relative, and on to Miami University in Ohio and Johns Hopkins graduate school.
He wrote poetry and novels and earned$25 for his pornographic short stories for Screw (a publication) and worked part-time in the mail-order business:
"You know those sleazy operations -- you get an ad in the mail how to make $10 million in a month.
"I didn't mind writing the stuff, but I didn't want to ever own one of those businesses."
He did not, he said, ever get in the porno film business (he is rather slight, physically) and does not even go to orgies, he said. And he only wrote for Screw, the landmark publication among dirty papers, not for its Johnny-come-lately tawdry imitators.
He had, and has, a passion for architecture and should have been an architect, he is sure, but somebody once told him you had to be good in math.
"I found out later architects don't have to know anything about math. They just draw it and if it looks pretty they build it." And he was a born draftsman. He also worked part-time as a builder of architectural models.
"And then I thought, do I want to spend the rest of my life in Baltimore building architectural models?"
Hardly. Hence the move to New York.
He had worked on an underground newspaper in Baltimore called Harry. He had a friend who worked on a quite similar underground paper called the Chesapeake Review of Literature and the Arts, or some such name, and he once asked his friend:
"Where did you get a crazy name like that for an underground newspaper?"
And the friend said:
"Ten years from now when people ask me what I oid I'll tell them the name of that paper and they'll say, 'Oh.' But when they ask you, and you say you worked for some underground rag called Harry, there you are stuck."
His publisher's company has now made a film called "Animal House" which is making a lot of money, O'Rourke says. He rather doubts, though, that he will stay in the parody trade forever.
His conversation is full of words with moral connotations of ritht and wrong, and while he makes some effort to keep it from showing, he rather heats up at the thought of terrible behavior, especially among those responsible for "the public weal."
It amazes him, at some level or other, that dreadful acts of injustice and corruption do not send people into a rage, but words do.
"Words are just words, after all," he says, "but there are kinds of behavior and action that result in people's hunger or sickness or death. Once I said to somebody, 'Look at all that's lousy in the world -- the mind can hardly take it all in. Or all the suffering. And the one thing that sets you off is this printed word, 'nigger.'"
"Maybe," somebody said to him, "you have forgotten that words can lead to acts, or reinforce sttitudes that are cruel."
"I know that," he said. "Words are magical things. They are like magic spells. You say the wrong ones and the sky falls and the sun stops and all that.
"I guess," he said, "that's why the Irish, so fresh from Celtic magic, so often make a living from words."
At first, he said, corporation types did not know what National Lampoon was. "They thought it was an Italian lamp catalogue," he speculated.
But then, he said, corporation types often spend a good bit of time "trying to figure out what part of the body you put cocaine in." (By this he meant they are not clever.)
Of course he cannot write absolutely anything he might like. If he were to feel sad, or Lyrical, or exalted or lost in wonder, etc., he could not write any of that for National Lampoon. He can be very funny in his work, very satirical. But there are iron limits beyond that.
"It's just as lousy," he said cheerfully, "as any other job."