At Howard University--the distinguished and sometimes stuffy bastion of black higher education--the task of putting out Chris Rock's highly anticipated national humor magazine is no laughing matter.
The first-ever black humor magazine is being developed in the School of Communications, but that doesn't mean anyone wants to talk about it. Dean Jannette Dates has shut off all information about the Illtop Journal and barred teachers and students from speaking to the media.
"We do not want this story," said Howard spokeswoman Donna Brock.
Brock said she can get up to five calls a day from reporters. They get two words: no comment. If reporters keep writing about the magazine, Brock said, no one will be interested when it actually comes out.
Which raises a question: Exactly when will the magazine, more than a year in the making, debut? Some say the Illtop will hit newsstands during the week leading to Howard's Nov. 6 homecoming. Brock, of course, won't confirm that.
"It's an option," she said.
Other questions are being raised by communications school students and faculty who are doubtful of Howard's ability to pull off a funny magazine.
"It just seems like they've been working on it for a pretty long time," said Jason Smith, a managing editor for the weekly student newspaper, the Hilltop. "Seems to me that students are losing interest."
One journalism instructor who, fearing a stiff reprimand from Dean Dates, declined to be identified, said the Illtop missed at least one scheduled publishing date in the first week of school. Another faculty member said Dates, who's spearheading the project, is spread too thin, what with the launch of a new center for race and media, fund-raising for a floundering school newspaper that trains students and a drive to upgrade the radio, TV and film department.
Yet another faculty member said the magazine lacks material because school officials missed opportunities to gather good writing from students.
"They screwed up," he said. "There was supposed to be . . . an intensive workshop in the summer. Never happened. They didn't think students would come over the summer."
Dates did not return five telephone calls from The Washington Post. Brock insisted that the accusations are nonsense.
A start-up magazine, she said, "requires a lot of behind-the-scenes work. It's not because we're faltering. When we do launch it, and that will be sooner rather than later, you'll see that it's worth it."
Rock has also said he will not talk to reporters about the magazine. In the past, he said the magazine is needed because "our comedy-writing skills are far behind that of the white man."
It was while he was a cast member of "Saturday Night Live" years ago that he first considered producing a humor magazine. He noticed that cast members who'd gone to Harvard and worked for the Harvard Lampoon, a renowned parody magazine, wrote well while he struggled.
Rock said then that if he ever made it big in comedy, he would produce a black humor magazine at a black college. Howard is thought of by many as the finest black college around. And besides, Rock's wife, Malaak, went there.
The comedian wasn't joking when he said he'd like to see the magazine become a black version of the Lampoon, churning out talented black comedic writers who would add color to the overwhelmingly white network television sitcoms.
Lisa Henson, a former Lampoon president who's fast becoming a Hollywood mogul, said Harvard threw a Los Angeles alumni event and "140 Lampoon alumni came, so the numbers are really huge."
Aspiring writers compete to staff the Lampoon, said Henson, daughter of late Muppet creator Jim Henson and owner of a studio, Manifest Films. "They make them write volumes of little essays, or draw pictures, that are cruelly and vigorously critiqued by the staff," she said.
Howard should relax, she said. "I think Howard would have a very easy time matching it, except for one thing." The Lampoon has a large endowment.
The Illtop is said to be funded by a $1 million grant from Time Warner, owner of HBO, the cable television network that airs the popular "Chris Rock Show." Brock wouldn't confirm that, either.
The Illtop might be hard-pressed to make a change in Hollywood. A survey released this month by the Beverly Hills/Hollywood branch of the NAACP and a group of African American writers showed a disproportionately low number of minority writers on network dramas and comedies.
The survey found that of the 839 writers employed on prime-time network shows, only 55 are black--and 83 percent of those African American writers work for shows with black-only themes. For Latinos and Asians, the numbers are even lower.
"It does not reflect America," said Dan Greaney, a former Lampoon staffer who now writes for "The Simpsons." "It looks more like Harvard Yard than it does America."
Maya Williams, a black Hollywood writer who worked at the Lampoon when future late-night talk show host Conan O'Brien was president, said the industry is racist. When she submits scripts featuring black middle-class people who don't speak slang, she's asked, " 'Why are these characters black?' When you pitch an African American character, they have to be very flavorful, ghetto or hip-hop."
A black humor magazine could help white producers realize that black characters can be funny without stereotypes, Williams said. Comedian Dick Gregory, who made a name for himself during the civil rights era, agrees.
"I never realized the importance of a humor magazine," Gregory said. "I didn't know comics even did that, but it makes sense. For the first time, white producers, directors and script writers will be able to pick that up and see talent they would not ordinarily be able to see."
Rock's idea wasn't realized easily at Howard. When he first approached the school in early 1998, officials were skeptical. Todd Kliman, a Howard instructor who wrote about the Illtop in the New Yorker magazine, noticed that administrators "smiled tightly" as Rock explained the idea.
Rock kept talking, and they came around. Now the officials say the Illtop can be "a powerful recruitment tool," wrote Kliman. Satellite campuses in Hollywood and New York are being discussed.
Last spring, Rock and his HBO writers held a seminar for students, chatting about stereotypes, the differences between black and white audiences and what the magazine would not allow, including profanity, a staple of most young black comedy writers.
Jason Smith, Howard's campus newspaper editor, attended the seminar thinking he might join the magazine staff, become a script writer, go to Hollywood and get rich.
But Rock followed the Harvard Lampoon's model, demanding a sketch from writers aspiring to work for the magazine. They were also required to study the Lampoon and, finally, write a television treatment.
The Lampoons didn't impress Smith. "It seemed like a lot of raunchy stuff was in them," he said. "I just said I might as well be happy with what I'm doing at the Hilltop, writing commentaries. I'm trying to get them to do satire here. We could do it ourselves; we don't have to wait for Chris Rock."
Sitting under a flagpole on the schoolyard, Brandon Smith, a Howard sophomore who is not related to Jason Smith, said he rarely thinks about Rock or the Illtop, but likes the idea of a black humor magazine. "I'm of the belief that black people are the funniest people on the Earth. But they need to have a medium to express that, and they should have formal training in writing."
CAPTION: Comedian Chris Rock proposed the idea of a humor magazine to Howard University.