P.J. O’Rourke And Shaping A Sense Of Humor

I was very saddened to read of the death of P.J. O’Rourke yesterday, at age 74. O’Rourke was a native Ohioan who had a long and successful career as a writer, commentator, and satirist who, by the end of his career, often approached issues from a perspective on the right side of the political spectrum–so much so that his New York Times obituary describes him as a “conservative political satirist.” That’s a pretty hilarious description for those of us who first encountered P.J. O’Rourke in the early 1970s. In those days, O’Rourke was an editor, writer, and principal creative force for the National Lampoon magazine, which made its name by ridiculing just about everything in American society.

I owe a debt of gratitude to P.J. O’Rourke and Doug Kenney, his cohort at the National Lampoon, because reading that magazine helped to shape my sense of humor and world view, too. And if there was one single publication that was more influential than any other in that regard, it was the Lampoon‘s legendary high school yearbook parody, the cover of which appears above. Supposedly the 1964 yearbook for C. Estes Kefauver High School in mythical Dacron, Ohio–and specifically, the copy owned by student Larry Kroger, with handwritten notes by Larry and his high school chums–the parody was a hysterical, pitch-perfect blast directed at everything pretentious and silly and weird about the super-heated, fishbowl world of high school life in small-town Ohio. Every page of the faux yearbook, from the student organization and sports team pages to the student photo pages to the principal’s message to the photos of faculties and staff, was laugh out loud funny and had the ring of truth that makes for the best satire. It was, in short, the work of a comedic genius.

The National Lampoon high school yearbook parody was published in 1974, when I was in the middle of my high school years. I devoured and loved it then and loved it again years later, when I bought an anniversary edition. After reading the yearbook for the Kefauver Kangaroos, I would never look at my own little high school world–or the world at large, for that matter–in quite the same, super-serious way again. Throw the National Lampoon yearbook parody, the Three Stooges shorts, Bugs Bunny cartoons, MAD magazine from the late ’60s and early ’70s, Jim Bouton’s Ball Four and any book or article by Hunter S. Thompson, and Blazing Saddles and early Saturday Night Live broadcasts and Richard Pryor and Cheech and Chong records into a blender, mix well, and you’d produce something like my adult (well, supposedly “adult”) sense of humor.

Thanks to P.J. O’Rourke and Doug Kenney for that. I didn’t really follow O’Rourke in his later years, but I really didn’t need to: he long ago had his impact.