National Lampoon, Spy magazine; Is The Onion next?

While thumbing through my copy of The Onion’s “Ad Nauseum” the other day, it occured to me that national humor magazines have relatively short lives.

I grew up hiding copies of National Lampoon behind my text book in French class, would wait expectantly for the next Spy magazine to hit the shelves. Both, sadly, no longer publish.

Is there any justice in a world where such fonts of satire are allowed to founder while Oprah appears each month on the cover of her own rag?

Hell, even Britain’s Punch is now pushing up the daisies.

Sure, Mad magazine still survives, and I take some comfort in that, although the death of Dave Berg will be hard for it to overcome.

Will The Onion eventually follow behind Lampoon and Spy? Will I be forced to read Humor in Uniform in Reader’s Digest?

Even Mad isn’t doing that well. They’ve accepted real advertising for something like almost a year now.

Huh? Punch lasted over a century. The National Lampoon got shot out of the saddle by corporate double-dealing, not any real lack of talent on its own part. Mad Magazine’s working on, what, fifty years in print, now?

It comes and goes. Hell, the Onion’s reasonably new. Don’t go digging its grave quite yet…

I’m not implying that The Onion is doomed, only curious as to why National Lampoon and Spy couldn’t keep things going.

And while Punch (and Mad) had been around for a long time, it, too, succumbed. Punch, certainly, adapted with the times, so what was its downfall?

I had a subscription to the old Punch, a result of my early-teen Anglophilia, and I had it when the magazine went bust (1993? I can’t remember off-hand). Essentially, IIRC, it wasn’t being run particularly well, and its humour seemed a little staid and old-fashioned compared to its main rival, Private Eye. (That didn’t matter for me as I didn’t understand the topical humour of Private Eye, at least not till I started living in England full-time).

Actually, Punch was revived a number of years later by Mohammed al Fayed, the Harrods impresario. I don’t think it was any more successful, but it still may be creaking around.

The thing that both MAD and SPY magazine have in common is that they started out very funny and unique, then gradually devolved into the same joke told over and over again. Say what you will, Oprah’s “rag” (not an image I want to linger on) actually puts out new content each month. Humor & satire publications typically fall into the trap of taking a template joke/article and just changing it slightly. With its frequent “Ask a…” columns, The Onion is headed the same way. The main articles are starting to sound the same as well.

There was an article in The Onion not long after 9/11/2001, about a woman who made an American flag cake because she didn’t know what else to do. The “punchline” of the article just had a friend looking at the cake and saying, “It’s beautiful.” That article was the best thing (if not the funniest thing) ever printed in The Onion, if not the best thing I read about 9/11. It took the parody format and actually said something instead of going for the quick joke. If they could keep up this kind of thing, they’d have a longer lifespan than if they just stick to doing boilerplate satirical stories.

What are the circulation numbers for Mad now?

What about “Cracked”. Do they still publish that? I haven’t seen a Cracked magazine for years.

If Mad or the Onion go under, I’m sure another mag will take their place. Lots of humor mag have come and gone…Crazy, Sick, Trash…just to name a few. (Trash was a very short lived mag in the late 70’s. It took direct aim at Mad for some reason…and lost!)

“Cracked” lives!

Speaking of the Onion, is anyone else kinda annoyed at the way they’ve just been reprinting articles for the last two issues? I mean, sure it’s hard to be funny all the time, but if they need a break, they could just say as much and take a few weeks’ sabbatical.

Looks like it’s just over 200,000 an issue. That’s 10% of their top circulation, but enough to keep them going for awhile.

Well read, well said. I couldn’t agree more.

I’d have to go with the corporate-influence-kills scenario.
National Lampoon rocked until the late seventies, then the money and the mission started flowing toward movies and the magazine
started to suck.
The onion is a bit different, because it has a never-ending source of material and its format is set like a newspaper. Like the Daily Show, it has a good future.

One of Spy’s biggest problems, IMO, was that it was usually too smart for its own good. When I could find it (not an easy task in Norfolk, Virginia), it was like reading pages of in-jokes.


When the Onion was young, back in the early 90’s (late 80’s if you want to think very young) they wouldn’t publish when school (the University of Wisconsin, specifically) was out. So the week of Thanksgiving, winter break, and all through summer there would be no editions of the Onion published. Now that they have old stories and constant advertising they can keep the lazy scheduling -except during the summer- and keep the ad money coming in. I think they still consider themselves a college periodical, and until that changes I don’t see them changing.

The Onion has taken breaks a couple of ways, recently. I can recall it just leaving the previous week’s stories on the Web site while the staff took a vacation, and just recently, posting “Best of” stories while the staff was on break.

Frankly, I’d rather it post the “Best of” stuff during breaks; it’s usually some of their better stuff and it tides me over until they get back.

Definitely agree that Punch was trying some crazy things toward the end. Pages largely taken up with sketches that took two minutes for someone with marginal talent to draw. But the graphs of pop music, etc. using time along the X-axis, and things like “Grave (Unacceptable level of seriousness), Sober, Silly, Daft, Asinine” along the Y-axis were hysterical. So some of their new ideas were good.

I got annoyed with National Lampoon when it became obvious they would say or do anything disgusting just for shock effect. Somehow being shocking came to mean the same thing as “interesting and clever” to them.

Mad’s humor doesn’t seem to change much. And the same type of jokes get old after a few years.

So the problem, as with any magazine, one supposes, is to change enough to stay with the times, and to keep old readership, without doing what Punch or National Lampoon did.


Or, more accurately: you (not “you”, partly_warmer, but “you” the generic MAD reader) get old after a few years, and MAD’s target audience remains the same - i.e., the age range that you used to be.


Some types of humor seem to get old after repetition, others one grows out of. The Mad Magazine humor from the 60s to now seems remarkably constant. E.g., I couldn’t tell the publication date of any “Spy vs. Spy”. The style of spoof humor seems mostly unchanged, too. It’s an interesting contrast to the 1950s Mad, which has a hugely different format and type of humor.

Since I’m trying to write humor professionally, I spend a fair amount of time trying not to loose my “youthful attitude” towards jokes.

Punch, I find I appreciate more as the years go by. National Lampoon jokes seem to age more poorly. (There are exceptions, tho, I still like this one from the Beatles issue . . . Q: When did Paul McCartney write “Silly Love Songs”? A: 1963 - 2003.)

I’ve read a bunch of “The Onion” lately, partly in an effort to find one of my favorite headlines (Jews Called Back to Fix Pyramids). The Onion seems pretty robust at this point. Lots of types of humor, much memorable.

Heh. It’s too bad their archives don’t keep all of their articles. My favorite by-gone headline was “Supreme Court Rules Supreme Court Rules!”.

Maybe The Onion can help themselves by ditching the newspaper they print. I don’t know anybody that reads it and the one time I flipped through it, I was dismayed to find out that its pretty much exactly the same as the website, only with a bunch of annoying ads for small stores in and around the area of the University of Wisconsin.