Comedy Writer Janis Hirsch Discusses Her Time at the National Lampoon

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“I was never allowed to write,” Janis Hirsch tells me as we begin the interview with my mistaken notion that she was once a writer for the venerated comedy magazine the National Lampoon. “Because I was a girl and I wasn’t sleeping with one of the editors, and I wouldn’t have known how. I really wouldn’t have known how to at that time.” But in the intervening years, Hirsch has established herself as a strong comedic writer, writing and producing episodes of Frasier and Will and Grace among others. She was kind enough to donate her time for this interview to help promote the new documentary Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon, director Douglas Tirola’s examination of the rise and fall of a revered comedy institution.

Having started with group sales for the Lampoon’s live show Lemmings, Hirsch talked her way into a full-time job at the Lampoon by pressuring Matty Simmons, CEO of the Lampoon’s parent company. “So I became everyone’s assistant. I became the girl,” Hirsch says of her multiple duties at the Lampoon. “So I would work on Lemmings, on the Radio Hour, on the tours, on the albums, doing all the nitty gritty stuff, all the coordination, all the stuff that nobody wanted to do. Stuff that the creative guys didn’t want to do or didn’t have the attention span to do.”

janis-hirsch-001“I was Ursula Wattersky in the high school yearbook parody,” she says of her visual role in one of the Lampoon’s most famous works, a parody of a 1964 high school yearbook, which laid the foundation for what would become Animal House. “I walked with crutches so Doug Kenney said to me, ‘We need crutches. There’s always a handicapped girl.’ And I said, ‘I come with them, so if you’re gonna use them you’re gonna have me work on the yearbook,’” she elaborated on her role in the yearbook. “So I did all the scheduling, coordination. We went to a very swanky prep school in the Upper West Side of New York, those are real kids except for the nudity with a model or otherwise the editors, and I would do all their hair. I would tell them when to show up. But we never paid them. We didn’t give those kids a dime to be in the yearbook, and they just did it. And they didn’t get it. And then we gave them a cheap, shitty party at the end. And that was it.”

Inescapable, however, was the looming sexism inherent of the era. “Anne Beatts,” Hirsch recalls, “her quote is she got into the Lampoon the same way Catherine the Great got into politics – flat on her back. Emily Prager, who was Doug Kenney’s girlfriend, and they’re both very talented writers, but that’s how they got in. That’s how they got to write. And I don’t know if things changed afterward. I was there through ’75 maybe. But when I was there, there were no women writers. There were no women editors, certainly.”

But don’t expect much anger from Janis Hirsch about the era’s sexism. “This was the ‘70s and our fathers were all the Mad Men generation,” she said. “That we got this far was pretty fantastic.”

“The guys weren’t being mean or gross about it – it wasn’t like Tinder – it was these are guys that you knew never got laid,” she said of her male dominated co-workers. “They were the nerds. They were the fraternity from Animal House. They were the slobs. They were the geeky guys or the brain guys. [John Landis] says they went through a high school cafeteria and got the smartest person at every table. At the frat boy table. At the class clown table. At the geek table. At the nerd table. At the brainiac table. And that’s what the Lampoon was. They weren’t mean to women, you know, just funny women weren’t an option.”

“We did a fold-out of Muhammad Ali’s hard-on, and she had to style it,” Hirsch recalls of a former co-worker obligated to work on some of the more raunchy pieces featured in the Lampoon. “She had to, you know, Michael Gross would be looking through the camera going, ‘Alright, move that hair, lift it a little, put a light on it.’ I would say there were two stalls in the ladies room and four women so we would just double up and go into the ladies’ room and either cry or get high, or sometimes both. And that day with my poor friend was a lot of crying and getting high.”

Laughing, she recalls more, “Muhammad Ali’s hard-on, and that was just some guy in the mailroom. There was nobody black on staff, but there was a black guy in the mailroom and the guys said to him, ‘Wanna get a boner for us?’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, sure.’ He just jerked off, got a hard-on, and they took pictures of it. And that’s how we did everything. Nobody got paid for doing that stuff.”

Janis Hirsch took many lessons from the Lampoon with her into career as a comedy writer. “My favorite things about the Lampoon – Doug Kenny said to me, ‘When you laugh at something you can’t be scared of it.’ And I thought, ‘Boy, is that good advice.’ It’s incredibly true,” she said. “And, you know, he wasn’t one of these sages puffing on his pipe and stroking his beard, he just said to me sort of in passing. And I went, ‘Oh, I get that.’ And that’s helped me write and helped me survive in male-dominated comedy rooms, or comedy rooms where the men weren’t as evolved as I would’ve loved them to be. You can’t get on your high horse. I did it. I’ve made plenty of mistakes.

“The Lampoon was Michael O’Donoghue saying that nothing was off limits,” she continued. “It was a different kind of comedy, too. It was an appreciation. It wasn’t one kind of comedy was better than another. The slapstick was in the Lampoon, the silliness, the gasping kind of humor, the cerebral – it was all there and it all counted. And that’s another great lesson: If it’s funny, it’s funny it doesn’t matter what flavor funny.”

As for the future, Hirsch informed a project she’s currently developing, “Tony Hendra, also of the Lampoon, and I are trying to sell a series based on our early days at the Lampoon. Because he was an editor and me as the girl, we had completely – our Venn diagram overlaps just a sliver. We both knew the same big events, but he knew everything that was going on with the writing and the fight, there were feuds. And I just sort of knew – I had to pick up Henry Beard’s laundry from his mother and take it back to his mother. I knew that. I didn’t know what else was going on. I didn’t need to.”

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