When he’s not working as deputy editor of Harvard Magazine, Craig A. Lambert ’69 travels the country giving talks everywhere from from Richmond, Va. to San Diego, Calif. on the topic of “How Harvard Changed Comedy.” Lambert, who plans to retire from Harvard Magazine next month, has written for the magazine since 1988; during this time, he has interviewed and reported on dozens of Harvard-bred comedians. FM caught up with him after a recent presentation of his signature comedic history lesson in Harvard Hall.
FM: What was your experience of comedy like when you were an undergraduate at Harvard? What was the comedy scene like? Did you consider comping the Lampoon [a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine]?
Craig A. Lambert: To me, it was an interesting place, but it seemed like a final club. And to some degree it was, and I just didn’t feel like I was a final club type of guy. So I will never know what would have happened. I might have been one of those people who founded the National Lampoon with Doug Kenney (’68) and Henry Beard (’67) and Rob Hoffman (’69). They were my contemporaries more or less. Or not, we’ll never know.
This was before the real burst of stand-up comedy, which came later, probably in the ‘80s. But there were things like “The Proposition” that was founded by John Forster [’69], who was a classmate of mine, and it was an improvisational theater group in Inman Square. It was a little like Second City, with a lot of music and a lot of improv. There were some really creative people and minds like that, and of course the Hasty Pudding show was always there. That’s of course been a mainstay.
FM: How did you first become interested in thinking about Harvard and comedy?
CAL: I always was interested in comedy. Just personally, I like humor. I did a little stand-up myself a long time ago in Boston in clubs. I also did an act in the early ’80s that was a satirical act called the “Macho Mystique.” It was a performance about the image of men in advertising using slides from real magazine ads, and I would make various wisecracks about them and satirize some of the Marlboro-man imagery—these guys wearing cowboy hats while they were shaving in the morning, nothing on except a cowboy hat and underwear. So I liked that; I liked to perform a bit.
It came to my attention in part when I did my first cover article for Harvard Magazine in 1987, which was called “The Harvard Powers of Hollywood.” It was a long feature article in Harvard Magazine, and it broke the story that Harvard people were a force in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles, particularly film and television, and particularly behind the lens. I didn’t write about actors; I just talked about writers, producers, agents, directors, there was a casting director in there—people who had behind-the-lens jobs. And from that, it started to come to my attention that there were a lot of people in comedy from Harvard. It came to my attention that a lot of them were, essentially, coming from the Lampoon Castle.
FM: Why is Harvard uniquely positioned to send so many of its alums into the world of comedy?
CAL: The vast majority of those who became professional comedy writers are from the Harvard Lampoon. Al Franken (’73) wasn’t. Dave Letterman went to Ball State. You know, funny people come from everywhere. You don’t have to be at Harvard; you don’t have to be on the Lampoon. But as a laboratory, as a training ground for comedy writing, the Harvard Lampoon, and the membership in the castle and the way they let people in there is unique in not only colleges in America, but in the world, as far as I know. There’s no institution like that which has this kind of hothouse effect, a place where you can learn to be better at something which you have some talent for, just like an athlete can get better on a team.
FM: Are there other colleges that you know of that have attempted to have similar humor publications?
CAL: There have been some. It tends to be, “Let’s meet in the cafeteria on Tuesday night at 8 o’clock and we’ll talk about putting it together.” They don’t have a castle; they don’t have a house; there’s not a headquarters most of the time, it’s much more informal. So the Lampoon is sort of way out in front on this one because they’ve had this castle for more than 100 years, they’ve got resources and a reputation, a network. They’re wired into the whole entertainment business.
FM: Do you see any kind of new wave of comedy coming from Harvard in the future?
CAL: You can see that the internet will have its influence. I think Megan Amram (’10) is an interesting case, because she got her career started with Twitter. Comedy in general should be short; brevity is the soul of wit and all that. So it’s nice to be short, and on Twitter you don’t have any choice.
FM: What’s missing right now in the world of comedy that Harvard graduates might be well-poised to provide?
CAL: First, what’s missing in the world of comedy is Al Franken. I wish he were making more jokes in the Senate.
Good humor often is something that tears off a mask. There’s some pretense on something, something pretending to be something it isn’t. And comedy can often rip that mask off and show you the truth underneath it and do it in a clever way. And people like the revelation of truth. So much of comedy has had to do with the breaking down of pretense and just revealing the raw reality underneath it. And I think that’s good comedy and the Harvard writers from the Lampoon or wherever have overall done a pretty credible job of it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.