Hilarity On-line

The logo--a man in a suit and fedora striding confidently toward a banana peel--is, indeed, retro. But the comedy website Modern Humorist (www.modernhumorist.com) is very 2001, and adds almost daily to its on-line array of parodies, mini-scripts, ersatz letters, sight gags, and other downloadable amusements. Launched more than a year ago by Harvard Lampoon alumni John Aboud '95 and Michael Colton '97, the site boasts magazine parodies (New Yorker, Fortune), celebrity send-ups (Britney Spears, Tiger Woods), literary travesties (Joan Didion, Harry Potter), and even take-offs on other websites ("Ask Jeez: Helpful Hints from the Son of God").

The concept hatched in the summer of 1999 when Aboud and Colton put up an on-line, wickedly funny parody of Talk magazine--before Talk's launch. "We wanted to have fun with the hype," says Colton. The New York Times took notice, as did newspapers as far away as England and Australia. "There was a vacuum for this type of parody," he recalls. "We realized we could make a business out of it."

Indeed they could; the Modern Humorist entertainment company now produces comedy in several media. Their book line began this year with My First Presidentiary (Three Rivers/Crown), a White House scrapbook purportedly compiled by George W. Bush--written in crayons and a very childlike hand. This fall, look for Rough Draft: Popular Culture the Way It Almost Was. It's a hilarious romp though the consumer and cultural "hits" of the twentieth century, disclosing the original, discarded versions of what later became pop-culture icons: Play-Doh was Play-Grout; Sports Illustrated considered an annual Snowsuit Issue; Ralph Nader's first draft was titled Push It to 80: The Hot-Rod Manifesto; and Jaws began as Paws, a tale of a swimming grizzly bear. Modern Humorist is also developing a pilot for a cable television sitcom--"a workplace comedy, but very absurd," says Colton. Another book, loosely in the travel genre, is in the works, and film ideas are in the air.

The comedy plant, based in Brooklyn, draws on the creativity of nearly two dozen Harvard alumni, most from the Lampoon. Backed by venture capital, the firm at one point had 13 full-time staff members, but now hires its talent on a project basis. Several contributors, like Mike Reiss '81 (The Simpsons) and Andy Borowitz '80 (Fresh Prince of Bel Air) have worked in television comedy. The venture has always used the National Lampoon (see "Comic Sutra," July-August 1992, page 24) as its model. "The idea was to start with a magazine and then grow it out to all other areas," says Colton. "But it's a lot harder to build a business around an electronic magazine."

Although Aboud and Colton now spend far less time on the website than when it was their only vehicle, on-line humor remains the core enterprise. All their books, for example, have grown out of material from the site. There, one can examine color photos of the newly bearded Albert Gore Jr. '69, LL.D. '94, with several beard variations: the "Van Dyke," the "Fat Elvis" with shades and muttonchop sideburns, and the "Karl Marx." Or peruse letters allegedly penned from rehab centers by Ben Affleck and Mariah Carey ("Not many people realize how tiring it is to be an international pop superstar. I can't get five minutes of sleep without someone waking me up and giving me an award"). The site displays posters; one gives tips on "First Aid for the Dying Dot-Com," including a modified Heimlich maneuver: "Grasp your venture capitalist from behind. Place your fist on his abdomen and squeeze quickly and firmly until he coughs up more cash."

In classic Lampoon style, the Brooklyn mischief-makers occasionally play a prank on another site, like the time they posted a "wish list" on amazon.com for George W. Bush. For three hours, people were finding and forwarding the comical array of titles until the website discovered the imposture and wiped it out. No hard feelings, though: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has developed a business relationship with Modern Humorist and this summer, at a shared promotional event in New York, even flipped burgers on a barbecue grill that Aboud, Colton, and their colleagues presented to him. A sweep of the area found no banana peels underfoot.

~Craig Lambert

Read more articles by: Craig Lambert

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