Read This Post or We'll Shoot Your Dog
When Josh Karp first began e-mailing Robert Hoffman for a book Karp was working on, Hoffman, the local "civics leader and arts patron" who died Sunday at the age of 59 from leukemia, had little interest in talking to the author. But Karp was persistent, insisting that any history of National Lampoon--of which Hoffman was co-founder--would be incomplete without Hoffman's assistance, guidance and recollections. To Hoffman, the Lampoon must have seemed like a hundred years ago and a million miles away; he lived several lives since he graduated cum laude from Harvard and became a Baker Scholar at Harvard Business School. Hoffman had become the co-chairman of the Coca-Cola Bottling Group (Southwest), which had been his father's business; a major art collector and donor to the Dallas Museum of Art; an architect of The Dallas Plan at the insistence of former Mayor Steve Bartlett; a co-chair, with wife Marguerite, of the President's Research Council at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. The Lampoon--that was another lifetime ago, and then some.
But Hoffman eventually opened up, and Karp found him not only an invaluable resource, but also "a nice, insightful and terrific person who added tons" to the book he was working on, which is titled A Futile and Stupid Gesture: How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy Forever and scheduled for publication September 1. (Though it's available from Amazon at this very moment.) Kenney, of course, is relatively well known amongst comedy acolytes: He not only co-wrote Animal House (in which appears as Stork) and Caddyshack, but he died when he was only 32. And he was one-third of the Holy Trinity that co-founded National Lampoon, which debuted with its April 1970 "Sexy Cover" issue. The other two men were Henry Beard, with whom Kenney had written the Lords of the Rings spoof Bored of the Rings, and Hoffman, the St. Mark's School of Texas grad who had been editor of the school's paper, The ReMarker, before going to Harvard and selling ads for the Harvard Lampoon.
"It was kind of an interesting experience, dealing with Rob," says Karp, using the moniker by which Hoffman was known during his tenure at National Lampoon. "Initially, he was quite reluctant to talk to me, but over time he became a really, really good source... Last year, when I was doing some final edits on the book, I asked how he was doing, and he said he had been diagnosed with leukemia. It was sad. We never met in person. We talked on the phone seven, eight times, and he was always friendly, warm and such a smart guy. I really liked him. I just sent him a copy of the book last week, which is so awful. He said, 'I hope I make it long enough to read it.' It's just so sad. So many of these guys died so young, which is strange and sad. I found it heartbreaking to hear Rob had passed away."
Karp only found out about Hoffman's death when I called his publisher, Chicago Review Press, to interview him for this story.
On Monday afternoon, Karp illuminated precisely what Hoffman's involvement with National Lampoon was. It's something often mentioned in profiles of Hoffman, and received a couple of paragraphs in Janet Kutner's obituary yesterday, but rarely has anyone offered a thorough history of the magazine and Rob Hoffman's participation in firing up the comedic joint off of which Chevy Chase, P.J. O'Rourke, Michael O'Donoghue and every other great comedy writer and performer of the 1970s took a massive hit. What Karp--and Matty Simmons, the moneyman behind the magazine--has to say follows after the jump.
The way Karp tells it over the phone from Chicago, by 1965--around the time Kenney, Beard and Hoffman got to Harvard--the Harvard Lampoon was "destitute," a formerly hip, satirical publication that had become "a circular for rich preppy alumni contributors who threw it away as soon as they received their copy." That changed in 1965, when Walker Lewis took over the Harvard Lampoon and began publishing parodies of The New Yorker, Playboy and Popular Mechanics. As it says here, "Some publications, such as Mademoiselle, even sought to be parodied by the Lampoon for promotional reasons," while "the 1966 Playboy parody, which gained the support of Hugh Hefner, sold over 550,000 copies, and Henry Beard and Doug Kenney Tolkien parody Bored of the Rings sold over 750,000 copies. As a result the magazines treasury jumped from around $3,000 to over $150,000."
At the time, the Harvard Lampoon was divided into two entities: an editorial board, of which Beard and Kenney were part, and a business board, where Hoffman worked selling ads and doing other financial transactions. They all graduated in the late 1960s: Beard in 1967, Kenney in '68, Hoffman in '69. And they all found ways out of serving in Vietnam, Karp says; Beard joined the Army Reserve, Hoffman went into the Coast Guard Reserve, while Kenney feigned being an epileptic to the point of faking seizures for which he was prescribed medication. At the same time, Harvard Lampoon was still cranking out parodies that weren't selling as well as their predecessors. "They did Life , and the business end of it was all fucked up," Karp says. "They were buying printing at exorbitant rates, for instance."
While they were prepping the Life parody, the boys went looking for some extra money, which they desperately needed. They wound up in the offices of the president of Independent News Co., which would become Warner Communications. He then called his friend Matty Simmons, a former reporter who had been executive vice president at Diner's Club and who, in 1967, formed 21st Century Communications, through which he published the likes of Weight Watchers Magazine (with a man named Leonard Mogel, who had run Diner's Club members' magazine, Signature).
"Matty got involved initially as kind of a favor to a mutual friend and gave [Hoffman, Kenney and Beard] advice," Karp says. " He was this street-smart former press agent who was about 20 years older than these guys and had made a lot of money...He and Mogel were making good money at Weight Watchers and wanted to become big moguls. They even started a magazine called Cheetah, which Simmons describes as being "like Rolling Stone."
Of Beard, Hoffman and Kenney, Simmons says, "They impressed me immensely. They were so smart, so bright. Henry said very little, Doug knew absolutely nothing about business, and Rob knew everything there ever was to know about business at the age of 21. He was one of the smartest businessmen I have ever met, and I've been around a long time."
Simmons, who would go on to become the chairman of the board and publisher and even editor at National Lampoon and wrote his own history of the magazine, says that he's not sure whose idea it was, but National Lampoon "was an idea we cooked up together." Initially, Karp says, Simmons was going to kick in $300,000--for which 21st Century would get two-thirds ownership in the magazine. Beard and Kenney and Hoffman got the remaining third, as well as a clause in the deal that said Simmons had to buy them out at the end of five years if they three of them wanted to cash out. This is where Hoffman's relationship with Simmons more or less fell apart.
"Matty said, 'OK, I will buy you guys out at a multiple of four times the magazine's earnings,'" Karp says. "He figured, 'What do they know? They're a bunch of fucking college kids.' And it wasn't unreasonable. But Rob said, 'I have done a study of every publication company on the New York Stock Exchange, and they're trading at 12 times earnings.' Matty was like, 'I can't afford that.' But Matty wanted to make the deal, while Doug and Henry trusted Rob. What happened was Rob was operating as this 21-, 22-year-old kid who understood the deal better than Matty and understood the potential value and what a fair deal for them it was. He played hard but fair with Matty, and he got the multiple he wanted."
Hoffman also negotiated the deal with Harvard Lampoon that allowed the four men to use the name; Harvard Lampoon got a few cents from every copy of National Lampoon that was sold. It proved a small fortune during the 1970s, when the latter was as famous as any magazine sold in the United States. But things soured, Karp says, when Simmons' original $300,000 investment shrank to $169,000, but eventually their issues were resolved and Simmons had a controlling interest in the magazine, which would become important when it came time to take it public when it was necessary to raise cash. It also meant a huge windfall when Hollywood came calling: Simmons would go on to produce not only Animal House, but also Vacation, which began life as a National Lampoon short story by John Hughes.
Funny thing is, Hoffman only stayed with the magazine for a short period--only a few months in 1970, when his name appeared on the masthead as managing editor. There was simply no way he could turn down working with his pop at the pop factory; magazines just weren't worth as much as soft drinks. Besides, he had his deal in his pocket, and within five years, he and Kenney and Beard just might be rich, rich men off Lampoon.
So Hoffman came back to Dallas, while Kenney and Beard and Simmons put out their magazine and brought in the likes of Michael O'Donaghue, Anne Beatts, Tony Hendra, P.J. O'Rourke and the other writers who turned the magazine into a satirical franchise full of tits and dirty words. Hoffman returned only once: In 1974 all four men met in New York City to discuss the sale of National Lampoon to Simmons, who was being forced to buy them out as per their original agreement. Problem was, Simmons says, he didn't have the cash they were demanding--specifically, the cash Hoffman was demanding for himself and his two schoolmates. Karp says Simmons thought about suing in order to get out of the deal--Kenney was prone to long, unannounced absences, while Hoffman left early in the magazine's existence--but thought better of it. Simmons disagrees, saying it was always in the deal for Hoffman to come back to Dallas and have little or nothing to do with the business.
"In 1970, I went to my underwriter and said, 'I could owe these guys a lot of money in five years,'" Simmons recalls.. "I said, 'If I don't have $7, $8, $9 million sitting in the bank'--would have been unlikely--'can I get an underwriter?' and he said, 'Absolutely,' so I made the deal. Now we come to '74, and the stock market was in the dumper and there were no underwriting. I said to the three of them, 'Guys, you gotta give me more time.' And Hoffman was very, very tough. The guy just died, so I don't want to make him out as a Scrooge, because he wasn't. He was just a tough businessman."
So much so, Karp says, that several times Simmons offered settlement agreements Hoffman dismissed as quickly as they were laid on the table. Kenney began throwing "a shit fit," Karp says, and Mogel wanted to punch him. But "in the strange world of National Lampoon," Karp says, "this made them all kind of stop and laugh, and then the deal got settled." Come 1975, Simmons would pay the threesome a total of $7.5 million, with Beard and Kenney getting about $2.8 million and Hoffman collecting some $1.9 million. Simmons says he got about $2 to $3 million of that from his friend Steve Ross, president and chairman of Warner Communications. "And," he says, "when Animal House came out, I made a pile of money and paid everyone back."
Simmons figures he probably hasn't talked to Hoffman in 32 years, since that deal was cut and ties were severed. Theirs wasn't a great relationship--no surprise, given it was one that was eventually defined by a dollar amount. "We never got along really well," Simmons says. Simmons was closer to Kenney, with whom he remained friends till the writer's death from a fall off a cliff on August 27, 1980--almost 26 years to the day before Hoffman died in Dallas. "Rob acted like he was the smartest guy in the world." Perhaps he was: Today, National Lampoon itself is a joke, a named used to brand sophomoric product to which none of its founders would want their names attached. Hoffman and his friends got out while the getting was good.
"In the end, Rob wrote just one piece for the magazine," Karp says. "He was working for Matty, and it didn't work out. It was Rob's perception that Matty had no respect for him. In some ways, National Lampoon collapsed for a lot of reasons, and one of the reasons was, in part, from a lack of business judgment. I think probably if had Rob stayed...Well, this isn't for sure, but he was obviously an incredible businessman who at a young age was very astute and was in tune to the world National Lampoon was selling to that I think his leaving had a huge impact. That's total speculation, but the loss of Rob may have been huge, and nobody anticipated that. But he is a huge part of this story: He really protected Doug and Henry and made a good deal for them."
And for himself: With the money he made from his sale of National Lampoon, he bought the artwork that became the foundation of the collection he donated, in part, to the Dallas Museum of Art last year, totaling some $150 million. Simmons says he had no idea till our conversation that Hoffman had become so wealthy or so generous.
"Sounds like he should have given me my money back," Simmons says with a small laugh. At least it sounds like he's joking. --Robert Wilonsky
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.