They Laughed 'til It Hurt

A history of humor magazines at Duke
August 1, 2011
 
Picture of Boxing Glove

There is a small, single-panel cartoon tucked deep inside the first issue of Jabberwocky, a student humor magazine that began publishing in the fall of 1980. Occupying the bottom right corner, a sixteenth of a page, a small headstone reads “PRAVDA / CHILD OF C. CHANLER / D. WORONOV / BORN 9-79 / DIED 4-80.” It seems to be nothing more than a footnote, an inside joke soon to be forgotten. Instead, it alludes to one of the most outrageous incidents in the history of humor at Duke.

One look at the cover of Pravda, and it is easy to imagine why the magazine was effectively shut down by the university’s Undergraduate Publications Board, or Pub Board, after putting out only one issue. A young woman straddles the head of the James B. Duke statue in front of the chapel; below, the cover line reads “Getting Off on Duke.”

While this image did cause the student government
to send a letter of apology to every member of the Duke family it could find, it was not the reason the magazine was folded. Nor was it the spoof “Kill the Chancellor” contest on page 14 offering “an AB Duke Scholarship, a subscription to Soldier of Fortune magazine, a zone ‘A’ parking sticker, season tickets to the women’s basketball team, a bid from the TEP’s, admission to any grad school in Durham, and a hooker from Raleigh” to whoever killed then-chancellor Kenneth Pye.

No, as David Woronov ’82, cofounding editor explains
(and The Chronicle confirms), the magazine was actually buried for “operating in bad faith.” That is really an under-statement. After galley proofs of the magazine raised eye-brows in Duke’s composition shop, where it was being typeset, members of the Pub Board—largely made up of students—were invited to look at them. In short, they did not approve of what they saw. Woronov was tipped off about their visit by a sympathetic low-level administrator and took evasive action, believing that the board would stall the magazine’s publication until after the spring semester ended so no one would see it. He had high-quality copies of the original galleys made in Raleigh. Then, he showed up at the composition shop with the copies he had made, implying they had earned the Pub Board’s approval.

Thousands of magazines were printed.Woronov drove all over campus distributing the issues himself one night in April. The next morning, when students began to read them, “nobody had nothing to say,” Woronov remembers. In Woronov’s editor’s letter, he claimed the magazine had chosen “to print anything that was written well and stimulates a response from the reader.” After reading the magazine, one student wrote to The Chronicle: “[M]y response was I vomited then threw Pravda in the garbage.”

While they did receive support from some students and faculty members, Woronov, now a lawyer in Boston, and coeditor Cliff Chanler ’82 were censured for their hijinks and removed from their posts. And so Pravda met an early end.

Beside it in the graveyard of defunct satire lie several Duke publications: Duke ’n’ Duchess, quashed by president Hollis Edens in 1951; the Duke Peer, which surrendered to student indifference and changing political tides in 1969; and even Jabberwocky, silenced in shame first in 1989 and finally succumbing with a whimper in 1992.

At times hilarious, boring, or hackneyed (though mostly the latter two); offensive, tasteless, or tone-deaf (and occasionally all three, sometimes disastrously so); irreverent, blasphemous, or acerbic (and almost always sophomoric); or puerile, silly, or downright strange, humor magazines have had a colorful history at Duke. Appearing inconsistently across eight decades, the five official publications have angered readers or lightened their moods. They have been the objects of university soul-searching or scapegoating. Or, as is most likely the case, they simply have been ignored.

Trends in comedy change through time—one generation’s punch line is another’s cliché. That said, through the years Duke student writers and editors have sought to define what college humor is and have reflected changing currents on campus and in American culture, often landing in trouble in the process. It is a history full of memorable and controversial incidents that stretches back to some of the university’s earliest days of national prominence, when liberty and license existed on a more delicate continuum.

Covers of Duke 'n' Duchess

In the beginning: Copies of Duke ’n’ Duchess, Duke’s first student-supported humor magazine.
University Archives
 

The Duke 'n' Duchess, Duke’s first student-supported humor magazine, officially arrived in 1938 after publishing for four years on a probationary basis. Music, sports, and fashion were covered in a cheeky, cute, and now seemingly quaint manner. One feature, the “ABC’s for Duke Frosh,” took the form of acrostic poetry: “D’s for the Dean’s list—it’s not hard to make / Just study and study till both your eyes ache.” Add Penfield ’40, an associate editor of Duke ’n’ Duchess and later the longtime voice of the Blue Devils’ athletics programs, wrote a regular column called “Doping the Dukes,” which thankfully had nothing to do with performanceenhancing drugs.

The magazine plugged along during the war years on campus and eventually became more sophisticated over time. By the late 1940s, the editors were experimenting with high-concept thematic issues, including the Literary Issue, the Football Issue, the Russian Issue, and, somewhat oddly, the Census Issue.

Walt Wadlington ’51 had been working as a photographer for several publications on “Pub Row,” the informal name for a series of student magazine offices grouped on West Campus where many future publishing giants, including Peter Maas ’50 and Clay Felker ’51, Hon. ’98, cut their teeth. In the fall of 1950, Wadlington became the editor of Duke ’n’ Duchess. The staff was planning a splashy thematic issue that would comment on the state of national magazines at the time. Wadlington describes gimmicks that commercial magazines “were always coming up with—holes in the covers and so forth.” The Duke ’n’ Duchess would poke fun at this trend; but staff members had a problem. The issue they envisioned was well beyond their budget. So instead of running with the ambitious parody of the magazine world, they chose a target that, in retrospect, proved much more dangerous. As a result, their pet project would never be published.

The January 1951 issue was a theme issue of modest scope and length. Its subject was the debauched, fictional “Littleworth” family (a thinly veiled reference to the Dukes), and took the form of a scandal-filled series of genealogical vignettes accompanied by illustrations by staff artist Yerger H. Clifton ’52. As one entry read: “Buck Littleworth’s greatest and most worthwhile endeavor was the building of Littleworth University…. Here lies Buck, coolly stretched on the shelf, / Who no longer cares much for his pelf / Smoking one of his best, / He ignited his vest / And made quite an ash of himself.” The entry was attributed to one “Omar Gawd.”

Turning the page, one finds a drawing of a voluptuous naked woman, identified as Diane Littleworth, and a biography that paralleled the tabloid image of Doris Duke a little too closely for comfort. The response was immediate and swift. President Hollis Edens wrote to Herbert Herring ’22, who was then dean of Trinity College and also the faculty chair of the Pub Board: “You will please call the Publications Board to meet and inform the membership that further publication of The Duke and Duchess is forbidden…. This directive arises from the indecent issue of The Duke and Duchess which appeared yesterday.”

Wadlington, now James Madison Professor Emeritus of Law at the University of Virginia, didn’t realize the trouble he was in until he was summoned to Edens’ office soon after. He had thought the Littleworth parody to be nothing more than what he calls “Yak humor” in the Art Buchwald vein, but looking back on the incident, he believes he was treated fairly—no expulsion, just removal from editorial duties.

Some intrigue remains. “I can’t really tell you, sixty years later, who had primary editorial responsibility for each of those vignettes,” Wadlington says. And the University Archives’ copy of the issue itself was kept under wraps, literally, for years. It was covered by a brown paper envelope and was not made accessible to researchers until relatively recently.

Foreshadowing: RIP tribute to Pravda in the debut of Jabberwocky—which later faced its own death knell.

Foreshadowing: RIP tribute to Pravda in the debut of Jabberwocky—which later faced its own death knell.
University Archives

It was some time before humor was taken up again by a student publication. The Duke Peer began publishing in 1953 as a kind of general- interest magazine. As the 1960s dawned, though, the Peer began to affect a more self-consciously humorous bent, modeling itself in part on the popular men’s magazine Esquire. Later, the magazine adopted a cartoon mouse as a mascot, and soon took on the features of another popular “entertainment” magazine that debuted in the 1950s: Playboy. In one issue, the mouse logo appears in reverse silhouetted profile, à la the Playboy bunny, floppy ears and all. The magazine placed pictorials of comely coeds—which also appeared in late issues of Duke ’n’ Duchess—though in a more prominent editorial place. Some pictorials took up several pages.

In the December 1964 issue of Peer, editor Dean Heller ’66 praised Playboy in the recurring editors’ column, “Peering Around,” and also attempted to define college humor as a genre. He identified three distinguishing characteristics: “Most obviously, it is bawdy. An undefined bawdiness, granted, that wanders from risqué innuendo that would not quite offend the innocently pastel walls of East [Campus] parlors to the unconcealed lewdness of four-letter ribaldry. But always a touch of sex, for college…is also the time of sexual awakening.”

Traditionalism is next. “College, more than any other institution except the armed forces, reveres tradition: not contrived traditions like convocations or flag-raisings, but the informal, enduring, natural traditions (e.g., beach weekends).” Heller describes how bad cafeteria food, cramped dorms, student government, and absent-minded professors—collegian tropes all—make for easy, necessary targets.

“Finally,” Heller continues, “college humor is irreverent. What we boastfully call satire usually attains at best the level of clever iconoclasm and often ferments into obvious sarcasm. Once again the impatience with an older and apparently effete society shows itself.”

Later issues of Peer praised Heller’s philosophical take—which concludes by ascribing to “the college man…an earnestness about his qualities and potential”—and the magazine survived for three more years on more or less an even footing. But it did not outlast the turmoil of the decade’s end.

Going down: Peer’s swan song issue.

Going down: Peer’s swan song issue.University Archives

In an introductory column in the magazine’s final issue, identified as the “Summerfallwinterspring 1968-1969” edition, editor Walter Chapin ’69 vented about “the nonexistence of the arts and the stifling dearth of creativity and thinking on campus…. I’m tired of being double talked. Duke has committed itself to be a national university yet it has retained the detrimental methods and traditions of the past.”

Chapin, now a high-school English teacher in Washington state, also edited The Chanticleer in 1968 and found the humor magazine he inherited to be an “artifact of male college life,” so he recruited female writers. Still, he says, “the whole genre was dying on the vine.” He and his staff wanted to do something different with Peer and make a statement about what they perceived as the administration’s unwelcoming attitude toward students in crisis. They felt that many were forced to leave Duke early after personal or academic troubles, becoming eligible for the military draft, which Chapin found indefensible.

The final paragraph of Chapin’s editor’s letter reads: “Those of us who put this publication out are the ones who have made it through Duke; all of us have friends who didn’t because our frigid Alma Mater failed to tolerate, to provide, to understand. This is for them.” And with that salvo, humor magazines at Duke went silent for more than ten years.

David Woronov, the Pravda cofounder, remembers how things started. It was a hot day in August 1979, and Woronov, a rising sophomore, had just returned to campus after a summer working in California. He found out that his friends had decided to put him up for the editorship of a new humor magazine they had been talking about starting the previous spring. The group was influenced by the then-popular National Lampoon magazine, a spin-off of Harvard’s humor magazine, as well as the new hit television show Saturday Night Live. “I was greeted with the news that I would be going before the Pub Board the next day. I said, well, okay,” Woronov says. He and his friends felt that Duke should have a magazine like the Lampoon or Stanford’s Chaparral, which was also coming to national prominence.

During his presentation to the board, about everything that could go wrong did. Woronov remembers sweating uncomfortably through a presentation he was not prepared for in the least until the moment when he was attacked by a swarm of bees—literally. “I stood up on a chair,” Woronov says, “and started screaming, ‘Die you Nazi war criminals!’ I have no idea why I was saying that.” Bill Griffith ’50, the longtime vice president for student affairs, was in stitches over the slapstick scene, Woronov recalls, and at the end of the meeting, asked Woronov how much money he would need for his new publication.

After some false starts naming the magazine—The Harlequin was the provisional name, which Woronov says he didn’t like, and later the name Lethal Dose was chosen by the staff but was vetoed by the Pub Board—Woronov and coeditor Cliff Chanler, together with then-freshman writer John Paul Middlesworth ’82, were able to cobble together enough content for the first issue by the spring of 1980. It was heavy on crudeness and sexual humor. One feature claimed that Duke’s vaunted Civil War rare-book collection was made up of vintage pornography and, of course, there was that cover image, with the statue of Duke’s namesake put in a compromising position.

Karen Blumenthal ’81 was editor of The Chronicle and a member of the Pub Board at the time. While she doesn’t remember much about the back-and-forth between Pravda’s editors and the board, she does recall that they decided to censure the editors’ conduct without censoring their speech. “In a university setting,” she says now, “it’s important to allow for a wide definition of free speech.”

When she became chair of the Pub Board the following year, she moved to separate The Chronicle from the Pub Board by creating a new Chronicle board, which was one of the first steps toward The Chronicle becoming independent a little more than a decade later. She credits the Pravda experience as one reason she had for separating the two.

Campus response in other quarters was less forgiving. Robert T. Young M.Div. ’60, minister to the university and later dean of the chapel, denounced Pravda for “defying the covenant” at Duke in a speech to the Pub Board.

Making headlines: Jabberwocky's November 1987 issue.

Making headlines: Jabberwocky’s November 1987 issue.
University Archives
 

Pravda wasn’t the only college-humor magazine to run aground at the time. In November 1979, the Cornell Lunatic caused a stir by distributing a satirical football “program” to unsuspecting fans. In May 1980, the staff of the Chaparral at Stanford landed in hot water for breaking into the campus newspaper’s offices and sneaking in a spoof front-page story about the university’s bowling team dying in a plane crash.

Following Woronov and Chanler’s removal, there was still interest in maintaining a humor magazine on campus. Middlesworth and fellow former Pravda staffer Mark Scott ’81 proposed their new publication, Jabberwocky, to the Pub Board and began printing issues in the fall of 1980.

The name was Scott’s choice, Middlesworth says. “Jabberwocky is a nonsense word, which is completely opposite in many ways from Pravda. I wonder if the publications board thought it was a safe choice to go with nonsense over truth.” Middlesworth cites influences like Monty Python, Woody Allen, and P.J. O’Rourke—not quite the same raunchy collegiate humor of the movie Animal House (1978), but somewhat more offbeat, absurd, and cerebral. “I don’t think of myself as much of a controversialist,” he says. (Coincidentally, his father, Chester Middlesworth ’49, worked on the Duke ’n’ Duchess.)

Jabberwocky reflected its creators’ nonsensically irreverent bent, and was soon christened as “Duke’s Only Intentionally Humorous Publication.” The gags continued consistently through the ’80s and mocked, predictably, President Reagan, anticommunists, religion, sexual morality, and administrators.

In the fall of 1989, Marty Padgett ’92, then a sophomore, became editor of Jabberwocky. He was interested in turning the magazine into something more like a comic book, in part because the quality of the paper stock he was able to afford had gone down, as had the dimensions of the magazine.

Jabberwocky’s Fall 1989 issue

Jabberwocky’s Fall 1989 issue
University Archives
 

Padgett remembers being put off by a campus initiative launched that fall called the Vision Program, which was intended to introduce the university’s commitment to multicultural diversity to entering freshmen. At the time he felt a dissonance between the administration’s aspirations and the messy reality of self-segregation that he observed, and he didn’t particularly care for the administration’s execution. “It was handed to us in a pamphlet,” he says.

The eight-page pamphlet begins with a new-age quasi-koan: “To have a vision is to see with the imagination; it is the ability to perceive that which is not visible. Reality is that which is not imaginary; it is that which is actually true.” It continues in much the same vein, promising affirmation of “the uniqueness and worth of each person,” a striving to “increase respect for the dignity of every human being and the ability to live together in justice and peace.” A smiling, interracial group poses in a human-pyramid across from the final page of text, which declares that the “present is alive with possibility.” It repeats the word “vision” no fewer than fourteen times. Padgett thinks that the effort, while likely meaning well, may have led him and his staff to satirize race relations on campus more intensely. “I think it ended up giving us more license,” he says.

Duke’s English department was making headlines nationally as a vanguard in the nascent culture wars, and political correctness was becoming a nationwide obsession on college campuses. But Padgett, who studied English and ended up with a major in history, had more pressing concerns. The magazine was short on content, and his publication deadline for the November issue was two days away. He got a horrible case of food poisoning and slept for eighteen hours straight. At the last minute, he grabbed some pieces of writing sitting around on his desk, and they found their way into the magazine.

One of those pieces was a parody of the movie A Clockwork Orange that, to some, seemed to trivialize or make light of rape. Another was a “guide” to slang terms used by the mostly African-American food-service workers on campus, which Padgett now wishes he hadn’t run. “With humor magazines,” Padgett says, “no one realizes—and me least of all at the time—that you’re stepping into a minefield. I remember hoping that everybody would get the joke.”

The coup de grace in the issue was a “profile” of a food-service worker named Kenny, who worked at the Bryan Center’s Rathskeller and was known to Padgett and his group of friends for having a large personality and wearing a clock around his neck like the recording artist Flavor Flav, one of the founders of the hip-hop group Public Enemy (more recently famous as a reality-television personality). The piece, titled “A Day In The Life: Kenny, The DUFS [Duke University Food Services] Worker,” includes lines like:

11:09—fire up grease vats.
11:30—Rat [Rathskeller] opens, see students coming in
11:31—Take break. Watch “Price is Right,” overguess on food prices.

and

3:10—Medidates [sic], begins to chant DUFS mantra: “Um.”
3:28—Changes mantra to “May I hep you?”

The campus erupted in an uproar. Several letters to the editor and guest columns appeared in The Chronicle, including one from then graduate student and current Duke professor and activist Tim Tyson Ph.D. ’94, author of Blood Done Sign My Name, the acclaimed history and memoir of his experiences as a child in Oxford, North Carolina, following a racially motivated killing. Tyson’s column was one of the more civil communications during the incident, defending Padgett’s right to print what he had while fiercely condemning the content itself. Other critics were not so understanding. Padgett received death threats. His end-of-semester grades plummeted. “I became a political football for everyone to kick around.”

President H. Keith H. Brodie wrote a full-page letter in The Chronicle expressing his “personal sense of shock and outrage.” He continued by saying that the “racial characterizations that appeared in Jabberwocky [were] simply unacceptable to any civilized and humane society.” In December, Padgett was removed from the editorship by a hostile Pub Board. The worst part, he says, was seeing a food-service worker reading the magazine outside of a dining hall. Padgett felt awful. “Things had spiraled completely out of control.” Two-and-a-half years later, he was booed at his graduation.

Padgett, who counts Robin Williams, Joan Rivers, and Sam Kinison as influences, now works as an automotive journalist and runs his own media company. He says he thinks about the incident all the time and the lessons he learned from it. As a writer, he says, “it made me keenly aware of the importance of coming up with something that is defensible and accurate.”

Jabberwocky went silent for two years and reappeared in 1991, complete with a full-page list of “100 Topics Jabberwocky Will Not Make Fun Of.” First on the list, unsurprisingly, is DUFS workers. In the middle of the page is a drawing with a policeman holding up his hand. On his chest is a badge inscribed with two letters describing the order he was seeking to maintain: “PC,” political correctness. The magazine printed only one more issue, in 1992, and then without fanfare, shut its doors.

Eric Jorgenson ’95 was a freshman when Jabberwocky folded and, through college, had been writing humorous stories as a hobby and was an avid reader of Spy magazine. As a senior, he convinced the Pub Board to give him $550 to start a magazine of his own, which he called Carpe Noctem.

Careful what you wish for: Still in publication, Carpe Noctem aims to amuse, provoke.

Careful what you wish for: Still in publication, Carpe Noctem aims to amuse, provoke.University Archives

“We didn’t want to deal with the kind of flak that came out of the DUFS article,” says Jorgenson, now a geneticist at the University of California-San Francisco. So before publishing, he presented a mock-up of the magazine to the Pub Board. That first issue contained a column by Justin Heimberg ’95 called “Deformity or Disorder,” which later formed the basis for a book Heimberg cowrote titled Would You Rather: Over 200 Absolutely Absurd Dilemmas to Ponder, published two years later. One excerpt from the Carpe Noctem piece: “If you had to choose which would you rather have… a birthmark in the shape of Henry Kissinger on your forehead or the inability to distinguish between babies and Christmas ornaments. Things to keep in mind: The holiday season.”

Carpe Noctem continued publishing, albeit irregularly, throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. (At one point, Duke Magazine editor Robert Bliwise A.M. ’88 served as an adviser to the publication, earning himself a place on the masthead under the heading “Immoral Support.”) The publication tweaked administrators on occasion, contained jokes about science-fiction characters and ancient deities and kings, and of course blasphemed, but still, it crept toward irrelevance in the mid-to-late 2000s. In 2009, Carpe Noctem was limping along when then-freshman Zak Stemer ’12 responded to an ad posted by the editor looking for writers.

The way Stemer puts it, in March of that year, he took the magazine over in “a hostile coup d’état” when the editor did not show for a Pub Board meeting. Stemer renamed the magazine Carpe Noctem Quarterly (though it publishes six times a year) and recruited a staff in two-and-a-half weeks. He changed his title to “Supreme Pharaoh”—channeling Jorgenson, who called himself “Son of Amon (God of the Sun)”—and threw together an issue by the end of the semester.

Stemer is a fan of the arch, cynical style of satirical newspaper The Onion. One CNQ headline reads, for example, “Economy’s Recovery Going About As Well As Lindsey Lohan’s.” He chose to reintroduce photographic features to the magazine, often conceiving elaborate thematic photo shoots with his staff. They have also begun publishing a standalone issue of tongue-in-cheek advice for incoming freshmen, called the “Black Book.” The most recent issue contains a fake course catalogue, a guide to East and West campuses, and a “Lessons in Liquor” column.

In terms of his editorial philosophy, Stemer is practical. “People can pick what offends them,” he says. The magazine hasn’t shied away from controversy—“Very little is off-limits,” Stemer says—but tries to meet its critics halfway. He held one session with a group that felt hurt by the magazine’s content, and they talked out their problems together.

In the fall of 2010, Stemer was part of a group that launched DMIX Magazine, a new student culture and style magazine, which is now taking up a good deal of his time. He hopes to expand the publication’s brand to other colleges and universities next year, and he will be abdicating his Pharaoh-ship before the school year begins this fall.

A new editor has been selected, and there will be a peaceful transfer of power. Given the history, that’s kind of funny, isn’t it?