Five years after Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish came out in 1968, National Lampoon offered its own take on the mother tongue
National Lampoon burst through the scrum of magazines jammed onto newsstands in 1970 and became a sensation. It sold a million copies a month, and because of pass-alongs in college dorms, it had 10 times that in readers. It was a humor magazine in a country that, at the time, had to be convinced that something was funny.
The editors of the Lampoon were hardly a bunch of tummlers who’d come up through the Borscht Belt and would do anything for a laugh. The magazine was founded and run by Catholic heretics and protestant anarchists. The only visible Jews were in the front office begging advertisers to return after they had left the magazine over some outrage or other. There were numerous Jewish freelancers—contributing artists, cartoonists, and writers—but no editors until Gerry Sussman, who accepted the job in 1980.
Gerry’s specialty was detail, and every detail had to be exactly right. Read his parody, reprinted here, of The Joys of Yiddish. It is a perfect and loving takedown of the real thing, only with entirely made up words. Within Gerry’s aesthetic, the whole piece had to look real and sound plausible or it wasn’t worth the doing. His wit was not about tearing down. He had a big heart, and his haimishe nature came through in everything he wrote.
He stayed as editor-in-chief for only a little more than a year. Other work called, and in truth, it was writing and not editing that was Gerry’s passion. He died suddenly in 1989; he was 57. His memorial service—he would’ve been amused that it was held in a church—in Greenwich Village was, in the memory of those of us who attended, the funniest funeral of all time. So much of Gerry’s work was read aloud by his friends and colleagues, that we, all of us, almost died laughing.
A selection of Sussman’s work—and that of many others—has been collected in Rick Meyerowitz’s newly published Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Writers and Artists Who Made the National Lampoon Insanely Great.
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