Simon Rich, a former Harvard Lampoon president and 2007 graduate, just published his first novel, Elliot Allagash (which we heartily recommend!), following two collections of short humor pieces. Allagash follows a socially challenged high schooler who gets a social makeover from Elliot, a pubescent robber-baron, and ends up – spoilers ahoy! – getting into Harvard. Rich spoke to IvyGate from his office at Saturday Night Live, where he’s a writer, about the Lampoon, his writing, and what comes next.
So what was your high school experience like?
I had a pretty fun high school experience – I went to Dalton, this high-pressure prep school in Manhattan. My experience was great, I had a great time, I had lots of friends – very different from the characters in this novel. There have been a lot of comparisons by journalists between the fictional school and Dalton. I don’t think that’s fair.
Did you get involved in humor there? Did you want to go on to Harvard because of the Lampoon?
We had a terrible humor magazine that we started called Liquid Smoke – it was awful. Luckily no one read it – it could be as bad as we wanted. The Lampoon was the same way. Nobody really reads it – if it’s terrible no one will know. I was there my first semester. I always knew about it. I was one of the only people in the world who read it in high school, and so many of my favorite shows were written by Lampoon guys – especially The Simpsons.
Did you know anyone who, like Elliot, obviously lied on their college application?
I always thought it was such a funny concept that you have to write a personal essay to get into a school, where the general tone of the essay is one of humility and it’s surrounded by lists of your achievements. One of the reasons I wanted to write Elliot Allagash was I always wanted to do a parody of an application – that’s kind of the centerpiece of EA. That was one of my favorite parts of the book to write – I was excited when the month came for me to write that.
Were you aiming this novel at kids in the college application process, or at adults? It kind of speaks more to people who come through the process.
I was mostly thinking of college kids for some reason – I hope high school kids would like it too. But he themes in it – it’s full of scams, and pranks, and cheating strategies – when you think about it, those don’t just happen in high school and college.
What pranks did you pull in college?
One of my favorite pranks was really low-key: there was an acapella group called the Din and Tonics, and they’d go to a lecture class and get the professor to let them sing for five minutes. The Lampoon went to the biggest class and pretended to be them and sang really horribly – and we planted other Lampoon members in the audience to boo.
We once sent a letter to all the incoming freshman and said there’d been a botulism outbreak and said they needed to submit to health services a stool sample – and we stapled a bag to the letter. There was a line of one hundred kids outside, and their bags all had holes from the staples. It was that kind of ridiculous club. We should have been doing something worthwhile.
So there is a sense of community in the Lampoon?
We tend to find that nobody else wants to hang out with us – we’re not very socially adept. At Harvard, Lampoon kids were considered nerds by Harvard standards – which is like being called “Killer” in a max security prison – Renaissance Faire kids would be like, “What are those dorks doing?”
What’s up next for you?
I just sold another book called What in God’s Name – it’s about an ambitious young angel trying to claw his way up the hierarchy. If anyone at IvyGate can think of an ending, send it along!
Do you have any advice for young humor writers? Was Harvard a good launching pad for you, or would you have done it differently?
It really was – I’m too young to be giving anyone any advice – the great thing about the Lampoon was that it was a place where you could sit in the basement and write jokes for four years. Nobody thought you were weird when you went down to the basement and write jokes – that was normal there. The only way to get better at writing is to write. I still feel like I have a lot to learn, but whenever I get better it’s only through practice.