The man with the golden touch
To celebrate Heritage Month, The Royal Gazette is featuring a series of profiles celebrating major contributions to our culture. TIM HODGSON kicks things off with an in-depth look at the inimitable Michael Frith
He was the man with the golden pen, and puns, a young Bermudian whose dead-on parody of James Bond drove 007 author Ian Fleming to paroxysms of sputtering indignation.
More consequentially, the book-length 1962 send-up of the urbane British secret agent he coauthored also helped to set in motion a cultural revolution in comedy and popular culture, the far-reaching repercussions of which are still being felt.
Bermuda's Michael Frith is perhaps best known today for his roles as executive vice-president and creative director for Jim Henson Productions during the 1970s and 1980s.
While working with the Muppets' presiding genius, he co-created such imperishable characters as Miss Piggy and helped to develop the children's TV classic Fraggle Rock. That celebrated 1980s puppet show, informed by themes of ecological responsibility and interconnectivity, was inspired, in part, by Frith's upbringing in the bucolic Bermuda of the 1940s and 1950s. Fraggle Rock's subterranean setting was, in fact, a fantastical reimagining of the island's Crystal Caves.
Raised in Paget, where his parents, Alexander and Mary, operated the Salt Kettle Guest House, Frith had already made a name for himself in Bermuda while still in secondary school.
As the wunderkind “boy cartoonist” of the afternoon Mid-Ocean News newspaper at the time, the giddily inspired caricatures he contributed reflected 1950s Bermuda events and personalities as if through a glass wryly.
Extravagantly gifted as well as ferociously hard-working, Frith had already come to prominence in the United States while still a Harvard undergraduate when his gentle-tempered whimsicality meshed with the satirical sensibilities then coming into vogue.
His facility for irreverent and inventive humour found its perfect expression in Alligator, the bestselling book-length 007 parody he coauthored with Christopher Cerf, his fellow student and Harvard Lampoon contributor, at the height of the James Bond phenomenon.
Originally included as an insert in the Harvard Lampoon, the university's satirical newspaper, Alligator boasted a Martini-dry send-up of Fleming's fanciful plots and inimitable writing style. Illustrations by Frith both mirrored and cheerily subverted the cover art of the New American Library's Bond paperback series, which were at the time selling millions of copies a year.
From his base of operations in Frith's native Bermuda, Alligator's villainous title character controls the international crime cabal The Organisation Organised To Hate (TOOTH) and is blackmailing the British Government by stealing London landmarks, including the Houses of Parliament, and floating them to the island.
The pivotal role played by Alligator in expanding the reach of what was then derisively termed “college humour” beyond the ivy-dappled gates of campuses was highlighted in the book That's Not Funny,< That's Sick by London-based journalist Ellin Stein.
Recently published in paperback, Stein's encyclopaedic survey — subtitled The National Lampoon & The Comedy Insurgents Who Captured The Mainstream — chronicles how a sometimes sophomoric, sometimes wildly sophisticated brand of humour came into cultural ascendancy.
She dates the beginnings of this movement to the early 1960s. At the time, a confluence of influences were reshaping popular tastes in humour. Sharp-edged satirical comics such as Lenny Bruce and Dick Gregory and wryer voices such as those belonging to Mike Nichols, Elaine May and Woody Allen, as well as writers such as the likes of Terry Southern, were beginning to emerge in the US. And across the Atlantic in Britain, troupes such as Beyond The Fringe were also expanding the boundaries of what was considered both permissible and possible in comedy.
Stein cites Frith's time as editor of the Harvard Lampoon, in general, and the unprecedented success of Alligator, in particular, as being among these watershed moments in the development of modern comic sensibilities.
“So accomplished was Alligator that it might easily have been mistaken for the real thing,” Stein writes of the parody that earned its young Bermudian coauthor admiring coverage in Time magazine. “The book's villain, one Lacertus Alligator, a short megalomaniac with 'pointed teeth made of burnished steel', pet alligators, and a penchant for spraying everyone who comes within arm's reach with a purple aerosol spray, is only slightly more outlandish than the average Bond baddy; Bond's capacity for remaining unaffected by substance abuse ('he had quickly showered and dressed, tossed down seven double martinis') or physical pain ('the beast tore itself away from B*nd, bringing with it a substantial portion of his foreleg and, B*nd realised thankfully through senses clouded by agony, the ropes that bound his legs. He now was free to move about') only slightly exaggerated ...”
Lacertus Alligator's deliciously pneumatic, and delightfully named, assistant, Anagram Le Galion, ultimately succumbs to the charms of secret agent J*mes B*nd when he is sent to Bermuda to investigate the case and together they foil TOOTH's diabolical conspiracy.
Later published in paperback by Signet, the book amazed everyone — not least student authors Frith and Cerf — by selling hundreds of thousands of copies throughout North America.
Everyone was amused, it seemed, except for Fleming.
The British author replied to a polite suggestion from Cerf's father, New York publishing luminary Bennett Cerf, that Alligator be released in hardback with a furious letter excoriating the young writers.
“This reaction shocked the parody's authors, who had thought the Bond books were supposed to be funny,” Stein writes.
Fleming's ill-tempered threats of legal action meant Frith and his coauthor were not free to pursue any of the Alligator-related spin-off projects that had been proposed in the wake of the book's success. “We had movie offers, somebody wanted us to do a Broadway musical,” Frith told Stein, but the collegiate authors were barred from further capitalising on their Bond-based celebrity.
And Fleming's ire continued to extend beyond the grave.
“After he died, the people who had obtained the rights to continue the series approached Frith and [Christopher] Cerf and asked them to write the further adventures of James Bond,” Stein writes. “The collaborators accepted, but a routine check revealed a codicil in the late author's will that prohibited in perpetuity Frith and Cerf specifically from writing any Bond books after Fleming's death.
“Not even over his dead body would the author let his hero fall into the parodists' clutches a second time.”
The unprecedented success of Alligator along with contemporaneous Harvard Lampoon-supervised spoofs of the women's fashion and lifestyle magazine Mademoiselle, to which both Frith and Cerf contributed, had demonstrated a national audience existed for their particular brand of post-adolescent college humour. It was one often predicated on the comic possibilities implicit in the tensions between innocence and experience.
Further parodies followed in the years after Frith and Cerf left that Ivy League institution. Among them was the phenomenally successful Bored of The Rings in 1969, a book-length send-up of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth saga by two Harvard Lampoon collaborators called Henry Beard and Douglas Kenney, with cover art provided by Frith. Later that same year, those two Harvard alumni headed to New York and founded The National Lampoon. That now-legendary magazine attempted to replicate the Harvard Lampoon's unlikely blend of highbrow and lowbrow humour in a nationally distributed publication.
Frith and Cerf, already established as editors at New York publishing firm Random House by that time, came on board in the early years as consultants and contributors, acting as combination elder brothers-elder statesmen to the fledgeling National Lampoon's editorial team.
Almost immediately, the magazine started spinning off side projects, including book and magazine parodies, radio and theatrical revues, records and, ultimately, films including such blockbusters as Animal House and the ongoing Vacation franchise.
With all these projects on the go, the magazine's core group of talent was quickly reinforced by members of groups such as Chicago's Second City improvisational comedy troupe and its Toronto offshoot. As a consequence, all manner of rising young stars came into the magazine's orbit, where they absorbed its influence, emitted some their own and then often veered off into the popular culture in unrelated but Lampoon-inspired and indebted TV shows such as Saturday Night Live and SCTV and movies: future superstars including John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Ivan Reitman and Harold Ramis were among them.
These sometimes unlikely intertwined relationships were not always easy ones. For instance, John Belushi, Saturday Night Live's resident wild-man comic and original breakout star, bristled at sharing the same bill with the Muppets during the show's first season.
“Belushi hated the Muppets,” Frith, by that time working with Jim Henson and designing the marionettes used on that late-night comedy revue in 1975-76, lamented to Stein. “He called them a bunch of blanket-blank green washcloths that should be cut up with a butter knife.”
The arc of Frith's career eventually took him away from the modern comedy arena that he helped to create. After leaving the Muppets, he and Cerf conceived and developed the award-winning PBS educational programme Between The Lions. Now Frith and Long Island-born wife Kathy Mullen, a former Muppet operator, are principals of No Strings International, a puppet charity that provides life-saving lessons to children living in war zones and areas that have suffered natural disasters.
But as Stein says in her book, Frith's role in the creation of The National Lampoon helped to “trigger a chain reaction of groundbreaking projects that would spread to theatre, records, radio, television and movies, making satire and subversive humour a gateway to commercial success, [a] pebble thrown into a pond, with ripples ultimately including The Simpsons, The Onion, This Is Spinal Tap, South Park, The Daily Show, 30 Rock, and Superbad ,,, ”
Fleming's threatened lawsuits notwithstanding, it seems the world — and Michael Frith — has enjoyed the last laugh from Alligator.
• That's Not Funny, That's Sick: The National Lampoon & The Comedy Insurgents Who Captured The Mainstream by Ellin Stein is available through the Bermuda Bookstore. Learn more about the Friths' work with the puppet charity No Strings International at www.nostrings.org.uk