Founded 1872, Foundering Ever Since
by Michael Gerber '91
The Yale Record was founded in 1872 as a Godawful boring weekly sheet which printed campus news,
commentary, and unread announcements from the University. Perhaps to their chagrin, the editors soon
found that the favorite items were the funny-we're giving them the benefit of the doubt, you understand-
observations and doggerel thrown in to fill up short columns. Taking its cue from Great Britain's venerable
humor magazine Punch, and keeping an eye on collegiate contemporaries like the
Harvard Lampoon (1876)
and Princeton Tiger (1878), the Record speedily changed from a newspaper to a magazine; its pages grew
not only livelier but illustrated. By the 1880s, the Record had transformed into that familiar dog's breakfast,
the college humor magazine, with plenty of cartoons, stories and a profusion of two-line jokes, most of
which must have elicited as much irritation then as they do now. In those days, as throughout most of its
history, the only swearing in the Record had to be supplied by its readers. In 1886, the character of "Old
Owl" was introduced. He has served as the Record's slightly unwilling mascot ever since.
From century's turn to the outbreak of the First World War, the Record mushroomed, in size and
professional gloss. It was during this period that the Record established itself as the premier training ground
for college illustrators, a title it held until the 1960s, when an unknown staffer traded it for a beaded vest,
Mao's Little Red Book, and some primo tickets to the Jefferson Airplane.
But back to the Teens and Twenties. Looking at the issues, one is amazed that college students could
produce illustration of such skill and cleverness, not to mention for free. The
Record's grand artistic
tradition is manifested today in the Morrison Prize, an annual award given for the best art in the magazine
that year, named in honor of an Art Editor who died in WW I. Some might call this a bribe, but to hell with
The Record prided itself on being one of the few collegiate magazines not to suspend publication during the
First World War. Wartime editorial boards included future luminaries like poet Stephen Vincent Benet '17,
his brother William Rose Benet '19 and painter Reginald Marsh '20, who didn't have a brother. Though the
artists shone brightest, the writers--referred to as "Drool", for reasons thankfully forgotten--certainly held
The 1920s were the heyday of college humor magazines; by then the Yale Record boasted that it was "the
most read collegiate publication in America." Then as now, Yalies are not prone to understating their own
importance. Still, judging from the sheer amount of material created-sixteen issues a year, each between
forty and sixty pages-the Record was clearly a hive of activity. It benefited from not only New Haven's
status as a center of collegiate fashion (the pages bulge with ads from local haberdashers, clothing stores,
and shops doing a brisk business in what then was called "men's furnishings"), but also the recognition of
college students as a market. America's infatuation with youth began in the 20s, and the
Record is packed
with national ads, all designed to appeal to the well-heeled collegian.
In 1922, the Record celebrated its Fiftieth Anniversary with a thick issue. Prosperous and professional, it's
not surprising that the Record was incubating one of the leading illustrators of the future--Peter Arno
(Curtis Peters '23), who skipped a Yale degree to lead a jazz band in the speakeasies of New York, then
freelance for the New Yorker for the next five decades. All in all, it's a persuasive argument for dropping-out. On the editorial side, non-dropout and future Yale President A. Whitney Griswold '29 served as
Managing Editor. According to issues from that time, this impressive title did not help him any with the
opposite sex. (Romantic frustration is a pesky Record tradition which continues to this day, and sometimes
lingers well after graduation; for some reason the magazine continues.)
The Record cemented its success by constructing a building, which opened on May 1, 1928. Even though
this is the international workers' holiday, nothing should be inferred; the Record has always been stocked
with capitalists, or at the very least, ice-cream socialists. Unfortunately, this project was doomed by the
Depression, which fell fast on the heels of this ambitious expenditure. The building, which still squats at
254 York Street, right next to Davenport College, was taken over by the University in the late 1940s. It
may be haunted, but if so, the ghosts are not very picturesque. Clues to its original owners can be seen in
everything from the glass-eyed owl in a mortarboard (yes, "Old Owl") perched above the front door, to the
carvings in the upstairs meeting room, which depict the mascots of all the leading college humor magazines
of the day.
Unlike a generation before, the students decided to suspend the magazine for the duration of the Second
World War. Time passed, and many things happened, some good and some bad.
At war's end, Yale was a very different place than it had been in 1939-for one thing, Hitler jokes were out.
For another, there were many ex-soldiers on campus taking advantage of the GI Bill. This meant that the
post-war Record's brand of hijinks-still focused on drinking and weekends spent laying waste to the
various women's colleges dotting the Northeast-had to be more sophisticated. This shook the magazine
out of its 30s doldrums; the Record, while not as frequent, aimed higher, and usually reached its mark.
The Record of the Forties and Fifties was similar in tone and format to the
New Yorker. (This isn't
surprising, as staffers of that magazine helped with the post-War refurbishment.) Now, perhaps even more
than before, the Record was a training-ground for careers in advertising and magazine journalism. Many,
many Record men (Yale didn't go coed until 1969) made the post-graduate trek down to New York and the
offices of the New Yorker, Esquire, and a few magazines that aren't mentioned in polite company. The
Record's annual magazine parodies, in addition to being large money-makers-they were distributed
nationally-often acted as natural springboards towards employment at the magazine being spoofed.
The Record's tradition of splendid art was in full force during the 1950s and early 1960s; New Yorker cartoonists
James Stevenson '51 and William Hamilton '62, illustrator Robert Grossman '61, and many other folks got their start
drawing for the Record. With the drying-up of the cartoon market, these alumni may nurse a grudge against the
for leading them astray; if they do, they hide it well. Perhaps they are waiting for the moment to strike.
Good writing was always harder to come by, even in the fat and glossy days of the 1950s. Unlike with
cartoonists, the Record had to compete with "serious" publications offering clearer career paths, like the
Yale Lit. and Yale Daily News. Still, many Record staffers went on to have illustrious careers as
journalists, novelists and writers of all stripe. And as far as unclassifiable talents are concerned, the
can boast that half of the ground-breaking radio comedy troupe The Firesign Theater--Peter Bergman '61
and Phil Proctor '62-are Sons of Owl.
Along with every college humor magazine, save Harvard's stupendously well- funded
Record did not thrive during the contentious 1960s. Questions were raised about the magazine's "relevance"
(a few examples of things deemed relevant in the 1960s: Iron Butterfly, Laugh-In, Rod McKuen) and
murmurs were heard that the Record had become "a museum-piece of the Old Yale." There is some validity
to these claims, in that few students are ever practiced enough to craft nuanced satirical comment. This
difficult task was made even harder by the bleak trinity of the assassinations, social unrest and Vietnam
War. It was a time for ponderous editorials, not light-hearted laughter. Still, the
Record produced perhaps
the preeminent social satirist of our time, Garry Trudeau '70; Mike Doonesbury made his first appearance
in the Record and the Yale Daily News--and for that alone the stature of the late-60s
Record is secure.
During the 1970s and 80s, loss of momentum coupled with New Haven's descent into Economic Hell made
the Record intermittent, and that's putting it nicely. Magazines were produced in 1971-3, 1976-7, 1980-84,
and 1987. Finally, thanks to desktop publishing, which allows any idiot to publish a magazine, a group of
idiots at Yale said "Why not us?" and the magazine was resurrected for good in 1989. The spectacular
growth of the irritating, unfunny "Comedy Industry", which began in the late 80s and early 90s, and
brighter prospects for New Haven, have infused the Record with newfound vigor or at least unrealistic
The current staff produces two issues of the Record magazine a year, a weekly "table-tent" of timely humor
and cartoons, and this regularly-updated website. Thanks to the codgers, young and old of the
Alumni Association, the staff also brings speakers to campus frequently. Plans are afoot to create short
films, and reprise the national parody tradition. Finally, since 1997, the Record has raised nearly $1,000 for
a local charity through the sales of issues to students; this allows the staff to continue the professional
traditions of the magazine, but do it in the name of a good cause. Confident, happy, and secure, the
Record is perched on the precipice of Tomorrow, preparing to bravely topple into the future.