This is the story of the legend of George Meyer and Army Man, the revered and long-elusive Rosetta Stone for The Simpsons and post-Simpsons humor writing. That might seem a little grandiose, but Army Man’s history is steeped in the kind of mystery that drives comedy nerds wild.
It begins and ends with George Meyer, who himself, to be honest, is a little grandiose. A Harvard Boy and Lampoon alum who was hired as a staff writer for Letterman, Meyer was extremely ambitious from the jump. “I wanted to challenge the audience every night,” he said of his time at Letterman. “Stagger them with brilliance, blast them into a higher plane of existence.” Chill guy. After writing for a couple of shows, Meyer joined that illustrious group of writers who were quickly burnt out on SNL and had to get out of there. He moved to Colorado in 1987.
It’s one of those classic tales of self-isolation that we use to lionize writers, but rarely comedians. Free from the stresses of New York life, Meyer wrote and photocopied the first issue of Army Man, a zine of short, bizarre jokes, stories, cartoons and dialogues. Billing it as “America’s Only Magazine,” Meyer regularly brought his friends onboard, a murderer’s row including Roz Chast, Ian Frazier, Jack Handey, Bob Odenkirk, and—critically—John Swartzwelder and Jon Vitti. When Sam Simon got his hands on Army Man after photocopies had spread fax machine to fax machine around New York and Los Angeles, becoming a cult hit, he immediately snatched up Meyer, Vitti and Swartzwelder to write for the first season of The Simpsons. Meyer, who “so thoroughly shaped the program that by now the comedic sensibility of The Simpsons could be viewed as mostly his,” according to a 2000 New Yorker profile, was pulled away from Colorado and Army Man, copies of which became extremely rare. That is, until Meyer scanned every issue for a Tumblr user who uploaded them all here.
Having finally read all of it, all I want to do is gush about some of these jokes. So let’s do that.
“Q: How did the swizzle stick get its name?
A: The “stick” part comes from the resemblance between the plastic stirring rod and an ordinary wooden stick. As for the “swizzle” part—who knows?”
There’s something about this one that reminds me of The Simpsons joke: “Cows don’t look like cows on film, you gotta use horses.” “What do you do if you want something that looks like a horse?” “Eh, usually we just tape a bunch of cats together.” Just because there’s something so funny about a joke that sticks its landing by giving up. It’s something that’s really characteristic not only of Army Man, but the future work of many of its contributors.
“I served in the Korean conflict at the age of three, and attended elementary school on the GI bill. My earliest memory is of the retreat of the First Marines from the Choisin Reservoir through a hellscape of frozen, blasted rock. I ate dog in Korea—a child’s portion, of course…”
This short story by Ian Frazier is basically a long-form piece within the context of Army Man, and sets the tone for others that would follow. This Apocalypse Now-ish first-person narrative is the direction The New Yorker’s “Shouts & Murmurs” section would shortly go in (Frazier had already been writing for them since the early ‘70s, they just took a second to catch up). Every detail here is pitched perfectly towards the grizzled tone of the monologue, from the narrator being sent to “the United States College of Army Guys” to his attempt to liberate Paris, only to discover it had already been liberated a decade earlier. “I took full responsibility for the error; never again would I disregard the reports of my intelligence staff.”
“MAN: What do you think’ll come down on us—a curtain, or something unexpected, like a metal grating?
WOMAN: I don’t know. (Pause) I don’t think we’ll ever know.
These little exchanges are peppered throughout all three issues, often collected in columns (we’ll get to that). What tickles me most about these is that there’s a central idea communicated in each one, so that they almost function as micro-sketches that tap into something that might not play in a longer sketch. While they don’t all have bylines, Meyer’s inclusion of them might stem from his frustrating experience at SNL—he’s frequently insisted that his SNL sketches were too niche to make it to air.
“We like to praise birds for flying, but how much of it is actually flying, and how much of it is just sort of coasting from the previous flap?”
The most concrete legacy of Army Man is this column by Jack Handey, which originated here and in National Lampoon before moving up the ranks to SNL and becoming Handey’s signature. In high school a friend sent me a link to every “Deep Thought” ever published, and I lost it, like an idiot. Never found it again. Meyer gave Handey a lot of room for these each issue, so it’s hard to narrow them down, but this one feels quintessential. The best Handey jokes have a premise that is already a huge leap of logic, with an answer that is more grounded then we expect.
“ANNOUNCER: The First Prize Winner of our contest tonight will receive a beautiful vase. Second Prize is a not-so-beautiful vase. Third Prize is the world’s worst vase. And Fourth Prize… death by vase.”
Another recurring full-page column, this time from Swartzwelder, who perfects the micro-sketch concept here. This one in particular has a real early Simpsons vibe, and the heightened darkness of it fits with Swartzwelder’s work on the show—he penned the first “Treehouse of Horror” and “Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish” back-to-back in Season Two, and both the Halloween specials and Mr. Burns episodes give writers a chance to really break from reality and deliver over-the-top punishment.
“You can make fun all you want, but when a zebra talks, people listen.”
People spend way too much time trying to identify what the “original tweets” were, which is pointless, because the whole point of tweets is that they’re a sheer innumerable mass that’s barely filtered down. But while this joke is more pointed and restrained than your average Twitter joke, it has similar rhythms and brevity, and the kind of non sequitur we’ve been trained to wait for these days.
“BRIDE: (QUIETLY, TEARFUL) Ladies and gentlemen … I’m afraid there won’t be a wedding after all. Because, you see … my fiancé has … has died.
HECKLER FROM BACK PEW: Louder!
BRIDE: (LOUDER, ALMOST HYSTERICAL) My fiancé has died!
ANOTHER HECKLER: Funnier!”
This is the first Army Man joke I read and is probably still my favorite. I love that it’s a tiny blackout sketch with no fat on it. I love the stage directions. I love that the bride is the one they’re making announce this horrible news. For some reason I love that there’s a second heckler when the first heckler probably could have sufficed both times.
“WOULD YOU USE YOUR GUN TO SAVE THIS POLICEMAN? IF THE ANSWER IS YES!!! ARMY MAN MAGAZINE IS FOR YOU!!!
Hey, fellas—there’s no need to fight! Plenty of Army Man magazines are available now in your grocer’s dairy case! Now, that’s what I call a honey of a deal!!!!!”
Fake ads in Army Man were infrequent but packed a punch. The optics of the illustration that accompanies this joke are pretty tone-deaf, but the idea of the ad foreshadows the ‘90s super-backlash against advertising that would be so critical to The Ben Stiller Show and Mr. Show, escalating from the ‘70s super-backlash against advertising summed up by National Lampoon’s “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog” cover (comedy writers don’t like advertising). At a certain point, this completely falls apart as a cohesive advertisement, but is still completely confident you’ll take the bait.
“The reason most serial killers are caught is they can’t resist taunting the police by leaving little clues to their identity. That’s a mistake I’m not going to make.” —Ian Maxtone-Graham
There’s lot of Steve Martin in this one—it’s a hammier joke, just on an atypical topic. And it has something that Army Man excels in despite almost every piece needing to be extremely short: it characterizes the person telling the joke very specifically. Future Simpsons writer Maxtone-Graham’s hyphenated last name ties this one together. It’s not a general name. There are no other Maxtone-Grahams out there. This guy has a 0% chance of not getting caught.
“DISGRUNTLED MAN AT BREAKFAST: They can kill the Kennedy’s. Why can’t they make a cup of coffee that tastes good?”
We’ll end with the joke—another one of Swartzwelder’s, there’s a reason he shows up so much on this list—that Meyer considers the quintessential Army Man joke. “It’s a horrifying idea juxtaposed with something really banal—and yet there’s a kind of logic to it,” he says. “It’s illuminating because it’s kind of how Americans see things: Life’s a big jumble, but somehow it leads to something I can consume. I love that.” Army Man isn’t perfect. There are some hackier late night jokes every once in a while, and there are some really off-color jokes that don’t hold up at all. But it is the best document we have of the moment just before this idiosyncratic but sort of intuitive approach to comedy started to creep into mainstream pop culture in a big way. Go to your grocer’s dairy case and pick up a copy today.
Graham Techler is a New York-based writer and comedian. You’d be doing him a real solid by following him on Twitter @grahamtechler or on Instagram @obvious_new_yorker. A real solid.