Although not quite in the same league as the Harvard Lampoon, Amherst’s many comedy publications offer surprisingly high quality content from a wide range of styles. Although most publications have individual flair, they are often easier classified as groups. Publications often saw an overlap in staff as publications fell apart when upperclassmen graduated, only for the underclassmen to form similar publications in their later years.
The first dedicated humor publication at Amherst was the College Cucumber (1848), which would also inspire the Scorpion (1852) not long after. Both publications were mock-newspapers, a progressive concept for the mid-19th century, when writers like Mark Twain and Richard A. Locke had only just begun writing satirical newspaper articles. These publications display a surprising level of wit and are refreshingly comical. Formatted like real papers, they feature not just news pieces but also periodicals, opinions sections and philosophical advice.
After a 60 year absence, a string of turn of the century publications would arise. A stark departure from the Cucumber and Scorpion, these publications fixated on a newer form of comedy that seems unusual from a modern day perspective. Rather than offer faux news pieces, students offered anonymous proverbs and short stories that attempted to sow adolescent wisdom. The first was the Amherst Muck-Rake (1908), which was equal parts satire and an aggressive push for educational reform. Popular in its short run time, the Muck-Rake would receive two issues before being closed by administration, although a third would be published in the Olio. In an act of defiance, students would continue to publish similar publications “of Muck-Rake extraction” within the following years, albeit with more emphasis on comedy. This long string would include the Amherst Four Leaf Clover (1909-1912), the Amherst Can (1911), the Toothpick (1912) and the Kidder (1912). When each publication was censored, a new one would simply pop up under a new name with the same staff.
After the short but intense revival of comedy in the 1910s, Amherst wouldn’t see a dedicated comedy publication for over 20 years. Some literary magazines such as the Lord Jeff (1920-1936) and especially Touchstone (1936-1950) would publish both prose and satirical writing. However, Lord Jeff was decidedly literary and Touchstone would be forced to abandon its comedy after administration action, becoming a yearbook that seemed a shell of its former pessimistic self.
Nestled in between the Jeff and Touchstone was the Amherst Stripper (1934), a satirical paper in the same vein as the Cucumber and Scorpion. Not until 1975 would a comedy publication resurface in the form of Tubs of Slaw (1975), which embodied the essence of 1970s experimental literature. Only a single issue, Tubs was full of strange alternative content, like comedic interviews and faux music reviews.
The 1990s would provide a comedy renaissance for Amherst, a symmetrical endcap to comedic successes of each end of the 20th century. It comes as no surprise that Amherst’s most famous comedy alumni came from this period, although none had a direct hand in these publications. Comic artists Bill Amend ’84 “Foxtrot” and Darby Conley ’94 (“Get Fuzzy”) would temper themselves in this period. Matt Besser ’89 would found the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, the biggest and most successful improv troupe in the modern day (Amy Poehler was one of Besser’s co-founders).
Leading off the 90s was the Rage (Of Hadley Third District) (1991), a faux-newspaper that focused on the Hadley area as opposed to Amherst. The fowl mouthed and eager to offend Smallpox Blanket (1993) was a mostly Amherst focused publication with a memorable reoccuring phone prank section, a feature that was only possible in the pre-caller ID age. Short lived R. Plumm’s Journal of Fine Living (1998) was unusual, a spoof of intellectual magazines like the New Yorker.
Perhaps the most innovative and ambitious was Citizen Poke (1994-1995), a trailblazing publication that made the leap to online 2 years before the advent of online comedic juggernaut, The Onion. Citizen Poke recruited writers from other colleges and was centered around fictional “Spamford University.” Although the namesake was a spoof on Stanford, the logo and fictional campus were all but identical to Amherst.
Following the boom, the Hamster (2002-2005) would provide a monthly issue of controversial faux-news once again, with a greater eye on politics than previous publications. The publication covered Amherst, the outside world and featured spreads dedicated to the other Five Colleges. Oddly enough, the publication was also funded by the Association of Amherst Students- a factor which pushed it into decline as some students argued that the magazine too offensive to benefit from their tuition.
The online only Amherst Muck-Rake (2012-present) filled the void left by the Hamster after a long, confusing period of Hamster death and revivals that never left the ground. Despite sharing a namesake with then 1908 publication, the Muck-Rake was in the style of modern comedy- a mixture of blog, news and online entertainment. Three parts the Onion and one part Clickhole, the Muck-Rake has formed an unusual buddy relationship with administration- despite hitting them harder than any other publication.
Project by William Harvey ’18