Wednesday, 16 September 2009

292: Artistic Boys

from “The National Lampoon 1964 High School Yearbook” (1974)
by Doug Kenney and P.J. O’Rourke

National Lampoon’s Yearbook is a pitch perfect parody of High School Yearbooks, the way they capture the low grade awfulness of High School life, and also a plunge into early 1960s nostalgia.
As part of the preparation for the project, every National Lampoon member brought in their school yearbook. The editors discovered that every high school featured the same characters, and so one of the reasons why the Yearbook is so impressive is because it is a gallery of American high school archetypes.
Forrest Swisher is one of those archetypes. Besides the jock, the greaser, the make-out artist, the preppy, the class clown, the maths nerd, and so on, we also get the “artistic” one. So there are the obvious interests in theatrical pursuits and speech, and the school arts and literary magazine. Given the period, an attraction to hip artistic outsiders is expressed in the tail-end of the beatnik movement and the emergent Bob Dylan.
And from various hints, it’s obvious that “artistic” is sometimes also a polite way of deferring saying “queer”. “Crosses legs in class” is a certain type of refined or effeminate behaviour. Each of the profiles ends with a slightly sarcastic tagline, and “Quick ma the flit!” is a coded gay slam.
“Quick ma, the flit” was a long-running slogan for a series of insect killer spray ads. “Flit” was 40s/50s slang for a sissy or effeminate boy - it’s in “Catcher in the Rye”. So what could be seen as a silly nonsensical statement, is more of a mean in-joke.
Is Swisher gay? There’s nothing in the yearbook to go much further, and realistically there wouldn’t be. But it nicely encapsulates the belief that boys with artistic inclinations also have other inclinations. Besides, the boy’s bloody surname is Swisher. How obvious do you want it?
The writers returned to the 1964 graduating class on several occasions. In a 1976 reunion, they didn’t quite know what to do with him, and had Swisher as a local theatre director, married to the liberal Jewish university graduate. A 2003 update, now has Swisher as a Catholic priest who takes a lot of interest in young boys groups (there’s a long standing tradition in “National Lampoon” of sexually suspect priests).

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