The hijinks and hilarity inside the Harvard Lampoon

A prank the parody publication once pulled on CNN's president -- and why they're so secretive about their "mock Flemish" castle

In the otherwise staid atmosphere of Harvard University, a 142-year-old publication just wants to make people laugh. And as Jon Wertheim reports this week on 60 Minutes, the staff of the Harvard Lampoon will go to great lengths to do it.

Part-comedy magazine, part-secret society, the Lampoon has become a pipeline for some of the most successful comedians working in television today. Its alumni include performers like Conan O'Brien and Saturday Night Live's Colin Jost, and writers of such comedies as Veep, Seinfeld, and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Writers of the Lampoon don't just find humor in the written word; they also pull carefully constructed pranks. They made headlines during the 2016 presidential campaign when they tricked then-candidate Donald Trump into thinking he had secured the endorsement of the university's newspaper, The Harvard Crimson. Mr. Trump's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, called the student who orchestrated the prank and threatened to get him expelled.

Other Lampoon pranks have stayed within the halls of Harvard -- and involved a different president. Bill Oakley, a former showrunner and writer for The Simpsons, was a Lampoon member in the 1980s. In the video above, he tells Wertheim about pranking the Crimson, a frequent butt of Lampoon jokes. One year, Oakley worked the dorm phone number of the Crimson president into every Lampoon publication. He put it in classified ads, turned it into a weather forecast, and even included it in a made-up ad for phone sex.

"And it resulted in, apparently, thousands of phone calls to this phone number, the Crimson president's phone number, which apparently drove him out of his mind," Oakley says. That Crimson president was Jeff Zucker -- who is now president of cable news behemoth CNN.

"We never heard from him personally," Oakley says, laughing at the memory. "All we heard was from the authorities that we were in deep, deep trouble."

The Lampoon's satirical tone sticks out on campus as much as its building does -- a small castle standing amid Harvard's muted red brick buildings and neo-Georgian residential houses. Built in 1909, its front resembles a jack-o'-lantern wearing a Prussian helmet. Its imposing door is painted with a design that looks more like it belongs on a court jester: triangles of bright blue and yellow, centered with a red circle.

"If you just kind of sit out here sometimes, you'll see people walk by just gawking at the building because it's so, you know, singular," says Lampoon alum Mark Steinbach, who describes the building as a "mock Flemish castle."

Behind the castle's door lays something of a mystery. Wertheim and the 60 Minutes crew were only permitted into the building's circular library, despite an attempt to cajole former Lampoon president Alice Ju to grant them further access. Ju says the restriction is mostly for the benefit of undergraduate students who have yet to be admitted to the magazine; the Lampoon wants to maintain an element of surprise.

To score a key to the castle -- and to see what lies behind its door -- undergraduates must meet one requirement: Make people laugh.

The videos above were originally published on April 8, 2018 and edited by Sarah Shafer Prediger.