Mother Jones: Virginia Woolf's husband, Leonard, once said that a man should change his career every seven years. Your life seems to be an effort to exceed that level of mutability. By your mid-20s you'd been a moviemaker, a student of Mesopotamian languages, a professional photographer, a musician, and a protégé of the musical satirist Tom Lehrer. How did you do it all?
Michel Choquette: I never thought about it. Whatever happened happened; that kind of thing. And it wasn't quite as sequential as you make it sound. They often overlapped.
MJ: Sometime after that you toured the country as part of the Time Square Two, a comedy act that exposed you to a national audience on, among other things, The Merv Griffin Show. What are you fondest memories of that time?
MC: I think it was creating the material. And performing it too, of course; but we were mainly a television act because we were very visual. Sort of re-creating in a surrealized way the days of vaudeville. But I think performing in clubs where you had a very direct relationship with the audience and where you could start ad-libbing material that you would later incorporate into the act, I think those were probably my favorite moments.
MJ: Sometime after that you got a job as an editor at the National Lampoon. They ran a photo story called "Stranger in Paradise," which you created by shooting a 70-year-old Hitler impersonator for two weeks in Martinique, including a shot of him nude sunbathing. How did you pull that off?
MC: Well. I'd heard about this guy through a filmmaker friend of mine. He was an ex-acrobat who had been part of a Swiss acrobat family team. He had discovered at one point that he had a bone structure that with a little mustache could turn him into Hitler. He'd had a few minor little roles and then a fairly good part in René Clément's film Is Paris Burning? That was his claim to fame, and he'd sent press clippings to absolutely everyone, including my friend. And when I saw that photograph, it occurred to me that something that would contrast his crisp German uniform with something like a soft background of palm trees and lapping waves would probably be the best. It's featured quite well in another book that Abrams just put out by Rick Meyerowitz, called Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, about the years that all of us were doing the Lampoon. The nude shot is about 16 inches wide, a full spread in that book.
MJ: National Lampoon is a cultural icon now. What was it like then?
MC: We were having a lot of fun. We knew we were breaking new ground in the sense that we weren't just scraping money together to put out little magazines of our own on small presses like the underground guys were doing. We had Madison Avenue behind us. Of course we had to be a little more careful; a little more self-censored perhaps. But still, we were doing things that had not been possible before.
MJ: You edited a comic piece there called "College Concert Cut-Ups."
MC: Jann Wenner, the publisher of Rolling Stone, had seen "College Concert Cut-Ups." We also did a parody of Rolling Stone called "Rolling Stein" set in 1791, that I did with Anne Beatts. I think those were the pieces that Wenner saw.
Detail from "Clever Ruse Comix;" writer: Chris Miller; art: Gray MorrowMJ: So he asked you to put together a collection of comics in the form of a history of the '60s.
MC: At the time it wasn't envisaged as a book. Jann wanted me to put a 20-page supplement together for Rolling Stone—a loose history of a few thoughts about the '60s, about the music scene and the politics. And as I started to go and round up artists, I started realizing that there was a possibility of a book here. Jann did get interested in that for his book publishing company Straight Arrow, but eventually, he decided to back out of both the supplement and the book. I was left holding the bag with a lot of promises to a lot of artists, and that's when I decided to carry on no matter what and find a publisher somehow.
MJ: Do you think you and Wenner were envisioning the same project?
MC: Yeah, I think so, at the beginning. Certainly I started to be more interested in European things, so we probably had a slightly different vision of it. I don't think it was by any means one that we couldn't have come to terms with in the selection process. I never quite knew why he backed out: financial concerns, who knows? We parted amicably and he relinquished all the rights and I just carried on by myself.
MJ: Talk to us about how the project developed, and please don't skimp on the celebrity name-dropping: I mean, Jean-Paul Sartre, Joni Mitchell, Abbie Hoffman, Charlie Watts, Norman Mailer…
MC: Only like 15 percent or 20 percent of all those people I went to see delivered in the end. But I did go and see a lot of people—all the people who were doing North American traditional comics and all the underground people and then many people who don't normally do comics, like Joni Mitchell and Frank Zappa. Or people who'd done them at one point in their lives, like Federico Fellini. Some of them said yes and didn't deliver, and some of them said yes and did. Most of them said, "Well let me think about it." In the book's preface I run a little timeline which mentions all the people that I did write to or actually get to see, with the ones who were actually in the book in boldface.