We can identify the cultural significance of David Letterman . He came to prominence on the back of a cultural trend, the Preppie revolution. Letterman was the guy who liked to stand in a window in Rockefeller Center and proclaim through a bull-horn, “I’m not wearing any pants.” This was preppie humor, a frat boy prank.
Below is my cheat-sheet treatment of the Preppie revolution as it appeared in Chief Culture Officer.
I would love it if people would give offer a brief account of the cultural movement that brought Stephen Colbert to prominence and the shift in culture his rise represents for us. Don’t feel obliged to give a detailed account. We can make this collaborative. Just take a different piece of the puzzle and I will try to piece together when all “results” are in.
The preppie convergence began to form visibly and publicly around 1980, but we if we were astoundingly well informed and gifted, we could have seen it coming ten years before. Doug Kenney founded in National Lampoon in 1970 with staff from the Harvard Lampoon. And we could have tracked the success of this convergence as this publication began to scale up. National Lampoon published parodies of Newsweek and Life, the 1964 High School Yearbook Parody (1974), and a well received issue entitled Buy this magazine, or we’ll shoot this dog. By the end of the 1970s, Lampoon circulation had reached nearly a million copies per month. And by this time even the dimmest trend hunter had it on their radar.
Sales is one thing. We should also be alert to the migration of talent. In the case of the preppie convergence, we needed to be paying attention when the world started raiding the Lampoon for talent. Kenney left to write movies. Michael O’Donoghue left in 1975 to become head writer for Saturday Night Live. P.J. O’Rourke left to write for Rolling Stone. The National Lampoon spoke with the voice of the ruthless private school boy. Apparently this was now in demand.
We should have noticed when the preppie convergence began to colonize the movies. We should have been paying attention when the preppie thing migrated to the movies. Kenney created Animal House in 1978 and Caddyshack in 1980. The first featured Tim Matheson, the second Bill Murray. The prep also appeared in Bachelor Party (1984), played by Tom Hanks. Perhaps most famously, the prep turned up in the 1982 NBC series Family ties in the character of Alex P. Keaton, played by Michael J. Fox. He also appeared in the 1982 late night comedy show in the person of David Letterman who gave voice to prep form by standing in a window of Rockefeller center and announcing with a bull horn, “I’m not wearing any pants.” (Preps loved to be vulgar and clever at the same time. It’s a frat thing.)
Everyday language began to vibrate with new phrases: “go for it,” “get a life,” “get a grip,” “snap out of it.” It was easy to see how these spoke for the new convergence. People were impatient with the old pieties. That was 60s idealism, and people were done with that.
Convergences must shake the webs of the publishing world. (Or they cannot be convergences.) One of the best sellers of the period was Lisa Birnbach’s The Preppy Handbook in 1980. This was 200 pages of detailed instruction: what to wear, where to go to school, what sports to play, what sports to watch, what slang to speak, how to be rude to a salesperson, and how to mix a Bloody Mary. If the National Lampoon had supplied the new character of the decade, here were instructions of a much more detailed kind.
The consensus was visible in public life. Suddenly Harvard Yard, never especially presentable in its architecture, appointments, or personnel, filled with glossy teens in down vests, Norwegian sweaters, and Top-Siders, all newly minted by L.L. Bean. Some of them were the children of Old Money following ancestral footsteps into the Ivy League. But most were kids from Boston University who believed that the Yard was a better lifestyle accessory.
The convergence began to recruit ferociously. A young woman remembers.
As a teenager [my mom] was pulling The Preppy Handbook out from under my [sleeping] cheek. These were the mid-80’s, and I just lapped up all that puppy/yuppie/J. Crew catalogue/Land’s End stuff. I didn’t want to live in Wisconsin; rather, I wished my parents played tennis and would send me away to Phillips Exeter. In fact, I waged a two-year send-Ann-to-Exeter campaign (“or, hey Choate would be O.K. C’mon, at least consider the University School of Milwaukee!”). I wished we summered on Martha’s Vineyard and wore penny loafers without socks. I wanted to ski in Vermont during Christmas vacation like my copy of The Preppy Handbook recommended. […] I wanted to live far away from Wisconsin and my family and come home only at Christmas. As pathetic as it sounds, deep in my soul I wished I owned a navy-blue blazer with my school’s crest embroidered on the lapel and wore grosgrain ribbons in my hair. I daydreamed about the day when I would go to East to college, and I believed I would.1
The preppie convergence would sell a lot of cars for Chrysler (Jeeps) and, eventually, a lot of SUVs for everyone. It would sell clothing for L.L Bean, Land’s End, J. Crew, Ralph Lauren, and eventually Tommy Hilfiger and the Gap. It would sell a ton of furniture for Ethan Allen and eventually Sears. Downstream, it sold a lot of watches for Rolex and a lot of cars for BMW. Eventually, it would serve as the foundation for Martha Stewart and her brand of status. It would shape and still shapes what boomers wear on the weekends.2
The tide turned again. Repudiation was coming. We might have seen, as I did, graffiti on a Tom Cruise movie poster that read, “die Yuppie scum.” Another was Gordon Gecko in Wall Street (1987), a film Roger Ebert hailed as a “radical critique of the capitalist trading mentality.” The prep hero was now tarnished. (Life soon imitated art, with the fall of Michael Milken, the junk bond trader indicted in 1989 for violations of federal securities and racketeering laws.) The third was the movie, Heathers (1989) in which teens excluded by snobbery take a terrible revenge against the preps. The fourth was the publication of American Psycho in 1991. This was, among other things, a vilification of the prep. At this point, the big board should be flashing with warning signals. Something new had made it up out of the college campuses of the world, past all the little gates, and on to the big screen. Pity us if this is our first warning.
I was doing research with teens in 1990 and, almost to a person, they were saying, “well, I guess you could say I’m a Prep, but I don’t really think I am.” Or, more forcefully, “The last thing I want to be called is a Prep.” This was coming from kids who were still wearing buttoned down shirts and Top Siders. Teens were moving on, some to the emerging subculture of rap, some to a brief revival of the hippy regime, still others were taking an “alternative” turn. We do not have access to this data, but we can assume that sales figures for Ralph Lauren, Rolex, BMW, and the other “flag ship” brands of the decade fell sharply. Presumably, furniture and textile stores suddenly found it difficult to move their “duck” and “sailboat” motifs. What convergences give, they take away.
1 Stroh, Ann. n.d. The Preppy Handbook and other myths. This document may be found at http://www.sit.wisc.edu/%7Exanadu/preppy_handbook.html.
2 For the connection between the prep or yuppie movement and BMW, see Greyser, Stephen and Wendy Schille. 1991. BMW: The Ultimate Driving Machine Seeks to De-Yuppify Itself. Harvard Case Study, 9-593-046, December 27, 1993. Steven Greyser is an Emeritus Professor at the Harvard Business School. Wendy Schille was a research associate at HBS at the writing of this case.