Although its, uh, cultural cachet, I suppose, has fallen in recent decades, a doofy poem called “The Desiderata of Happiness” used to be something that you’d see on the walls of doctor’s and dentist’s offices, at your grandmother’s or great aunt’s houses, or maybe in the very home you grew up in, during the late 60s and 70s. (At one point hippies even adopted it).
You don’t see it so often today, but it’s still around. Now that you’ve had your attention called to it, the next time you see it (normally as a varnished wall plaque) you’ll remember this post (and wince).
Here’s an example of the proto-New Age wisdom you will find in “The Desiderata of Happiness”:
You are a child of the universe,
No less than the trees and the stars;
You have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
“The Desiderata of Happiness” was written in 1906 by a lawyer named Max Erhmann, but it was unknown during his lifetime. Its slow burn to popularity began in the 1950s when a Baltimore pastor printed it up in some church materials. The prose poem’s advice to be humble, live a clean and moral life and to respect even thick people seems simplistic even by Forrest Gump or Sarah Palin standards, but for whatever reason this poem struck a chord with the public. (You can read more about its history at Wikipedia).
In 1971, a “groovy” American radio talkshow host by the name of Les Crane (once married to Gilligan’s Island‘s Tina Louise and considered by some to be the original “shock jock”) narrated a spoken word/musical version of the poem (avec gospel choir), that reached #8 in the Billboard charts and won a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Performance of the Year. It was on the British pop charts for 14 months.
The following year, a wonderful parody version titled “Deteriorata” was created by the National Lampoon’s Michael O’Donoghue, Tony Hendra and Christopher Guest and released as a single (and on the classic Radio Dinner album). Melissa Manchester sang on the record. The humorously ponderous reading was handled by Norman Rose, a popular announcer of the day whose voice is also heard in Woody Allen’s Love & Death.
Years later, Les Crane was asked about “Desiderata” and said “I can’t listen to it now without gagging,” adding that he preferred the Lampoon’s piss-take. Eventually the parody became better-known than the original hit record due to frequent spins on the Dr. Demento radio show. Below is the original version, Les Crane version:
“Deteriorata,” The National Lampoon parody:
An excellent version of “Deteriorata” closes the new theatrical show Sketches from The National Lampoon that opened last weekend in Los Angeles. Produced by Lampoon founder Matty Simmons, with a winning cast—including our good friend the incomparable Jesse Merlin who gets to read “Deteriorata”—at the Hayworth Theatre on Wilshire Blvd.
Get tickets at National Lampoon.com