Tony Hendra: First the Comic Circuit, Then He Edited National Lampoon and Spy Magazine

From a New York Times obit by Neil Genzlinger headlined “Tony Hendra, a Multiplatform Humorist, Is Dead at 79”:

Tony Hendra, a humorist whose wide-ranging résumé included top editing jobs at National Lampoon and Spy magazines and a zesty role in the mockumentary “This Is Spinal Tap,” died on Thursday in Yonkers, N.Y….

Mr. Hendra, who was British but had long lived in the United States, began writing and performing comedy while a student at Cambridge University, traveling in the same circles as future members of the Monty Python troupe. In 1964 he and his performing partner, Nick Ullett, took their stage act to the United States, and from there he fashioned a steady if peripatetic career doing stand-up comedy, writing and editing for various publications, acting and publishing books.

One of those books, “Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul” (2004), was his account of his long relationship with a Benedictine monk named Joseph Warrilow, who, he wrote, had helped ground him through personal setbacks and instances of moral turpitude and led him back to an appreciation of the Roman Catholic faith of his childhood; as he put it late in the book, “The spiritual muscles I hadn’t used for decades began to acquire some tone.”

“Father Joe” received glowing reviews. Andrew Sullivan wrote in The New York Times Book Review that it “belongs in the first tier of spiritual memoirs ever written.”

But it had at least one detractor: Jessica Hendra, Mr. Hendra’s daughter from his first marriage. She submitted an unsolicited Op-Ed essay to The Times stating that Mr. Hendra had sexually abused her on several occasions when she was a girl, something not mentioned in his book. The Times didn’t publish the essay, but assigned an investigative reporter to look into the accusation.

A month after Mr. Sullivan’s review, the newspaper published an account of her allegations under the headline “Daughter Says Father’s Confessional Book Didn’t Confess His Molestation of Her.”

“It’s being seen as completely confessional, totally honest, the whole story,” Ms. Hendra, who was then 39, told the paper. “It’s not the whole story. By not saying anything, I felt I was being complicit in it. This book is an erasing of what happened to me.”

In 2005 Ms. Hendra published a memoir of her own, “How to Cook Your Daughter,” in which she recounted what she said had been done to her. Mr. Hendra denied her accusations.

Anthony Christopher Hendra was born on July 10, 1941, in Willesden, England, northwest of London. His mother, he wrote in “Father Joe,” was a “good Catholic” but “didn’t allow the precepts of the Gospels and their chief spokesman to interfere much with her daily round of gossip, bitching, kid-slapping, neighbor-bashing, petty vengeance, and other middle-class peccadilloes.” His father was not Catholic but because of his job — he was a stained-glass artist — “spent far more time inside churches and knew far more about Catholic iconography than his nominally Catholic brood.”

Mr. Hendra was intent on becoming a monk when, he wrote in his memoir, Father Joe advised him instead to accept the scholarship he had been offered at Cambridge. There he became less preoccupied with religion and more interested in satire. By 1961 he was performing with the Cambridge Footlights theatrical group, doing comic routines in its annual revue as part of a cast that included John Cleese and Graham Chapman, who later would be among the founders of the groundbreaking Monty Python.

Mr. Hendra formed a comedic partnership with Mr. Ullett, the two “purveying a nightclub-accessible form of the then fashionable political satire launched by ‘Beyond the Fringe’ and ‘That Was the Week That Was,’” as Mr. Hendra put it in a 1998 article in Harper’s Magazine, name-checking two pillars of late-’50s and early-’60s British comedy. In London they shared a bill with the American comic Jackie Mason, who offered to help them give New York a try.

In 1964 they did. One of their first appearances was at the Greenwich Village club Café Au Go Go, opening for Lenny Bruce.

“And a delightful introduction to America it was,” Mr. Hendra wrote in the introduction to “Last Words” (2009), his friend George Carlin’s memoir, which he finished after Mr. Carlin died in 2008. “The third night of the gig, undercover N.Y.P.D. cops arrested Lenny as he came off stage — allegedly for obscenity but as likely for being too funny about Catholics.”

Mr. Hendra and Mr. Ullett worked the comedy circuit for the rest of the 1960s, often bombing in clubs outside New York, their droll British sense of humor not meshing with sensibilities in places like Dallas and the Catskills….

“It’s a legendary show, but for comedians it was like playing a mausoleum,” Mr. Hendra said in a 2009 interview on Don Imus’s radio program. The audience was full of “Long Island car dealers and their wives” who were too uptight to laugh, he said, as was the host.

“We used to call it the night of the living Ed,” he said….

Seeking a steadier income, Mr. Hendra abandoned the comedy act in 1969 to try his hand at television writing on the West Coast. He had two moderately successful years, writing for “Playboy After Dark” and “Music Scene,” but when his manager got him a high-profile job writing for a coming special sponsored by Chevrolet, he torpedoed his own career.

He headed back East and into his stint at National Lampoon.

The magazine was founded in 1970 by alumni of The Harvard Lampoon, and Mr. Hendra wrote for it from the beginning. In 1971, he was made managing editor, and he remained at the magazine for much of the decade. It was the Lampoon’s most fruitful period, and Mr. Hendra helped turn it into a franchise, with books, record albums and more….

Mr. Hendra was the last editor in chief of the initial incarnation of the satirical magazine Spy, holding the position for about a year before the publication folded in early 1994. He was not involved in the magazine’s revival later that year….

Mr. Hendra lived in Manhattan. Carla Hendra said he loved his adopted country and even during his illness, which causes loss of muscle control, remained engaged in politics. One of his last smiles, she said, came when he learned the results of the presidential election in November.

“He was an immigrant who sailed from London into N.Y. Harbor on the SS United States after being given free passage in exchange for performing stand-up,” she said by email. “What was to be a two-week visit became 57 years, because he believed in the promise of America.”

Neil Genzlinger is a writer for the Obituaries Desk. Previously he was a television, film and theater critic.

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