Too Lewd for Larry
How the original Jerry Falwell ad parody was toned down for Hustler.
By Adam Langer
In Milos Forman's The People vs. Larry Flynt, the cackling, boorish editorial board of Hustler magazine throws around names of people the magazine should satirize. One person throws out the name of Jerry Falwell, foreshadowing the landmark freedom-of-speech case in which the founder of Hustler and the leader of the Moral Majority went toe-to-toe in the Supreme Court over the rag's legendary March 1984 Campari ad parody, which depicted Falwell discussing the first time he had sex with his mother ("'Campari in the crapper with Mom...how interesting. Well, how was it?' 'The Campari was great, but Mom passed out before I could come'").
But as far as Chicago playwright, composer, screenwriter, advertising copywriter, and jack-of-all-trades Terry Abrahamson knows, no one at Hustler ever hatched any plan to lampoon Falwell. Abrahamson should know: he's the one who wrote the notorious ad, whipping it off in about ten minutes in his apartment and delivering it to Althea Flynt (played by Courtney Love in Forman's film) in Hustler's editorial offices with a couple other ad parodies he'd written, satirizing John Delorean ("Coke is It!") and True cigarettes. And if anyone working for Hustler had a deep-seated hatred for Falwell, it was Abrahamson.
He was working as a subcontractor for Mike Salisbury, a freelance designer for Hustler who was the former art director of Rolling Stone and creative director for Levi's. Abrahamson and Salisbury had worked together previously on Levi's commercials and movie posters. "Salisbury said, 'Flynt wants some ad parodies,' so I just threw these together," says Abrahamson, who was paid $250 for each ad. He viewed the Hustler assignment as an opportunity to vent his spleen against the Moral Majority and the Reagan Revolution.
"It doesn't take an extreme personality to hate Falwell," Abrahamson says. "It only takes someone with a little bit of compassion and understanding of televangelism to have this deep loathing for him and his kind, especially when you can see this horrifying link between Jerry Falwell and Ronald Reagan getting elected. What's to like?"
Abrahamson vented so much spleen against Falwell in his first draft, in fact, that even Hustler found his ad too repulsive to print.
"The first ad said, 'I never dreamed I'd make it with grandma, but when those six guys came out of the outhouse smiling and grandma was still breathing, I figured, "Shit, if the flies can take it, so can I."' And then it started to get abusive," he recalls. "My goal was to get as deep under Jerry Falwell's skin as possible, subject him to as much ridicule as I could."
Abrahamson remembers Hustler's offices in Century City in the early 80s as a disorganized hangout for junkies and incoherent boobs. "It wasn't like working for Procter & Gamble. This was not the Luce family," he says. "We go up to these offices and they were pretty pricey, but there was nobody there. No receptionist. You saw a couple of people kind of drifting around, who didn't look like they could have any sort of coherent conversation. I have a recollection of Flynt just riding around in his wheelchair. And then Althea came out and she must have had AIDS in a pretty advanced state. She looked very ghostly. She looked like David Bowie after he'd been dead for a few years. She was a good advertisement for why you shouldn't get involved in drugs, or at least heroin. And she said, 'Well, the Delorean one's fine. The True one's fine. But this Falwell thing--you've got to change it from the grandmother to the mother. It was just too much for Larry.'
"Apparently, Flynt had had a good relationship with his grandmother and he just found the idea of Falwell having sex with his grandmother too offensive. So we agreed to change it. And so when we were walking out, Salisbury turned to me and said, 'Hey, that's something. You were too lewd for Larry.'"
Since the landmark Supreme Court ruling in favor of Flynt, Abrahamson has been called upon to lecture at DePaul and Northwestern University about First Amendment law, even though he was never asked to testify in the case.
"The Falwell ad has always kind of stayed with me no matter what writing I've done," he says. "I certainly won't say this work is the piece of work I'm most proud of. It's not the best thing I've ever written by any stretch of the imagination. It's some frivolous thing I threw together in about ten minutes and it probably took longer to read it than it did to write it. I would hope that it's not what I will be remembered most for. But I do hope it's something I'll be remembered for. No matter what I've written, nothing has ever had the dimension to it of having written something too lewd for Larry Flynt." o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Terry Abrahamson photo by Randy Tunnell/ fake ad.