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Biting Humor

Student-run humor magazine Rubber Teeth found the funny all across campus.

Rubber Teeth Hero Image
In the late 1970s and early '80s, the humor magazine Rubber Teeth poked fun at various aspects of Northwestern student life.Image: Courtesy of Robert Leighton

By Teresa Nowakowski
August 2, 2022
Online Exclusives
2 Responses

In 1982, Northwestern students crowded into Norris University Center for a black-tie gala and retrospective exhibit celebrating the 50th anniversary of Rubber Teeth, a student-run humor magazine. Attendees strolled through a gallery of glass cases containing relics of Rubber Teeth’s past, admired how the magazine’s vintage covers had evolved over the decades and read the publication’s comedic takes on the events of the past half-century.

It was a remarkable occasion — especially since Rubber Teeth had only been founded three years prior, in 1979. Robert Leighton ’82, one of the magazine’s co-founders, describes this elaborate “50th anniversaryprank as the “capstone” of his experience with the magazine.

“I grew up with a love of satire,” says Leighton, now a humorist, puzzle author and cartoonist whose work has frequently been published in The New Yorker.

With a staff of more than 30 writers, artists, photographers, editors and ad salespeople, Rubber Teeth published satirical articles, cartoons and photo essays that poked fun at everything from campus housing to students’ fraught romantic lives.

Leighton remembers masterminding content with co-founder Neil Steinberg ’82 and their peers in a small office in Norris, surrounded by boxes of magazines, a layout table and some empty pizza boxes.

“It was like a second home to me,says Leighton, who also created Banderooge, a comic strip in The Daily Northwestern.

Steinberg, now a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, remembers sitting in Leighton’s dorm room with his feet propped up on a chair and a portable electric typewriter balanced on his knees, typing as the two talked and wrote together for hours.

“It was great to have this vehicle where we could write and try to be funny,Steinberg says. “It was, to me, more interesting than the actual coursework. It was just fun to hang with people and work together.

Archival image of Rubber Teeth contributors Neil Steinberg ’82 and Cate Plys ’84

Rubber Teeth contributors Neil Steinberg ’82 and Cate Plys ’84

In one memorable photo essay satirizing housing at Northwestern, the magazine published an image of Steinberg sitting in a dumpster and reading a newspaper. The image’s caption read “I had problems with my social life before. … People will hardly sit beside me in class anymore.”

Many of the magazine’s contributors went on to notable careers, including Tim Johnson ’83, director of the animated films Over the Hedge and Antz; Will McRobb ’83, co-creator of the Nickelodeon series The Adventures of Pete and Pete; and Steven Albini ’85, who produced Nirvana’s album In Utero. Cate Plys ’84, who went on to write for the Chicago Reader, Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune, was one of the first woman editors of a college humor magazine.

Rubber Teeth, which sold nearly 2,000 copies per issue, was not the only Northwestern student publication to lampoon campus life. Several others have popped up over the decades, though most have been short-lived.

The Purple Parrot, which ran from 1921 to 1950, for example, questioned the usefulness of Lake Michigan in a place where cold weather reigns the majority of the year. (See “One Funny Bird.”) 

There was a lot of wonderful humor on campus, both written and performed,” says Leighton, who spent his first few days on campus in 1978 poring through archived copies of the Purple Parrot. Still, Rubber Teeth was unique — I think its fair to say that we owned the schools written sense of humor at that time.”

Rubber Teeth may not have lasted until its actual 50th birthday, and Leighton admits that not all of its jokes would land today. But its legacy remains, with nearly 30 issues available in the University Archives. Every once in a while, Ill hear from someone who says its one of the things they remember fondly about their time at Northwestern,” Leighton says.

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Reader Responses

  • What a pleasure to see this article (just wish it were longer!). I was involved for several years with the weekly Rubber Teeth Radio show on WNUR, which was definitely a highlight of my time at NU. I also had some minor contributions to the magazine. It's easy to say that it gave us all a "can do" spirit — a sense that we were able to put out something original on a regular schedule. It should be noted that the "something original" was often pretty brilliant and really should rank the "Rubber Teeth Comedy Network" as one of the premier college humor organizations of its time.

    Bill Pardue ’84 Downers Grove, Ill.

  • In one issue they had "Letters to the Editor," which included their responses. Here's a paraphrase of one I remember:

    Dear Rubber Teeth:
    Our son checked into Foster-Walker last fall, and we haven't heard from him since. What should we do?
    Mr. and Mrs. John Doe

    Dear Mr. and Mrs. Doe:
    Consider having another son.
    Rubber Teeth

    Robert O'Rourke ’81 MS, Leavenworth, Kansas, via Northwestern Magazine

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