National Lampoon - Biography
By Tony Goldmark
Looking over the history of comedy in the past forty years, “National Lampoon” has proved to be one of the most duplicitous brands in the business. In the 1970s, when it was attached to a radio show, a magazine and a collection of albums, National Lampoon was home to comedy writers and performers representing the pinnacle of cutting-edge satire, viciously dead-on parody, and material that consistently pushed the envelope of “bad taste.” Few could have guessed that by the new millennium, the name would be stripped of its meaning and attached to the basest, least interesting excuses for “comedy” the world had to offer, least of all the writers and performers involved at the time. And it’s even harder to imagine that the proud viewers of National Lampoon’s Dorm Daze 2 or Gold Diggers would appreciate the sublime ridiculousness of “Flash Bazbo, Space Explorer” much less the soul-crushing wisdom of “Deteriorata.” Perhaps it’s best not to focus on the dreary present, but on the glorious past, and the fertile period when National Lampoon planted the seeds that would re-shape comedy as we know it forever.
The story of National Lampoon starts with its inspiration, The Harvard Lampoon, an Ivy League student publication which, having started in 1876, ranks as the country’s longest running humor magazine. In 1969, Harvard Lampoon contributors Douglas Kenney, Henry Beard and Robert Hoffman, fresh off the overwhelming success of their notorious J.R.R. Tolkien parody Bored Of The Rings, licensed the rights to create National Lampoon as a monthly national offshoot, with no irreverence spared. They took with them such Harvard writers as P.J. O’Rourke, the future best-selling libertarian author; Tony Hendra, the British comedian who went on to create the TV series Spitting Image and play Ian Faith in This Is Spinal Tap, and in particular Michael O’Donoghue, the future first Saturday Night Live head writer, a brutal, abrasive, hard-living perversion-enthusiast who loved danger as much as he hated phonies, whose life seemed to match the darkness and destruction of his writing, and who famously quipped “making people laugh is the lowest form of humor.”
The first issue, entitled “Sex,” hit newsstands in April 1970 (like its Harvard predecessor, each issue was usually based around a specific theme) and it included such articles as “Michael O’Donoghue’s Pornocopia,” “Uncle Tom’s Column” and an ad parody for a hippie repellent called “Richard of Pennsylvania Avenue's Magic Formula #1776.” Before long, the magazine became extremely popular countercultural reading material. More issues followed, revolving around topics like “Bad Taste,” “Politics,” “Show Biz,” “Nostalgia,” “Paranoia,” “Blight” and “Greed,” which strangely enough featured a Yellow Submarine-esque cover. Indeed, National Lampoon soon became notorious for its provocative covers, including Che Guevara getting hit with a pie, Minnie Mouse removing her top, and perhaps most famously, a gun placed to a dog’s temple with the caption, “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog!”
With the magazine on the rise, in 1972 the first National Lampoon record album, Radio Dinner, was released on Blue Thumb Records. Produced by Hendra, written by Hendra and O’Donoghue, and featuring a young Christopher Guest in multiple speaking roles, Radio Dinner opened with “Deteriorata,” a parody/reversal of the insipid “Desiderata” poster that lined dorm walls nationwide in the early ‘70s. But while Desiderata offered empty, shallow rhetoric to the easily led, “Deteriorata” wisely told its audience “You are a fluke of the universe” and offered nonsensical advice like “Let not the sands of time get in your lunch” before summing up with the observation that “With all its hopes, dreams, promises and urban renewal, the world continues to deteriorate. Give up.” The album continued with “Catch It And You Keep It,” a giddily violent satire of gimmicky game shows, and proceeded to take the piss out of sacred cows like Bob Dylan and The Beatles. Dylan was depicted as a K-Tel spokesman, while George Harrison’s “Concert In Bangladesh” served to collect a bowl of rice from a starving Bengal audience, so that Harrison could fast. But the sharpest skewering was reserved for John Lennon in the track “Magical Misery Tour” in which Hendra, as a half-ranting, half-singing, profanity-spewing Lennon, perfectly captures the ex-Beatle’s seldom-discussed miserable disdain for just about everything, including Mick Jagger, the other Beatles, and his own fans, as he yells “I’m a fucking artist! I’m sensitive as shit!” and closes with an interminable maniacal screaming refrain of “GENIUS IS PAIN!”
These musical parodies took center stage in Lemmings, National Lampoon’s 1973 off-Broadway stage show. A parody of the decadence of Woodstock, Lemmings parodied artists as diverse as David Crosby, James Taylor and Joe Cocker, the latter played by a young John Belushi with an impression that would eventually be notorious on Saturday Night Live. A young Chevy Chase also received early exposure in this show, playing against type as a country singer and later a disgruntled Hell’s Angel. The success of Radio Dinner and the Lemmings album led O’Donoghue to convince the publishers that the next logical step was to create a nationally-syndicated weekly National Lampoon radio show. The National Lampoon Radio Hour ran on hundreds of stations from November 17, 1973 to December 28, 1974, with O’Donoghue directing. Belushi, Chase and Guest acted in the show alongside a veritable who’s who of future stars, including Richard Belzer, Billy Crystal, Joe Flaherty, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis and Gilda Radner. As the title suggested, the show ran for an hour for the first three months, but the pressure of producing that much weekly material forced them to shorten it to thirty minutes.
The radio series produced dozens, if not hundreds, of classic, fondly remembered comedy bits, many of the best of which have been collected on such National Lampoon albums as Gold Turkey, The Missing White House Tapes, That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick!, and the three-disc box set Buy This Box Or We’ll Shoot This Dog! Guest as Mr. Rogers trying to interview a drug-addled jazz musician. Belushi as Brando claiming his support for Native Americans based solely on sexual fetish. Murray as an evil Santa Claus cruelly responding “No” to every request of little girl Radner. Chase giving listeners a “humor test” by telling them to slit their wrists. Belzer’s depiction of a police officer who borders on mental retardation. Crystal and Murray’s politically incorrect dead-on imitations of Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. O’Donoghue imitating Ed Sullivan being tortured by simply screaming at the top of his lungs. Public Disservice Messages like “Don’t send care packages to families in Europe. Can you afford to live in Europe?” Brutal parodies of Joni Mitchell (“You Put Me Through Hell”), Pete Seeger (“Well-Intentioned Blues”) and the lazy pot comedy of Cheech & Chong. A biography of “Hillbilly Immigrants” who migrate from Europe to America with their redneck accents intact. Guest’s deliriously indescribable characterization of Flash Bazbo: Space Explorer. The list goes on and on…
Unfortunately, because of its uncouth, sometimes raunchy material, the NLRH spent nearly its entire run struggling to find sponsors. A pre-commercial announcement in one episode said “Here’s a message from insincere Nazis who want your parents’ money,” which couldn’t have helped. And even with the shortened time length, the pressure of a weekly show was becoming too much for O’Donoghue, who left the show (and the magazine) for good in April 1974, leaving Belushi to produce. The year after the show ended, a great many of its writers and performers (as well as their material) were hired by Lorne Michaels for the first season of NBC’s Saturday Night Live, with O’Donoghue as head writer.
Meanwhile, the magazine continued thriving throughout the ‘70s. It reached its peak in October 1974 with “Pubescence,” the magazine’s only million-selling issue, and continued to attract new talent, including a young John Hughes. But in 1975, the franchise’s glory days arguably came to an end when Kinney, Beard and Hoffman were bought out, and left the company. Though the magazine continued to sell consistently for at least another decade, it settled into becoming a business first, and never quite achieved the brilliance of the early ‘70s.
Still, National Lampoon’s biggest financial success was yet to come. In 1978, the Universal Studios production National Lampoon’s Animal House hit theaters, and quickly became one of the most profitable comedies in motion picture history. Starring John Belushi at the peak of his Saturday Night Live fame, and directed by John Landis from a script by Lampoon alums Ramis, Kenney and Chris Miller, Animal House may not have been quite as satirical or subversive as the Lampoon’s finest work, but the antics of Belushi as Bluto Blutarsky delighted audiences worldwide, and became so deeply entrenched in collegiate lore that at this point it’s hard to tell where the movie ends and real college begins.
Unfortunately, such a success led to a further cheapening of National Lampoon’s image by the suggestion that slapping the name onto any cheap mediocre comedy would make it a hit. That really only worked once, with Chevy Chase’s Vacation franchise, but it’s been tried on such forgettable, emptily titilating titles as Senior Trip, Dorm Daze, Repli-Kate and Van Wilder. A regrettable end to a once-prosperous franchise, but still, the influence on the franchise’s former prosperity can still be felt in the better sketch comedy of today and beyond.