The other night I watched the new documentary on the seminal (they would have loved that pun) 1970s humor magazine, National Lampoon. Called National Lampoon: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, and produced and directed by Douglas Tirola, the doc looks at the rise and fall of the publication, plus its roots in Hollywood via its most famous early movies, Animal House and Vacation. The documentary is definitely worth seeing (here’s a link to its trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=2&v=6EXQgTDZs60), if only for the very early, pre-Saturday Night (later Saturday Night Live) appearances of John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, and Gilda Radner, all Second City and National Lampoon Radio Hour alumni. (And yes, the poster at left was a real magazine cover, and one of their best-selling issues, widely regarded as one of the great magazine covers of all time).
Beyond the fact that I so thoroughly enjoyed this film that I didn’t want it to end (as, alas, the Lampoon eventually did, too), I’m not going to review it here. You have to see it for yourself, if such a thing interests you. National Lampoon is an almost forgotten part of American pop culture. It’s remembered now for the above-mentioned movies, and an eminently forgettable string of knock-offs that used the Lampoon name in their titles (Van Wilder being the best of them, which is faint praise, indeed). But back when I was a teenager, Lampoon was an important part of my formative years.
The Lampoon was produced by a bunch of horny guys just out of college (the kind of guys who didn’t attract a lot of attention from women … until they became the guys behind a successful magazine and had a lot of money and drugs). Doug Kenney and Henry Beard continued from the Harvard Lampoon, after a string of successful magazine parodies (Mademoiselle, Time, Sports Illustrated) proved to them that they could do a national magazine. They approached a number of publishers (including those they parodied) and were soundly rejected. It was when they hooked up with Matty Simmons that they finally found someone who shared their vision. And when Simmons added the perfect art director (Michael Gross, followed by Peter Kleinman), and a publisher and ad rep who could convince companies that the people (just about all men or boys masquerading as men) who read the mag were the ones who bought liquor, stereos, records, and cigarettes, National Lampoon took off. At one point, the magazine sold a million copies a month. Although it peaked in the ‘70s under Kenny, Beard, and Gross, it lasted until 1998, and spawned a whole new sense of humor for a country still recovering from the tumultuous 1960s, Nixon and Watergate, and trying to survive the Reagan years.
I was 15 in 1970, and National Lampoon was a natural progression for me. It went like this: Comic books to MAD magazine to National Lampoon. I could bring the Lampoon safely into my parents’ house, most months (unlike the copies of Leg Show and Juggs I shoplifted on a regular basis), although sometimes there were questions (the repeated “Sex Issue” covers; “Hitler in Paradise,” a cover feature hilariously explained in the documentary) and some issues had to be taken immediately upstairs to my brother’s and my attic hideaway, where we kept all of our comics. As Kevin Bacon (who made his first big splash in Animal House) explains in the doc, the Lampoon was a place where you could find breasts.
The Lampoon did a ton of comics parodies with the likes of Neal Adams, Russ Heath, and Frank Springer handling the art chores, so the comics connection was a natural. MAD was a subversive influence on teenagers for decades, but at some point, you “graduated” from the comic bookish MAD to something else. National Lampoon was that something else. Where MAD was subversive, Lampoon was vile, disgusting, sexist, racist, and unbelievably wild. There’s no way they would be able to publish a magazine like that today, in our era where everyone voices their outrage on the Internet over the tiniest perceived politically incorrect joke or comment. We have become a nation of uncontrollable whining babies … but I digress.
I learned a lot about sex from the Lampoon, and most of it was disgusting; looking back, I now realize most of it was funny, too. And boy do I miss that. The Lampoon also introduced me to a stable of cartoonists, through its “Funny Pages” section, that included Shary Flennkien, Bobby London, Gahan Wilson, MK Brown, and tons of others. John Hughes got his start in the Lampoon, as did the Vacation movie (in an article called “Vacation ‘58”). Chris Miller, who co-wrote Animal House with Doug Kenney, wrote the most startling sex-fueled stories about growing up, which struck a chord with more than just the teenage me, I’m sure. (Miller’s stories were the basis of Animal House, with one important change: His original stories took place in high school, and producer Ivan Reitman knew that no studio would touch a movie about a bunch of raunchy high school students, so it was changed to college; if one thing has changed since the ‘70s, it’s the studio’s tolerance for raunchy high school students, both in the movies and on television).
Sadly, there is no definitive book collection of the “Best of National Lampoon” … there is a book of the same title (Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Writers and Artists Who Made the National Lampoon Insanely Great) by cartoonist and frequent cover artist Rick Meyerowitz, which is exactly what the title says it is, about the writers and artists, but no gathering of great Lampoon material exists from the classic years. I’m assuming a lot of that is tied up in legal matters from the many transfers of the company (at one time it was co-owned by Tim Matheson, who played Otter in Animal House).
Without the National Lampoon there would be no Saturday Night Live, no movie star careers for Chase, Belushi, and Murray, et al., no Animal House, no Caddyshack (an unofficial Lampoon pic), no Judd Apatow, or Bridesmaids, or Trainwreck, or The Simpsons, or Family Guy … the list is endless. It came along in a particular moment in time that it barely survived: The “free” years during the decade of the 1970s, when sex, drugs, and rock and roll reigned supreme, before Reagan made us all one uptight moral majority again. And for this one quiet and lonely teenager, the Lampoon shined a flashlight under the covers and made me constantly wonder “Do people really do THAT?” I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt that way. It also made me laugh. A lot.
See the movie. It’s on iTunes and On Demand now. It’s the only way you can get just a small taste of what those magazines were like, more than 40 years ago.