Sunday, November 7, 2021

Drunk, Stoned, Brilliant, Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon (2015).

Let me make one thing clear.  I just can't set much store in things like horoscopes, and astrology.  Say sorry, yet there it is.  It's just not me.  For the longest time now, I've never been able to see the point of it all, really.  If I had to give anything like a reasoned argument for why I've never set any kind of stock in the idea, then I'd have to say its on account of how I kind of like keeping a free will and mind of my own.  It's just this weird sort of thing I discovered on my own.  It's called having a personality, not that it's saying much.  If it were, do you think I'd be hanging around here all the damn time?  Trust me, though.  It's a hell of a lot better than having to worry about what kind of shape you're in based on stuff like the position of the Earth's trajectory in relation to Saturn.  Or whether or not that dream you had last night about two doves humping each other means anything of significance.  I think once you've reached that sort of level, you've kind of placed yourself up the creak without so much as a prayer-wheel for a paddle.  So yeah, no offense, but no thanks either.  For some strange reason I just can't kick this crazy habit I've got.  It's called thinking.  Granted, I can't say even this has taken me all that far in my dubious exploits through life.  However, it's like Billy Joel says, "It's better than drinking alone".  

Anyway, the reason I even bring up the most overlooked section of the newspaper at all is because I've got another problem.  For whatever reason, I've been blessed or cursed with a sharp enough sense of irony.  You think that's bad?  It gets worse, trust me.  I also have a bad case of sarcasm.  Yeah, that's right.  Sarcasm!  The knowing angle, the ironic gaze, followed by the appropriate comment, the quip remark, the perfect put down.  I got it all!  The punchline is I'm not all that sure how I got into it in the first place.  All I know for sure is that somewhere around high school I learned about this hip, new-old thing called Satire.  It's the kind of topic that's even harder to explain than astrology, if I'm being honest.  At least with Satire, you're on firmer ground.  I think the best description I got for it is the artistic practice of nailing a chosen target to the wall for the purposes of some sort of moral or ethical endpoint or goal.  Most often this practice is utilized in the form of comedy, though it can also find or have its uses in straight-forward drama.  However, comedy seems to remain it's most natural metere.  It's sort of like the format's natural home base.  Not that it makes any sense.


Anyway, why am I even bring this whole mess of stuff up at all, anyway?  Well, apart from always needing a place to put your stuff, I'd have to say that I've got a few in mind, here.  The first, and most important, is because I want to talk about an old magazine that used to be one of the biggest cultural forces for satirical humor in this country.  It least it used to be for one bright and shining moment.  Either that or I'm letting the Sun get in my eyes too much.  Just a moment, let me shut the window here, and take care of that for ya.  Anyway, the second point is kind of nebulous, yet I find it interesting.  While I still don't believe in astrology, I am aware of a perfect irony that's involved, even in my circumstance.  Those who do believe in horoscopes would claim, for instance, that the reason for my interest in humor and satire is all on account that I was born a Gemini.  It's the kind if thing that sounds like it's off-topic, yet it's also kind of relevant, sort of, anyway.  It's all to do with what people used to believe back in the days before indoor plumbing was a thing.

In earlier ages, your birth date on a horoscope was determined by whichever planet in the solar system was ruling the month of the year in which you were born.  Traditionally, the Gemini, both as a constellation and as a zodiac sign were linked, both mythically and scientifically, with the orbit of Mercury.  Why is that important?  To tell you the truth, I'm not sure myself.  All I know is that over the course time, it was this one single planet, out in the cesspool end of the galaxy, that wound up getting tagged as the Great Trickster of Universe.  That means our ancestors used to look up to Mercury as a symbol for the source of all humor in the world.  They even used to go so far as to make it a kind of intergalactic patron of satirists, humorists, and clowns, such as those featured in the old Commedia Dell'arte.  As a result, we Geminis have often been saddled with a reputation for being jokers and pranksters, with an easy and natural sense of humor.  Why that should ultimately be the case is a long story, like I said.  Let's just call it one of the natural quirks of the Imagination for now, and leave it at that.

So why should I care, just because it puts me in a month ruled by the galaxy's great joker?  Why should that have any effect on my life?  What's all that supposed to mean, anyway?........(Sighs) The net result has been that I developed an early interest in Humor as an artistic medium....And then when I got older, and found out about things like Mad Magazine and Saturday Night Live, or stand-up comedy and its practitioners like Mark Twain, Jon Stewart, George Carlin, Bill Hicks, and Richard Pryor....(Sighs again) The whole thing was like picking up a really cool motorcycle and discovering you were a natural at it.  No need for any instruction manual, either.  It was like a duck taking to water.  I don't ever recall having to wade in, at all.  Once I got the first notion that humor could involve in the correct use of Seven Words that You Can't Say on TV, then it was like arriving at a home place that I never even knew I owned.  And by the way, no, this doesn't convince me of astrology.  Though it has made me curious as to how many of the great modern clowns out there were born under the same sign.  As it turns out, the most important case I'm thinking of, the one with the most relevance to this article, was in fact not born in the Month of Mercury, but on the 10th of December, 1946.  So there's that, at least.

What is sort of funny, however, is that even though he was never a Gemini, there is a sense in which I guess you could kind of say guys like Doug Kenney have devoted their whole lives to a planet like Mercury.  Or, you could also state it the other way, and claim that Mercury has been a loyal patron of Kenney's efforts, ever since the little snot-rag was taken under the wing.  Or maybe it was more like he was found on the underside of a rock, I'm not sure anymore.  You know what, I'm probably starting to ramble, and not making much sense.  I get that.  It happens.  Tell ya what, let's take things one at a time, before I start to get ahead of myself.  Perhaps it's best is I start out with some introductions.

Hey kids, Al's the name, Al Sleet.  Never heard of me, huh?  Yeah, I get that a lot.  I used to be a local weatherman for a time.  Then I had to give it up.  Actually, it's more like I was fired, if ya wanna get technical about it.  I made the mistake of telling the truth, live on air, you see.  I gave away the ultimate secret about the weather.  "The weather," I said, "will continue to change, on and off, for a long, long time (web)".  Yeah, to be fair, I might have been high as a kite at the time.  Which probably explains how things have been going so far, if you stop and think it over.  

Well, that was the end of the weather for me.  Ever since then I've been what I guess you might call a Gonzo Journalist, of sorts.  Lately, however, as time goes on, I've found it almost necessary to become a Gonzo Archivist, if that makes any sense.  Not that it does, really.  We'll all just play along for the moment, and pretend like I'm talking sense here.  My reason for wanting archive stuff is pretty simple, I think.  I occurred to me that there's a lot of good humor out there that was in danger of melting through the cracks of time, and disappearing forever.  I was there when a lot of it was made, so I count myself very lucky to have been allowed to witness a lot of it.  I suppose you could say I've led an accidental charmed life, in that regard.


Well, whatever the reason, it's led me to get all nostalgic of late.  I'd like to think back on all those heady days, for a moment or two of your time.  It's fun to reminisce on what it was like back then.  My main reason for saying that is on account of a feature-length look-back I managed to catch not too long ago.  It's called Drunk, Stoned, Brilliant, Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon.  It's a documentary directed by Douglas Tirola, is all about Doug Kenney, his friends (or else they were more like his partners in crime; you might have heard of some of them) and the magazine that they all created together, and helped put out there for the world in all its glory.  Yeah, maybe you should keep a bucket nearby, just in case.  It probably wouldn't hurt, as it's going to be that kind of story.  Either way, they staked a name for themselves.  In fact, I think they all might have done a whole lot more.  The Lampoon used to be a pretty big deal for a time, there.  You might not believe it, but there were also live shows, radio plays, records albums.  Never did find out if they managed to make it all the way to the breakfast cereal and the flame-thrower, though.  Still, they left one hell of a legacy behind.  The way it all began, of course, was with just two college friends, and a shared sense of humor.

The Setup.

The real way it all began was with Doug.  I don't know if it makes sense to claim that he's the single big originator of the whole mess, or not.  It's just that it sounds like the right note to begin on.  So how do you describe a guy like Doug Kenney without making him sound like a random acid fantasy?  You know what, I wish I knew how.  Here are the best reliable facts I've been able to dig up.  He was born in 1946, in Palm Beach, Florida.  His parents were Danial Harold Kenney, who somehow wound up with the nickname of "Harry".  His mother is listed as an Estelle Karch, so don't even bother asking me why everyone kept calling her "Stephanie".  I'll swear I haven't got a clue.  What do you think it says about a person's character when your closest friends are just overcome with the urge to know you as "Harry" or "Steph"?  There's just something about certain words like that, you know?  Sometimes you get a moniker that commands respect, like Martin Luther King Jr.  It's hard to imagine anyone ever labeling him as anything else, isn't it?  It's always Martin, and never anything like "Mart" or "Marty".  It's like you can sense a personality at work that is so damn real you don't even dare to try and make light of it with the type nicknames that wind up sounding like the verbal equivalent of a locker room fart.

Then, of course, you've got Steph and Harry Kenney.  It's got a ring to it.  I'm just not sure it's the right one.  Those are terms you use for the awkward next door neighbors in a sitcom somewhere.  It's like you can sense a punchline waiting just off-stage, lying in ambush for couples like them.  They way things shook out leaves me convinced that if there ever was a great joke played on the Kenneys, then it must have come in two parts.  The first was when their son arrived.  The second was when "Harry" and "Steph", in their infinitesimal wisdom, decided to move their entire clan to Chagrin Falls.  I did not make that name up, either, for the record.  Isn't that something?  Just let it simmer in your head for a while, folks.  "Chagrin Falls".  Seriously, how the fuck do you pass up an opportunity like that?!  It's the kind of setup where you don't even know where to begin, the possibilities are that endless!  You could start, for instance, by noting that the town's greatest claim to fame is that it was the birth place of Tim Conway, thus compounding the irony a thousand-fold.  The way I see it, there's a special kind of mindset that's required for a life choice such as this.  The lights are on upstairs, yet who knows if anyone's ever really at home?


It's a question that seems to have occupied Doug's mind for quite a while as he was growing up.  From all the info I've been able to gather, Doug's relationship with his parents was always a strained one, even at the best of times.  This is all stuff you can find in Josh Karp's A Futile and Stupid Gesture.  His folks came from a long line of tennis pros, if you can believe it.  Doug's father was pretty much the same, although he always felt like he wanted more.  The trouble there is all that time Harry spent watching his own old man catering to the upper crust left him less with a productive goal, and more like an ill-defined sense of envy.  It got bad enough to the point where he made a vow to himself.  "One day," Harry declared, "I'll never go in the back door again.  Only the front (4)".  The whole issue there is that it's not like we're talking about the most productive goal in the world, here.  It's not like a case of wanting to be your own man.  Doug's dad wasn't interested in bettering himself.  It was all just an obsession with getting the top bunk in the hierarchy.  No offense, but I've seen and read enough to know that this kind of mindset is what goes a long way toward screwing up those closest to you.

Nor is Dan Kenney an isolated incident, either.  It's more like something that was happening in households across the country at the time.  We were a country fresh off of one of the greatest moral victories of all time.  So what do we do for an encore?  You start by selling out for all you're worth!  Integrity, honesty, fidelity, equality, compassion, and sincerity; it's an all for sale blowout, everything must go!  No price is too big, no deal too small!  Going, going, gone!  There may be some out there who are probably thinking it would be nice to believe you could really get away with all that, somehow.  I guess that's why I was never good at that sort of wishful thinking.  I could never find the benefit anywhere.  Instead, like Doug and a lot of his later friends, what I discovered was a society willing to erect its own, man-made monuments to  an ongoing, dead-end hypocrisy in all its forms.  It's something I just couldn't buy into.  I think Harold Ramis does a better job of summing the whole thing up than I can.  Here's how he puts it in the forward to Chris Miller's The Real Animal House:


"What characterized my college years, 1962 to 1967, was the dramatic shift in mood and focus that began with the Kennedy assassination and continued through the onslaught of the free speech movement, the civil rights struggle, and the anti-war movement, all fueled and somewhat intensified by what I call a "national voluntary drug testing program."  In that period, fraternities were becoming increasingly marginalized as students converted their anarchic energy to legitimate political protest and activism, and the free form social experiments of countercultural lifestyles like communes and collectives.  In that new context, the old Greek system made less and less sense, and the film treatment I wrote attempted to describe that shift (viii)".  I think the real irony, here, is that when you look back on how it all got started, it really was our parents who acted as spurs to all the changes that took place.  Now I know for a fact that they never meant to.  Far as they were concerned, a lot of them had nothing more on their mind than the perfect suburban family, right next door to yet another and another.

It was the American Dream as far as they were able to make out.  For better or worse, that was the best they were able to conceive of.  So what was the result?  Well, families like those of Richard Pryor had one hell of a time trying to get a place at the table.  I remember that pretty well.  Then when it came to raising us kids, it's like there were all these gaps that kept not getting filled in, even if some of them counted as essentials.  They tried to hammer a sense of morality into us, yet it only seemed to go so far.  We were raised to believe in respect for authority (at least as far as the whims of the adults themselves were concerned, never mind if it ever objectively right or wrong).  We were taught respect for traditions (never mind that our parents seemed to have a very nebulous grasp on what such a concept even means, especially when it involves guys like "Tricky Dick" Nixon).  They told us all men are created equal (just pretend those "Whites Only" signs hung outside of malls, pools, gas stations, and burger joints don't exist; also make sure never to leave the TV on if that Martin Luther King guy is shown)  We were instilled with respect for our elders (as witnessed by the strained relations some of our parents had with their own folks; Dad and Grandpa never seemed all that close, if we're being honest with ourselves).

They told us that smoking could ruin our lives (in between puffs on their old Chesterfield coffin nails).  We were shown the importance of good schooling (which I guess means all that counted was a random series of facts and figures being crammed into your head, and never mind examining the actual content of American culture, whether good or bad).  Most of all, we were told that America was a forward-thinking country, with it's eyes set on the New Frontier (so of course it meant ducking under your desk every time a certain alarm went off as a result of the Nuclear Arms Race).  Above all, America was the Land of Opportunity (so I guess that meant there was no need to fear that the sins of the past would manage to come back one day, and bite you on the ass?).  That was the mixed-up, schizoid world we postwar children grew up in.  Our education consisted in teaching the right hand to ignore whatever it was that the left one was up to, regardless of the consequences.


You know what that means, right?  That's correct boys and girls!  The perfect recipe for raising a bunch of grade-A, prime rib douchebags!  Yeah, it was happening everywhere!  All over the country our parents busy dropping the lot of us on our heads and then try to get us to believe it was ice cream!  That's how you create someone like Bill Murray  You lie right to their faces about a lot of important stuff, and then tell them it's for their own good.  Yeah, and not just Murray either.  Steve Martin, George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, Rich Pryor, all of them!  They were all products of the same disjointed American psyche at war with itself!  All the time, their parents went around trying to sanitize this and censor that.  So naturally, whenever that happens, they went where they were told not to go when the folks weren't looking.  That's how a lot of us learned about Jazz, Rock n' Roll, and this nifty new magazine known as Playboy!  Our "moral guardians" were so good at their jobs, that they didn't even stop to consider the collective Frankenstein beast they were each helping to create in their own way.  By the time most of us had entered high school, the picture was finally starting to become clear to them, and it was all to late.  

I think we all owe a debt of gratitude to our parents, in a way.  They were the ones who taught us how to recognize hypocrisy in all its forms.  It was like learning to build your own, home-made bullshit detector.  What happened next seems pretty inevitable, in retrospect.  Most of the us just got tired of lies.  We were fed up with being lied to by our teachers, our public servants, but most of all by our parents, the ones who were supposed to help ensure both the security of our own heart and hearths, as well as our futures.  As a result, we began to realize there was something phony about our society.  We acted accordingly.  It's like Chevy Chase says at the very start of Mark Tirola's documentary.  "We were taking on the idiocy our own generation".

It was this same shift that a young Doug Kenney found himself enveloped by, and willingly immersing himself in when he reached that time and place for everything known as college.  The reasons for what happened next can vary, depending on who's left around to ask.  However, the most common element in all the future participants in the 60s in general, and the Lampoon, in particular, is that they knew something had gone wrong with the world they were brought up in, and they were all kind of hoping to see if it could be made better.  Hence, the counter-culture, and all the artistic expressions that ultimately branched out from it.  Nowhere was this more apparent than in the steady progression of comedy.  This is the atmosphere that Kenney found himself in when he got to college.  John Landis gives a good insight into this zeitgeist at the start of the documentary.

"There is a time in everyone's life," he says, "and it's really between 17 and 22, when you talk to people in their middle age.  They always talk about their high school or their college experience as the, quote-unquote, "best years of their lives".  And I'm thinking, well, why?  And ultimately, it's because when you're seventeen, eighteen, you are expected to function as an adult.  But you're a baby.  Have you ever gone to a college campus?  Those kids are babies!  But they're adults!  So there's this wonderful freedom, (a) sense of adventure.  We can do anything we want, we're college students!  And that's really how the whole thing started".  "College is always a time of change, I guess," Stephen King once wrote, "the last major convulsion of childhood, but I doubt there were ever changes of such magnitude as those faced by the students who came to their campuses in the late sixties (327)".

The campus where Doug wound up in, and the breeding ground for what would become the seeds of the future Lampoon, was all to be found planted in the unsuspecting, yet fertile soil of Harvard University.  Two ingredients were involved, as it turns out.  The first was the University's very own student newspaper, the Harvard Lampoon.  It had been a campus standby for generations, although wasn't really doing anything interesting with by the time Doug came along.  The second element was one of Kenney's fellow alumnus.  It was at Harvard that Doug met Henry Beard.  Imagine, if you will, a Mad Avenue suit with a bit of an attitude, maybe one or two daddy issues, and a sharp wit to go along with it.  Okay, now try and get all thoughts of Patrick Bateman out of your head, and replace him with something that resembles Woody Allen lite in terms of both features and demeanor.  Then maybe your somewhere close to getting idea of who Beard is.  Very much like you and me, he was determined to be a disgrace to his parents.  

"My father had graduated from Yale," Henry tells us.  "And as a bit of youthful rebellion, I decided to go to Harvard".  Sometime after he got there, the Beard fell in with the Tennis Club son.  On a surface glance, they make an unlikely pair.  Kenney came from lowly, working-class roots, and Henry was one of those types born with a silver spoon in their mouth.  It's like oil and water, it's just hard to figure out how the two can ever mix all that well.  Yet somehow they did.  Perhaps to their own surprise, Kenney and Beard discovered that it was easy to become friends and collaborators over a shared sense of humor.  It was a dynamic that wasn't lost on future Lampoon staff writer Chris Cort.  "The two of them together were an absolutely amazing team".   

It gets sort of convoluted from here.  For a time, they were both content to goof around, using the college magazine as their personal playground.  Their real big break came when both Kenney and Beard were contacted by Mademoiselle in their capacity as the twin editor's of the college rag.  It turned out the famous woman's magazine was looking for a way to spice up their product with a little humor and creativity.  The funny thing was they seemed to mean it.  Kenney and Beard were given absolute free reign to create as many parodies and jokes at Mademoiselle's expense as they could come up with.  The one stipulation is that they make sure to feature the latest fashions that the magazine planned to use in their satirical adds.  It was like tossing the keys to the candy factory to a pair of hyperactive children.  Beard and Kenney went to town with the concept, and the result was, in essence, the first prototype demonstration for what the Lampoon would become. 

Tirola has great fun when reminiscing about that first pilot issue.  Already the style and sensibility of the future humor publication can be seen in its initial opening pages.  What the reader is greeted with is the then latest fashion designs, tastefully displayed in settings where it either looks like they won't last for very long, or else the apparel itself is rendered useless due to the nature of either their surroundings, or their wearers.  The two that stand out the most in my mind, is a pretty young model in her new leisure suit, waiting for a train to arrive while she and the dress are tied to the tracks.  Then there's the latest gown, one that comes attached to a pretty looking set of legs.  Too bad there's no torso with the rest of all that.  Instead, it all ends when the legs transition straight to the woman's oversized head poking out of the gown itself.  It was a surprisingly potent, yet subtle mixture of scathing satire and surrealistic wit that managed to double Harvard's magazine subscription in a big way.  It's what allowed Henry and Doug to get their first taste of what they both seemed to be really good at, namely, satirizing, parodying, and lampooning (as it were) the trends, tastes, culture, and mores of the day.


Looking back at that time, it seems like the biggest feat they were able to pull off during their time as Harvard students was when they managed to get a conversation started with J.R.R. Tolkien, at least indirectly.  As Henry tells it, "Doug Kenney and I decided to do a parody of Lord of the Rings.  We sent a letter to Tolkien.  Who, honest to God, sent a letter right back, saying, "Yeah, go ahead.  So we did".  The result of that unexpected party was Bored of the Rings.  It's got to be one of the first ever official parodies that anyone ever made of that book.  It's a feat that's not so unique anymore, which is a shame, because I think something of the context, and hence the impact of an initial parody like that has been lost to time.  Tolkien's book had by then cemented itself as the sort of literary powerhouse in the collective psyche of readers all across the globe, so the idea of anyone being able to see the potential for satirical humor in the original material was pretty much unheard of, and it gave the release Kenney and Beard's parody something very like the sense of being a revelation.  It was a book that was greeted with a sense of discovery by both pop culture and humor nerds in much the same way as Tolkien's original writings had done before.  And to this day, so far as I've been able to find out, it remains the one single book the Harvard Lampoon has ever released under its own, official banner.

More importantly, all these exploits gave Doug and Henry their foot-in-the-door moment.  Their names were now being passed around in the big league publication markets (you know, back when it was still possible for that to be an actual thing), and they were looked on as two talents that might just bear watching.  The only trouble was that Harvard itself either wouldn't or couldn't afford to take the concepts Kenney and Beard were producing, and run with it.  Instead, the minute both of them received their degrees was also like getting fired from what used to be a steady paycheck.  You can take your act wherever, was the college's opinion, you just can't do any of it here.  So, with not much else in the way of prospects, Doug and Henry decided to just take up where they left off, and keep on doing parodies and humor pieces.  So in other words, yeah, let's just keep slacking off, like usual.  The problem there was obvious, however.  No magazine existed which would allow them write the kind of material they enjoyed, while also allowing them to lay about and get drunk and stoned at the same time.  So they both came up with a wild idea?  Why not create a humor magazine modeled after the one at Harvard?  Rather than it just being limited to a single campus, however, they could try and make it a national syndication.  It would be the National Lampoon.  

Here's a question, though.  How on earth do you sell a hip, new, satire slick to a rag market that's full of squares, man?  Having to put up with the likes of them was bad enough in college.  How do you face off against a whole herd of the original cast of Mad Men?  The biggest hurdle is obvious.  Hope you don't get stuck with a real life version of Don Draper.  The second task is to look for any useful needle in a haystack.  As it turns out, Kenney and Beard managed to hit pay dirt when they shopped their concept at the desk of Matty Simmons, owner and operator of the 400 Club.  Simmons wasn't any kind of maverick.  As P.J. O'Rourke observes.  "Matty belonged to another generation".  And John Landis tends to agree, "Very much New York, very much old school publishing".  Lampoon staffer Janice Hirsch adds, "I think he wished he was in the Rat Pack".  The funny thing is how it's that last insight that kind of explains everything else.  Anyone who wishes they were part of the Rat Pack is bound to have that certain streak in them.  Even if they're not a freak themselves, it is just possible to be able to have at least some kind of understanding of where the young kids of that time were coming from.  So in that sense, Doug and Henry got real lucky when they met Simmons for the first time.  After some careful consideration, he realized he might have a good idea on his hands, and he agreed to finance their publication.  It wasn't long afterwards that the National Lampoon hit the news stands. 

The Lampoon Style and its Creators.

And so, here we are.  Now we come to the main event, the humor of the National Lampoon itself.  Yeah, it's probably not the moment you've been waiting, or anything.  Most of ya are probably wondering what you've done to deserve anything like this?  Trust me, I hear ya.  I think the answer might have to do with Penance, or something like that.  Either way, what's done is done.  What happened next is all ancient history now, and this is how it all shook out.  What was the nature of the Lampoon?  What was it's humor like?  If you ask  guys like Henry Beard, "It was like we had an attic full of culture that had accumulating from 1945 to 1970.  And we opened the trapdoor, and nobody had been up there.  And we just, basically, looted it".  Personally, I'd describe it as both a continuation and amplification of the same satirical ethos as you would have found in any issue of Mad Magazine at that time.  I think the best description I've ever read about this earlier magazine came from the pen of humor columnist (and professional snot eater) Dave Barry.  In his memoir, Dave Barry Turns 50, he admits, "I loved Mad.  It was so...so...subversiveMad looked at America - its people, its politics, its businesses, its schools, its movies, its music, its TV shows - and Mad said: "Hey, this is stupid (55)".  In a biography of Harvey Kurtzman, one of the founders of Mad, Bill Schelley helps sharpen the definition.

"Harvey Kurtzman's creation of Mad, in 1952, overshadows all of the other stellar accomplishments in his remarkable...career...Time magazine's Richard Corliss wrote, "Dreaming up and writing Mad [Harvey] Kurtzman virtually invented what would become the era's dominant tone of irreverent self-reference: one form of pop-culture mocking all other forms, and itself."  In the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik stated, "Almost all American satire today follows a formula that Harvey Kurtzman thought up.

"In the early 1950s, Holden Caulfield railed against the "phonies" of the world in Catcher in the RyeMad exposed them.  It questioned the status quo at a time of social conformity, creating a mindset that grew into what came to be called the counterculture."  Cartoonist and historian R.C. Harvey wrote, "Through all the years of Mad, Kurtzman's influence on the American public was incalculable.  Who can say whether the Vietnam War protest among American youth was not in some way inspired by the satire in Mad...(iv)"?  It's a observation that Dave Barry might have forcasted way back when he stated that the spirit or ethos of Mad would later go on to be "epitomized by the glory years of Saturday Night Live".  I think Dave's onto more than he knows with that statement.  The irony, of course, is that SNL and the Lampoon are both joined more or less at the hip.  All that was in the future when Kenney and Beard made their first step into professional publishing.  At first, their biggest concern was in getting their own magazine off the ground.  

Even during those first days, however, they each knew what they were looking for.  Mad's Usual Gang of Idiots had given them their template, and a stage on which to perform their art.  If the pattern for the type of magazine they were after was already established, then the question was less one of content, and more about how you could be able to take that content to the next level, and still keep on trucking long after you'd been caught?  In the strictest sense, then, there was nothing all that new about the nature and content of the National Lampoon.  They were just following a blueprint that had long since proven successful.  Their real contribution seems to rest in just how far they were able to take things in terms of taste (or rather a lack thereof).  I think the the following quotations from a number of people who worked on the magazine should be enough to give you an idea of the kind of material we're dealing with.  Henry Beard: "We realized that artists, well known, established artists...they all had to have drawers full of wonderful stuff that had been rejected by more traditional publications.  They weren't rejected because they weren't funny or good.  They were rejected because they were a little too raunchy.  So we knew we were that outlet". 

Magazine contributor Ed Subitzky: "It didn't matter how strange your work was.  It didn't matter if it was anti-Republican, anti-Democrat, anti-The Universe, whatever it was.  You could bring it into (the Lampoon) and they would not touch it!  Editor Bruce McCall: "And that's the great thing about the Lampoon.  Never before, and never since, have I had that kind of freedom.  Magazine Art Director, Michael C. Gross: "If you were smart, and you were funny, you walked into Henry Beard's office - or Doug Kenney's office - and said, "Hello, can I come show you some stuff?  They'd take a look, like this, and then they'd go, "Brilliant.  Thank you, you're hired.  We don't pay much, but we're not going to edit you.  We're noting going to change you.  We're gonna let you be what you wanna be".

So what kind of ideas landed on their collective desks?  Well, a gander at a random sample reveals a periodical with its mind on important things.  It's how you wind up with article titles such as "What Happened to the American Wet Dream", Disco Beaver from Outer Space, memoirs of a "First Blow Job", or "Would You buy a Used War Bond from this Man"?  Matty Simmons even recalls his favorite article from those times.  "Michel Choquette came to me with an idea.  He had run into a guy that looked just like Adolf Hitler".  Staff artist Shary Flenniken: "The piece was called "Stranger in Paradise", which was about (how) Adolf Hitler really survived World War II, and was living on a tropical island somewhere in the Caribbean".  Simmons continues: "I gave them a budget, and ten days later, I got a telegram.  He said, "Hitler eating too much.  Need more money".  I said, "Stop feeding Hitler and return to New York, immediately".  And it was a brilliant article, which we resold to almost every foreign country".  In other words, "pretty high-caliber shit"!   

The morons in charge of keeping this extensive excuse for a "running commentary" going were compiled almost piecemeal as the magazine went along.  By the time they could consider themselves fully staffed, Kenney and Beard had assembled what turned out to be the building blocks for the future of American comedy.  The brightest names in that list of dim bulbs might still be somewhat familiar to this day.  It consisted of writers like Chris Miller, P.J. O'Rourke, Michael O'Donoghue, Tony Hendra, and John Hughes.  In terms of an actual sense of creative comedy writing, then I'd have to say they are the ones who stand out the most in terms of notoriety and impact.  


In league with Kenney and Beard, it is these four who emerge in Tirola's film as the biggest shapers of the Lampoon, and hence on its eventual impact.  The talents, skills, and varied humorous approaches seems to have been evenly matched among the lot.  Kenney and Donoghue were like the resident surrealists.  They were perfectly comfortable with tossing out perfect bits of nonsense like "The Wide World of Meat", and find ways of making it funny enough to work.  It helped that both of them had a firm grounding in the Underground Hippie Press scene.  So they were able to bring that whole counterculture look and approach to the table, and then dress it up in a way that looked presentable to the readers with losing face.

Donoghue was always the real firebrand of the organization, however.  And it's not a statement that should taken lightly.  As O'Rourke remarks of his former co-worker, "By was he an angry bunny"!  He's got that twinkle in his eye when he says those words.  It's the look of a guy who might have made a lot of backroom deals with some shady characters in his day, and is still able to recall a lot of it with fondness.  It's a bit of an exaggeration, though perhaps not by much.  More than anyone else at the magazine, "Mr. Mike" seems to have been the one with a laser-focused determination to make the comedy as dangerous as possible.  This commitment is what allowed him to produce a now world-(in)famous article known as "The Vietnamese Baby Book".  It was a parody of a child-raising manual, and yet its written and geared as if it were aimed at, say, any possible survivors of the Tet Offensive or Mai Lai.  It's rude, crude, and dangerous in a way that you can tell the author means business.  It's a rare example of comedy as a kind of primal scream of rage, and I'm not sure how many others have have ever managed to go that far since.  That, then, was Michael O'Donoghue.  He was the rag's shock-jock, in other words.  One of his motto's even goes, "If you can't fuck it, blow it up".

If Kenney and Donoghue were the magazine's absurdists, then Beard, O'Rourke, Miller, and Hughes were the more or less straightforward satirists.  A typical example of Beard's humor is "Practical Jokes for the Rich".  O'Rourke is responsible for the now classic work entitled, "How to Drive Fast on Drugs while getting your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill".  It was a breakout performance in what would become a long, and much celebrated career as an article writer of American satire.  Miller and Hughes, meanwhile, would go on to set a number of templates.  It was in a 1979 issue of the magazine that Hughes unveiled his comic pseudo-memoir known as "Vacation 58", about a road trip from hell that has to be endured by a group of average, All-American punching bags, whose mere presence signifies a lot of what is wrong with the country.  Hughes based these characters off his own family.  The article was so well-received, that not long after, the Lampoon saw him publish a follow up.  

It is set during the Holidays, and once more takes a look into the fairly empty lives of the same Punching Bag clan from the original "Vacation" article.  What follows is a detailed character cartography of a family who's overall disenchantment and sense of alienation has left them incapable of enjoying even the simplest "Time of the Year".  I mean it's just Christmas, for gosh sake.  Why screw up a holiday like that?  I'm not worried about the holiday itself.  I like Christmas.  I'm the last sort of person to bah-humbug something like that.  I don't even mind if there are those who don't or maybe even can't join in the celebrations.  None of that bothers me like the family at the heart of Hughes' article.  I mean it's not rocket science, or anything.  

Look, all you need to do is just set up a few decorations, like the tree itself, maybe a wreath and some lights here and there, and that's it.  End of story!  There's no need to complicate things with some half-assed attempt to turn your very own house into a live, Roman fucking candle in a light hanging competition with the neighbors.  That's not holiday cheer, it's the sort of inferiority complex that's just waiting for the chance to pick up a gun one day and take it into a crowded restaurant somewhere in a desperate attempt at being noticed!  I'm not in the mood to figure out if you "amount to someone special" right now, okay.  Have you got that assface?!

I mean I don't ask much at this time of the season.  Maybe just a nice, quiet bit of relaxation by a warm fire.  You can even throw in a warm mug of something if you like, but that's it.  I don't need to complicate anything that simple with the antics of a pair of grandfathers who are willing to challenge each other to a fucking death match race on the highways and back roads just to see if one can outdo the other in giving the best Christmas present.  That's how you wanna play the game this year, Gramps?  Okay, then, let's play!  Gee Pops, this identical sweater ya got me sure looks good roasting on an open fire!  I can't wait to see if the upcoming one burns just as good next year.  You wanna go for double-jeopardy, where the stakes can get high for real?  How's about if I make sure that both of you miserable old bastards have to share the same sleeping quarters together.  Yeah, I can make you both comfy, and leave a pair of blunt instruments behind before locking up for the night, and may the best man win.  Whoever is lucky to survive shall have free reign of the entire liquor cabinet in the morning.


Let me make one thing clear.  There are a lot of sick, twisted individuals out there.  You get them every now and then, like bad apples falling from an otherwise good enough branch of the tree.  That's as may be.  However, the one thing I am dead-set on is making sure of, is that none of them gets in the way of my ability to have the jolliest fucking time possible this season!  I plan on having such a good time, I'll be whistling "Oh Come All Ye Faithful" out the crack of my ass!  It's going to be a damn good, Merry fucking Christmas for me, and ya wanna know why?  It's on account of I'm at least smart enough to know better than let a bunch of self-absorbed; mood killing; home wrecking, narcissistic; "dog kissing", can't-be-bothered-to-give-shit-one-about-others; "brainless; dickless; heartless; shameless pieces of worm headed sacks of monkey shit" like those miserable collections of  an excuse for human beings dressed as a family in John Hughes' article, get in the way of my favorite time of the year!!  Have you got that?!!!  "HallelujahHoly Shit!  Where's the Tylenol?!"....(web).

...Anyway, John Hughes titled his sequel as "Christmas 58".  In the meantime, Chris Miller was keeping himself busy, and the magazine numbers circulating, by reminiscing about his glory days as a student of Dartmouth college back in the early 60s.  Miller was pretty typical for young men of his age.  He was bright and energetic, yet he was also kind of lost and drifting.  Nothing bad was happening, and yet it was like nothing good was expected, either.  This left him with no sense of direction, that is until he found himself as a pledge in the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity house.  The result was a youthful, coming of age story that allowed Miller to find his own vice voice, and put it all to good use.  When it came time to dredge up all those blurry memories of fart lighting and more, Miller found the perfect title to encapsulate those crazy times, and the people and setting he shared it with.  Miller's chose to name them the Animal House series.  As you can probably tell, it was the work of both these writers that helped put National Lampoon on the map.  It also helped start a chain reaction, of sorts.  

When an idea gains enough notice to become big, it's usually at this point that things can sometimes begin to escalate, and the idea starts to grow way beyond the boundaries of the original frame in which it was set.  That's sort of the case with Kenney and Beard's little experiment.  With great fame came great possibilities, and Doug and Henry were sharp enough to both notice the moment, and seize it.  What they did with their window of opportunity created a ripple effect that we still live with to this day.

The Not Ready for Prime Time Players.  

When Kenney and Beard first began the Lampoon, they never had much else on their minds except for the possibility of maybe living in the shadow of Mad Magazine.  It was fun bit of fanboy tribute, as far as they were concerned, while at the same time acting as an extension of the 60s spirit, and managing to be a little bit experimental on the side, here and there.  I don't think any of them ever expected anything to grow into a juggernaut.  There came a point, however, where the popular demand for copies of magazine grew to what can only be described as a literal, generational proportion.  Beard and Kenney seemed to have made a shocking discovery.  They were so good at their jobs, that apparently they'd helped create the natural groundswell support for what was soon turning into a legitimate artistic movement within the field of American comedy and humor.  What happened next had all the inevitability of an snowball turning into an avalanche.

Longtime readers had begun to demand more issues with greater frequency, never mind the fact that all magazines have to run on certain schedules just to get the best possible final product.  In addition, word of mouth went a hell of a longer way back in the era before social media, and new subscribers were starting to pile on.  This was great news for Kenney, Beard, and Simmons, as it meant their ledgers were running in a very healthy shade of black.  The trouble was the demand for more Lampoon material was in danger of outstripping their ability to supply.  So they were faced with the question of how do you meet that kind of a demand in a timely fashion?  It had to be something that catered to the audience, while also being able to buy the regular artists and editors enough to time to guarantee that each new issue was up to the standard that readers had come to expect.  It was Michael O'Donoghue who first came up with the idea of taking the act, and turning it into a record album.

He approached Tony Hendra to help him craft the beginnings of a script for the concept.  In many ways, this was the smart choice.  What made Hendra unique is that he was the one member of the staff with some practical experience in theater and the stage.  He'd come to the Lampoon from England as a former partner in the Cambridge Footlights.  It was and remains, roughly, the British equivalent of The Second City.  It's Britain's training ground for any and all promising young talents in the field of humor.  Hendra was something of a major acquisition for the magazine, in that respect.  Not only was he the de-facto veteran of the staff, he had also previously worked with Graham Chapman and John Cleese in their pioneering work at Cambridge.  Thus a somewhat important link exists between the Lampoon, and that of a sort of phenomenon known as Monty Python's Fling Circus.  So he had a good idea of what worked in terms of dragging a laugh from the faces in the aisles.  

"Because I'd had a previous career as half of a comedy team," Hendra recounts, "I'd had experience in how to write and put together an album.  And I was paired with O'Donoghue, who wanted to do this album.  So that's how Radio Dinner came to be".  With the exception of Hendra, it was the first time any of the Lampoon staff had ever written anything where you eventually had to step up to the microphone in order to complete it.  The funny thing is how most of them adapted very to the change of venue.  The finished product doesn't sound anything like an amateur hour production.  Instead, it winds up sounding like what it was; a harbinger of things to come.  The first record made under the new National Lampoon label is a very stripped down affair, in many ways.  There's no one on board who can be described as a called a "Big Name".  The most recognizable performers on the record are Hendra and O'Donoghue, along with a then newcomer, with a knack for deadpan delivery and snark, known as Christopher Guest.  And yet the whole thing is a winner.  Even after all this time, it is still possible to get an incredible amount of enjoyment from something that was made at the very start of the Watergate era.

The most famous moment on the album probably remains Hendra's impersonation of John Lennon in a rant filled screed called "The Magical Misery Tour".  The best for me, however, is Guest's eerily on-target voicing of an alternate version of Bob Dylan, one who has been left behind by the changing times, and now has been reduced to one of those former heavyweights who wind up having to hock a bunch of hoary compilation albums full of the greatest hits from a bygone era.  The ones that used to wind up getting sold on TV by nostalgia organizations, such as Time-Life  It's one of those bits of satire where you're just glad that reality has taken at least one different tack.  

"The album was actually a great success," says Hendra.  "It got a tremendous amount of airplay.  It was also nominated for a Grammy, which was pretty good first time out.  It showed that we could do more than simply put out a magazine".  From there, Hendra went on to develop the idea of taking material from the magazine, and then putting it up, live, on-stage.  This was the initial concept which soon developed into Lemmings, a legit comedic concept album which acted as a parody of Woodstock.  What happened next is something Tolkien might have appreciated.  As the group began to brainstorm ideas, "the tale grew in the telling".  Pretty soon, Hendra, Beard, and others looked at each other and realized, "This is going to wind up being too big for just a record.  We need professional actors who know how to perform humor.  Hell, we should probably just go whole hog, and put on a parody rock concert".

That's how they got Lemmings.  It's also how the magazine put out a casting call for actors who were capable of understanding the Lampoon material in a way that was able to properly convey the spirit of the whole piece.  They managed to snag a few worthy auditions.  Among those included were bunch of young talents from the Chicago/Toronto area, by way of the Second City.  One of them was a wild looking kid by the name of John Belushi.  He came in along with some friends of his.  Two of them were a pair of brothers, Brian and Bill Murray, and they brought in their friends, Harold Ramis and Gilda Radner.  And of course they all brought along one other ingredient.  His name was, and still is, Chevy Chase; and we're not.  Most of the names listed still have a ring of familiarity about them, even after so much water under bridge.  A lot of it seems to be down to innate talent.  They really are the first people or images we think about whenever the Lampoon comes up as a topic of discussion.  And yet the irony is how it didn't start out that way.  All anyone knew at the time was that they had this comedy album that was getting out of hand, and they needed some extra canon fodder on-board.


Hendra knew "We needed a cast of people who could be very funny, and could play an instrument.  Or, at the very least, sing extremely well".  As it turned out, Tony knew about Belushi from hanging around The Second City often enough for them both to meet, and for John to introduce Hendra to the rest of his friends in the now legendary improv company.  Hendra pitched the idea of Lemmings to them, and they were sold.  The rest, as they say, is so much history by now as to be downright academic.  What no one seems to have been aware of at the time was the kind of chain reaction that was being set in motion.  

To call the Lemmings album and stage show a hit is a bit like saying that people need clean oxygen in order to survive.  The crowd didn't just eat the whole thing up, it helped create something in the process.  This may never have been anyone's intention.  However it wasn't long before the magazine now had its own accidental roster of stars on its hands.  You could argue that this was both good and bad at the same time.  The blessing was mixed because on the one hand, these new recruits turned out not to be any kind of dead weight drag on the operation.  The magazine kept chugging along as always, and now with the added bonus of some pretty good material written by Belushi, Ramis, and their Second City cohorts.  The downside was that they sort of became the face of the Lampoon through what seems to have been no one's fault, in retrospect.  And yet, the minute you go and actually watch just one clip, from like even single sketch, in any part of the Lemmings show, it all becomes so obvious that it's a wonder no one stopped to notice what was going on. 

Yes, the Lemmings album and concert shows belonged to the Lampoon.  However, when you go back and watch clips from those old performances, it becomes pretty damn obvious that while the material might Kenney's, Beard's or O'Donoghue, that whole entire stage belongs to Belushi, Chase, Radner, and Murray.  They don't just dominate the spotlight either.  From the moment they make their first entrances, it's pretty clear that they are in fact shaping it as well, giving the material the stamp of their own creative identities.  It's possible in hindsight to also tell that in addition to shaping the Lampoon spirit, there's also the creeping sense that they are also close to stealing the spotlight, as well as sharing it.  A lot of it is down to the fact that we are watching the first hints of a comedy dynamic that TV producer Lorne Micheals would take notice of not too long after, and be able to provide a live television platform for them all.  It's not too difficult to understand what it was that he caught a glimpse of, and was later inspired by.


If you go and look at Belushi's performance on the Lemmings stage, for instance, what you're greeted with is the exact same persona that we now know him for from SNL.  The stage itself might not belong to the NBC building at Rockefeller Plaza, yet the act is very much the same.  This is most obvious the minute you start to realize that Belushi hasn't even gained himself a national audience, and yet he's still mastered his now legendary portrayal of Rock singer and cover artist, Joe Cocker.  Cocker was the same guy who sang the Wonder Years theme song to a crowd of thousands at the original Woodstock, and it's his gestures and mannerisms at that performance that Belushi was able to take and parody in such a way that he almost made it his own.  It was, and remains, one of best examples of comedic acting ever committed to history, and at the time of Lemmings, it sort of had all the impact of a breakout performance.  It didn't just help to put Belushi on the map, either.  Murray, Ramis, and the others also benefited a great deal from their employment by the Lampoon.  This is something that Tirola never seems to go quite so far with in his film, yet to me, the implication seem pretty obvious.

Matty Simmons claims he created the National Lampoon Radio Hour mostly as a way of dealing with Michael O'Donoghue's notorious temper.  However, it's probably closer to the truth to say that the popularity of Lemmings, and in particular the Second City cast who were an integral part of it, more or less lead to the point where audience popularity created a demand for more of the same.  And I maintain it was this, more than anything else, that helped take the Lampoon to the next step in its evolution.  It was no longer just a magazine.  Now it was a record label and/or radio broadcast network.  I think half of a caption from a Donoghue cartoon explains it best, "One thing lead to another".  I'd argue it's Danny Abelson, a contributor to the enterprise, who is able to give the Radio Hour its best sense of context.  "For humor nerds, the National Lampoon is like an obscure record label that first recorded Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton.  You sort of can trace it all back to this extraordinary this little record label".  Michael Gross admits that it was this unexpected success that made the floor under everyone's feet begin to shift.  "National Lampoon was just a magazine, you know?  But suddenly, it was records, actors, and musicians".  

Abelson finds just the right bow to put on the whole affair.  "There was an extraordinary change in the sense that the spotlight was suddenly being shared.  Well, I remember Chevy coming to the office.  And John Belushi coming to the office.  And those guys had an energy to them that was very exciting.  And you felt that it must have been difficult for editors who had been around for a long time to not be part of that group".  To put it another way, if Lemmings was a breakout performance for Gilda, Harold, Bill, and John.  Then the Radio Hour was the proving ground where their collective stars began to rise.  What happened next is still a fairly well known story.  However, I'll let Matty Simmons explain it in better detail.  "One day I get a call from a vice-president at NBC.  He said, "We've been talking about doing a "Saturday Night" satire show.  Would you be interested?  We had all sorts of things going on.  We had live shows on the road.  We had the magazine.  We had a book division.  It was the biggest radio show in the country, it was on six hundred stations.  We were the Humor Empire in the United States.  I said, "I really appreciate it, but it's too demanding".  

It was also sort of unstoppable.  It wasn't long before the all of the Lemmings cast (with the exception of Ramis and Brian Doyle Murray) were signing on with Michaels for his new Saturday evening variety show.  More to the point, at lot of the Lampoon staff began to divide their time between the magazine and the TV series.  This is a fact that Simmons seems to have approached with a grudging sense of resignation.  “Most of the cast of Saturday Night Live was taken from the first company of the National Lampoon Show.”  Simmons’s testimony is backed up Lampoon contributor Rick Meyorowitz who elaborated, “(SNL) was written by some former Lampoon people.  It was starring some former Lampoon people.  And it was very glamorous, and it was a huge hit immediately”.  He adds, by way of explanation, “I gathered pretty quickly that if a liked Saturday Night Live, I should keep it to myself.”

The whole affair could leave an open sort of chicken and egg question hanging over everything.  Did the Lampoon create the Players, or did they place the whole enterprise on the map?  The best answer I can arrive at, the one that seems to sum up the real truth of the matter, is that in the end, what we're talking about here is perhaps all just a simple case of mutual, ongoing benefits on equal and related terms.  If push comes to shove, I'm compelled to believe it was the magazine that made the Players.

The curious part is how I'm not sure this was any kind of final straw.  There was a definite strain on the camel's back.  Yet it didn't break.  Instead, it's almost as if all of the Lampoon found various ways of channeling inspiration from this kind of push and pull of numerous artistic commitments.  Yes, Murray and Belushi went to work on Saturday Night Live, and yet it was never like a total breakaway.  A lot of the classic Not Ready for Prime Time Players would still find the time to congregate around the same old offices where they got their start when they weren't busy with rehearsals at NBC.  


And even then, there were always projects up in the air and going on between the Players and the Magaziners.  It's remarkable for the way in which each of these artists was able to take a by now familiar script, and turn it on its head.  Rather than segueing into any kind of "breaking up the band" sequence, instead it was more like the band finding ways to diversify their output in a way that benefits everyone, and kept the seams from tearing apart.  It's more like each potential tear was first spotted and then rewoven into the original tapestry without eliminating its essential nature as a new part of the original pattern.  It's got to be one of the most remarkable (and quite frankly admirable) balancing acts in the history of comedy, or showbiz.

It's this ability to play off each other in creative tension that allowed the Lampoon to keep growing its banner.  Pretty soon, this branched out into not just radio, but also the big screen.  Matty Simmons had it in him to suggest that the magazine place some of its greatest hits in front of paying audiences in theaters nationwide.  He somehow knew he even had some made-to-order material for the job, in the form of Chris Miller's Animal House articles.  It was just the suggestion that someone like Kenney needed for motivation.  Together, he and Harold Ramis crafted a script that has since become a bonafide classic.  And it just kept building from there.  When John Hughes was able to catch a screening of Miller and Kenney's film, the gist of his initial reaction was that he'd really like to try his hand at the same, feature-length format.  So he went back and began to develop his "Vacation 58" story into material for a script that would later be filmed as National Lampoon's Vacation. Much like Kenney's initial efforts, the success of Vacation proved to be a real foot in the door both for Hughes, and the film's main star Chevy Chase.  It was also a major boost for it's director, Harold Ramis, as well as the career of one of the film's supporting cast, a Canadian Second City veteran named John Candy.

Conclusion: Still Crazy After All These Years.

It's a this point that the story starts to become a bit more familiar to audiences everywhere.  We still seem to be at a point in time when most pop culture readers out there are able to either recollect where they were in or about the years from 1984 to roughly 91.  That's when the great majority of 80s kids gained their ultimate ideas of what the Lampoon style of comedy was, even if they've never really known what it was, or where it came from.  In some ways, that's kind of a shame.  Don't get me wrong, it's great to know that even previously ignored films like Dan Aykroyd's Dragnet and The Great Outdoors are starting to get a genuine following among fans of the comedy of the era.  What I think we're in danger of forgetting is both the nature and style of this type of comedy.  There's just something unique about the humor from the 80s.  It's not at all above the use of slapstick and the lowbrow.  At the same time, it's like it's greatest impact is always based off of character studies and a clever use of wordplay.

It was a skill in taking even the most basic sounding of concepts, and then managing to dig up a genuine vein or ore of humor implanted in the mundane, and seemingly straightforward.  This was especially true where questions of hypocrisy and pomposity were concerned.  It's an intertwined subject matter that has always been like the tried and true ground swell for good satirical farce and parody.  This is a fact that is in no way lost on the former staff of the Lampoon, or those they have influenced, even at this late date.  Billy Bob Thornton recalls the impact that the magazine had on his outlook before it all became truly national.  "It was actually the first time that I realized that through humor, you can tell the truth".  It's a sentiment that Judd Apatow is willing to back up.  "In a mass media way, this kind of comedy didn't exist before then.  People weren't that frank, and didn't attack the establishment comedically.  Henry Beard was of the opinion that:

"We're basically a humor magazine, and we publish things that we consider to be funny.  It's just impossible to put out this kind of a publication and be completely unwilling to do something offensive."  In terms of overall approach, Tony Hendra was of the opinion that, "I think it's sometimes conscious, and sometimes just instinctive that we push things as far as they possibly can be pushed".  "I've always had a bad attitude," Mike O'Donoghue admits with typical candor, "I'm earning a living off a bad attitude right now.  Teachers said it would always get me in trouble, but it's great.  It's working for me".  However, I think even Donoghue was smart enough to know that attitude can only ever take you so far.  You need to have a proper sense of wit in order to be able to back up that kind of thing.  Otherwise all that's happening is your just sucker for your own punishment.  It's a mistake that both the magazine and it's staff were able to avoid more often than not, even if it did get them all into trouble now and then.  Of course, that just means they were doing the job right now, doesn't it?  In the process, they helped create a kind of mini-comedy empire through their efforts, and its lucky that it's lasted this long.    


Anyway, that was the history, and initial string of breakout performances that helped launch a series of films and acting, writing, and directorial careers that are still household names.  I think everyone was very lucky, looking back on it now.  Luck is also very much on their side in the form of the director of this documentary.  Tirola is able to serve as not just a sympathetic, but also a very competent listener.  He trains his camera on the subject, and then effectively gets out of the way, allowing the story to tell itself, and exist on its own terms.  In doing so, what gets revealed is a group portrait that is willing to be a lot more candid and honest about it's subject than perhaps most viewers would be expecting.  A lot of the former staffers are quite open about the personal struggles that some of them went through in dealing with the pressure of the spotlight, as well as owning whatever mistakes were made.  And yet the fact that so many of them were able to still be around to discuss it is also its own testament to the human will to survive.  That's got to be another victory that doesn't get talked about as much as it should.


Well, there it is, boys and girls.  That's the story of one of the greatest revolutions in American comedy.  I wish I cold remember half of it as well as guys like Tony and Henry.  Most everybody was higher than a kite a lot of the time back then, so just the fact that there's even much recall left over is astonishing to me.  Anyway, there's not much more to tell, if I'm being honest.  I think the real curtain call started when Doug died.  It came all of a sudden, and I agree with Chevy.  I think he just slipped and fell accidentally to his death on the rocks.  I guess you could call it the ultimate banana peel moment, or something like it.  Personally, I think the magazine lost the one voice that was giving it direction for all this time.  It struggled along for a few more years, yet without someone like Doug at the helm, well, what can you say.  The good news is that while the Lampoon might have been gone, it's legacy continued on.

That's why you still got flicks like Ghostbusters, The Breakfast Club, and Home Alone to help keep you company.  It's sort of like a security blanket, if that makes any sense.  That's another thing about those old Lampooners.  Some of them may have been genuinely crazy, but they acted so in a good way.  Just don't let some of them use your couch all that much.  They made you laugh, but I like to think they did so in a big-hearted sort of way.  They never hesitated in going for the jugular, but they were classy about it.  Even if the blows landed could sometimes be pretty blunt on impact, the most important point, I believe, is that they ultimately couldn't leave it at that.  Guys like John Hughes, and even Doug Kenney seemed to intuit something that I think a lot of the new crowd is in danger of overlooking.  They realized on some level that sometimes the best satire is the one that doesn't always end on a clenched fist, and instead is able conclude with an open and inviting hand.


Maybe that's the true hallmark of all great satirical humor.  It makes us laugh in order to instruct.  And, you know, just maybe, on occasion, here and there, you understand.  Perhaps it can also remind us a bit of what it's like to be truly human.  That's the biggest takeaway I get from Doug Tirola's documentary.  It tells the story of the birth of the modern form of American humor, and does so with a warmth and sympathy that I hope will get the newer generation of kids talking about it all again.  His film can easily function as a good gateway introduction to a much needed treasure trove of laughter.  It's a topic well worth exploring, and Drunk, Stoned, Brilliant, Dead is a great place to start exploring.

 

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