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Quest For Fun: Looking Back At 'National Lampoon'

Lampooners Garry Goodrow, Alice Peyton, Christopher Guest, John Belushi, Peter Elbling, Chevy Chase and Tony Hendra in this undated photo from <em>Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead</em>.
Michael Gold
Lampooners Garry Goodrow, Alice Peyton, Christopher Guest, John Belushi, Peter Elbling, Chevy Chase and Tony Hendra in this undated photo from Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead.

A lot of what — and who — has made us laugh over the past two generations can be traced back, one way or another, to National Lampoon. John Hughes and Harold Ramis, the filmmakers, humorists like P.J. O' Rourke, classic movies — Animal House, Caddyshack and National Lampoon's Vacation, not to mention John Belushi, Gilda Radner, and Christopher Guest.

From 1970 to 1998, the magazine that began as a spinoff from the Harvard Lampoon became one of the first multi-media content providers — a phrase its founders would probably cringe to hear — creating books and magazines, radio, films, albums and stage shows distinguished by deliberate raunchiness and studied outrageousness.

Some of its founding talents are still active. But many burned out. Douglas Tirola is the director of Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, a new film about the Lampoon and its influence. He tells NPR's Scott Simon that there was an honesty to the Lampoon's shocking aesthetic. "In the '70s, especially, when there were so many magazines ... magazines were looking for attention, when someone's running to the train or walking down the street, so the covers really had to stick out .. 'Please buy this magazine,' because that's really what it's all about."

Interview Highlights

On some of the Lampoon's signature articles — the few we can mention here

The Volkswagen ad — in the early '70s, there was apparently a Volkswagen ad that showed a Volkswagen Beetle bug floating in water. And this was an ad that looked very much like it, but the tagline said, "If Teddy Kennedy drove a Volkswagen, he would be President now," referring to [the fatal bridge accident at] Chappaquiddick ... the ad was saying because Volkswagens float, that nobody would've died.

They would go after anybody, and there was a danger in that, and there was an unpredictability about that. And when you open the Lampoon, on one page they're killing Nixon, and on the next page they're going after a sacred cow on the Left like Che Guevara. I think [that] made the whole experience more exciting.

On the legacy of the National Lampoon Radio Hour

Pretty much everything in comedy at this point owes something to the Lampoon, whether they realize it or not. I think they just broke down a lot of barriers in a mainstream way. It's speaking to a national audience and there's still a little residue of that today — I think some of it, people may be focused on the Animal House aspect and just the idea of teenaged boys and college boys and nudity and sex and things like that in a way you hadn't seen it before Animal House, but I think there's just something more, that they represent freedom. They represent a freedom that maybe we don't even have as much as we wish we did today.

On whether the Lampoon's multi-platform success was its undoing

To me, it was one of the last great untold stories about a group of people that unexpectedly came together, and when they did, something special happened. So I think what happened there is, it's as if somebody had gone into this giant high-school cafeteria and taken the smartest person from each table — the alternative table, the theater table, the jock table, the student council table — and because of that, eventually those personalities started to rub up against each other ... ambition and envy and jealousy starts to get in the way ... and these were people that had big ambitions, and they were not cageable people, as one of the staff members says in our film.

On why the Lampoon still makes us laugh

It has both that lowbrow humor — you know, things that you associate now with their own work in Animal House, or almost like the Marx Brothers — and then things where you feel like you possibly need a master's degree to understand. But they didn't shy away from either.

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