National Lampoon

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National Lampoon

Although Britain has enjoyed a long tradition of looking to its colleges for humor, the crossover from collegiate to professional humorist in America has for the most part been much less conspicuous. A notable exception, however, was a group of students at Harvard in the late 1960s who went on in 1970 to found the National Lampoon, which enjoyed two decades of circulation before effectively ceasing publication in April of 1992.

It is quite possible that the National Lampoon might never have come into existence but for the astonishing success of some undergraduate collaborations by Henry Beard and Douglas Kenney while they were on the staff of the venerable Harvard Lampoon, the college's century-old humor magazine: parodies of Time and Life, which went into national distribution and sold well, followed by a J. R. R. Tolkien spoof, Bored of the Rings, which ran to numerous printings after its publication by Signet in 1969.

After graduation Beard and Kenney found a backer for their proposal for a national humor magazine in Matty Simmons, fresh from 17 years as executive vice president of the pioneering credit card company Diner's Club and eager to find new areas of investment. In 1967 Simmons had created a company called 21st Century Communications which later became National Lampoon, Inc., with Simmons as its chairman of the board and Leonard Mogel, from Simmons' Weight Watchers Magazine, as its publisher. Beard was installed in the magazine's midtown Manhattan office as executive editor, Kenney as editor-in-chief, and Robert Hoffman as managing editor. The art department was run by Peter Bramley, a cartoonist fresh from Massachusetts College of Art, who had moved to Manhattan from Boston in the late 1960s, and Bill Skurski, Bramley's partner in Cloud Studio, which was located in a storefront on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Collaborating with them was photographer Mike Sullivan, an emigrant to Manhattan from Montana's cattle country, who set up and shot the pictures for Cloud Studio's photo-novellas.

The first issue rolled off the press in April of 1970. It was irreverent and funny, appealing to the burgeoning baby-boom market of college-educated youth now old enough to be entry-level professionals. It was also a magnet for emerging talent: Beard and Kenney were soon joined by their friends and fellow Harvard Lampoon alumni Christopher Cerf and George Trow, as well as a host of New York humorists including Chris Miller, a former advertising copywriter who had also written material for Al Goldstein's unabashedly sexually oriented magazine, Screw, and Mike O'Donoghue, whose previous credits included contributions to the East Village Other and the Evergreen Review.

The freewheeling informality of the early days made for some cliffhanger administration, in no small part due to the erratic lifestyles (and recreational drug habits) of key players. Kenney once simply disappeared for over a month; Beard, running the whole show in his absence, was under such stress that during an interview with one of his art directors he bit his pipestem clean through. Burnout and management shakeups were frequent: Hoffman left as managing editor after a year, his job being given to former associate editor Mary Martello. Bramley and Skurski were replaced in 1971 by an in-house art editor, Michael Gross, who in turn lasted only a year. Kenney and Beard were reshuffled into new positions in 1972.

But though staff volatility was a way of life at the company in its early days, it was all of a piece with the exuberant creativity of the enterprise. O'Donoghue and Tony Hendra, Martello's successor in the managing editor's slot, collaborated on National Lampoon's first comedy album, Radio Dinner, issued in 1972 and a commercial success—it included the classic "Deteriorata" parody, as well as withering spoofs of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, former Beatles Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and John Lennon, mostly composed by Christopher Guest. Hendra followed in 1973 with a National Lampoon off-Broadway stage review, Lemmings, also with music by Guest, and a cast featuring John Belushi and Chevy Chase; it too turned a respectable profit.

That same year O'Donoghue and P. J. O'Rourke, now the magazine's executive editor, put together The National Lampoon Encyclopedia of Humor; the first issue of the magazine devoted entirely to new material and without any advertisements, it included pieces by Beard, Kenney, and O'Donoghue himself, plus cartoons and writing by Ann Beatts, Vaughn Bode, Frank Frazetta, Edward Gorey, B. Kliban, Brian McConnachie, Charles Rodrigues, Ed Subitzsky, and a dozen other contributors.

Not everything the National Lampoon team touched turned to gold, however. Flushed with the success of Radio Dinner and Lemmings (the first of several profitable National Lampoon stage shows), Simmons bankrolled a weekly syndicated radio show called The National Lampoon Comedy Hour, which first aired in December of 1973. It was cut from an hour to a half-hour after seven episodes and withdrawn altogether the following June, having lost money almost from the start, but it provided the material for an album of excerpts, called National Lampoon/Gold Turkey (Radio Hour/Greatest Hits), released in 1975. By this time O'Donoghue had left National Lampoon to begin seven years as the chief writer for a new NBC television comedy show called Saturday Night Live, which premiered in 1975 with much of the flavor (and several key cast members, notably Chevy Chase and John Belushi) from the earlier National Lampoon reviews.

When negotiating their original contract with Simmons, Kenney, Beard, and Hoffman had agreed to a five year buyout option which they exercised at the end of 1974, receiving a total of $7 million among them. Beard departed immediately (Hoffman had already left to return to graduate school when he ceased to be managing editor in 1971), resurfacing after several years as a prolific writer of less unconventional humor, sometimes in partnership with Christopher Cerf—the two were co-authors of several books including The Official Politically Correct Dictionary and Handbook. Kenney remained until 1977 and was one of the three scriptwriters (the other two were Chris Miller and Harold Ramis) for National Lampoon's Animal House, starring John Belushi—the highest-grossing (prob-ably in both senses) comedy film of the twentieth century.

With the release of Animal House in 1978, Simmons began to concentrate more on film production and less on publishing. Other National Lampoon films followed, including National Lampoon's Vacation (1983), which starred Chevy Chase as the paterfamilias of the feckless Griswold household, and its sequels National Lampoon's European Vacation (1985), National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989), and National Lampoon's Vegas Vacation (1997).

Meanwhile, the magazine began a long, slow decline—punctuated by occasional book releases—to its last scheduled issue in May of 1992, though it continued thereafter to appear in an annual edition, produced by a subcontractor of the new owners of National Lampoon, Inc.—J2 Communications—whose president was former Disney executive James P. Jimirro, and which bought what was left of the company in 1990, primarily for its film rights. Indeed, the yearly publication of National Lampoon was not for profit in its own right but rather dictated by the founders' original contract, which stipulated that unless the magazine were published at least once a year in a run of at least 50,000 copies, all rights to the National Lampoon name would revert to the Harvard Lampoon. Although J2's modest staffing (three full-time and three part-time workers as of the end of 1997) precluded any in-house production, the firm continued throughout the 1990s to license independent producers making National Lampoon films, and to distribute them to theaters and through cable television channels such as Showtime and the Movie Channel.

Tony Hendra, in his book Going Too Far, chronicles the rise and fall of so-called "boomer humor" as beginning with "sick" comic Mort Sahl in the early 1960s and ending with Saturday Night Live. National Lampoon rode the crest of the wave, and during its 1970s heyday was the training school and laboratory for many humorists, whether stars such as Beard, Kenney, Belushi, and O'Donoghue or the host of lesser lights whose work graced the magazine's pages. That the National Lampoon name retained considerable cachet at the end of the twentieth century, enough to be a major selling point for movies to a generation of viewers unborn at the time Animal House was released, is a testimony to the durability of its contributors' iconoclastic brand of humor in the American popular consciousness.

—Nick Humez

Further Reading:

Beard, Henry, and Christopher Cerf. The Politically Correct Dictionary and Handbook. New York, Villard Books, 1993.

Beard, Henry, and Douglas Kenney. Bored of the Rings: A Parody of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. New York, New American Library/Signet, 1969.

Bendel, John, compiler. The National Lampoon Presents True Facts: The Book. Chicago, Contemporary Books, 1991.

Hendra, Tony. Going Too Far: The Rise and Demise of Sick, Gross, Black, Sophomoric, Weirdo, Pinko, Anarchist, Underground, Anti-Establishment Humor. Garden City, New York, Doubleday, 1987.

O'Donoghue, Michael, editor. The National Lampoon Encyclopedia of Humor. New York, National Lampoon, 1973.

O'Rourke, P. J., editor. National Lampoon Tenth Anniversary Anthology, 1970-1980. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1979.

Perrin, Dennis. Mr. Mike: The Life and Work of Michael O'Donoghue: The Man Who Made Comedy Dangerous. New York, Avon Books, 1998.

Simmons, Matty. If You Don't Buy This Book, We'll Kill This Dog: Life, Laughs, Love and Death at the National Lampoon. New York, Barricade Books, 1994.

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National Lampoon