Gilda Radner and John Belushi Were Out of Control Before ‘Saturday Night Live’

The Canadian border patrol was well acquainted with the comedy stars
Gilda Radner and John Belushi Were Out of Control Before ‘Saturday Night Live’

Before there was Saturday Night Live, there was National Lampoon. While mostly remembered as a counterculture humor magazine and the brand name for movies like Animal House and Vacation, publisher Matty Simmons spent the early 1970s trying out a number of Lampoon-adjacent projects like the legendary National Lampoon Radio Hour and successful stage shows like Lemmings. That’s where pre-SNL stars like Gilda Radner and John Belushi got their first taste of a national audience. 

After the triumph of Woodstock parody Lemmings, another traveling revue called The National Lampoon Show hit the road, according to Matty’s son, Michael Simmons. On a recent Rarified Heir podcast, Simmons talked about acting as company manager for a cast that included Belushi, Radner, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, and SCTV’s Joe Flaherty. As one might imagine, traveling with that eclectic group generated the occasional headache — and going back and forth to Canada caused the biggest problems. 

“Gilda was afraid of flying,” says Simmons, which was a problem when the group had to quickly get from Philadelphia to Canada for a gig. He “pleaded with her and pleaded with her,” but no go — Radner refused to get on a plane. Knowing that Radner was close with Ramis, he turned to him for help. No problem, Ramis said, “I’ll take care of her.”

The next morning, the cast gathered in the hotel lobby to head to the airport. Ramis and Radner emerged from the elevator “and they've clearly been up all night and they're fried,” remembers Simmons. “They're on all kinds of substances and Gilda is wearing a homemade sign around her neck that says 'Hi, my name is Gilda and I'm not afraid to fly.' Ramis’s plan worked — Gilda boarded and made the flight, albeit with the sign still around her neck and several bewildered passengers wondering what was going on. 

That flight was actually easier to navigate than another cross-border trip, thanks to typical Belushi shenanigans. The problem: The cast had recently been guests on a local Canadian rock radio station, which gave each member “these little hash pipes with the call letters of the station on the side.” (This was the mid-1970s, folks.) Simmons warned everyone to Get Rid Of The Hashpipes — throw them away, give them away, but whatever you do, “don’t carry them on the flight because we’re going to get popped.” 

Guess who didn’t listen? Everybody ditched the paraphernalia, says Simmons. “except Belushi, of course. So they had to pull him aside and there was a whole thing.” Simmons was able to talk Belushi out of trouble, but not before the comic’s antics got the show’s entire prop trunk searched. The customs guy was a real square, Simmons says, and he “pulled out this pair of glasses with a penis nose. He looks at me totally straight and goes ‘What are these?’”

“And I said, ‘They are glasses with a penis nose.’ I didn’t know what else to say.”

The end of the story? Penis-nose glasses and John Belushi made it through customs, but Belushi’s hash pipe did not. All things considered, a good day at the office for Michael Simmons.

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