‘The National Lampoon’s Greatest Triumphs and Most Detestable Tragedies
Like Mad Magazine before it and The Onion 15 years later, National Lampoon defined comedy culture for a generation. While Mad used comedy as a defense mechanism against modern life’s cruelties, National Lampoon took the slash-and-burn offensive with editor P.J. O’Rourke noting, “We used humor as a weapon rather than a shield.” The magazine’s laughs were barbed to the point of being downright nasty, leading to a comic revolution that both invigorated and destroyed.
Here are some of the capstones and catastrophes of a distinctive chapter in American comedy…
Triumph: 1964 Yearbook Parody
Nostalgia send-ups are ingrained in modern comedy, but the National Lampoon’s yearbook parody practically invented it — at least in the way we know it now. Rather than the gauzy reminiscences of American Graffiti or Happy Days, the 1964 Yearbook revisited a high school that was outrageously familiar, full of outcasts, criminals, class clowns, untouchable princesses and regular guys just trying to survive. (If this sounds a little like Lampoon alum John Hughes’ Breakfast Club, it’s probably not a coincidence.) That “regular guy just trying to survive” was Larry Kroger, a character who would escape the pages of the yearbook parody into National Lampoon’s Animal House as, well, a Regular Guy Trying to Survive.
What makes Yearbook such a peak is its startling attention to detail, from an In Memoriam page honoring a fallen student (“We didn’t get a chance to know him too well because even when he did come to school, he coughed a lot and sometimes after coughing he made funny noises”) to school activities (like Future Veterans of Foreign Wars) to handwritten good wishes (or veiled threats) from fellow classmates.
Tragedy: The Racist Stuff
There’s one Black student in the Yearbook parody — transfer student Madison Avenue “Zippy” Jones. The quotes under his yearbook picture? “Yassuh,” “‘Shore nough” and “Dat’s right, boss.” Accolades like “exciting first year at KHS” and “fast on his feet” support an image on the track and field page in which a terrified Jones wins an out-of-state meet against the Jefferson Davis High Dixie Revels by running for his life. Ugh.
John Hughes wrote his own nostalgia pieces for the Lampoon that would eventually be turned into the Vacation series of movies. The racist stereotypes that made their way into Sixteen Candles and Christmas Vacation originated in short stories like Christmas ‘59. The story features Xgung Wo, a foreign student staying with Grandpa Swenson. We’ll just let the prose speak for itself:
“I’ll sreep in your base-ments,” Xgung Wo said, bowing to Mom.
“Don’t be silly,” Mom said. "You can sleep in Johnny's room.”
That was bad news for me. Not only was he all grown up, but he had huge beaver teeth, glasses like my Grandpa's, and he buttoned his shirt all the way up to the top. He also had his sweater on backward and he wore red socks with sandals.
“Your grandma has tord me you are an exerrent base-a-bore pitcher,” Xgung Wo said to me. “Maybe pray for Detroit Rions one day!”
Triumph: The National Lampoon Radio Hour
Beyond the magazine, which sold nearly a million copies a month at its peak, National Lampoon spread its wings into other media. Starting in 1972, Lampoon writer and future This Is Spinal Tap manager Tony Hendra masterminded a series of successful comedy albums. Lemmings was an Off-Broadway triumph in 1973. But the best distillation of Lampoon humor came on its weekly radio show, featuring pre-fame comics (deep breath) John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Christopher Guest, Chevy Chase, Michael O’Donoguhue and Harold Ramis. Props to Lorne Michaels for recruiting this gang for his new late-night comedy show, but he was buying off-the-rack here — the brilliant sketch comedy was already gelling by the time NBC put it on late night.
Tragedy: The Sexist Stuff
One not-so-secret reason behind the Lampoon’s 1970s success was the inclusion of plenty of topless women in each issue. To be fair, magazine writers like Doug Kenney and Sean Kelly took it all off as well in the spirit of sexual liberation that was sweeping the country. But yeah, it was mostly about hiring young women to take off their shirts. Also, the sex stuff sold like hotcakes.
Articles included gems like “Three Pretty Girls Doing Just What You Want So You Can Masturbate” and a “Pubescence Section” with comic strips of schoolgirls stripping off their uniforms. According to A Futile and Stupid Gesture: How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy Forever, the obsession with nudity and sex increased throughout the 1970s as writers had an increasingly difficult time distinguishing between funny sexual material and pure exploitation.
It was worse in the office. An editorial in January 1971 issue “joked” that “the time has come for us to set straight certain wild-eyed individuals who have publicly accused the National Lampoon of harboring chauvinist pigs, sexist dogs, female-exploiting jackals and other unfashionable quadrupeds in its editorial kennels.” The “shrill” individuals on the Lampoon’s staff presented editors with “outrageous ultimatums,” including a demand that “all female staff members’ salaries are to be paid in real money or its equivalent in edible produce.”
Sure, that was a gag, but the reality wasn’t much better. “(The editors) weren’t really exposed to women,” says writer Anne Beatts in A Futile and Stupid Gesture. “They thought women were a different species, like horses. It was sort of like, ‘What do women eat?’”
Triumph: The Movies
While the success of Saturday Night Live introduced the masses to Lampoon-style laughs, it was National Lampoon’s Animal House that changed the face of cinematic comedy. The Slobs versus Snobs storyline became a blueprint for comic movies for a good 20 years (Stripes, Caddyshack, Porky's, Revenge of the Nerds, Happy Gilmore), holding sway until Judd Apatow arrived to establish a new template.
Chevy Chase’s crazy-successful series of Vacation movies further cemented the brand, associating National Lampoon with laughs even as the magazine began to fade.
Tragedy: The Movies
For a while, at least. As a series of new owners bought and sold the magazine, they slapped the National Lampoon name onto a variety of straight-to-video disasters with names like National Lampoon’s Golf Punks, National Lampoon’s Barely Legal and National Lampoon’s Frat Chance. What the movies had in common were zero stars and zero ties to the brand except some general promise of “outrageous comedy.”
Ownership has changed hands once again, but its plans to relaunch National Lampoon as a funny NFT factory seemed to implode this spring.
With comedy-crypto dreams seemingly dashed, there’s nothing left at nationallampoon.com but a form to register for updates. Until it inevitably rises from the ashes again, we’ll have to wait to see if there’s one more triumph still out there for the Lampoon — or one last tragedy.