All The Reasons 'National Lampoon' Resented ‘Saturday Night Live’
Until a certain late-night comedy show came around, the flag-bearer for hip comedy in the 1970s was the irreverent humor magazine National Lampoon. Between its publications, comedy albums, stage productions like Lemmings and The National Lampoon Radio Hour, it could rightfully claim to be leading the counterculture comedy wave. Comic actors like Gilda Radner, Bill Murray and Chevy Chase were part of the Lampoon gang, which is why some of the magazine’s founders felt royally ripped off when Saturday Night Live became the biggest thing on television.
“This guy Matty Simmons who owns the National Lampoon has come after the show and has attacked me several times in print, saying I discovered Gilda and John (Belushi) and Bill in The National Lampoon Show and then lifted a lot of ideas and other nonsense,” complained a young Lorne Michaels in a 1979 Rolling Stone interview.
Michaels is not wrong. As recently as 2012, Simmons was doing interviews claiming not only that Saturday Night Live was simply the Lampoon on TV, but that TV had asked Simmons to do it first. “NBC came to me and said they wanted to do a Saturday night variety show, and they wanted to do a National Lampoon show, just like the radio show,” he told Vulture. “And I thought about it, and I had three kids growing up, I had three magazines, I had stage shows, I had radio. I said, ‘I can’t handle it.’ I said, ‘I know what’s gonna happen, too. All my writers are gonna go write for television,’ which is what happened anyway, because it paid so much more than publishing. And I passed, and that’s how Lorne Michaels got in. He was smart — he grabbed (writer) Michael O’Donoghue right off the bat, and Michael brought in Belushi and Gilda and Chevy. All Lampoon people.”
Another Lampoon writer, Tony Hendra (you might remember him as Spinal Tap’s manager Ian) made a meal out of Saturday Night Live in his book, Going Too Far: The Rise and Demise of Sick, Gross, Black, Sophomoric, Weirdo, Pinko, Anarchist, Underground, Anti-Establishment Humor. There are plenty of things that made Hendra angry about SNL, somehow blaming the show for the elections of both Christian Jimmy Carter and conservative Ronald Reagan. But what really sticks in his craw is the Lampoon not getting credit for getting there first. “Oddly, considering the intimate relationship between the Lampoon and SNL,” he gripes, “the magazine is barely mentioned” in histories of the show. Hendra spends pages denigrating the show:
- “SNL was anything but revolutionary. It was not even subversive.”
- “Appearance, not substance, was the hallmark of SNL from beginning to end.”
- “(Lorne) Michaels was a one-man Muslim horde.”
In A Futile and Stupid Gesture: How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy Forever, writer Bruce McCall says, “When Saturday Night Live started, you could feel the energy go right out of the Lampoon.” Writers that weren’t hired by the show (like, say, Hendra) were “immensely jealous” and the show’s success was “beyond infuriating.”
While Michaels acknowledges the influence of O’Donoghue in shaping the show’s sensibilities, he believes another comedy institution had a bigger impact. “I always thought Second City had more of an influence on the show because so many of the cast members had been trained in improvisation,” he told Rolling Stone. “It seemed like that was much more the tradition of the show than any specific literary tradition.”