America’s comedic treasure does not come blasting into your living room live every Saturday night, though that iconic gem is a living tribute in itself. Comedy, as well as tidbits of culture as we know it, was mired in a one liner slump, a virtual barrage of Henny Youngman- esque romps, consistently clean and nonthreatening wisecracks all, until the proverbial envelope was one day pushed. After forty plus years of canine homicide innuendos, raucous toga parties and Cousin Eddie’s polyester robed attacks on family values, a legacy endures.
National Lampoon as an institution first took root in print. Founded in 1970 by Henry Beard, Douglas Kenney and Rob Hoffman, alumni of the famed Harvard Lampoon, the National Lampoon rocked the foundations of permissible humor in America. The magazine, which harpooned and obliterated its celebrity and political subjects in a rapid and twisted fashion, experienced subscribership that peaked at the one million mark, largely because the Lampoon tackled all topics with a Brit inspired wit and ferociousness that our unprepared country had never encountered. As it was once said, National Lampoon was torn somewhere between Time magazine and Hustler-with perhaps a slight lean towards the latter.
In 1973, in what is arguably the most famous/infamous Off Broadway show, another chapter was written in the annals of our comedic history. “National Lampoon’s Lemmings” was a ruthless, smart and sinfully satiric vantage on the Woodstock crowd. More importantly for film buffs, it was a gateway. With an undeniable buzz created when the biting comedic words transferred fluidly from paper to performance, the inevitable occurred.
It is impossible to say the words, or remember John Belushi’s Bluto Blutarsky smashing a wimpily strewn guitar against a wall, without chuckling aloud. The highest grossing film of its time (on a shoestring production budget), Animal House is arguably the reason that fraternities in America are primarily known for excess imbibement and partying. With a cast of unknowns who went on to become stars, the film is the benchmark for comedy in cinema. Simply, no similar films, from Porky’s to American Pie, would exist without the gang from Delta Tau Chi. Nor would those hipster shirts with the understated “College” emblazoned on the chest. Nor would the beat of “Louie Louie” inspire chaos. Nor would janitors bemoan the declaration of “Food Fight!” Nor would…I could write for hours.
Bow down to the masters.
Of course, the Vacation franchise is legendary. Christie Brinkley became the movie industry’s version of the pin up girl, and Clark Griswold proved that Christmas is all about causing entire blocks to short circuit. In recent years, Van Wilder has carried the torch of Lampoon genius. Suddenly, college-as-career is lauded. As social media and technology grow, the Lampoon brand adapts with it. Their website continuously amasses shiny figurative statues as the premier comedy site on this uncorralled beast that is the internet. They have a presence on satellite radio, and even charter debauchery- themed spring break packages for aspiring Dean Wormer antagonists everywhere. One look at the off spring of the National Lampoon makes you realize that without it, we would be trapped in a comedy bubble of Smothers Brothers imitators, and Weekend at Bernie’s might have been the standard in film. Simply, the genre exists because of Lampoon. John Belushi, Christopher Guest and Bill Murray. Harold Ramis, Gilda Radner and John Hughes. Ivan Reitman and Chevy Chase, as well as extremely influential architects of humor as Tony Hendra, Bruce McCall, Sean Kelly, P. J. O'Rourke, Rick Meyerowitz and Michael O'Donoghue.
And to think it all started as a strike against the comedic norms of the time. Makes one wonder if, upon the very first pressing of the very first issue of National Lampoon, these cowboys were put on probation by some dark overlord somewhere. Sorry, DOUBLE SECRET PROBATION. Cue Otis Day and the Knights.