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How National Lampoon’s Movies Went to Shit

Charting the decline of a once great production company in honor of Netflix’s ‘A Futile and Stupid Gesture’

Outside of Saturday Night Live, one of its contemporaries, there’s never been an American comedy institution quite like National Lampoon. Started in 1970 as a magazine, it soon branched out into books, radio, albums, stage and television. It also became a major force in Hollywood — the brains behind two of the classic comedies of the late 1970s and early 1980s with Animal House and Vacation, while being integral to several others. In honor of Netflix’s A Futile and Stupid Gesture, a biopic about the magazine’s co-founder Doug Kenney that stars Will Forte and hits the streaming platform on Friday, it only seems appropriate to salute that legendary brand and the movies it spawned. But at the same time, it’s impossible to ignore how that success ended up nullifying the brand’s very reason for being.

The idea of the National Lampoon rose out of another brand, The Harvard Lampoon, the college publication that, since its inception in 1876, lived to mock everything and everyone — especially Harvard’s snooty trappings and the stuffiness of the official university paper, The Crimson. Revered writers like John Updike and George Plimpton had written for The Lampoon, and in the fall of 1969, three Lampoon alums, Kenney, Henry Beard and Robert Hoffman, set about translating the publication’s snotty tone into a national magazine. Out of that came National Lampoon, a monthly that arose at a time when underground rags were a cottage industry, thumbing their nose at the corporate, “respectable” magazines such as Time and Life.

As journalist Ellin Stein writes in her 2013 book That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick: The National Lampoon and the Comedy Insurgents Who Captured the Mainstream, “With an advertising base resting precariously on the counterculture trinity of sex (escort services and massage parlors), drugs (head shops, mail-order bongs, etc.) and rock ’n’ roll (local music venues and record stores), many of these underground papers operated on [small] budgets. … Their appearance reflected this lack of resources, but these funky production values were seen by readers as a testament to the integrity of the editorial content.”

In such an environment, National Lampoon flourished, proudly mixing high art, surreal nonsense and lowbrow humor. Just one example: The cover of the October 1973 issue featured a bandaged Vincent Van Gogh holding a banana. The headline: “Banana. What? Banana issue. What? BANANA ISSUE. What? BANANA ISSUE. What?” The magazine sported nerdy parodies of Finnegans Wake when it wasn’t devoting entire issues to pieces about sex. Decades later, the magazine’s most famous image remains its January 1973 cover, which featured a gun pointed at a dog’s head with the caption, “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog.” (Magazines still do homages to that iconic joke from time to time.) Rick Meyerowitz, who was an artist and writer for National Lampoon, said in 2010 of the publication’s ethos, “The conversation was: ‘What can we say that is going to bring down the roof on the house of pretensions all around the country?’”

National Lampoon wasn’t alone in this particular mission. The Hollywood renaissance of the 1970s was built on idiosyncratic filmmakers like Robert Altman making personal, liberated movies that rejected politeness and conventionality. (His rebellious 1970 war comedy M*A*S*H came to theaters around the same time that National Lampoon hit newsstands.) That outsider spirit emerged on television, too, with politically-minded programs such as The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, and in October 1975, the stage was set for NBC to debut a new sketch program called Saturday Night Live.

The show’s roots grew from National Lampoon’s rich soil: SNL’s first head writer, Michael O’Donoghue, had created The National Lampoon Radio Hour, which ran for about a year starting in late 1973 and featured a cast that included John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray and Gilda Radner. “[We] devoured pop culture, before it was chic,” Richard Belzer, a National Lampoon Radio Hour veteran, said of the radio program, and that attitude carried over to SNL, which became a hip, grungy sensation.

Hoping to capitalize on this new wellspring of snarky, sharp comedy, studios started asking the National Lampoon brain trust if they had movie ideas. After a few false starts, three writers decided to collaborate on a comedy about college. Along with Kenney were Harold Ramis (who had worked on The National Lampoon Radio Hour and the magazine’s stage shows) and Chris Miller (who wrote for the magazine). “[F]rom the minute Harold, Doug and I sat down, there was excitement about this movie,” Miller says in That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick. “We really felt it was going to be great, even though writing it was exhausting and horrible sometimes.”

The original outline, focusing on an outcast fraternity in the early 1960s, didn’t please Ned Tanen, the head of Universal, who reluctantly agreed to release the film as long as the producers promised to keep the budget low. “Everybody is drunk, high or getting laid,” Tanen complained at the time. “I hate this treatment. I’d never make this movie!” The writers were undeterred: According to That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick, the three men took three months to write the script in Kenney’s New York apartment, mostly excavating their own memories for inspiration.

“The way we did it is we sat down and debriefed ourselves totally on our college experiences,” Ramis, who died in 2014, once recalled. “Each of us said everything we remembered, and everyone we remembered from college that seemed funny to us — or outrageous — or just horrible and shocking. And then we said everything that our brothers had told us, or our fathers, or uncles, or everyone we knew. And then we threw in all the college apocrypha — all the stories that circulated forever about things that happened or might’ve happened on other campuses. So from that, characters [and] storylines started to emerge.”

Directed by relative unknown John Landis (who had just helmed the lovably juvenile comedy The Kentucky Fried Movie) and casting Belushi as the bullheaded Bluto, Animal House featured the National Lampoon logo in its advertising and title, helping to market the movie to its core audience in the same way that modern audiences come crawling for Marvel’s Avengers or Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes to Jail.

In its depiction of the oddball brothers of Delta Tau Chi, Animal House brought National Lampoon’s no-fucks-given attitude to the masses, and the film ended up as one of the biggest hits of 1978. (Today, its adjusted gross with inflation would be more than $500 million.) The movie might have been set in 1962, but its anti-authoritarian bent — and the selection of a Nixon-like villain in the form of John Vernon’s Dean Wormer — made it relevant to contemporary counterculture audiences. And just as National Lampoon had stood out initially by being uncouth and unpolished, Animal House was an unrepentant sex-and-booze comedy for a younger, edgier generation.

From there, National Lampoon publisher Matty Simmons (who previously had been best known for overseeing the Weight Watchers magazine) started producing more movies that leveraged the brand name into raucous comedies and dopey parodies. National Lampoon’s Class Reunion and National Lampoon’s Movie Madness aren’t well-remembered, but Simmons had far more success with 1983’s National Lampoon’s Vacation, which cast Chase as the befuddled father of the Griswold clan.

The idea was born out of a short story penned by John Hughes, an ad writer who had joined the National Lampoon staff and would, later, become the maestro of 1980s teen films such as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Sixteen Candles. Hughes, who had written the Class Reunion screenplay, adapted his story for Vacation, which was directed by Ramis. The film was a hit, spawning several sequels, many of them under the National Lampoon banner. Meanwhile, Kenney collaborated on a screenplay that would become Caddyshack, and Ramis co-wrote and co-starred in Stripes. Littered with actors connected to National Lampoon, these films extended the brand’s upstarts-against-the-uptight comedic approach that had begun with the magazine and continued through Animal House.

So it was probably inevitable that National Lampoon’s original outsider spirit would drift away. As Meyerowitz put it in 2010, “What Animal House gave the culture was this heavy dose of Lampoon humor. It weakened the magazine somewhat, and in searching around for ways to bring in readers, they maybe cheapened some of the content.” The readers started to vanish, their need for this kind of comedic anarchy sated by SNL, Late Night With David Letterman and many of the movies Bill Murray made. According to Josh Karp’s 2006 biography of Kenney, A Futile and Stupid Gesture: How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy Forever, by the mid-1980s the magazine was losing subscribers and “posting losses of $750,000.”

The problems were spiritual, too. Increasingly family-friendly Vacation sequels limped into theaters, sapping National Lampoon of the prankster spark it once exuded. Finally, in 1990, a video distributor named J2 Communications bought the flailing company for less than $5 million. “Lampoon is really on the skids … and yet the potential of that company is just fantastic,” J2’s chief executive told the L.A. Times.

Depressingly, that perceived potential was solely the name and its faded association with a kind of take-no-prisoners comedy. J2 licensed the brand name out to crap comedies such as National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1 and National Lampoon’s Senior Trip. It wasn’t until 2002’s National Lampoon’s Van Wilder that the once-great comedy moniker was connected to a movie that made a dent at the box office. But Van Wilder didn’t do much to help the company’s legacy — nor did the disastrous 2015 remake of Vacation.

Last summer, the National Lampoon company was again purchased, this time by PalmStar Media, for just under $12 million. Raj. B. Singh, who was installed as co-CEO of the company told Deadline, somewhat predictably, “The most valuable asset is the trademark, the name.” Who cares if the inspiration behind the brand was long gone?

Still, the spirit of the magazine and its movies can be felt everywhere, from feisty satirical publications like Spy to the smart-ass humor of The Simpsons, which in its fifth season devoted an entire episode to Homer returning to college, giving the writers a chance to do an extended Animal House homage. And 2015 saw the release of the documentary Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon, which made the case for the magazine as a critical cultural touchstone. But unlike SNL, which managed to evolve and adapt over the decades, National Lampoon is now largely a relic of the past — emblematic of an era that indulged in bro-heavy humor that marginalized women and people of color. Not inaccurately, New York Times critic Virginia Heffernan dismissed Karp’s book — and the ethos it celebrates — by saying that National Lampoon “staple-gunned a certain kind of absurdist conceptual humor to gross-out jokes about puking, violence and masturbation.”

In a sense, National Lampoon outlived its usefulness once it broke through to the culture at large. As conservative satirist P.J. O’Rourke, who for a time served as National Lampoon’s editor, told Karp, “In the wake of Animal House and Saturday Night Live, young, darkly comedic talent could go to Hollywood and make $100,000. When the Lampoon started, young, darkly comedic talent could be glad of the cheap rents.”

That mainstream acceptance brought with it a price. “We were standing in the flower garden with our noses pressed up against the dining room window, making faces at the grown-ups eating inside,” O’Rourke continued. “There would come a day for most of us when it would be time to go in the house, take our places and have faces made at us in return.”