November 19, 2015 -- Everybody knows about Saturday Night Live, the long-running comedy skit show, but I sure didn't know the extent to which it was connected to National Lampoon, the magazine associated with the movies “Animal House” and “Caddyshack.” This documentary details the beginning, rise and fall of National Lampoon, and how it led to Saturday Night Live and a whole tradition of vulgar humor.
According to this documentary, directed by Douglas Tirola (“Hey Bartender”) National Lampoon, spun off from Harvard Lampoon in 1970 by founding editors Doug Kenney, Henry Beard and Robert Hoffman, set the stage for Saturday Night Live, as well as those movies by Judd Apatow, the Farrelly Brothers and movies like “Airplane!” and “The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!”
The documentary, featuring lots of National Lampoon artwork, and interviews with people involved with National Lampoon, dwells on the magazine's first few years, 1970-75. In those years, Michael C. Gross was the art director (after cartoonists Peter Bramley and Bill Skurski were let go) and the editors were Doug Kenney and Henry Beard. Gross designed some of the most famous magazine covers in history, including the one in which a gun is pointed at a dog, with the caption “If You Don't Buy This Magazine, We'll Kill This Dog.”
A tangled web of writers, artists, actors and editors is introduced in the film as it follows the rise and fall of National Lampoon, which published its last issue in 1998. According to the publisher, Matty Simmons, the magazine, which had been in decline, was finally done in by the Christian Coalition organization (supporters of Ronald Reagan and other Republican politicians) which persuaded most of the magazine's advertisers to boycott the magazine.
At its height, the magazine had a circulation of one million, and the issues were read by an estimated 12 million, but its influence went far beyond that. Not content with merely publishing a magazine, the organization got into radio broadcasting, stage shows, concerts, recordings and movies. National Lampoon was so busy with all these projects that when it was presented with the opportunity to start it's own show on network television, Saturday Night Live, National Lampoon turned it down. Big mistake.
Instead of running Saturday Night Live, National Lampoon lost a lot of its talent to that show, including John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray and Gilda Radner, who had been in the National Lampoon radio and stage shows, along with Harold Ramis (who went on to write and direct “Caddyshack” and “Groundhog Day”). Of course, National Lampoon got most of those performers from the deep well of talent at the Second City improvisational comedy troupe in the first place.
The documentary revels in the vulgar, profanity-laced humor of the magazine, some of which is best described by the name of the 1977 National Lampoon record album, “That's Not Funny, That's Sick.” Well, if you consider National Lampoon writer Michael O'Donoghue's jokes about plunging needles into people's eyes, or editor Doug Kenney pranks, like sticking his penis into the ears of women at cocktail parties as funny, then maybe it is funny, and not sick.
Nowadays, with political correctness being what it is, you probably could not get away with a lot of that old classic National Lampoon humor, since they went after all the sacred cows. The former writers and editors of the magazine look back on those days of freedom with fondness. Several of them said it was the best time of their lives. Back then, you could get away with anything, except making fun of Jews, they said.
This is an interesting documentary. Since I didn't know the history of National Lampoon, I learned a lot. I wasn't a reader of that magazine. The comedy magazine I read back in those days was an even older comedy publication, Mad Magazine.
It seemed to me the documentary jumped around from one subject to another too much. I could follow it as it hopped around, but the organization of it seemed a bit haphazard and unfocused. This film rates a C+.
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