If you love satirical articles from institutions like The Onion, Funny or Die News, Above Average, Reductress, Clickhole, or McSweeney's, then you owe it all to The National Lampoon, the founding fathers of fake news. Between 1970-1977, the National Lampoon was the place to get cool, edgy and dirty takes on current events. It was like "South Park" in magazine form.
Director Douglas Tirola's "Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead" looks back on the early days of the Lampoon, as told by the people who lived it. Just a room full of Harvard grads (the magazine's name was a spinoff of undergraduate publication The Harvard Lampoon) brilliantly skewering the world around them, no topic was off-limits for the rag -- not even the infamous cover of a dog with a gun to its head, next to the words, "If you don't buy this magazine, we'll kill this dog."
Members of the Lampoon would go on to become part of mainstays like "SNL," "The Simpsons," "National Lampoon's Family Vacation," "Animal House," and pretty much everything that ever inspired anybody to devote their life to comedy. If you haven't seen"Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead," I recommend seeing it as soon as possible.
I had the honor of sitting down with Sean Kelly, editor of The National Lampoon 1971-77; Mike Reiss, Lampoon writer and original staff on "The Simpsons"; and Tirola to talk about the Lampoon's writing process, the backlash they received, and whether or not the Lampoon would survive in today's culture.
You guys are the godfathers of what I do now (funny topical articles). If you had three tenets that needed to get hit in each article, what were they?
Sean Kelly: Well, a thing that we always did, tried to do, which is the difference between a Lampoon piece and an Onion piece ... A lot of that stuff is downhill from the premise. The headline is hilarious and then it is simply executed. Which means they took it out back and shot it [Laughs]. The idea of a Lampoon piece was that you got this setup, which is funny, and then it went somewhere you didn’t think it was going to go. So you thought it was political and it turned out to be sexual. Or you thought it was sexual and it turned out to be economical. And what started out as a dead-on parody now suddenly has implications. So we did try to do that. Which is not simply go: "What if Nixon was pooping?" but "What is he pooping?"
Mike Reiss: I remember one of my favorite articles was called “Tales from the South.” It was a horror comic set in the south. That’s a great enough premise: The Deep South is just like a haunted house. Just a place of horrors.
SK: It’s an American gothic! A parody of the "Tales From The Crypt." But the “Crypt Keeper” was Colonel Sanders, [Laughs] which gave it a certain weirdness. And it turned out that, of course, they were serving "Southern Pride Negro." But it wasn’t punched. That was actually going on!
MR: It was the story of George Wallace, the [then] governor of Alabama, told as a horror story. But it was just the guy! It was his actual life story. He was a governor and here he is being painted as something only Edgar Allen Poe could write.
You guys have probably been asked this: Could the Lampoon survive in today’s climate? Would it be immediately thrown away or do you think it was so good, people would still see the irony?
MR: Well it’s a magazine, which nobody reads.
MR: I was at the [film] premiere the other night. And the older people in the audience are loving it. And there were a lot of young New York hipsters who just seemed uneasy. And it was this amazing case where here’s political correctness, I'm seeing it face-to-face. The younger crowd is not as liberal or as hip as older people.
SK: Yeats has a poem about youth restraining reckless middle age. And that piece in The Atlantic about how stand-up comics wont go to play colleges anymore. The idea that [Jerry] Seinfeld is too edgy is just … I mean, really? The piece said they're not personally offended. They believe in free speech. But somebody might be. Ya know, what if a one-eyed hunchback dwarf heard a joke like that? He might get offended.
They’ll get offended for other people.
Douglas Tirola: I know exactly what Mike’s talking about in the theater. There were so many people acting nervous, as if somebody from Human Resources was gonna pop out and say, “You laugh at that joke and your career is over!” I think part of it is that people don’t come with as much information as they used to. So they might not understand certain things. Whereas somebody who was in their 20s during the 1970’s would have common knowledge about what was happening in their 30s, 40s, 50s ... I don’t think people now have that information. The other part of it is also there is so much emphasis on how much money you make, and that being how you’re judged. So showing that you get this humor doesn’t have that much value as it used to. And being in on that joke is maybe a bad thing as opposed to a good thing. In the era of the Lampoon, you wanted to be in on that joke, and it would show that you got something. In the movie, we say that the magazines you get use to mean something.
SK: There was a thing that was very much in the spirit of the lampoon which was a British show called “Spitting Image.” It was a huge success in England. It was a puppet show but the puppets were these brilliant caricatures of British political figures. They tried to bring it to the U.S. And it couldn’t happen in an American context, because everybody in London knows the mayor of London and has an opinion about it. But in America, the more they tried it, the more they had to have puppets of Leonard Nimoy. Because everybody knows who Leonard Nimoy is. But having a puppet of, say, Tip O’Neill?
DT: I always get a little disappointed in "SNL," even though it’s good now. Because everything is a celebrity parody except for the beginning political thing. And I’m always like, why isn’t there more like the greek diner parody? It’s cause there isn’t that in common now. It’s just celebrities.
MR: The Lampoon sensibility is still alive with "Family Guy" and "South Park." And I cite those things because they are both funny and shocking. And, luckily, they’re more funny than shocking. And I don’t think "The Simpsons" goes there like those two shows go there.
What was the peak of the Lampoon backlash? Were your lives threatened?
SK: Dynamite was sent to Michael O’Donoghue’s office once. But nothing happened. It was just some old sticks of dynamite. The backlash. See, Charlie Hebdo didn’t carry ads. So if they had carried ads, people would’ve forced their advertisers to withdraw their advertising and the boys would be alive today. That’s where you’re vulnerable. So we were endlessly having advertisers pulling their support because they were offended or somebody wrote a letter. The blacklash was, “I will take your money away from you!” But if we didn’t have advertising, I guess they would’ve come in and shot us!
MR: They had a full-page of Rod Stewart singing into the microphone and the microphone was ejaculate. On the very same page was an ad for Panasonic. That’s an advertiser we lost.
SK: One of the rules was no cancer jokes, because of cigarette advertising. You know, the terrible story of why Rolling Stone and National Lampoon got off the ground? It was because there was a rule against advertising tobacco products on TV. So the tobacco companies have this enormous advertising budget, and they want young people, but they can’t get on TV. So they said, “Hey, Rolling Stone, National Lampoon!” That was who we could always count on. But the rule was no cancer jokes. But, of course, what we immediately did was innumerable cancer jokes. Cancer care products. With the advice “Kids, if it’s cancer -- don’t answer.” Then the advertising guys would come in and say, "Stop it," but then we said, “Where do we stop?”
What do you guys think are the most Lampoon-y things right now?
SK: Amy Schumer.
DT: I’d say Amy Schumer and "Trainwreck." I’d say "Simpsons," "South Park," "Family Guy." And there are moments of "SNL." When you look at a certain time period and it’s all great. It’s just a matter of: are you a Sean Connery guy or a Roger Moore guy? Some people think Pierce Brosnan is the best James Bond. It’s just different times. So it’s all good. The influence is out there. Even if some people don’t know it because they’re getting it one generation behind.
"Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead" is in theaters and available via iTunes now.
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