National Lampoon Documentary Captures Its Perverse Pleasures

Directed by Douglas Tirola
4th Row Films/Magnolia Pictures, 98 minutes, R (nudity, drugs, language)
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Welcome to a rarity: a National Lampoon product that bombed. This documentary on the inner workings of the Lampoon empire raked in less than $65k at the box office, a flop on par with the magazine’s disastrous 1978 TV venture Disco Beavers in Outer Space. You should not mistake the two—the film is hysterical and superbly crafted.

It must be said that, like Lampoon editors and writers, I am dismissive of the squeamish PC crowd that cries, “That’s not funny; it’s mean.” If it’s not transgressive, it’s not comedy—there is always a butt, or there is no joke. Sometimes we try to hide comedy’s ‘meanness’ by universalizing, generalizing, or personalizing, but this is subterfuge, not substance. The brilliance of National Lampoon was that it never played nice. Hand writers such as Doug Kenney, Henry Beard, Michael O’Donoghue, or Tony Hendra a sacred cow and they’d give you back bestiality, religion, and poop jokes—probably with a blood-covered, bare-breasted butcher serving beef barbecue to unsuspecting Hindus. Looking for boundaries? Don’t. Like Lenny Bruce a generation before, the Lampoon staff told black jokes to call attention to racism, used hate speech to stick issues in your face, and pretty much made fun of every oppressed group you can imagine: gays, disabled, Jews, Latinos, the mentally challenged (Remember Stork from Animal House?)….  Was it “mean” to pick on such targets, or was it a reminder that these folks were amidst us? No one—and I mean no one—took it on the chin as badly as the Establishment; National Lampoon was a raised middle finger to those who yearned for propriety and decorum.

Does this make you uncomfortable? Get over yourself. As Doug Triola’s amazing film reminds, National Lampoon redefined American comedy—even visually. Think of iconic images such as Rick Meyerowitz’s Mona Gorilla cover, or Ed Bluestone’s high concept cover with a gun, a distressed pooch, and the tag line, “If you don’t buy this magazine, we’ll shoot this dog.” What is more standard in American comedy than the parody of mass culture? NatLamp perfected that form; in fact, it morphed from the Harvard Lampoon to a national mag in 1970 when it was—get this!—asked by Cosmopolitan to do a send-up of that publication. For five insane years, National Lampoon was the world’s best-selling humor magazine, and it was fueled by sex, drugs, and rock and roll. The crew that gathered around magazine heads Kenney, Beard, and Rob Hoffman were as transgressive as their material in those early days, yet the suits lined up to throw money at them, which is the ultimate irony of Lampoon: every criticism aimed at it is an indirect slam against advanced capitalism. The magazine lasted until 1998, but it became (and still is) a marketing juggernaut. In addition to the monthly, NatLamp spawned 14 books, 4 theater productions, 12 comedy albums, 30 anthologies, 7 tie-in films (including the entire Vacation oeuvre), and myriad imitators. It also produced two enormously popular radio shows that anticipated satellite radio, and cranked out writers that created, among others: Caddyshack, The Simpsons, Ghostbusters, Second City TV, and Saturday Night Live. Especially SNL, which poached O’Donoghue and Anne Beatts from NatLamp and then signed a cast that producer Matt Simmons neglected to put on retainer: Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase, and the brilliant John Belushi. The footage of Belushi alone makes this doc must-see viewing! And let’s round out Lampoon’s influence with a short list of those whose careers it helped launch: all of the aforementioned plus Judd Aptow, Kevin Bacon, John Candy, Beverly D’Angelo, John Goodman, Christopher Guest, Tim Matheson, Billy Bob Thornton, and directors John Hughes and John Landis.

That Tirola can sum such a complex story in an hour and a half is its own testimony to the film’s quality, but also check out the superb editing of Joseph Hrings and G. Jesse Martinez. The cuts between still images is amazing and they take place to a rock soundtrack. I couldn’t help but think that Ken Burns and the producers of MTV ought to apprentice themselves to Hrings and Martinez to learn how you can make stills leap off the screen.

Can we be critical of this film? Sure. I can’t fathom why the saccharine Ivan Reitman is on camera so much. More substantively, although Tirola never portrays his subjects as saints and highlights their pettiness as well as their intellect, there are three glaring things he soft peddles: drugs, politics, and sexism. There is a tendency to view the first as a sort of extended college party scene, which is true to a point, but drugs probably played a role in Doug Kenney’s death in 1980 (and may have exacerbated clinical depression) and they certainly killed Belushi two years later. Re: politics, we know that writer/editor P. J. O’Rourke is (very) conservative, which is never mentioned. Maybe that’s fine, but one can’t help but ponder the heartfelt views of those who supped at anti-authority tables. Moreover, the under representation of clothed women at NatLamp suggests a young boys’ network not willing to confront its own gender privilege. Call these reviewer observations, though. This is a truly magnificent documentary. It might make you cringe, but if it doesn’t make you laugh, you simply don’t get comedy.
Rob Weir   

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