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The Universe is laughing behind your back

Although its, uh, cultural cachet, I suppose, has fallen in recent decades, a doofy poem called “The Desiderata of Happiness” used to be something that you’d see on the walls of doctor’s and dentist’s offices, at your grandmother’s or great aunt’s houses, or maybe in the very home you grew up in, during the late 60s and 70s. (At one point hippies even adopted it).

You don’t see it so often today, but it’s still around. Now that you’ve had your attention called to it, the next time you see it (normally as a varnished wall plaque) you’ll remember this post (and wince).

Here’s an example of the proto-New Age wisdom you will find in “The Desiderata of Happiness”:

You are a child of the universe,
No less than the trees and the stars;
You have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

“The Desiderata of Happiness” was written in 1906 by a lawyer named Max Erhmann, but it was unknown during his lifetime. Its slow burn to popularity began in the 1950s when a Baltimore pastor printed it up in some church materials. The prose poem’s advice to be humble, live a clean and moral life and to respect even thick people seems simplistic even by Forrest Gump or Sarah Palin standards, but for whatever reason this poem struck a chord with the public. (You can read more about its history at Wikipedia).
In 1971, a “groovy” American radio talkshow host by the name of Les Crane (once married to Gilligan’s Island‘s Tina Louise and considered by some to be the original “shock jock”) narrated a spoken word/musical version of the poem (avec gospel choir), that reached #8 in the Billboard charts and won a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Performance of the Year. It was on the British pop charts for 14 months.

The following year, a wonderful parody version titled “Deteriorata” was created by the National Lampoon’s Michael O’Donoghue, Tony Hendra and Christopher Guest and released as a single (and on the classic Radio Dinner album). Melissa Manchester sang on the record. The humorously ponderous reading was handled by Norman Rose, a popular announcer of the day whose voice is also heard in Woody Allen’s Love & Death.

Years later, Les Crane was asked about “Desiderata” and said “I can’t listen to it now without gagging,” adding that he preferred the Lampoon’s piss-take. Eventually the parody became better-known than the original hit record due to frequent spins on the Dr. Demento radio show. Below is the original version, Les Crane version:

“Deteriorata,” The National Lampoon parody:

An excellent version of “Deteriorata” closes the new theatrical show Sketches from The National Lampoon that opened last weekend in Los Angeles. Produced by Lampoon founder Matty Simmons, with a winning cast—including our good friend the incomparable Jesse Merlin who gets to read “Deteriorata”—at the Hayworth Theatre on Wilshire Blvd.

Get tickets at National

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
A young John Belushi, Chevy Chase and Christopher Guest rock out in National Lampoon’s Lemmings

Since posting about Rick Meyerowitz’s up coming book on the National Lampoon, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Writers and Artists Who Made the National Lampoon Insanely Great the other day, I’ve had the Lampoon on the brain a bit. Last night I was adding things to the Netflix queue, when I noticed, to my surprise and delight, that there was a video document of the 1973 Off Broadway production of National Lampoon’s Lemmings, starring a very young John Belushi (23 or 24 at the time), Christopher Guest (25), Chevy Chase (30 and with long hair) as well as Rhonda Coullet (who does a wicked Joni Mitchell) and Alice Playten (who nearly steals the show with her outrageous Joan Baez parody). The show was written by Tony Hendra (the manager in This Is Spinal Tap, who also co-directed Lemmings), Doug Kenney (National Lampoon co-founder and co-writer of Animal House. He also played “Stork”) and P.J. O’Rourke.

The first surprise is that this even exists in the first place. I’ve known the record since I was a kid, but who knew there was a video of this? Well, there is and it’s fascinating, if not exactly all that funny. It’s interesting because it’s got these three great funnymen seen before they would achieve fame a few years later with SNL and also it’s a wild period piece. If this sounds even remotely like something you’d be interested in, by all means get over to Netflix and watch it, but if you don’t expect it to be the best thing you’ve ever seen and don’t expect belly laughs (there are a few) then you’ll be able to appreciate this more on its own, slightly rumpled terms. Comedy doesn’t tend to age well, but that’s not why you want to watch this. One strong disclaimer, though, for younger viewers, most of the references are going to be totally incomprehensible unless they’ve seen the Woodstock documentary.

Although the cheesy titles don’t tell you this, Lemmings was videotaped for HBO as The National Lampoon Television Show. We didn’t know that when we were watching it and wondered what possible outlet there would have been for something with so much swearing in it in 1973? Turns out HBO started the year before, so we had our answer, but still, how odd that they kept something like this out of the public eye for so long.

The “plot” of Lemmings, as such, is that the audience is supposed to be present for a Thanos-celebrating rock festival: “Woodshuck: Three Days of Peace, Music & Death.”  A Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young spoof (“Freud, Pavlov, Adler, and Jung”) sees the group singing a parody of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” (and their own “LongTime Gone”) but the lyrics have been changed to “We are lemmings”—instead of stardust—and Belushi, as the MC makes constant references and updates about members of the audience killing themselves and snuffing it (“The brown strychnine has been cut with acid.”). Near the end, as the heavy metal group “Megadeath” are playing, Alice Playton (as a groupie) asks “Did you know that pure rock sound can kill? Isn’t that far out? So the thing to do is go over to the amp and put your head there.”

More on National Lampoon’s Lemmings after the jump…

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment