Rhonda Coullet. Paul Jacobs
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…