Okay, okay, perhaps that title is just a little bit disingenuous, but it’s still “close enough for government work,” as the old saying goes.
So no, Frank Zappa didn’t actually bring his rockin’ teen combo to fictional Riverdale High School, and no, this isn’t from Archie Comics either, it’s a National Lampoon parody by Michel Choquette from the September 1970 issue. But it’s probably exactly what would have happened had The Mothers of Invention roared into town.
Betty and Veronica probably would have gotten VD, too.
If you click on the images you’ll get to larger, easier-to-read versions.
When I was a kid, along with CREEM and Crawdaddy, the National Lampoon was one of the indispensable counter culture magazines. It was simultaneously raunchy, nihilistic, intellectual, dumb and dirty. I loved it and it very often it had NAKED LADIES inside the covers. To my innocent mother’s eyes, the National Lampoon probably looked like MAD magazine. Little did she know…
Dangerous Minds readers have probably noticed our pal Michael Simmons’ occasional guest posts along with his frequent comments here. He was a consultant—and interviewee—in director Douglas Tirola’s new documentary about the Lampoon, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon opening wide today in theaters and VOD. Michael grew up Lampoon. His father was the publisher, Matty Simmons. I asked him a few questions over email.
Richard Metzger: As the son of the publisher, you obviously had a ringside seat for the rise of the National Lampoon, which was really one of the defining magazines of the 1970s. When he first told you about the new business he was starting how did you react? Did you perceive your dad as a really hip guy?
Michael Simmons: I was thrilled when he decided to publish the Lampoon — I was 15 when the Lampoon debuted in April 1970. Like many kids of bosses, I worked at “Dad’s store” after school and summers. I was already a self-defined member of “the underground” — what the media called “hippies.” I met the three Harvard guys — Doug Kenney, Henry Beard and Rob Hoffman — sometime in 1969 and immediately hit it off with Doug who was the freakiest of the three and therefore the closest to my sensibilities.
Prior to the Lampoon, Matty had published Cheetah magazine – a slick, smart, high-quality mag that was meant to cater to freaks. It was pubbed around the same time as Rolling Stone—Cheetah went under after less than a year. So while Matty was of a different generation and cultural perspective, Cheetah had loosened him up considerably. Screaming matches about my hair length eventually ceased.
Being the boss’ son has never been the easy ride some may think. Lampoon contributor Anne Beatts claims in the documentary that her boyfriend Michael O’Donoghue quit because Matty “gave” me Anne’s desk in early 1974 – an utterly absurd fallacy. She’s been repeating this canard for 40 years. I was living in upstate New York at the time and didn’t have an office at the Lampoon. Matty was The Chairman Of The Board – not The Chairman Of Desks.
So while “The Boss’ Son” tag could be a drag, I also had adventures I otherwise wouldn’t have been privy to. When I was 19, I was company manager of The National Lampoon Show with John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Brian Doyle-Murray, Harold Ramis, Joe Flaherty and Paul Jacobs. That was singular — to put it mildly.
What’s “the one thing” about him that you remember the most from around that time?
Michael Simmons: Matty is often portrayed as simply “the business guy,” but it was his idea to do Lemmings, The Radio Hour, The High School Yearbook (including the infamous cover), Animal House, bringing John Hughes to Hollywood, and more. He’s the epitome of the “Idea Man.”
I like how the doc focuses on the brilliant art direction of the magazine. If you look at it year to year, issue to issue, there is an unflagging brilliance there. Michael Gross and David Kaestle were design geniuses, up there with the likes of George Lois and Milton Glaser. I feel they are unfairly neglected in the history of graphic design. Without their input it really wouldn’t have been the same thing, would it?
Michael Simmons: Michael Gross was crucial to the Lampoon’s success. As Gross and others explain in the documentary, he understood that to parody something properly, the parody had to resemble the object being satirized.
Overall, working at the early Lampoon was an extraordinary experience – the smartest, funniest, edgiest writers and artists under one roof. I’ve never experienced anything like it before and I don’t believe I ever will. The generation of the 1960s and ‘70s has been called the most educated. In addition to tits and ass jokes, there were literary references that most young people of The Twenty-Worst Century simply wouldn’t get – text messages having replaced Yeats and Shakespeare.
Any good Michael O’Donoghue stories you’ve heard that have never made it into print or the documentary?
Michael Simmons: I could write a book filled with O’D anecdotes – “colorful” is an understatement. Underneath the rage that animated much of his work was a deep soulfulness. But his temper is correctly recalled as epic. I was his assistant for a couple of years – an interesting gig for a teenager. I had a desk outside his office from which I would do his bidding. One day I heard him telephoning the Columbia Record & Tape Club. Apparently they’d sent him the wrong records. He began screaming and threatened to send them 40 tons of bricks COD – cash on delivery – and listed a slew of other acts of vicious revenge. This escalated to the point that several staffers gathered around Michael’s office. After he slammed the phone down, he peeked out the door of his office with a devilish grin on his face, knowing that this impromptu performance art was partly for our benefit. We applauded.
I brought Michael and Anne to Max’s Kansas City to see this new comic I’d flipped over — Martin Mull. That precipitated several very liquid lunches on the Lampoon dime with O’D and Mull at full throttle. It’s rare that I have that kind of fun these days!
You were in some of the “Foto Funnies,” weren’t you?
When I became an editor in 1984, like previous editors I’d write Foto Funnies designed to include myself – one way of guaranteeing the company of naked models.
One of the other exaggerations told about the Lampoon is that it became a skin magazine in the 1980s. It was always a skin magazine to some degree. This increased our popularity among young men as actor Kevin Bacon points out in the documentary. Our circulation jumped when a scantily clad, attractive young woman was on the cover, so it was largely a business decision. We’ve been criticized for overdoing the under-dressed dames by a handful of bitter former employees, but they enjoyed getting a paycheck – so fuck ‘em.
How did Animal House change things in the National Lampoon orbit?
Michael Simmons: Hollywood—and Saturday Night Live – began waving money and many of our best scribes defected to the Hollywood Hills and Rockefeller Center. We became a victim of our own success.
Who owns the National Lampoon trademark today?
It’s a corporation owned by the stockholders. Two guys named Jerry Daigle and Alan Donnes currently run it.
A friend of mine (Jesse Merlin) was in the most recent Lampoon stage show a few years back and he said that he thought Matty was a really good, very dynamic and energetic producer. Is he still at it?
Michael Simmons: He is indeed still at it. My father amazes me. He’s still writing and just wrote the cover story for Reader’s Digest which my brother edits. I hope I have his energy when I’m his age.
Sometime during the mid-‘80s, I stopped buying MAD every month and begun habitually picking up National Lampoon. Both publications were in decline at the time, though in my teens I hadn’t the perspective to know that. I think I was probably flattering myself that the more collegiate content of the Lampoon was more my speed, but in any case, in 1985, I picked up an issue of the Lampoon that I would hang onto for decades to follow.
It was dated November, 1985 and titled “The Mad as Hell Issue.” Apart from a handful of fucked-up cartoons, it featured none of the magazine’s usual content, and instead was an open forum for celebrities of varying degrees of fame from the worlds of show business, publishing, music, et al, to vent about what irked them, and none were written by contemporary NL staffers, though some past names from the publication’s masthead were included. It can easily be found on eBay and Amazon, and naturally it’s part of the CD Rom release of every issue in the magazine’s entire history. Editor Matty Simmons introduced the issue thusly:
This issue of the National Lampoon is completely different from any other issue of the magazine published in its more-than-fifteen-year history. It has, first of all, basically been written by guest contributors, most of whom are not humorists. Second, much of what appears on these pages is not intended to be humorous. In many cases, the text is an expression of absolute anger, or, at least, pique. Other “mad as hell” pieces are indeed written humorously. It’s a mixture. And it’s a fascinating first for this or possibly any other national magazine.
You will read reflections here from governors and mayors and actors and authors and rock stars and directors and other celebrities, and some from people who are not celebrities. They’re just “mad,” and, we think, they express that anger interestingly. Why have we done this?
Maybe because there is so much to be mad about these days. Maybe because we’re all so well informed, so exposed to so many things because of television, we’ve learned to react — good or bad— more than we ever have before. It’s healthy to be “mad as hell” about things you think are wrong. Apathy is a dangerous lack of a state of mind.
Why this departure from an editorial policy which is always all-humor and usually mostly fiction? Because we think it’s an idea that works, and innovation is mostly what we’re about.
And anyway, we took a vote of the entire staff. There was one vote for doing the issue, and nineteen votes against it.
So I won.
The issue included exceptionally thoughtful long-form essays by columnist Jeff Greenfield and filmmaker John Waters, whose piece would be reprinted in Crackpot. There were “Jesus wept” length contributions from actor Mickey Rooney (“People aren’t mad enough about improving things—about themselves or our country.”) and Broadway luminary Hal Prince (“I’m madder than hell at all this trivia!”). The great clown Larry Harmon, who created the extraordinarily famous and durable character Bozo, contributed a piece about the travails of his 1984 in-character presidential run.
Michael O’Donoghue, AKA Mr. Mike, the demented head writer and performer from the “original cast” era of Saturday Night Live (back when it was simply known as Saturday Night) was the man who made comedy dangerous. His writing was feral, sharp, blasphemous, morbid, sardonic and taboo-breaking. It was O’Donoghue seated in a chair reading a newspaper who viewers first saw in the very first cold-opening of that long-running show. He was often seen on SNL doing imitations of famous showbiz personalities (nice-guy talk show host Mike Douglas, singer Tony Orlando) after they’d had six-inch metal spikes shoved into their eyes, and telling his creepy “Least Loved Bedtime Tales” (Sample title: “The Little Train That Died”).
Before SNL, O’Donoghue had a celebrated tenure at National Lampoon, where he co-wrote (with Tony Hendra) the classic Radio Dinner comedy album and published things like “The Vietnamese Baby Book” and “The Churchill Wit,” a portion from which is quoted below:
Churchill was known to drain a glass or two and, after one particularly convivial evening, he chanced to encounter Miss Bessie Braddock, a Socialist member of the House of Commons, who, upon seeing his condition, said, “Winston, you’re drunk.” Mustering all his dignity, Churchill drew himself up to his full height, cocked an eyebrow and rejoined, “Shove it up your ass, you ugly cunt.”
When the noted playwright George Bernard Shaw sent him two tickets to the opening night of his new play with a note that read: “Bring a friend, if you have one,” Churchill, not to be outdone, promptly wired back: “You and your play can go fuck yourselves.”
At an elegant dinner party, Lady Astor once leaned across the table to remark, “If you were my husband, Winston, I’d poison your coffee.”
“And if you were my wife, I’d beat the shit out of you,” came Churchill’s unhesitating retort.
You get the idea. I recall falling out of my chair laughing, when I first read this. In my defense, I was probably ten or eleven years old.
Mr. Mike and “friend”
In 1979 O’Donoghue directed Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video (the title, logo and theme music—even the overall loose format—was meant to conjure up Prosperi and Jacopetti’s notorious Mondo Cane documentary). It was originally made for NBC to air as a “special” during one of Saturday Night‘s hiatuses, but when the network brass actually saw it they blanched and shelved it. Eventually it was licensed by New Line Cinema, who transferred it to 35mm film and added some “Mr. Bill” segments to pad out the running time for theatrical release of “the TV show you can’t see on TV!”
Admittedly, after hearing about this legendary film and wanting to see it for years, I saw Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video when it was released on VHS in the 80s and aside from a few very good laughs, I was generally pretty disappointed. Comedy often ages poorly, but in actual fact, I don’t really think Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video was all that funny to begin with. It’s interesting because of what it is and who is involved (Tom Schiller, O’Donoghue’s writing partner Mitch Glazer, Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman, Bill Murray, Don “Father Guido Sarducci” Novello, Gilda Radner, Carrie Fisher, Root Boy Slim, Margot Kidder, Teri Garr, Paul Shaffer, Debbie Harry). It’s an odd curio with some odd stuff in it (Dan Aykroyd probing his (actual) webbed toes with a screwdriver and declaring “I am proud to say that I am an actual genetic mutant”; an appearance by Klaus Nomi; Sid Vicious performing “My Way”; Jo Jo the Human Hot Plate, etc.) but it’s just not… that funny for the most part.
Nevertheless, take a gander at certainly one of the strangest things ever produced with the intention/assumption that a TV network would air it and try to imagine what NBC’s execs were thinking when they watched this for the first time.
“Long hair… Short hair… What’s the difference once the head’s blown off?”
A while back 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. Lemmings notably starred a very young John Belushi (who was 23 or 24 years old at the time), Christopher Guest (then 25), and Chevy Chase (30, with long hair). It was chiefly written by Tony Hendra (the manager in This Is Spinal Tap, who also co-directed), National Lampoon co-founder Doug Kenney (he was “Stork” in Animal House) and P.J. O’Rourke.
The first surprise was that it even existed in the first place. I’d 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 because it’s a wild period piece. If you don’t go in expecting 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 Lemmings more on its own, slightly rumpled terms. Comedy doesn’t tend to age very 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 completely incomprehensible unless you’ve seen the Woodstock documentary.
The “plot” of Lemmings, as such, is that the audience is supposed to be present for a Thanatos-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” (with Rhonda Coullet doing a perfect Joni Mitchell) 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” (yes, Megadeath) are playing, 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.”
This genius, totally spot-on Neil Young parody, “Old Maid (Southern California Brings Me Down”) hails from the 1970s The National Lampoon Radio Hour (and was subsequently released on the Grammy-nominated Good-bye Pop album in 1975). You could probably play this for Neil Young himself and he’d have a hazy recollection of recording it!
I live in Los Angeles and believe me when I tell you that I had not heard a single peep about that new Jesus movie—Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s Son of God—because, well, they don’t really market religious films here. In a city festooned with billboards for every damned offering large or small, good or bad that the industrial entertainment complex has in store for us, I think they figured that religious films aren’t for we West Coast heathens; that it’s a waste of money even bothering trying to, er, convert us, even for a big budget picture like Son of God. I can’t imagine Fox spent too much money marketing the film in NYC, either.
Nope, I only heard about this religious blockbuster after the fact, when all of the rightwing blogs like NewsMax, Breitbart and WorldNutDaily were crowing about how Jesus nearly kicked Liam Neeson’s ass in the box office boffo sweepstakes over the weekend. Go Jesus! (Is there anything, and I do mean anything, more pathetic than “rooting” for a movie, let alone pulling for the founder of Christianity to beat the crap out of a formulaic Hollywood action flick? Nothing, right?)
All this goofiness caused me to recall the cheerfully blasphemous “Son-O’-God Comics” that ran in a few 1970s issues of National Lampoon magazine.
In the Lampoon version of the New Testament’s central figure, “Benny Davis” a nerdy failure-to-launch boychick still living with his parents in Brooklyn, says the name “JESUS CHRIST!” (but not in vain) and transforms (ala Captain Marvel) into a muscular WASP super-hero version of Jesus with a six-pack, cape and halo, ready to do battle with Catholicism, Islam, the Scarlet Woman of Babylon, the Antichrist and even Bob Dylan.
The occasionally recurring strip was written by Sean Kelly (who would go on to become the founding editor of Heavy Metal magazine) and Michel Choquette, and (mostly) drawn by well-known comics artist Neal Adams, a “Silver Age” illustrator who worked on Batman for DC and a gazillion other comics.
I would be remiss in my duties writing on this topic without at least quickly mentioning how underrated National Lampoon is in terms of that magazine’s amazing and ground-breaking art-direction. If you consider that the 20th century will be looked upon as the golden era of the printed page, to my mind, the Lampoon’s Design Director, Michael Gross and Art Director David Kaestle created the most creatively free-wheeling and conversely the most detail-oriented magazine design on the planet. What they brought to America’s premiere countercultural humor magazine was an exacting eye for authenticity. If you were going to parody or satirize popular culture, it needed to actually LOOK LIKE the things you were referring to, or the joke would be lost. That was more or less a new idea at the time. In my opinion, the four years that Gross and Kaestle worked on National Lampoon is THE high point of art direction for a monthly print publication. Everyone always points to the the George Lois-era Esquire as the pinnacle of graphic design in magazines—and it’s great stuff, don’t get me wrong—but the Lampoon was even better, had more nuance and yet Gross and Kaestle’s work rarely gets the credit it deserves.
You can find out everything you always wanted to know about “Son-O’-God Comics” at Dial B for Blog.
Actually this isn’t a parody so much as it’s satire. National Lampoon editor Tony Hendra used actual quotes from John Lennon’s infamous 1970 Rolling Stone interview with Jann Wenner (later published as Lennon Remembers) for this hysterical bit.
At the time of Lennon’s Rolling Stone sitting he was undergoing Primal Scream therapy with Dr. Arthur Janov and he really let it rip, shitting on his own fans, Mick Jagger, Paul and Linda McCartney and several others. All Hendra did was handpick the best parts and arrange them into lyrics. Still as funny today as when it was released on the classic Radio Dinner LP in 1972.
Hendra (who played Spinal Tap’s manager) does the boffo Lennon impersonation here, razzing the former Beatle’s very public bitching and moaning. The music’s by Chris Cerf and that’s Melissa Manchester making a cameo appearance as Yoko at the very end.
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).
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.
Happy Birthday John Belushi, who would have been 62 today. Born in 1949, Belushi’s big break came in 1971 when he joined The Second City comedy troupe in Chicago. Cast alongside Chevy Chase and Christopher Guest in National Lampoon’s Lemmings (which Richard Metzger wrote a great article on last year), Belushi’s natural comic talents shone. He moved to New York, with his girlfriend Judy Jacklin, and became a regular on the National Lampoon Radio Hour, working with such future Saturday Night Live performers Gilda Radner and Bill Murray. The rest we know.
It’ll be SNL and The Blues Brothers that Belushi will be remembered for best, and watching clips of his TV or film work now, only re-enforces what is so sad about his early demise.
I love His Bobness as much as the next guy or gal but instead of picking one of his revered classics to share today I couldn’t resist putting up this hilarious and spot-on parody by National Lampoon from back in the early 70’s which without a doubt has pissed off many an earnest fan the world over ever since. Enjoy !
Bonus: One of the finest Dylan covers ever, The 13th Floor Elevators doing It’s All Over Now Baby Blue