(2015) Documentary (4th Row) Henry Beard, Matty Simmons, Bruce McCall, P.J. O’Rourke, Tony Hendra, Anne Beatts, Christopher Buckley, Ellis Weiner, Al Jean, Chevy Chase, Sean Kelly, Ivan Reitman, Judd Apatow, Jon Landis, Michael Gross, Judith Jacklin Belushi, Chris MIller, Danny Abelson, Mike Reiss, Beverly D’Angelo, Jerry Taylor, Brian McConnachie, Meatloaf, Kevin Bacon, Billy Bob Thornton. Directed by Doug Tirola
In the interest of transparency, I was a Mad magazine kid growing up and the National Lampoon, while on my radar, was a bit more sophisticated than my young mind could grasp. However, there’s no denying that for the last 40 years, the Lampoon has been essentially the wellspring of American humor, From its pages, films, radio and stage shows have come some of the most important writing and performing talents in comedy. It has directly or indirectly inspired the comedy of Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons and the comedies of John Hughes, Jon Landis and Judd Apatow. Even for those who weren’t directly involved with either writing it or reading it, its influence has shaped them whether they’ve known it or not.
The Lampoon began with the Harvard Lampoon, one of the country’s oldest humor magazines. Two Harvard grads who’d worked on the magazine (and also co-wrote the now-classic parody novel Bored of the Rings) named Douglas Kenney and Henry Beard. After creating some parody magazines for such publications as Mademoiselle, they got together with Matty Simmons to create the National Lampoon.
The nascent magazine was able to attract such talent as writers Michael O’Donoghue, P.J. O’Rourke and Anne Beatts, as well as artists like Rick Meyerowitz and Michael Gross. Their heyday, during the heady days of Watergate and Vietnam, reflected the country’s angst, anger and frustrations but also pushed the boundaries of humor beyond what had been acceptable what to then. The Lampoon printed what most people were already thinking, only funnier.
The magazine was as rock and roll as comedy ever gets and as most students of rock know, that’s a double edged sword. Sure the magazine was innovative and ahead of its time in many ways, but the creative forces that powered it were prone to drug addiction, burn-out and attrition. While the 70s waned and the 80s waxed, the magazine which had by then branched out into films with Animal House and National Lampoon’s Vacation series, had lost most of those who were it’s creative soul – Kenney died under mysterious circumstances in 1980 and the company really never recovered.
But oh, what a legacy it has left behind. The filmmakers sift through hundreds of hours of archival footage including their stage shows, audio of their radio show and page after page after page of their magazine. Those who were readers of the magazine will get a nice sense of nostalgia while those who weren’t will get a wonderful opportunity for discovery. Nearly the entire original cast of Saturday Night Live worked on the Lampoon stage show, and director John Hughes was on the writing staff during the later years of the magazine, as were Simpsons show runners Al Jean and Mike Reiss.
There are a ton of interviews with the surviving staff of the magazine’s golden era, with Simmons and Beard getting the lion share of face time, while much attention is paid to the writers, artists, performers and celebrity fans of the magazine and its spinoffs. While this isn’t groundbreaking style here, because the material is just so freaking funny (I was breathless with laughter when the film finally spun its final credits) that I’m willing to overlook the lack of innovation, which is a bit ironic since the magazine was known for innovation.
Be that as it may, this is one of the funniest films you’ll see all year and likely for a lot of years to come. Even though some of the material is dated, a lot of it is timeless as well and is as funny now as it was then. Whether you’r of the generation that made the magazine what it was or a Johnny-come-lately, this is a don’t-miss documentary that you should be absolutely certain to catch when it hits the festival circuit near you, or hopefully when it gets a richly deserved distribution deal and shows up either theatrically or on VOD. Whatever the case may be, see it. Or I’ll shoot this dog.
REASONS TO GO: Excepts from Lampoon radio broadcasts and live shows hysterical. The source for humor in its era.
REASONS TO STAY: Definitely a product of its era. Lots and lots of talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: Nudity, crude and sexual humor, plenty of foul language and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie’s poster was drawn by Rick Meyerowitz who also drew the poster for National Lampoon’s Animal House and is modeled on its design.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/12/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Live From New York!
FINAL RATING: 8/10
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