Year 8, Day 78 - 3/18/16 - Movie #2,279
BEFORE: Well, I had good luck last year with a week's worth of documentaries, on topics like art and sports figures and internet issues - it was a great break from narratives, and a look at a type of film that just I haven't paid enough attention to. I enjoyed it so much that I kept my eyes open for more docs, and I think this year I'll probably space them out more, provided that they're relative to the topic at hand. I've got two documentaries about Batman and Superman, and I'm going to work them into the upcoming Batman/Superman week, in honor of their first feature film together.
And Bill Murray is in here somewhere, carrying over from "St. Vincent", though I don't know if he gets interviewed or just appears in stock footage - either way, it counts.
THE PLOT: A look at the history of the American comedy publication and production company, National Lampoon, from its beginning in the 1970s to 2010.
AFTER: Documentaries are all about learning, and I realized that I knew almost nothing about National Lampoon, the magazine - all I really knew was that the company had produced films like "Animal House" and the "Vacation" series, pretty much the templates for all the teen-college and road-trip comedies that followed. Before that, I knew there was a magazine and some compilation books that I used to peek at in bookstores, before I was old enough to appreciate adult humor.
I didn't even know for sure what the connection was between the Harvard Lampoon and the National Lampoon - it turns out two guys from the Harvard Lampoon, Douglas Kenney and Henry Beard, were forced to graduate Harvard at some point and go out into the real world, and what they really wanted to do was to keep putting out the type of smart-ass, satirical publication they made in college, and the first thing they wrote was a Tolkien parody book called "Bored of the Rings", and I happen to own a copy of this. Then they were hired to take over an issue of Mademoiselle magazine, and do whatever they wanted, even make a parody of a fashion mag, as long as the clothes were properly showcased.
The first few issues of the National Lampoon magazine were style parodies of other mags, like Playboy or Cosmopolitan, and then once the magazine gained an identity of its own, it was filled with humor and nudity and cartoons and shocking articles about sex. Michael O'Donoghue (one of the first writers for SNL) came on board, and so did Tony Hendra, a British comic who's probably best known now for playing Ian Faith, the band manager in "This Is Spinal Tap". John Hughes was a writer, Michael Gross was an art director, and Sam Gross did very dark cartoons. P.J. O'Rourke was an editor at some point, and then when the old guard stepped down, people like Al Jean and Mike Reiss stepped in, before heading out to L.A. to work on TV shows like "The Simpsons".
But I'm getting ahead of myself. A lot of the film is about Douglas Kenney, who I never heard of before. He's the guy in "Animal House" that you don't remember seeing in any other film, the guy with glasses and hair sticking up who leads the marching band into that alleyway during the parade sequence. He seemed to have been a brilliant satirist, doing spot-on style impressions of Thackeray, then proving he could fit his whole fist in his mouth. After a few years working on the magazine, he "dropped out" to live in Maine and write a novel, but apparently preferred to spend his time stoned on the beach, covering himself in mud. But he was convinced to come back to New York and work on the magazine again.
The magazine people then decided to conquer other mediums, first with a stage-play called "Lemmings", a parody of Woodstock where instead of a festival devoted to peace, the idea was that the band and all of its fans had gathered together to commit mass suicide. For this they hired a bunch of actors out of Second City, like John Belushi and Christopher Guest, and when work began on the National Lampoon radio shows, people like Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Harold Ramis and Gilda Radner joined in. If that line-up's looking a little familiar, it's because National Lampoon was offered a comedy/variety show on Saturday nights on NBC, and when they turned it down, many of the writers and actors moved over to join the first cast of "Saturday Night Live".
Meanwhile, National Lampoon was looking to get into making movies, where the real money was, and this explains how Belushi was cast, and then Doug Kenney also produced "Caddyshack", which should have been called "National Lampoon's Caddyshack", but wasn't for some reason.
A lot of documentaries have to fight this so-called "talking head" syndrome, where it's just one interview after another, which tends to get boring after a time. Whoever cut this together did a great job of using artwork and cartoons from the magazine to break things up, plus some animations that are based on the original magazine art. And the influence of National Lampoon on modern comedy is undeniable, as stated by the notable comedians and actors who testify to the magazine's greatness. However, a lot of the actors from films like "Animal House" and "Vacation" are only shown in very small doses, I guess because in the end this is really about the magazine and not the movies.
But this tied a lot of threads together for me, not just in my mental history of American comedy, but also with appearances from a number of actors who popped up already this week or last week. And I watched a number of parodies this week, like "Spy" and "The Brady Bunch Movie" - those might never have existed without the groundbreaking parody work that was done by National Lampoon in the 1970's and 80's. We're in a very fertile news period now, and while the absence of the Lampoon is felt, because of it, we have SNL and The Daily Show and late-night talk shows picking up the slack.
Also starring Kevin Bacon (last seen in "The Big Picture"), Tim Matheson (last seen in "A Very Brady Sequel"), Chevy Chase (last seen in "Hot Tub Time Machine"), John Goodman (last seen in "Masked and Anonymous"), Judd Apatow, Tony Hendra, John Landis, Meat Loaf, Ivan Reitman, Billy Bob Thornton (last seen in "The Judge"), Beverly D'Angelo (last seen in "Pacific Heights"), Henry Beard, Christopher Buckley, Michael Gross, Sam Gross, Janis Hirsch, Peter Kleinman, Al Jean, Chris Miller, Martha Smith, P.J. O'Rourke, with archive footage of John Belushi (last seen in "Goin' South"), Richard Belzer (also last seen in "A Very Brady Sequel"), John Candy (last seen in "She's Having a Baby"), Christopher Guest (last seen in "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian"), Marshall McLuhan, Gilda Radner, Harold Ramis, John Updike.
RATING: 6 out of 10 topless models