National Lampoon Plans Its Own Reboot: "We Want to Do Business"

National Lampoon's Vacation Alan Donnes Inset - H 2015
Photofest; Courtesy of Alan Donnes

National Lampoon's Vacation Alan Donnes Inset - H 2015

The humor publisher is looking for "a Spielberg, a Warner Bros. or Fox" to invest and develop the brand.

"I think if John Hughes were alive, he would have written rim job jokes."

This is Alan Donnes, current president of National Lampoon, referring to a scene in Vacation, Warner Bros.' new take on National Lampoon's Vacation opening Wednesday. The Lampoon's involvement was minimal, but Donnes thinks the installment is worthy of the franchise's original writer: "If you really know John's writing, it's close," he says. "It feels like something John Hughes would be proud of."

It’s not the opinion of former Lampoon editor P.J. O'Rourke, who called the new film, directed by Horrible Bosses screenwriters Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley and featuring Ed Helms in the role of grownup Rusty Griswold, "a summer cineplex dump-fill featuring the Hangover wimp" in a guest column for The Hollywood Reporter in which he speculates he "killed" National Lampoon.

Donnes thinks he understands O'Rourke's point of view: "National Lampoon is kind of like a college frat in the way that your years there seem like the golden years, and the newcomers aren’t quite as smart," he says. "The guys who came before P.J. claim they killed it. P.J. just made it worse."

He concedes the Lampoon has endured some tough years. Since the magazine shuttered in 1998 the company hit legal trouble with CEO Tim Durham's arrest for operating a Ponzi scheme, losing the Lampoon over $37 million by 2009. "When we came in in 2011, the phones were turned off, they were months and months behind on rent," says Donnes. Worse, his predecessor had ruined the Lampoon's reputation in Hollywood. "We had a lot of going into meetings and them saying, 'We talked to one of the National Lampoon CEOs, and it didn't seem right over there.' The truth is, by the end it wasn't right."

But they're bouncing back, says Donnes. "We spent two years just going to people in the business and saying, 'We're nice, we're sane, we want to do business and we can do business,' " he tells THR.

The Lampoon will relaunch September 1 with the rollout of the company's website, which will feature the Lampoon's first new writing in over four years, plus pieces from former Lampoon editor Tony Hendra's New York Times parody The Final Edition. Quarterly "bookzines" might follow, says Donnes, but there’s no plan to revive the magazine. Film and TV projects and collaborations with YouTube content producers are in the works, he says.

In the meantime, he's hoping the Lampoon brand gets a boost from Vacation, though the name is nowhere to be found on the film. "Michelangelo didn't sign David, but you know he did it," he points out.

Here’s the rest of his conversation with THR:

Critics have disparaged some of the raunchier content in Vacation. How does it compare to National Lampoon's Vacation?

Everyone's complaining about the rim job jokes and the swimming in poop. The first movie has animal abuse, elder abuse, masturbation, adultery — they tie a dog to the car and drag it. There's nothing in this movie like that. They went really far that time, but over time it's mellowed. You just can’t do those things anymore. Why are there rim job jokes? Because you can't kill a dog in this movie.

Jerry Seinfeld commented in June he thinks political correctness is killing comedy. Is he right?

Here’s the thing. If you went to see Richard Pryor on stage you, knew he was going to curse at you. Sam Kinison, you knew what you were getting. If you go to a comedy club they’re going to say inflammatory stuff. Comedians' purpose should be to shine a light on people's foibles and hypocrisies. You don't want people storming out or burning down the theater, but if you don't make people a little uncomfortable, then you're not pushing them. He's 100 percent right.

O'Rourke wrote in his column the Lampoon’s "dark, ironic" style was out of touch with the country's current humor climate. Will the Lampoon's voice still work, or will you have to alter it?

I think pendulums always swing back. It'll come our way, to 'wait a minute, I like to laugh at that stuff.' People want this kind of humor.

Is the Lampoon for sale? Recent court documents indicate one interest holder might soon sell his ownership.

I don't think there’s someone trying to sell a controlling interest in the company, but it's a public company. If someone wants to sell their stock, they're in the business to do that. We'd love investors, but rather than just some investment capital group, what we really would prefer is an entertainment entity investing in National Lampoon and taking it several levels higher. It would be great if a [Steven] Spielberg, a Warner Bros. or Fox saw the potential in the brand, bought it and invested, and elevated it. Our philosophy is, let's find people who are very good at what they do and partner with them.

When I got the job four years ago, the board asked what I wanted to do in my tenure. I said to not go to jail, to make National Lampoon funny again, and then you'll have to find someone more qualified than me to run the company. There have been a few meetings when we thought someone was interested and qualified, and I’ve said in every one, "If you want a seat on the board, I'll resign mine tomorrow and vote you in."

It’s not really about my ego. It's a challenge for to me to right this thing I've loved through high school and college. If I had a dollar for every toga party I've been to, I'd buy the company myself. And If I had a dollar for every time I repeated a line from a Lampoon movie or story, I'd buy The Hollywood Reporter, too.