P.J. O'Rourke: How I Killed 'National Lampoon' (Guest Column)

P.J. O’Rourke 1973 - H 2015

P.J. O’Rourke 1973 - H 2015

"It was my fault," only half-jokes the best-selling satirist and former editor of the iconic publication. Now, on the eve of a Lampoon-less 'Vacation' reboot he deems unworthy (a "dump-fill featuring the 'Hangover' wimp"), he explains what went right and very wrong for the once-legendary comedy brand.

This story first appeared in the July 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

A new Vacation movie is scheduled to be released — or allowed to escape — on July 29. To judge by the obvious, pitiful, frenetic, stupid raunchiness of its trailer, it belongs to the genre known as "post-humoristic."

The movie declares itself to be a remake  of National Lampoon's Vacation, the 1983 classic of obvious, pitiful, frenetic, stupid innocence. But the words "National Lampoon" are never mentioned in the trailer. This is doubtless a relief to those two good souls in Funny Heaven: John Hughes, who wrote the script for the original, and Harold Ramis, who directed it. Yet the absence of the magazine's name causes pangs of ancient regret to old duffers who held NatLamp dear in the 1970s and early 1980s.

We remember how the publication was a font of youthful nihilism's dark, ironic genius (albeit with the obvious, pitiful, frenetic and stupid qualities that entails).

We remember how, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the magazine went to hell. National Lampoon now seems damned to the point that its name isn't even worthy of being attached to a summer cineplex dump-fill featuring the Hangover wimp dentist as leading man and a Chevy Chase cameo.

From left: Anthony Michael Hall, Chase, Beverly D’Angelo and Dana Barron, the original Griswolds from 1983’s National Lampoon’s Vacation, based on a Hughes magazine story from 1979.

Sick transit gloria. What a shocking fall for Lampoon's shock humor. And it was my fault.

I was editor-in-chief of National Lampoon from 1978 through 1980, when the magazine began sinking. It limped on as a monthly until 1985, but I was one of the last original creators still on board.

The failure was caused by success. From the inaugural issue of National Lampoon in 1970 until he left in 1974, Michael O'Donoghue was the most important influence on its style, tone and content. He went on to become the first head writer for Saturday Night Live. Before becoming the first stars of SNL, John Belushi and Chase starred, alongside Christopher Guest, in the 1972 off-Broadway play National Lampoon Lemmings. Belushi recruited Bill Murray for the 1973-1974 National Lampoon Radio Hour cast, which included Richard Belzer. Murray and fellow Radio Hour performer Gilda Radner starred in the 1975 off-Broadway National Lampoon Show. Hughes started a spectacular career writing for the Lampoon. Ramis started another scripting National Lampoon's Animal House with NatLamp co-founder Doug Kenney and Chris Miller, author of Lampoon's popular Animal House short stories that inspired the 1978 movie.

If you see a pattern, it's called money. What do you think the proper comparison would be between how much Hughes was paid for writing National Lampoon's Vacation and how much I paid him for the short story "Vacation '58," upon which the movie was based? If you're thinking chalk and cheese, you like to eat chalk better than John did.

The new Vacation features a Chase (center) cameo.

Even in the salad days of magazine publishing, there wasn't a lot of lettuce on the plate. Playboy used to pay — cue Dr. Evil moment — a dollar a word.

By 1980, talented young writers with youthful nihilism's dark, ironic genius had as many opportunities as there were Porky's sequels.

Besides, National Lampoon was never a pleasant place to work. The office was rife with the clubby snits and snubs of its clubby, snitty progenitor, Harvard Lampoon, founded in 1876. Some of the snits were a century old. Plus having a bunch of humorists in one place is like having a bunch of cats in a sack.

As the boss, I had the people skills of Luca Brasi in The Godfather and the business acumen of the fellows who were managing New York's finances in the 1970s (remember the Post's headline "FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD").

The iconic Lampoon cover from 1973.

The National Lampoon staff was busy sticking it to the man and being alienated, sarcastic, cynical and hip. I had the Squaresville job of making the magazine show a profit. To which task I guess I seemed well-suited. I owned a suit. And I was the only staffer who admitted voting for Gerald Ford.

Therefore, when Squaresville things happened, I got to deal with them. For example, National Lampoon published an illustration of Mick Jagger performing fellatio on a microphone. This depiction — drawn with perhaps too much vigor — appeared opposite a full-page ad by one of the few companies willing to advertise in the National Lampoon. It was a Japanese manufacturer of turntables, amplifiers, speakers and microphones.

I got to visit the American headquarters of the Japanese corporation and talk to three senior Japanese executives.

Belushi (center) in 1978’s Animal House, scripted by Ramis, Doug Kenney and Chris Miller.

Me: "What makes the illustration funny is the Freudian nature of a performing artist who casts himself in a phallic role, subconsciously overcompensating by utilizing an actually phallic object in his performance."

Japanese executives: Silence.

Me: "You see, Mick Jagger's persona is that of a subject for sex objectification by women. Yet the intense narcissism of his presented behavior is such as to cast doubts upon his own heterosexual orientation."

Japanese executives: Silence.

Ramis and Radner in the 1974 off-Broadway play National Lampoon Show.

Me: "So, in order to make a humorous point concerning this psychological paradox, we exhibited the musician in a symbolic situation in which his libido is manifested mechanically rather than biologically. Mechanical representations of biological functions being one of the root sources of mirth according to Laughter, an Essay on the Meaning of the Comic by 19th century French philosopher Henri Bergson."

Japanese executives: Total silence.

Hughes in 1986.

There are those who say that National Lampoon "changed the face of American humor." It certainly put some wrinkles on mine. We published our last issue in November 1998.

What was so much fun about the original National Lampoon's Vacation was its maniacal expression of the love-and-hate relationship between weird hip sensibilities (Hughes) and even weirder normal middle-class values (Clark Griswold).

That kind of fun can't be had in the 21st century, where there are no normal middle-class values, all the Clark Griswolds are alienated, sarcastic and cynical, and every suburban schlub is a font of nihilism's dark, ironic genius.

Murray (left) and Christopher Guest in 1975 on Saturday Night Live.

Once, there was "If You Don't Buy This Magazine We'll Kill This Dog" — the January 1973 cover line by actor, comedian and erstwhile National Lampoon contributing editor Ed Bluestone. This was in the days before Photoshop, and the cover shoot wasn't going well. The dog was a professional model. Like Kate Moss, it sat perfectly still with a blank expression. Finally Lampoon's art director Michael Gross had the idea of standing off-camera behind the dog's trainer (who was holding the gun) and shouting the dog's name. Hence the perfect pathos of the dog's sidelong glance.

Now, it's a totally different world. It's "If You Don't Buy a Ticket to This Crappy Movie, We'll Go Watch Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation in the Theater Next Door."

O’Rourke in January.