NL Communications, Inc
Doug Kenney Henry Beard Robert Hoffman
1969, Harvard University
Final issue — Number
November 1998 issue 249
National Lampoon was an American humor magazine which ran from 1970 to 1998. The magazine started out as a spinoff from the Harvard Lampoon. National Lampoon magazine reached its height of popularity and critical acclaim during the late 1970s, when it had a far-reaching effect on American humor and comedy. The magazine spawned films, radio, live theatre, various sound recordings, and print products including books. Many members of the creative staff from the magazine subsequently went on to contribute creatively to successful media of all types.
- About the magazine
- Cover art
- True Facts
- Foto Funnies
- Funny Pages
- Other merchandise
- 1998 last issue
- Related media
- Special editions
- Cassette tape
- National Lampoons Animal House
- National Lampoons Class Reunion
- National Lampoons Vacation
- Similar films
- Film about the magazine
During the magazine's most successful years, parody of every kind was a mainstay; surrealist content was also central to its appeal. Almost all the issues included long text pieces, shorter written pieces, a section of actual news items (dubbed "True Facts"), cartoons and comic strips. Most issues also included "Foto Funnies" or fumetti, which often featured nudity. The result was an unusual mix of intelligent, cutting-edge wit, combined with some crass, bawdy jesting. In both cases, National Lampoon humor often pushed far beyond the boundaries of what was generally considered appropriate and acceptable. As co-founder Henry Beard described the experience years later: "There was this big door that said, 'Thou shalt not.' We touched it, and it fell off its hinges."
The magazine declined during the late 1980s and never recovered. It was kept alive minimally, but ceased publication altogether in 1998.
About the magazine
National Lampoon was started by Harvard graduates and Harvard Lampoon alumni Doug Kenney, Henry Beard and Robert Hoffman in 1969, when they first licensed the "Lampoon" name for a monthly national publication. The magazine's first issue was dated April 1970. The company that owned the magazine was called Twenty First Century Communications.
After a shaky start for a few issues, the magazine rapidly grew in popularity. Like the Harvard Lampoon, individual issues had themes, including such topics as "The Future", "Back to School", "Death", "Self-Indulgence", and "Blight". The magazine regularly reprinted material in "best-of" omnibus collections. Its writers joyfully targeted every kind of phoniness, and had no specific political stance, even though individual staff members had strong political views.
National Lampoon was a monthly magazine for most of its publication history. Numerous "special editions" were also published and sold simultaneously on newsstands. Some of the special editions were anthologies of reprinted material; others were entirely original. Additional projects included a calendar, a songbook, a collection of transfer designs for T-shirts, and a number of books. The magazine sold yellow binders with the Lampoon logo, designed to store a year's worth of issues.
The original art directors were cartoonist Peter Bramley and Bill Skurski, founders of New York's "Cloud Studio", an alternative-culture outfit known at the time for its eclectic style. Bramley created the Lampoon's first cover and induced successful cartoonists Arnold Roth and Gahan Wilson to become regular contributors.
Beginning with the eighth issue, the art direction of the magazine was taken over by Michael C. Gross, who directed the look of the magazine until 1974. A number of the National Lampoon's most acerbic and humorous covers were designed or overseen by Gross, including:
Michael Gross and Doug Kenney chose a young designer from Esquire Magazine named Peter Kleinman to succeed the team of Gross and David Kaestle. During his Lampoon tenure, Kleinman was also the art director of Heavy Metal magazine, published by the same company. The best known of Kleinman's Lampoon covers were "Stevie Wonder with 3-D Glasses," painted by Sol Korby; a photographed "Nose to The Grindstone" cover depicting a man's face being pressed against a spinning grinder wheel for the Work issue; the "JFK's First 6000 Days Issue," featuring a portrait of an old John F. Kennedy; the "Fat Elvis" Cover which appeared a year before Elvis Presley died, and many of the Mara McAfee covers done in a classic Norman Rockwell style. Kleinman designed the logos for Animal House and Heavy Metal. Kleinman left in 1979 to open an ad agency.
He was succeeded by Skip Johnson, the designer responsible for the Sunday Newspaper Parody and the "Arab Getting Punched in the Face" cover of the Revenge Issue. Johnson went on to The New York Times. He was followed by Michael Grossman, who changed the logo and style of the magazine.
In 1984, Kleinman returned as Creative Director and went back to the 1970s logo and style, bringing back many of the artists and writers from the magazine's heyday. He left four years later to pursue a career in corporate marketing. At that time, the National Lampoon magazine entered a period of precipitous decline.
Every regular monthly issue of the magazine had an editorial at the front of the magazine. This often appeared to be straightforward, but was always a parody. It was written by whoever was the editor of that particular issue, since that role rotated among the staff. A few issues were guest-edited.
The magazine was an outlet for some notable writing talents, including Kenney, Beard, George W. S. Trow, Chris Miller, P. J. O'Rourke, Michael O'Donoghue, Chris Rush, Sean Kelly, Tony Hendra, Brian McConnachie, Gerald Sussman, Ellis Weiner, Danny Abelson, Ted Mann, Chris Cluess, Al Jean, Mike Reiss, Jeff Greenfield, and John Hughes.
The work of many important cartoonists, photographers and illustrators appeared in the magazine's pages, including Neal Adams, Gahan Wilson, Robert Grossman, Michael Sullivan, Ron Barrett, Peter Bramley, Vaughn Bode, Bruce McCall, Rick Meyerowitz, Warren Sattler, M. K. Brown, Shary Flenniken, Bobby London, Edward Gorey, Jeff Jones, Joe Orlando, Arnold Roth, Rich Grote, Ed Subitzky, Mara McAfee, Sam Gross, Charles Rodrigues, Buddy Hickerson, B. K. Taylor, Birney Lettick, Frank Frazetta, Boris Vallejo, Marvin Mattelson, Stan Mack, Chris Callis, John E. Barrett, Raymond Kursar and Andy Lackow.
Comedy stars John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Brian Doyle Murray, Harold Ramis, and Richard Belzer first gained national attention for their performances in the National Lampoon's stage show and radio show. The first three subsequently went on to become part of Saturday Night Live's original wave of Not Ready for Primetime Players, Bill Murray replaced Chase when Chase left SNL after the first season, and Brian Doyle Murray later appeared as an SNL regular. Harold Ramis went on to be a prolific director and writer working on such films as Animal House, Caddyshack, Ghostbusters, and many more. Brian Doyle Murray has had roles in dozens of films, and Belzer is an Emmy-award-winning TV actor.
Jerry Taylor aka Gerald L. Taylor was the Publisher, followed by William T. Lippe. The business side of the magazine was controlled by Matty Simmons, who was Chairman of the Board and CEO of Twenty First Century Communications, a publishing company.
"True Facts" was a section near the front of the magazine which contained true but ridiculous items from real life. Together with the masthead, it was one of the few parts of the magazine that was factual. "True Facts" included photographs of unintentionally funny signage, extracts from ludicrous newspaper reports, strange headlines, and so on. For many years John Bendel was in charge of the "True Facts" section of the magazine. Steven Brykman edited the "True Facts" section of the National Lampoon website. Several "True Facts" compilation books were published in the 1980s and early 90s, and several all-True-Facts issues of the magazine were published during the 1980s.
Most issues of the magazine featured one or more "Foto Funny" or fumetti, comic strips that use photographs instead of drawings as illustrations. The characters who appeared in the Lampoon's Foto Funnies were usually editors or contributing editors of the magazine, often cast alongside nude or semi-nude models. In 1980, a paperback compilation book, National Lampoon Foto Funnies, was published.
The "Funny Pages" was a large section at the back of the magazine that was composed entirely of comic strips of various kinds. These included work from a number of artists who also had pieces published in the main part of the magazine, including Gahan Wilson, Ed Subitzky and Vaughn Bode, as well as artists whose work was only published in this section. The regular strips included "Dirty Duck" by Bobby London, "Trots and Bonnie" by Shary Flenniken, "The Appletons" by B. K. Taylor, and "Politeness Man" by Ron Barrett, and many other strips. A compilation of Gahan Wilson's "Nuts" strip was published in 2011. The Funny Pages logo header art residing above Gahan Wilson's "Nuts" in each issue, showing a comfortable, old-fashioned family reading newspaper-sized funny papers, was by Michael Wm Kaluta.
From time to time the magazine advertised Lampoon-related merchandise for sale, including tee-shirts that had been especially designed.
The magazine existed from 1970 to 1998. Some consider its finest period was from 1971 to 1975, although it continued to be produced on a monthly schedule throughout the 1970s and the early 1980s, and did well during that time.
However, during the late 1980s, a much more serious decline set in. In 1989, the company that controlled the magazine and its related projects (which was part of "Twenty First Century Communications") was the subject of a hostile takeover. In 1991 it was sold outright to another company, "J2 Communications".
At that point "National Lampoon" was considered valuable only as a brand name that could be licensed out to other companies. The magazine was issued erratically and rarely from 1991 onwards. 1998 saw the last issue.
The first issue was April 1970. By November of that year Michael Gross had become the art director. He achieved a unified, sophisticated and integrated look for the magazine, which enhanced its humorous appeal.
National Lampoon's most successful sales period was 1973–75. Its national circulation peaked at 1,000,096 copies sold of the October 1974 "Pubescence" issue. The 1974 monthly average was 830,000, which was also a peak. Former Lampoon editor Tony Hendra's book Going Too Far includes a series of precise circulation figures.
The magazine was considered by many to be at its creative zenith during this time. It should however be noted that the publishing industry's newsstand sales were excellent for many other titles during that time: there were sales peaks for Mad (more than 2 million), Playboy (more than 7 million), and TV Guide (more than 19 million).
Some fans consider the glory days of National Lampoon to have ended in 1975, although the magazine remained popular and profitable long after that point. During 1975, the three founders (Kenney, Beard and Hoffman) took advantage of a buyout clause in their contracts for $7.5 million. And, at about the same time, writers Michael O'Donoghue and Anne Beatts left to join the NBC comedy show Saturday Night Live (SNL). At the same time, the National Lampoon Show's John Belushi and Gilda Radner left the troupe to join the original septet of SNL's "Not Ready for Primetime Players."
The magazine was a springboard to the cinema of the United States for a generation of comedy writers, directors, and performers. Various alumni went on to create and write for Saturday Night Live, The David Letterman Show, SCTV, The Simpsons, Married... with Children, Night Court, and various films including National Lampoon's Animal House, Caddyshack, National Lampoon's Vacation, and Ghostbusters.
As some of the original creators departed, the magazine remained popular and profitable as it saw the emergence of John Hughes and editor-in-chief P.J. O'Rourke, along with artists and writers such as Gerry Sussman, Ellis Weiner, Tony Hendra, Ted Mann, Peter Kleinman, Chris Cleuss, Stu Kreisman, John Weidman, Jeff Greenfield, Bruce McCall, and Rick Meyerowitz.
In 1985, Matty Simmons (who had been working only on the business end of the Lampoon up to that point) took over as Editor-in-Chief. He fired the entire editorial staff, and appointed his two sons, Michael Simmons and Andy Simmons, as editors, Peter Kleinman as Creative Director and Editor, and Larry "Ratso" Sloman as Executive Editor.
The magazine was on an increasingly shaky financial footing, and, beginning in November 1986, the magazine was published six times a year instead of every month.
In 1989, the magazine was acquired in a hostile takeover by a business partnership of producer Daniel Grodnik and actor Tim Matheson (who played "Otter" in the 1978 film National Lampoon's Animal House). Grodnik and Matheson became the co-Chairmen/co CEOS. During their tenure, the stock went up from under $2 to $6 and the magazine doubled the monthly ad pages from 7 to 15. The company moved its headquarters from New York to Los Angeles to focus on film and television. The publishing operation stayed in New York.
In 1991 the magazine (and more importantly, the rights to the brand name "National Lampoon") were bought by a company called J2 Communications, headed by James P. Jimirro. (J2 was previously known for marketing Tim Conway's "Dorf" videos.)
J2 Communications' focus was to make money by licensing out the brand name "National Lampoon". The company was contractually obliged to publish at least one new issue of the magazine per year in order to retain the rights to the Lampoon name. However, the company had very little interest in the magazine itself; throughout the 1990s the number of issues per year declined precipitously and erratically. In 1991 there was an attempt at monthly publication: nine issues were produced that year. Only two issues were released in 1992. This was followed by one issue in 1993, five in 1994, and three in 1995. For the last three years of its existence, the magazine was published only once a year.
1998, last issue
The magazine's final print publication was November 1998, after which the contract was renegotiated, and in a sharp reversal, J2 Communications was then prohibited from publishing issues of the magazine. J2, however, still owned the rights to the brand name, which it continued to franchise out to other users. In 2002 the use of the brand name and the rights to republish old material were sold to a new, and otherwise unrelated, company which chose to call itself National Lampoon, Incorporated.
During its most active period, the magazine spun off numerous productions in a wide variety of media. National Lampoon released books, special issues, anthologies, and other print pieces, including:
This publication featured the fake Volkswagen ad seen above, which was written by Anne Beatts. The spoof was listed in the contents page as "Doyle Dane Bernbach," the name of the advertising agency that had produced the iconic 1960s ad campaign for Volkswagen. According to Mark Simonson's "Very Large National Lampoon Site": "If you buy a copy of this issue, you may find the ad is missing. As a result of a lawsuit by VW over the ad for unauthorized use of their trademark, NatLamp was forced to remove the page (with razor blades!) from any copies they still had in inventory (which, from what I gather, was about half the first printing of 250,000 copies) and all subsequent reprints. For what it's worth, Ted Kennedy didn't sue."
"True Facts" special editions and books
Vinyl record albums
Many of the older albums that were originally on vinyl have been re-issued as CDs and a number of tracks from certain albums are available as MP3s.
There is considerable ambiguity about what actually constitutes a National Lampoon film.
During the 1970s and early 1980s, a few films were made as spin-offs from the original National Lampoon magazine, using its creative staff. The first theatrical release, and by far the most successful National Lampoon film was National Lampoon's Animal House (1978). Starring John Belushi and written by Doug Kenney, Harold Ramis and Chris Miller, it became the highest grossing comedy film of that time. Produced on a low budget, it was so enormously profitable that, from that point on for the next two decades, the name "National Lampoon" applied to the title of a movie was considered to be a valuable selling point in and of itself.
Numerous movies were subsequently made that had "National Lampoon" as part of the title. Many of these were unrelated projects, because by that point in time, the name "National Lampoon" could simply be licensed on a one-time basis, by any company, for a fee. Critics such as the Orlando Sentinel′s Roger Moore and the New York Times′ Andrew Adam Newman have written about the cheapening of the National Lampoon′s movie imprimatur; in 2006, an Associated Press review said: "The National Lampoon, once a brand name above nearly all others in comedy, has become shorthand for pathetic frat boy humor."
The first of the National Lampoon movies was a not-very-successful made-for-TV movie:
National Lampoon's Animal House
In 1978, National Lampoon's Animal House was released. Made on a small budget, it did phenomenally well at the box office. In 2001, the United States Library of Congress considered the film "culturally significant", and preserved it in the National Film Registry.
The script had its origins in a series of short stories that had been previously published in the magazine. These included Chris Miller's "Night of the Seven Fires," which dramatized a frat initiation and included the characters Pinto and Otter, which contained prose versions of the toga party, the "road trip", and the dead horse incident. Another source was Doug Kenney's "First Lay Comics," which included the angel and devil scene and the grocery-cart affair. According to the authors, most of these elements were based on real incidents.
National Lampoon's Class Reunion
This 1982 movie was an attempt by John Hughes to make something similar to Animal House. National Lampoon's Class Reunion was not successful however.
National Lampoon's Vacation
Released in 1983, the movie National Lampoon's Vacation was based upon John Hughes' National Lampoon story "Vacation '58". The movie's financial success gave rise to several follow-up films, including National Lampoon's European Vacation (1985), National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989), based on John Hughes' "Christmas '59", Vegas Vacation (1997), and most recently Vacation (2015), all featuring Chevy Chase.
The Robert Altman film O.C. and Stiggs (1987) was based on two characters who had been featured in several written pieces in National Lampoon magazine, including an issue-long story from October 1982 entitled "The Utterly Monstrous, Mind-Roasting Summer of O.C. and Stiggs." Completed in 1984, the film was not released until 1987, when it was shown in a small number of theaters and without the "National Lampoon" name. It was not a success.
Following the success of Animal House, MAD magazine lent its name to a 1980 comedy titled Up the Academy. But whereas two of Animal House′s co-writers were the Lampoon′s Doug Kenney and Chris Miller, Up The Academy was strictly a licensing maneuver, with no creative input from MAD′s staff or contributors. It was a critical and commercial failure.
Film about the magazine
In 2015, a documentary film was released called Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon. The film featured a great deal of content from the magazine, as well as interviews with staff members and fans, and it explains how the magazine changed the course of humor.