National Lampoon

animal house


National Lampoon was both a ground-breaking American humor magazine and also a wide range of productions directly associated with that magazine. The magazine ran from 1970 to 1998, and was originally a spinoff of the ‘Harvard Lampoon’ (is an undergraduate humor publication founded in 1876 at Harvard University).

The magazine reached its height of popularity and critical acclaim during the 1970s, when it had a far-reaching effect on American humor. It spawned films, radio, live theater, various kinds of 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.

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 (speech balloons), which often featured nudity. The result was an unusual mix of intelligent, cutting-edge wit, and crass, bawdy frat house 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.

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 very 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. The magazine took aim at every kind of phoniness, and had no specific political stance, even though individual staff members had strong political views.

For a short period of time, the original art directors were cartoonist Peter Bramley and Bill Skurski, founders of New York’s ‘Cloud Studio,’ an alternative-culture studio known at the time for its eclectic style. Bramley created the magazine’s first cover and introduced cartoonists Arnold Roth and Gahan Wilson to the magazine’s audience. Beginning with the eighth issue, the art direction of the magazine was taken over by Michael C. Gross, who was responsible for the look of the magazine until 1974. A number of the most acerbic and humorous covers were designed or overseen by Gross, including: Court-martialed Vietnam War mass-murderer William Calley sporting the guileless grin of Alfred E. Neuman, complete with the parody catchphrase ‘What, My Lai?’, and a dog looking worriedly at a revolver pressed to its head, with the famous caption ‘If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog.’ The cover was conceived by Ed Bluestone, a contributing writer to the ‘National Lampoon,’ a stand-up comic, and TV comedy writer. Photographer Ronald G. Harris initially had a hard time making the dog’s plight appear humorous instead of pathetic. The solution was to cock the revolver; the clicking sound caused the dog’s eyes to shift into the position shown.

Michael Gross and Doug Kenney chose a young designer from ‘Esquire Magazine’ named Peter Kleinman to succeed the team of Gross and David Kaestle. Kleinman went on to create numerous award-winning ‘National Lampoon’ covers, and created the ‘Animal House’ logo and the ‘Heavy Metal’ logo. Kleinman also branded and served as original art director of ‘Heavy Metal’ magazine throughout his tenure at the Lampoon. The best known of Kleinman’s Lampoon covers is Stevie Wonder with 3-D Glasses, painted by Sol Korby.

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 four subsequently went on to become part of Saturday Night Live’s original wave of Not Ready for Primetime Players. Harold Ramis went on to be a prolific director and writer working on such films as ‘Animal House,’ ‘Caddyshack,’ ‘Ghostbusters,’ and many more.

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 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 all 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 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.’


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