Wednesday, October 05, 2011

The National Lampoon Radio Hour

Remember when  there were still comedy shows on the radio?  OK, there are a scant few shows now and mostly on NPR. The pinnacle of commercial radio comedy today is morning zoo flunkies sniffing each others gym socks. The old tradition of radio sitcoms and skits died out in the 1970s. One of it's last shining moments was the National Lampoon Radio Hour. More here. A legal brief from 1973 described the program thus:
"Like the magazine, the radio program is composed of various kinds of materials, skits, monologues, songs, also of an irreverent, disrespectful nature, satirizing topical subjects such as the energy crises, Watergate, politics generally, the ecology movement, the use of illegal narcotics, and whatever else may be of current interest."

It launched on November 17th, 1973 and at least initially was written by staff from National Lampoon magazine. Even after the show was no longer being written by national Lampoon, it was being recorded in the same building where the magazine was produced. The show ran weekly, for a little over a year, from November 17, 1973 to December 28, 1974. It started as a 1-hour program but was later cut to half an hour because writing an hour of comedy is really hard.the half-hour program was more tractable. But that's not how the staff handled it. They called their stations ahead to warn them they were trimming the program but then they played a little prank. According to  John Gorman, who wrote in The Buzzard Lampoon pranked all their affiliate stations. at the end of the half hour an announcement followed that read "This radio station is censoring the second half of the National Lampoon Radio Hour."  No one was safe.

In it's 2.5 seasons it's stewardship transferred from show creators Michael O'Donoghue and producer/engineer Bob Tischler to Sean Kelly, Brian McConnachie and John Belushi.  Belushi was already a performer on the program of course. It debuted with about 150 stations and eventually was broadcast on over 600  radio stations: WEBN, WMMS, WRVR, and hundreds of others from east coast to west coast and north into Canada. But the show had problems with sponsors. Their first sponsor  7-Up decided that an episode about Nixons impeachment was offensive.They got that a lot. In their own ads they sold plugged the show as "thirty minutes of mirth, merriment and racial slurs." It was all of those things.

The show folded up it's tent and ran it's last episode on December 28, 1974. Several of the performers and writers moved on to Saturday Night Live: John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, and Gilda Radnor to name a few.  Michael O'Donoghue went on to become the head writer for the first two seasons of Saturday Night Live. He mercilessly stole and re-used the material on SNL for the benefit of well... everyone watching. It was goddamned funny.  The program has had a long and strange legacy.  In 1996 Rhino released a box set of the national Lampoon Radio archives.Then in October of 2006 XM brought it back in reruns.  It was not just old Lampoon programming. In fact they seemed to just re-use the branding.  Most of it was more modern stand up. As of March 6, 2009, National Lampoon radio was dropped from the Sirius-XM line-up.

The magazine that had started it all went bi-monthly in 1986 due to reduced circulation and was the victim of a hostile takeover by Otter from the 1978 film National Lampoon's Animal House. I am not making that up.  Otter went bankrupt 2 years later and had to sell out to J2 Communications.J2 just liked licensing the brand name and just put out one or two magazine a year. The magazine's final print publication was November 1998. Then in 2002 Dan Laikin bought what was left of the company.

In December 2008, following an FBI raid, federal prosecutors in Philadelphia filed charges against Dan Laikin, the former CEO of National Lampoon Incorporated, for a scheme to artificially inflate Lampoon’s stock price from less than $2 a share to $5 a share. They had a whole scam set up with kickbacks for the stock promoters. He was sentenced to 45 months in prison.