Parody of every kind was a mainstay of the magazine, but sick humor, black humor and surrealist humor were also central to its appeal. Almost all the issues included long written humor pieces, shorter written pieces, a section of actual news items (dubbed "True Facts"), cartoons, and comic strips. Most issues also included "photo funnies" or fumetti.
At its best, the humor was intelligent, imaginative, and cutting edge, and it often pushed far beyond the boundaries of what might be 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 reached its height of popularity during the mid-to-late 1970s, but it had a disproportionately far-reaching effect on American humor. The magazine also directly spawned films, radio, live theatre, various kinds of recordings, and books.
Many members of the creative staff from the magazine subsequently went on to perform in, or write for, or otherwise contribute creatively to successful films, television shows, books, and other media forms.
The magazine declined during the late 1980s. It was kept barely alive for a number of years for brand name reasons, but it ceased publication altogether in 1998.
After a shaky start for a few issues, the magazine very rapidly grew in popularity. It regularly skewered pop culture, the counterculture, and politics, with recklessness and gleeful bad taste. Like the Harvard Lampoon, individual issues were often devoted to a particular theme such as "The Future", "Back to School", "Death", "Self-Indulgence," or "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.
Many important cartoonists and illustrators appeared in the magazine's pages, including Neal Adams, Vaughn Bode, M.K. Brown, Shary Flenniken, Edward Gorey, Jeff Jones, Bruce McCall, Rick Meyerowitz, Joe Orlando, Arnold Roth, Ed Subitzky and Gahan Wilson.
Comedy actors John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner and Bill Murray first gained national attention for their performances in the National Lampoon's stage show and radio show, and subsequently went on to become part of Saturday Night Live's early Not Ready For Primetime Players.
The magazine was art directed in its heyday by Michael C. Gross. The business side of the magazine was controlled by Matty Simmons, who was Chairman of the Board and CEO of 21st Century Communications, a publishing company.
The Lampoon's 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.
While the magazine was considered by many to be at its creative zenith during this time, it should also be noted that the publishing industry's newsstand sales were excellent during this period. The Lampoon's circulation height coincided with sales peaks for various other magazines such as Mad, Playboy, and TV Guide.
Despite this change, the magazine still made money, and it continued to be produced on a monthly schedule throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. However, from the mid 1980s on, the magazine was on an increasingly shaky financial footing. Beginning in November 1986, the magazine was published only every other month.
Vinyl record singles:
This show was performed at the Village Gate in 1986, aired on cable in the 80's, and is now available on VHS. It was a sketch-based satire of 1980's culture, told against a frame story of two characters named Galahad and Dewdrop, hippies who had taken LSD in 1969, fallen into a deep sleep and then woken up 17 years later, in 1986. The sketches in the show lampooned yuppie culture, health food, the Reagan Administration, airplane hijackings, and psychotherapy.
Unfortunately 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. One of these was National Lampoon's Animal House. This film was so enormously successful, and was made on such a small budget, that the name National Lampoon applied to the title of a movie was from that point onwards considered to be a valuable selling point in and of itself. Because of this, numerous movies were subsequently made that had "National Lampoon" as part of the title, but a large number of them were made when the name National Lampoon could simply be licensed on a one-time basis by any company, for a fee.
Over time a number of movies were released which were made as apparent "sequels" to earlier movies which had National Lampoon in the title. Some of these movies did not actually have the words National Lampoon in the title, but nonetheless they hoped to cash in on the success of the previous movies, while being virtually unconnected to them, except for featuring some of the same actors. For example, it is misleading to refer to all of the various "Vacation" movies as a "series".
The first of the National Lampoon movies was a not very successful made-for-TV movie called Disco Beaver from Outer Space, broadcast in 1978.
The script had its origins in a series of short stories which 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, and P.J. O'Rourke's "Tales From The Delphi Lodge", which contained prose versions of the toga party, the "road trip", and the dead horse incident. According to the authors, most of these elements were based on real incidents.
Influences on other films:
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." The film was actually completed in 1984, but it was not released until 1987, when it was shown in a small number of theaters, without the National Lampoon name. It was not a success.
Following the success of Animal House, MAD Magazine lent its name to a 1981 comedy titled Up the Academy. But whereas Animal House was co-written by 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, and as such it was a critical and commercial failure.
However, in 1991 after only two years, Matheson was forced to sell, in order to avoid bankruptcy due to mounting debts. 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's 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, and thus, 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 annually.
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 still however owned the rights to the brand name, which it continued to franchise out to other users. In 2002, the brand name was purchased from J2 Communications by Dan Laikin, current CEO of a company which was subsequently entitled "National Lampoon Inc". (This is a separate and distinct company from "National Lampoon, Inc", the subsidiary of 21st Century Communications which oversaw the magazine during its 1970s heyday.)