National Lampoon magazine will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2020, and its sonic counterpart, the National Lampoon Radio Hour is being rebooted for the 21st century. Starting on Dec. 19, the iconic sketch comedy troupe which introduced the world to John Belushi, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Harold Ramis, Christopher Guest, and Gilda Radner will produce a new, original 11-episode scripted podcast.
The new National Lampoon Radio Hour is being shaped by head writer Cole Escola (At Home with Amy Sedaris, Difficult People) and senior writer Jo Firestone (Adult Swim, The Tonight Show). It will be performed by a new generation of groundbreaking comedians coming from the New York alt-comedy scene. The podcast will also feature guest comedians Rachel Dratch, Amy Sedaris, Julie Klausner, Jordan Klepper and Chris Gethard.
The cast includes Andy Kaufman Comedy winner Brett Davis (Podcast For Laundry), Rachel Pegram (The Week Of, Don’t Think Twice), Alex English (The Rundown, Night Train), Maeve Higgins (Maeve in America: Immigration IRL, 2 Dope Queens), Aaron Jackson (UCB, The Opposition), Lorelei Ramirez (Comedy Central: Up Next, Pervert Everything), Meg Stalter (The Meg Stalter Show) and Martin Urbano (Jimmy Kimmel, Comedy Central).
You can listen to a clip from National Lampoon Radio Hour episode two, Fairytale Christmas, right here:
Itself coming out of The Harvard Lampoon, which began publishing in 1876, National Lampoon first released National Lampoon Radio Hour in 1973. Evan Shapiro, President of National Lampoon, spoke with Den of Geek about the new cast, the old cast, what’s coming up and why National Lampoon Radio Hour doesn’t bother with politics.
DEN OF GEEK: I’ve been a fan of National Lampoon Radio Hour since an inappropriately early age. So I’d like to know how old were you when you first became aware of the prefilm National Lampoon?
EVAN SHAPIRO: I was at summer camp. I would say it was 1976, and I think it was between third and fourth grade.
What first drew you to the magazine? What did you first notice about it then?
I think my way in was probably similar to a lot of other folks my age, which was through some older person who had it. Mine was my camp counselor in my bunk, who I thought was the coolest person in the face of the earth, because he had a mustache. The fact that he had it, and had a stack of them, was amazing. And then he’s like, “Well if you think that’s great.” And then he put on a record and played, I think it was Radio Dinner, but it was the Radio Hour, and I was just like, “Holy shit, people do this. What is this?”
Bits like the time traveling devil’s advocate sail straight into the immediate backlash of microaggressions. How is National Lampoon Radio Hour going to be reimagined for the 21st century?
The thing is, we’re not really changing all that much except for the time we’re doing it in. When you go back to the original Radio Hour, it was enormously reflective of its time, very much of its time. The talent assembled was some of the smartest and sharpest comedy minds out there, and that whole cast. I had to go back in time when I joined the team to figure out why this brand still matters, and what its brand voice is, and what its filter is for content. And when I drilled into everything that is the best of National Lampoon through the years, I came up with a prism that is just two words, which is “Twisted Mainstream.” That fits everything from the magazine, to the Radio Hour to the movies, the good ones. And then we brought that forth to today.
So the thing that was great about National Lampoon is it’s very smart people doing really great comedy, but not necessarily only for smart people. I was just actually having a conversation with a comic about this earlier today. The ability to do both dumb and smart at the same time is probably the quintessentially lampoonest thing about National Lampoon.
So we brought all of that forward, except this time around we put it through the minds, mouths, and points of view of the smartest and sharpest comedy minds today. And because it also is going to reflect its time, it happens to be this enormously diverse, interesting, fascinating, complex group of people, many of whom might have been left out the first time. Because the time was just very different. The people were different, and the point of view was different, and frankly the way people, got into comedy was different.
So when you look at Rachel Pegram, and Cole Escola, and Lorelei Ramirez, and Martin Urbano, and Meg Stalter, and Alex English, and Jo Firestone: Today, they are the natural heirs to that first class of Radio Hour. From our standpoint, it’s interesting to see it go from that class to this class, because I don’t think there’s anybody who works in comedy today who wouldn’t say, “yeah, they’re definitely legit heirs to that class.” And in similar points in their careers, in some cases, to that class when they took that on and it got turned into Saturday Night Live.
So we’re basically doing everything the same, including finding the right people for the right moment in time. What’s new and different about it is that the platform is slightly different. That was radio, so a lot of what they did back then was satirized by the platform of radio. There’s a decent amount of satirizing all popular mainstream culture, the twisted mainstream idea. But there’s also a lot of really fun plays on the idea of a podcast as well. And so that show 46 and a half years ago, it was very of its moment, and this one is too.
There’s a little aside in one of the bits about a necrophiliac who doesn’t want to offend. Is there any topic that’s off limits?
No, no. I was definitely just having a conversation with another comic, but also my daughter, who has done some standup too, and no, there is no topic that’s off limits. The thing about this cast, and this writer’s room is they’re incredibly great writers. This is all scripted. This is not improv, not to say that there aren’t moments of improv in there off of the script, but it is a scripted piece. And I think you can tell a joke about literally anything. And I think this show definitely bears that out. If it’s written well, if there’s context, if you’re smart, you can tell a great rape joke, but you have to write a great rape joke. But what you can’t do is some of the lazy stuff that passed for comedy, frankly when there was less competition.
There’s a great sketch about two zebras sucking each other off in this. I mean it’s there, there’s Jo Firestone, and Aaron Jackson, and Cole Escola do a bit about having sex with a dead body. That is uncomfortable, but it is incredibly funny at the same time.
You have a lot of guest comedians, Rachel Grey, Amy Sedaris, Jordan Klepper. Do they do this is to get a certain comedy urge out of their system they can’t indulge at their more prominent day gigs?
I think honestly, the way we constructed this cast, and its writer’s room. We started with Cole and then immediately went to Jo, and then everybody gravitated towards them, and the more people we added to it, the more people gravitated to it. when we announced that cast, the internet went “Like, wow.” Chris Gethard is a great example, he immediately tweeted out like, “Holy shit, this is a great cast.” Good people want to work with great people. And when you look at our guest stars, I think they were just all attracted to the cast, and I don’t think they 100% knew what they were going to be doing until very close in, when we sent them scripts. But I think the trust there is just enormous and evident. This was a great room of people that people want to be around and work with, and I think that’s what drew them in.
In the future will there be any classic songs like “Magical Misery Tour” or “Kung Fu Christmas?”
Yeah, we want to do more music. There’s actually a couple of songs and in the later episodes. There’s only one in the first two episodes. Henry Koperski wrote music for the series, he wrote the show open and he’s like the Andrew Lloyd Webber of downtown comedy scene. And that’s all, there is more music coming. We’re probably, if we get to do a subsequent season, I think we’ll do even even more music, and just for someone like you, we are, I’ve mentioned this before since I’m not breaking news, but we are rebooting Lemmings as well, there’ll be more information on that and that will satisfy all of your comedic musical needs.
Are you doing Lemmings Live and who’s doing the music for that? Who’s writing it?
So we are going to do Lemmings live, next year. I can’t tell you who’s doing music yet. We’re going to do a live show in New York sometime next year, and stay tuned.
Who is your Michael O’Donoghue? Who on staff will shoot out your mailbox?
Well our Michael O’Donoghue in role is Cole Escola. He’s our head writer and kind of the Frankenstein to our monster. Because what we want to do is reanimate the Radio Hour, so he is our Dr. Frankenstein I think legitimately, which I guess makes Jo his Igor, which I don’t think she’ll be terribly happy about me saying, but what are you going to do? In temperament, I think Brett Davis wants to be that. He tweeted out his get-to-know-your-cast video last week, and in that he considers himself in the bad boy of comedy. But he’s just really a Pillsbury Doughboy. He’s much more of a soft sweetheart, but he likes to fancy himself a bad guy.
And if you look at the video, I don’t know if we sent you to the video series of the podcast, which you should watch if you get a chance, because the integration of the sound is just so brilliant, and it’s dutifully shot, but in the show open, where you get to meet all the cast, he’s like doing some vandalism or something like that. But it’s all an act, he’s not really not an angry one.
I mean Meg is definitely a wild card. No question. Cole was constantly giving her a timeout, but I wouldn’t call her a bad boy. Actually I guess Lorelei Ramirez might be our bad person.
I know Rachel Pegram made me hyperventilate.
Rachel is a Swiss army knife of comedy. Every time you think you’re going to get to somebody who’s the best person in the cast, you list the next name and it is. We were very, very, very, very lucky to get this cast. It just fell into place, and a lot of that credit goes to Cole and Jo, and frankly Brett and Alex at Forever Dog, helping line up the talent from day one. They are very much comedy savants over there at Forever Dog. I knew Meg from online. I wasn’t necessarily aware of everything she was capable of, but boy, oh boy.
You worked with NBC Universal, and Sundance, and IFC, so how is running National Lampoon different?
It’s significantly smaller. It’s the studio. It’s a sell side versus a platform side. There I got to work on a lot of really cool content. I also wound up spending the vast majority of my day, especially later in my career dealing with, and not that there’s not nice people, but cable operators, and attorneys, and accountants, and that kind of stuff. Whereas, I would say, if that was 25% content-based, 75% business based, this is the flip of that. The idea that I get to spend 75% of my day working on comedy versus working on spreadsheets would be the number one difference and the number one benefit.
I read that National Lampoon is developing a comedy series.
We’re developing many.
I’m wondering if you see a Portlandia coming out of that.
I love Portlandia, believe me, I’m very proud of having been a part of that. I honestly think, and that goes to back what I was saying before, I’m hoping we can. The first Radio Hour crew helped create Saturday Night Live. I’m hoping this might do the same for us. Not Saturday Night Live, because it’s already taken, but what is the next generation of Saturday Night Live? When you look at the videos series, we definitely think that this has potential to live as a late night television show.
On the flip side, we’ve got a ton of other projects including Exhibition with Mary Beth Barone and Michael Cruz Kane. We’ve got Lesbian Agenda with Sophie Santos. We’ve got Roast of My 15 Year Old Self with Elise Morales. We’ve got Let’s Go Atsuko with Atsuko Okatsuka. These are different versions of sketch-meets-stand up-meets-game-meets-variety and we are very much exploring. We want to be the best arms dealer in the streaming wars for comedy. We want to work in scripted. We want to work in a documentary about comedy. But format is also something we take very seriously, so these are all examples of us looking for that next great, either Portlandia, or Tim Robinson, or Astronomy Club. We definitely want to be in that vein as well.
You produced a show with Paul Reiser on Johnny Carson, who seems to be the opposite of what National Lampoon was, but he pushed the edges himself. Even though we can get away with more language now, is the climate still similar to the 70s as far as what is not being able to be said?
Yeah. I think there’s a great clip of George Carlin on Larry King talking about comedy, and comics, and let’s say what’s not safe, and it was from like, I want to say like 1989 or 1990, or something like that. That bit, “Seven Dirty Words You Can’t Say on Television” was one of the quintessentially foundational blocks of my comedy education. Just how you deal with language, and how you can do a smart bit about dirty words. To me the climate is very similar in that there’s an adventure riskiness to the comedy now that was around back then, when you look at Pryor and you would get Carlin, and you look at the first episodes of Saturday Night Live, which were really wild. And you look at Radio Hour, and you look at National Lampoon live, and you look at Lemmings. I mean, John Belushi would come out during songs in Lemmings and teach the audience how to kill themselves.
Yeah, they’re lemmings.
So when you listen to Radio Hour and you hear Aaron Jackson do a sketch about a sniper in a balloon, or you listen to Brett Davis read out the names of emails at a corporate meeting where they’re talking about getting hacked. These are really out-there bits. I would say almost dangerous to a certain extent, but the environment is, especially because of podcasting, literally anything goes. Neither of those things are things we could do on broadcast shows. And certainly, unfortunately for the writers at Saturday Night Live, neither bit would probably get past the censors on NBC. But we can do them in podcasting. And because of the internet, it’s also easier to step on a land mine, to a certain extent, if you’re not smart. Now you see comics getting canceled all the time for saying the wrong things.
But the smart and good ones, I mean Cole and Jo being, I think, the epitome of this, they go places. Necrophilia, I think there are a number of jokes about necrophilia actually, but there’s a big bit on one of the earliest episodes about the cast members of the bachelor getting their dicks cut off in various machinery. Like that’s a great example of being dumb and smart at the same time. And I think that yes, there is a kind of 1970s vibe to today, which is also why 50 years, almost to the day that Lampoon was founded, we’re needed more than ever. And why this show, I think being out there available to everyone of all ages on day one, in their fucking pockets is really, really key.
Would you call yourself a comedy nerd?
I wouldn’t, no, because I know true comedy nerds, and they can quote chapter and verse from things, my mind doesn’t work that way. I go deep in certain lanes, and sketch is definitely one of them. So I would call myself a comedy professional. And it’s something I try to get better at every day.
It feels like a lot of the skits run much shorter than the ones in the original show. Has the timing of comedy changed? Do things have to be faster now?
Yeah, I don’t think there’s any question that Twitter, TikTok, Snapchat, and Vine have all had a major influence on the economy of words in comedy, but I don’t think that that’s necessarily a new thing. I don’t think it’s about the attention span as much as it is the platform that you’re on. There are sketches that are three or five seconds long, and there were sketches that short in the original as well, mostly done by Chevy as an announcer.
One of the things we tried to bring forward was the format of podcasts and the format of radio being played with. But in each episode there’s a runner, and this is a new element, something that is a bit of an influence from my Portlandia days, which is there’s one sketch that comes back three times. And in fact, in some episodes, I think the third episode, there are two runners that come back three times. So yes, they’re each individually shorter, but there’s a narrative structure to it that the original never did.
Are you in touch with any of the original Radio Hour people?
Yeah, I am. The one we are most in touch with is Anne Beatts. She’s really been an incredibly patient and generous coach on some of this stuff. In fact, she at one point said, “Hire comedy teams,” because people naturally write together anyway, when we were putting together the Radio Hour cast. And so Maeve and Jo being there together to be able to write stuff with was definitely, like I don’t think we would have, I think we would’ve hired Maeve anyway, but the fact that they do write together often was very cool for us. That we were able to take the advice, we were able to act on the advice immediately. Tony Hendra we’ve been in touch with, there aren’t that many left unfortunately. And those, some of whom are left don’t answer telephones. So we’re in touch with as many as we can be and more every day.
National Lampoon is as famous for its financial mess as it was for the writing. Do you have any stress stories taking over the brand?
Yeah, I mean look, the history is well known, and because of what you were just talking about, and because of the storied history of the management at the company, I anticipated having more issues getting by from the industry from the get go. Because you read the Vanity Fair article or read some of the other stuff, and you worry that people are going to back away. But that was not the case. The people who worked directly with a certain management team here, definitely still had kind of PTSD, but after one meeting, when we were able to articulate what we were doing with the company, and Radio Hour being the best case study and then we would announce that cast. Again, who you hang out with is very indicative of how people think of you. So we’ve been very good about hanging out with the right people frankly. So I think that really helped.
But also there’s just deep affinity for this brand beyond any of the arrows other than the original. People loved this magazine well into the years that it existed. Even for those who are on the younger end of the spectrum, the movies are on TV constantly. Just I sat down with my parents every year and watch Christmas Vacation. So we haven’t had any of that agita come forward. That said, we’re a 50 year old startup, to a certain extent. So what we’re not doing is taking a huge office on Sunset Boulevard that we can’t afford, and we’re not doing things in a Hurlyburly sort of way that some of the other managers did as well.
You take a lot of chances, I want to know a little bit about the Ghetto Film School.
Ghetto Film School I’ve been involved with for, oh gosh, got to be close to 20 years now. It’s a great organization, nonprofit that is in Los Angeles and New York. It takes young people from high school, or just out of high school, who are usually walled off from the entertainment industry because of their background, their socioeconomic circumstances, and teaches them a university level film course over the course of about a year and a half. We take the class or at least a subset of the class to a foreign country and make an independent short film in that country in a week. We bring them back. We have great lecturers. James Murdoch is on our board.
We’ve got just great supporters in Hollywood, and actually my former employers at NBC are also still very, very involved. I brought the organization there and it’s over 20 years old now, and it’s been one of the most important things that’s been in my life because the people I’ve met there and worked with, who started as students are now working in the industry, has been one of the happiest parts of what I’ve been able to do over the last 20 years.
And what can you say about the alt comedy scene?
It goes back to the comment about the 70s. I’ve worked with David Cross, Janeane Garofalo the crowd of alt comedy in the early nineties. That, for me, was as strong a class of alt comedy as is out there. The difference is I think now that the mainstream is chasing the alt, in a way that it hadn’t previously.
I was saying this to somebody yesterday, you can go to a great comedy club and see a great comedy show, but you can also go to a brownstone or house in the middle of fucking nowhere and see a great comedy show in a basement right now. There’s a great show in Brooklyn once a month called Puke Fest run by Rachel Senate, and her comedy partner, Sofa Kingdom. We found Kelly Bachman, who just blew up for calling out Harvey Weinstein at a comedy club, doing a monthly comedy show in the basement of her friend’s brownstone in Williamsburg.
But what’s cool is that Schenectady has a great alt comedy scene. It’s kind of like what’s happened is how almost every town in the world is, “Oh, you know what, surprisingly, it’s a good food town.” Young people care about food in a way that we didn’t. Comedy has become a lifestyle in the way that traditionally only music was in the past. People go see live comedy in really crazy numbers. It’s not always trackable, from a data standpoint, because it’s in these nontraditional venues and everything is being done on Eventbrite now. You watch Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and look at the Lenny Bruce context of that time. I’m not saying that’s where we’re at, but we have so many more young comedians getting more reps at an early age, and using social media to build crowds, and build followings, and try content out that, I think the alt comedy scene is where comedy is best right now.
Does the comedy world bubble because of the political world?
I mean people say that hard times make great art, and I don’t think that’s wrong. I think that is a big part of the compression on our minds creates new crevices out of which new ideas come. So yeah, I do think that’s a part of it. You also have the two largest generations to ever walk the face of the earth and millennials and Gen Z coming of age where they can publish content on a moment’s notice because they had a random thought. I think when you combine those two things, digital natives and the state of the world itself, that has a great deal to do with it. People are getting early reps and they’re getting reinforced for the things that are usually most reflective of the culture.
I will make this point though. We made a distinct choice to not do politics in Radio Hour. Some may get mentioned here and there, but it is primarily a critique of us, versus a critique of the same president that every single television comic is commenting on every single day. We wanted to stand out by giving people a kind of a true comic escape, back to the things you think of when you think of Lampoon. Vacation is about our family going on vacation. Now, grandma dies, and the dog gets dragged for a quarter of a mile, and dad’s trying to get laid, and that’s our version of it. So we wanted to give somebody that kind of pure escapism comedy, and if anything, we’re commenting on us as a culture versus that one guy who seems to take up all the fucking oxygen on the face of the earth right now.
Well you did leave Karen Pence out in the rain forest.
Yeah, but that is one of the only political moments in the entire series, and you can see it’s a zag, everybody else is zigging, and we just zag. We chose Karen. It’s a very short sketch. We don’t say very much. It’s mostly negative space and it’s kind of genius. We also did a very similar opening with Casey Anthony. I’m not saying they have anything in common.
Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.
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