Tony Hendra Takes The Heat for National Lampoon Radio Hour’s Return
The Final Edition Radio Hour pulls the trigger on a thousand offenses, but don’t shoot Tony Hendra over it.
The National Lampoon Radio Hour put out their first album in 35 years, Are There Any Triggers Here Tonight? Well it’s not exactly National Lampoon, it’s from The Final Edition Radio Hour, the audio division of The Final Edition, which is kind of like The Onion on meth, or Sesame Street’s Elmo on sweet, sweet cocaine. The satirical scandal sheet that has the audacity to claim the title was founded by Tony Hendra, the first editor ever hired to bring order to the chaos of National Lampoon, who is now Editor-In-Chief of The Final Edition.
Hendra went to the same school at the same time as Stephen Hawking but apparently learned nothing until he became a member of the Cambridge University Footlights in 1962. Founded in 1883, the university review featured future comedy stars John Cleese, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Graham Chapman, who paired with Hendra for a nightclub act, during the early sixties.
Hendra ran The National Lampoon magazine, which was a spinoff from the Harvard Lampoon, during its liveliest period. He was there almost from the very beginning, hand-picked by co-founders Henry Beard and Doug Kenney in 1970 before becoming its first managing editor in 1971. According to his Linked In page, he was co-editor-in-chief, sitting astride Sean Kelly, until 1978.
TRUE FACT: Now, when people think of National Lampoon, they think of Animal House and the Vacation movies. None of that would have happened without Hendra, who saw the enterprise move into books, recordings, live theater and radio.
Not so long before Michael O’Donoghue tried to feed his fingers to the wolverines and blew out his mailbox, Hendra and the future director of Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video produced National Lampoon Radio Dinner, Lampoon’s first album in 1972. He produced, directed and co-wrote with Sean Kelly, the Lampoon‘s off-Broadway revue Lemmings in 1973 which launched the careers of John Belushi, Chevy Chase and Christopher Guest. Hendra also played the sleazy band manager Ian Faith in Rob Reiner’s classic heavy metal parody documentary This Is Spinal Tap.
Hendra knows what’s funny, Hendra wrote the first six shows of the British satirical puppet TV series Spitting Image. George Carlin asked Hendra to help write his sortabiography in 1993, which they worked on for fifteen years. He wrote Not The Bible with Sean Kelly, created Not The New York Times with George Plimpton in 1978, created Off the Wall Street Journal by himself in 2008 and was editor in chief at Spy magazine. He continues to reinvent the outlets that tell us what news is by creating a “Huffington Post on nitrous oxide.”
Hendra hangs signposts on the side of the road on our descent into insanity with The Final Edition. They poke at the scabs of society’s wounds, but they do it with cultural irony and passive microaggressions. The Final Edition Radio Hour, “doesn’t require you to check your brain at the door.”
But this isn’t fake news. “Humor is the glue of social networking,” reads the site and The Final Edition is sticking to that story. Hendra and Managing Editor and Executive Producer Jeff Kreisler split the “smartest up-and-coming humor writers, performers, artists and creators,” like senior writers Barry Lank, Rob Gorden, and John Marshall and writer-performers Bruce Cherry Jenn Dodd, and Darbi Worley, between two coasts to mount a comic offensive.
Tony Hendra spoke exclusively with Den of Geek about staying offensive in a defensive world.
Den of Geek: National Lampoon Radio Hour is putting out their first album in 35 years. What took you so fucking long?
Tony Hendra: It’s actually not The National Lampoon Radio Hour. I have a website and a radio show called The Final Edition Radio Hour. I guess you can see it as being an extension of The National Lampoon Radio Hour, so that’s not inaccurate.
The main reason, as I’m sure you follow these things, is that the National Lampoon, for the last 25 years, has been run by criminals and morons. It pretty much ended up in the gutter at the end of the last decade chairman when the chairman and the CEO both went to jail for hyping the Lampoon stock. The Chairman went to jail for four-and-a-half years. The CEO, who is a childhood friend of his, went to jail for 50 years for a massive Ponzi scheme in Ohio.
When you look at how you’ve helped shaped all of comedy with what came out of National Lampoon, do you sometimes wish you’d become a dentist?
No, not really, because I hate dentists and I wouldn’t want people hating me like I hate my dentist.
Tell me about the Final Edition Radio Hour cast? Any breakout stars in your ranks like a Belushi or a Chevy or Gilda?
Obviously, there are no Belushis at the moment, but I think there are some very talented young people and some very talented writers, which is of course the key to all of this stuff. There is one gentleman called Barry Lank who is a brilliant voice actor. He does the Bernie Sanders sex tape. You’ll recognize his voice as being very omnipresent on this album. He’s also a brilliant writer. He’s in many of the sketches and probably wrote about half of them. Of all our people, I would say he’s the most valuable.
There are a couple of very talented women, one of whom appears on this album quite a lot. Her name is Jen Dodd. I think she’s got a big future. It’s a hard-working cast of very good voice actors on both coasts, in New York and Los Angeles.
Did Lank have to watch all of the Bernie Sanders porn film?
Yes, to get some tips. Have you listened to the album?
Do you like it?
Yes, I especially liked the NYPD – don’t criticize us and I love the abortion skit.
That was my favorite besides the Elmo cocaine addiction one. That’s getting a lot of attention, actually, because that’s a really well done sketch. She’s great. Her name is Ebbie Parker and I think she’s very good. I think our women are quite remarkable actually. We have half a dozen writers between the two coasts. We have the cast in LA and the cast in New York. I think half the cast writes material for the entire cast and for themselves. We let people come in with whatever they want. If has to be really lame for us not to record it. Our record’s pretty good I think.
Is there anything different about recording all this besides Pro-Tools?
No there isn’t. I just adore doing audio stuff. You can go and do anything you want All you need is sound effects. It’s wonderful to be doing it again. I’ve always preferred it over video, actually, because video is very limiting, unless you doing animation, and I think it’s funnier too. It really gets inside your head like a comic earworm.
What triggers you?
What triggers me mostly is fear of real triggers. I don’t own a gun and I don’t like people who do. So I would have to say, if the kids on campus really looked around them and took a hard look at what I think of as the slow-motion Civil War that’s going on in this country, they shouldn’t really be worried about the bad feelings that some articles going to give them. They need to worry about the 300 million triggers with itchy fingers wanting to use them.
Are you offended by people who get offended?
No I’m not offended by them. In some ways, I welcome them. I think our brand of humor at the Lampoon, and hopefully what we’re doing with The Final Edition, is intended to offend. We don’t intend to offend gratuitously but it’s intended to offend the right people. So when people get apoplectic about a piece, that’s all well and good.
Are people more thin-skinned now?
No, I don’t think so. I’ve been asked that question a lot. It seems to me that there is very difference, actually, whether you call it political correctness, which I don’t, or if you call it simple prudery and evasiveness, which I do. I don’t think is very much difference between that and the kind of over-sensitivity that there was in the early seventies. We were hounded by everybody because we did the kind of comedy we did then about usually the same exact issues: gender, race and militarism, the same issues that are with us today.
Is anything off limits and are you sick of people asking whether things are off-limits?
No. I don’t think anything’s off limits. I like, as my old pal George Carlin used to say, to find the line and then step across it. You can’t go too far across it, as he pointed out, because then people just turn off and it’s not funny at that point. I don’t think there’s anything that is impossible to be funny about if you get the right angle on it.
I know you’re an equal opportunity offender but it easier to mock things from a conservative or progressive point of view?
I made a point at the Lampoon, and we still do, of being pretty even-handed. It’s nothing to do with the fairness doctrine, but basically if you’re in power than you are the target of satire. Satire’s job, in this society, is to keep power from becoming corrupted. As the old gentlemen said, power corrupts. I think it’s a necessary thing in any free society, actually. So, no, I don’t think that we, at this point, are doing more about the right than the left, necessarily. I think the Lampoon tradition is that we took on our own generation and politics as often as we took on Nixon’s generation and his politics. That’s something that I think made us stand out.
Who really is the best looking guy you’ll never see? It can’t possibly be [Richard] Belzer.
I can’t answer that question I think my partner Jeff Kreisler is probably the best looking guy on radio but how do we know? It’s impossible to tell.
Is it easier to make fun of Mohammed on the radio because you can’t see his image?
That’s a good question. I don’t know enough about Muhammad to really make fun of him. I certainly wouldn’t do it just for the hell of it. I did it a tribute to Charlie Hebdo and we had a big discussion about this when that happened a year or so ago. I must say I find people who say you can’t criticize or make fun of somebody’s religion- you can’t tell people that. You also can’t be called a blasphemer if you don’t believe in it. Only believers can blaspheme. So if somebody tells me that I made fun of Muhammad and it’s blaspheming. I say go fuck yourself.
I looked at your Linked In page. What is it like being UNEMPLOYED after you gig as editor in Chief of Spy magazine?
Well, I was a fairly successful freelancer before that and I just went back to freelancing. Actually I preferred it. I haven’t really been seriously unemployed until I took up The Final Edition. Now I’m completely unemployed.
I know everyone always asks you about John Belushi, so tell me a little about Brian Doyle Murray? I like his voice.
I do too, actually. I think he’s a very talented voice actor and I think that goes without saying. But I didn’t really know Brian at all. I didn’t know Billy that well until he started walking the offices at the Lampoon shouting things about lobsters and just being wonderfully weird. But I didn’t really know Brian so I can’t give an opinion except that is really great actor on the radio.
Who were you closest with in Lemmings?
I wasn’t that close to Christopher. I did spend a lot time with John at the outset then he sort of got friends in New York and had his wife with him. He was the one I thought was really really just a genius. I thought that from the beginning. But I hung out with Chevy quite a bit actually. We did coke together. But it’s not a good idea to get close to a cast if you’re the director and producer. It can cause all sorts of politics, so I kept aside from that. But, I really loved John. I mean professionally but I also had a great deal of affection for him. There was something very vulnerable and baby like about John which I thought was the secret of his appeal.
One of my favorite skits was ‘I’m a Woman’ with Gilda Radner.
Again she wasn’t someone I knew very well at all. She came in from Second City in Canada, Toronto I think. But she was gorgeous, just gorgeous. I always loved that thing she did with Bill Murray called Evil Santa or Nasty Santa. She was a little girl sitting on Nasty Santa’s lap and every time she would ask sfor something and [does voice] in this little tiny voice, ‘Santa please,’ Bill would say [does voice] no no you can’t have that ha ha ha harrrrrrrrrr.
How does sex play into comedy? Is it all because you want to joke people into bed?
Are you saying funny people get laid?
I know funny people get laid.
But not as often as not funny people. Beautiful people get laid. Funny people sometimes get laid, by mistake. But I think if you can make somebody laugh it doesn’t matter what you look like, really, male or female. There’s something very sexy about someone who can really make you laugh, really laugh, I don’t mean just sort of chuckle but actually make you fall on the floor. I find that very sexy. I find funny women very sexy. And I find funny guys sexy, in their way, but they’ve got to be really funny. That kind of out of control funny. When you’re out of control, who knows what can happen?
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You started with Graham Chapman-
Yes, I did. When I was at Cambridge University, I was there with John Cleese, Graham Chapman and a guy called Tim Brooke-Taylor, who’s a big Comedy star in England, and another one called already Bill Oddie, who’s also a huge star. David Frost had been in the same group, which was called Footlights, the year before. The year before that Peter Cook was in it and the year before that Jonathan Miller. We had an amazing generation of people.
Graham and I started doing a comedy team at Cambridge. We would play nightclubs, things like that. Eventually we went down to London. We were quite successful for about 5 or 6 months. The only time in my life I ever played the straight man. Graham eventually decided he wanted to become a doctor, because that’s what he’d been studying to do. He went to a hospital called St. Bart’s and I had to find another partner, which is how I end up with the guy called Nic Ullett.
Is there any way to compare the trajectories of what came out of Monty Python and National Lampoon?
No, I don’t think so. Python, to a large degree, was a kind of an escapist sort of humor, a little like Firesign Theater. They didn’t really do satire in the same way that we did. They didn’t connect with issues or actual events the same way that we did. They kind of created their own wonderfully absurd world. I don’t think the content itself, oh I hate that word, was similar at all. But they had the same kind of trajectory in the sense that all great raving comedy enterprises seem to have a kind of five year life span. Then either they go under or turn into rotten vegetables for a while before they pick themselves up again. If you’re talking about a real trajectory, I think that happened to both of us.
How do you explain The Simpsons, which have kept it up, for better or worse, for 28 years?
I don’t really watch The Simpsons, although I love animation and I certainly like The Simpsons a lot. What they do satirically, when they do it, they do quite well. Its longevity is just extraordinary. The way they keep it fresh and keep it going, I’m very impressed by that. But the same is true of South Park. Maybe it doesn’t happen on television.
Do you watch shows like The Daily Show or Bill Maher’s Real Time? I know your stuff is skit-oriented, but where do they connect? Discuss among yourself.
I watched The Daily Show when Jon [Stewart] was doing it was doing it. I was a pretty dedicated fan. I’m not sure that what Jon was doing is satire. I think what Stephen Colbert did was certainly satire, in the classic sense. It seems to me that what Jon was really doing was what you might call ‘ancient Roman satire.’ It was serious commentary on present events. A lot of it was really television about television. His most frequent target was Fox and the way that cover the news. That was a great deal of his thrust. I don’t like doing television about television but he did it extremely well.
Bill Maher is certainly in the same boat in the sense that he’s a commentator really more than a satirist. A satirist really has to take the risk of becoming his or her target in order to exaggerate the prejudices and mind-set and so forth of the target to such a point where it becomes funny. The danger of satire, especially in a literal society, like this is now, is that a satirist often gets mistaken for the thing he’s satirizing.
You took on Elmo’s coke problem.
Yes we did do that. Of course, it’s not really his fault. It’s HBO’s fault.
You wrote the George Carlin’s memoir with him, what was it like working with him?
It was wonderful. The normal thing you do, I suppose because I’ve never done it, when you ghost write or co-write some famous guy’s memoir, is you get him talking, you tape it all, you get it all together and voilà – that’s his the memoirs. But what we found, in our case, right from the beginning, and we did this for over 25 years: We talked about comedy and we talked with spirituality and we talked about all kinds of shit. We had a lot of conversations. Every time we got together. He was an immensely intelligent and intellectual and curious guy, George. Totally self-taught. He didn’t finish ninth grade, I don’t think. He was really really smart as well as being hilariously funny. We had a great time. We were great friends actually.
He went to a special school, an advanced school in Manhattan that no one could get into except him I think.
It was a actually a Catholic School, Corpus Christi. They obviously recognized talent early on. He was always very happy about the nuns that had taught him. He loved them and stayed in touch with them.
It came out in his humor.
The catholic part, certainly. He was a great person to be around.
Do you get Michael O’Donoghue PTSD flashbacks?
Every time I see a picture of him, yeah, I can remember him screaming at me, which he did frequently and, on one occasion, terminally. He had this strange stance that he adopted when he was really beside himself with fury. He would take his glasses off. Obviously he used to yell at people at school and people smashed him in the face and broke his glasses. So he would hold them away from him so you couldn’t break them. Then he would crouch down like feral animal. It was really odd. Every time I see a picture of him, I remember that crouch. It was quite something, hilarious in its way. He was a very nerdy guy trying to be very very violently, powerfully angry. It was funny in itself. The only time Donahue was every absurd.
I’m obviously a longtime fan, but “Magical Misery Tour” literally changed the trajectory of my life.
I hope it changed you for the worse.
Yes, so you owe me. Tell me everything about the writing and performance of that song, and I’ll know if you leave anything out. I don’t care you’ve said it a million times, you haven’t told me.
Well, the genesis of that performance, as I’m sure you know, was two things. First Michael O’Donoghue had concocted a kind of, it wasn’t really a song, but he had taken all the best bits from this weird interview that Lennon had done for Rolling Stone in 1971 in which he insulted everybody including his own people. O’Donoghue just wanted to somehow get that out there. He didn’t know if it should be a song or something else. But I just couldn’t believe it, nor could any of us, the things this guy was saying, while he was in the middle of Primal Scream therapy. Primal scream therapy allows you to do scream anything you wanted in order to get back to your childhood and cure whatever it was that was ailing you.
So that was the genesis of it. But then we couldn’t find anyone to do John Lennon. The only person we had was Christopher Guest and he seemed to have reservations about it. So did everyone else that we asked. It seemed like they didn’t want to attack Lennon. So it came down, really, to me having a shot at it and Christopher Cerf, who was one of the Lampoon insiders, wrote this great “Imagine” type song and then he and I sort of fit into what you might laughingly call verses and then did it in the studio. And I have to say I’d never done anything like this before. I had never parodied anybody and it was very strange channeling Lennon that evening. This voice came out of me, that was obviously Lennon, that was shouting and screaming all these things. It was kind of eerie and wonderful at the same time.
So they did consider Lennon to be off-limits.
Oh yeah, people were definitely very reluctant to go up against John Lennon. I couldn’t care less one way or the other. I love the Beatles and I love his music, but if you drop your guard to that degree and say the insane things that he said [DOES LENNON] ‘Paul wasn’t the walrus. I was the walrus. I was just saying that to be nice, but I was actually the walrus,’ stuff like that. It’s just insane, right? It’s too good to miss.
Did you ever get any feedback from Lennon about the performance? Any reaction? He did have a sense of humor.
Yeah, he had a sense of humor about humor. The only form of feedback I got, I’m not sure if I was promoting Radio Dinner at the time but I must have been. And [Lennon], at same time would have been promoting, I don’t know. It wouldn’t be Imagine, I guess. But anyway, he was promoting an album at roughly the same time. I went to a station, I want to stay with KRLA, to plug Radio Dinner. This guy told me that Lennon has been around in the last few days and he had played “Magical Misery Tour” for him and he said [Lennon] didn’t say anything. He turned white. He walked out of the studio. That’s the only feedback I ever got.
You mentioned Christopher Guest. Tell me a little bit about making This Is Spinal Tap.
We did the show Lemmings, which is the takedown of rock and roll and folk, so there’s a connection there. But when it came about, it was Rob Reiner who actually called me. He an old friend of mine and he said they had this kind of sleazy, untrustworthy guy that represented the band and would I mind playing him? I said that’s fine, is there a script? He said no we’re going to improvise the whole thing, which gave me pause because I’ve never been any good at improvisation. But I must say, when I got there and I we started doing it, again, there it was something weird happening on that set.
We all were kind of at a moment in Rock and Roll’s history where something we had once sort of loved and believed it to some degree was now complete shit. And it had been turned to shit largely by an industry that has no scruples or morals at all. So it was as remarkably easy to be that sleazy, nasty, manipulative person as it was for Bobbi Fleckman to be Bobbi Fleckman. There was a great spirit on the set. We were going to send up, not just heavy metal, but the rock world in general.
You were an Editor of the Lampoon from 1971-1978, which means you’re responsible. Forty years ago a subscription offer fell out of a copy of National Lampoon magazine that I was legally required to keep on me for the rest of my life, by the same laws that protect those tags on mattresses, unless I filled it out, mailed it in and subscribed for a year. Can I return that to you?
Why didn’t you fill it out and send it in?
I was already subscribed. I have it in my wallet to this day.
I’m sorry. I do apologize for blow-out cards. They’re the most horrible things about magazines that there is.