Double Secret Probation

I can’t watch Mad TV: I don’t think it’s funny; just dumb. Comedy for teens. Everybody I know loves The Office, but I find very little of it funny; mostly it’s farcical, and I don’t respond to farce. Farce makes fun of everyone, including the characters you’re supposed to feel sympathetic toward; and I think, the viewer, as well. I much prefer 30 Rock; the characters have an edge, and the jokes are actually funny. Likewise Frasier, the classic The Dick Van Dyke Show, Cheers, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Tales From the Crypt, even; and the best of Saturday Night Live.

It seems like getting a good laugh whenever you want one has gone the way of fizzies in the fountain.

America has been on Double Secret Probation for a long time, now. The funniest, grown-up magazine of the 1970s has disappeared, gone into hiding. It was Mad for adults. It was Laugh-In: the Next Generation. It was outlaw. It was anti-establishment — with tits. It was dirty. It was sick. It was wild, and rude, and on the mark, and contemporary, and puerile, and pornographic and wonderful.

And it’s gone.

I miss National Lampoon.

Saturday Night Live, on occasion, still resonates with echoes of its Lampoon roots under the aegis of Michael O’Donoghue, John Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Anne Beatts, Chevy Chase and a few others. And National Lampoon (Inc.) still exists as a company that occasionally makes direct-to-dvd features catering to the high-school-hijinx market. There’s even a website, but it’s a sad, pale shadow of the magazine’s past.

The Powers That Be need to bring it back.

The name came from its founders, who had been writers/creators at the Harvard Lampoon, the campus humor magazine. They brought that same sophomoric sensibility to a national level in 1970 — but it quickly became something else. It became a national voice.

I was eleven when NatLamp first appeared on the racks. I remember leafing through it sneakily at the West End Pharmacy in Hampton — they had a wonderful newsstand there, where I bought comic books every week for the first part of my literary life, and occasionally sneaked peeks at “dirty” magazines, such as Stag, Playboy, Rolling Stone (they said fuck occasionally) and, in 1970, National Lampoon. (It was also the place where I bought every issue of the monthly newspaper that was a rival to Forrest Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland: The Monster Times.)

First issue

That first cover may not look very sexy today, but in 1970, it was not only hot, but it was . . . weird. That labeled it taboo in Hampton, Virginia, and in almost every other town in America.

That’s probably why the mag caught on. It wasn’t normal. It was bad.

I sneaked peeks at it every now and then, looking especially for the black and white Foto Funnies, where some big-breasted chick would usually expose herself in some pre- or post-coital comedy sequence.

Finally, age 15, after a few years of buying Playboy here and there (I started at 13), I screwed up the courage to buy National Lampoon. I had to. I had just started reading the books of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and the preeminent cover artist for Burroughs and the Robert E. Howard Conan books — at that time — was Frank Frazetta. And this cover . . .

. . . was rude, sacrilegious, sf and funny at the same time. And Frazetta. When this issue, devoted to Science Fiction, came out, I had to have it, no matter what my parents thought. I didn’t care.

My favorite Martian joke from that issue:

What’s 33?
Martian 69.

Man, I still love that!

In those first, five, best years — it kind of reminds you of SNL, doesn’t it? Those years really were the best, weren’t they? — National Lampoon captured the essence of the ’70s, and created the cynical spark of today’s comedy. Nixon jokes, Agnew hatred; anti-establishment, anti-pedestrian (read that as anti-Muggle) humor; sex, death; homo vampires; Tarzan of the Cows, sexy Nazis, Gahan Wilson cartoons; Son-O-God Comics; headlines: Experts Find Unexplained Gaps in Nixon State of the Union Address; Desperate Dems Delve for Diminutive Dingus (a question for Senator Kennedy: “What would be your reaction, Senator, if the convention drafted you?” Answer: “I’ll drive off that bridge when I come to it.” The ads for posters, black light posters, nude posters; six 8-track tapes for 99¢; JOB rolling papers . . . “Pinto’s First Lay,” by Chris Miller . . . part of the genesis of Animal House; “First Blowjob” (one of my favorite short stories . . . padiddle); “Young ‘Dr.’ Pinky.” The Encyclopedia, almost completely written by SNL’s Michael O’Donoghue.

My God, it’s a legacy of humor.

And where is it now?

Where is printed humor now?

Lampoon deserves to return as a magazine — cutting edge, like The Onion, or The Daily Show on paper, or Saturday Night Live without the censors. This is the 21st Century. We need comedy that’s razor-fine, rude, crude, in the mood, and completely politically incorrect — but instead of biting humor that dares to rip the throat out of its well-deserving targets, all we have are Ellen, and lolcats, and The World According to Jim. SNL — even though I love it and watch every new episode — is a weak-assed mirror of 2009’s pussy-whipped cultural mores: funny here and there, but not daring to break the walls or create the comedic paradigms that SNL 1975 and National Lampoon did 34+ years ago.


Nowadays, say the words “National Lampoon” and they won’t remember the magazine. National. Lampoon. Just words. What’s a lampoon, anyway?

So, say, “National Lampoon” about the movies, and people will eventually light up and remember, Vacation, Christmas Vacation, or Chevy Chase.

But the first and best National Lampoon movie was Animal House.

Based on true stories, then fictionalized, by NL writer Chris Miller, Animal House . . .

[is] all a fiction, though it’s based loosely on the college and/or high school experiences of the three writers, Harold Ramis, Chris Miller, and Doug Kenney–particularly the last two.

The character “Pinto” is based on two different earlier characters which appeared in National Lampoon: First, his “real” name in the movie–Larry Kroger–is also the name of the “owner” of the National Lampoon 1964 High School Yearbook Parody, the creation of Doug Kenney and P.J. O’Rourke. Larry Kroger (in the yearbook parody) is clearly Kenney’s alter ego, and Kenney did, of course, become an editor of National Lampoon. (Initially, the movie was to be set in the high school of the yearbook parody, until they decided to incorporate Miller’s material–see below.) Kenney’s “First Lay Comics” (from the February 1974 issue) and “First High Comics” (from the January 1975 issue) were also adapted for scenes in the film.

Larry Kroger’s nickname in the movie, “Pinto,” was originally the nickname of the protagonist in several short stories by Chris Miller, “The Night of the Seven Fires” (from the October 1974 issue) and “Pinto’s First Lay” (from the September 1975 issue). (There was also a third story: “Good Sports” in the December 1989 issue.) These stories were based on his frat-house days at Dartmouth College, and the “Pinto” character, always referred to only by nickname, is presumably Miller’s younger self.

Kenney’s “Kroger” and Miller’s “Pinto” are melded into one character in Animal House, freely adapting the two writers’ works into one story. Some of the other characters also came from the yearbook parody (e.g., Faun Rosenberg) and Miller’s stories (e.g., Otter). Not sure where Blutarsky came from other than Belushi himself.

Both Kenney and Miller had small parts in the film as members of the Delta House fraternity–Kenney played “Stork” (the nerd) and Miller played a suave-looking guy named “Hardbar.”

That’s all info I found on a very large website. They have a wealth of Animal House trivia. Go there. Also, buy Chris Miller’s semi-true book:

Somehow I missed the 30-year anniversary of National Lampoon’s Animal House last year. The dvd is on the shelves, so I’ll go pick it up. And I’ll remember Bluto and D-Day and the other Deltas, and double secret probation, along with the National Lampoon Newspaper Parody and all the letters from the editors, The Job of Sex, and the story that inspired Vacation . . .

We’re really missing out. We need National Lampoon — and we need it now!

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