Today’s Musical Interlude

National Lampoon’s Animal House, now regarded as a comedy classic, boasted a soundtrack of lovely late ’50s-early ’60s tunes. But the closing theme was an original song by Stephen Bishop, hearkening back to the days of sock hops, Sadie Hawkins dances, and cake walks. A little trivia here: Bishop was the cop in the shopping mall scene of The Blues Brothers who, upside down, says, “They broke my watch.”

Straight from the 33 1/3 rpm album, replete with record scratches, here’s the closing theme that no one remembers.  But it’s still lovely.

And I’m still mad at Belushi 32 years later.  Dumb ass.

Fat, Drunk, and Stupid

Animal House is a movie of pure joy, and from the time I first saw the trailer in theaters in 1978, I knew I would love it. It’s one of those movies guys quote all the time, because it meant so much to guys like me. It was the college we all wanted to attend, and Delta House was the fraternity that even guys who hated fraternities wanted to join.

No comedy has yet compared in sheer hilarity, wonderful moments of dark comedy, and true, human warmth. It was the first cinematic child of National Lampoon, and still the best; and since the day I saw the movie shining up on the screen, I’ve collected as many of the related books as I could lay my hands on.

This photo is NOT the exact photo on the dust jacket.
For this publicity picture, some anonymous flack Photoshopped all of their upraised middle fingers . . .

Fat, Drunk, and Stupid is, as the subtitle says, The Inside Story Behind the Making Of Animal House. This is the latest nonfiction book about the Deltas and their legacy, written by a guy who should know all about it: Matty Simmons, founder of National Lampoon, and right there in the middle of the events surrounding the fall of ’63 at Faber College.

Simmons was an editor, but not much of a writer; so while this book is charming, moderately reflective, and certainly informative, it is by no means exhaustive or well-researched.  These are his reminiscences, 34 years later, and as such serve, basically, as his anecdotal, oral history of Animal House.

Not a problem.  There are other sources than can fill in what he’s missed.  For the most part, this book is a fond and nostalgic look back at how a little movie got made . . . and suddenly became better and bigger than the sum of its parts.  It concentrates on the background of Lampoon’s business deals with studio heads, the writing and all the script problems (The original treatment called for a beer keg in the parade, going into Kennedy’s paper-mache forehead), and then the success of the movie and its cultural impact.  Don’t expect a detailed examination of how shots were set-up and the script was dissected and interpreted.  That’s not what this book is about.

This is just a bittersweet book about a sweet little movie, made by a sweet bunch of guys, who, sadly, Simmons (and I) miss a great deal.
This guy, you should know . . .

. . . and this guy not only co-wrote Animal House, but he was a huge contributor to National Lampoon . . . and he also played Stork.

The world is a better place because of Animal House.  Because it’s not about a crazy fraternity.  It’s about friendship, and about the kids we grew up with.

Write to Universal.  Don’t you think it’s time for a sequel?  You know what to do . . .

Order the book here.

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!

The Boys from the Black Rhino

If you grew up in the sixties or seventies, you grew up with rock and roll. By the time we were in high school, we knew the songs, we knew the bands; rock was the background soundtrack to our lives.

Except for me. Somehow the music stayed way in the background, perhaps because I was reading more than anything, then becoming a movie and tv geek. Music was not really a part of my life. It never really touched me in my heart. It danced around me, yet never wove its way in.

Until 1978.

Like every college-age American, at 11:30 on Saturdays, we watched the only counter-cultural show that spoke our language, that was aimed directly at us: Saturday Night Live. And, late in the year, two shifty looking white dudes from Calumet City, Illinois, fresh from the stage at the Black Rhino Club, took SNL by storm…
…and the Blues Brothers opened up to me a world of music that finally touched my soul.

The origins of the Blues Brothers are well known, and I suggest you go to Blues Brothers Central for all the info you need. Basically, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi started the Blues Brothers as an SNL warm up gig. They got their first (and lesser-known) chance as the BBs on stage in 1977…as Bees, performing “King Bee.”

But that was just one song, as the Bees. And no one thought about it ever again.

Then came November 18, 1978. Belushi, fresh off the success of Animal House, took the mantle of Jake Elwood Blues, and Aykroyd, the creative dynamo behind the duo, became Elwood Jake Blues. They opened for Steve Martin during a series of performances at the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles. Their first album, Briefcase Full of Blues, was recorded from these shows, and their first performance on SNL officially as the Blues Brothers was “Soul Man.”
They were clearly Dan and John. And yet, somehow, they were not. I wasn’t sure at first if it was really them. There was someone else behind those Ray-Bans. They were different personalities — characters and iconographs made real. And the music was rock and soul with a sense of humor…combined with reverence, irreverence, and a distinctly contemporary groove.

It sparked me. It sparked a lot of people. It woke something up in America’s musical psyche. This one-of-a-kind combination of a little bit of comedy and a lot of old-fashioned music, filtered through the funky groove of the ’70s, made the blues cool again. Hell, even B. B. King and Ray Charles admitted that the Blues Brothers revitalized not only their careers, but the Blues. It’s the only musical that regular guys watch and absolutely love — because they don’t look at it as a musical. It’s a dude flick, with cool songs. Get it?

And the movie was a rebirth for the costars when it was released in 1980. Although the film was panned critically, it has since become an overwhelming cult favorite. It jump-started the faltering careers of Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, the musicians from Booker T. and the MGs, and made B. B. King ask if he could be in the next one.

He was, in Blues Brothers 2000, released in 1998 (please, don’t ask me, I have no idea). Not a hilarious film; maybe not even a good one. But the music is fine, the heart is in the right place, and John Goodman proves he can sing a mean cover of “I’m Looking for a Fox.” That, and Aykroyd’s cover of “Cheaper to Keep Her,” make the dvd worth the price.

Comedy opened up a world of music to me. And since the Blues Brothers and the untimely death of Jake, I have explored the blues and soul music of B. B. King, Albert Collins, Jimmy Thackery and the Drivers, Johnny Lang, Susan Tedeschi, Matt Guitar Murphy (Blues Brothers guitarist who is recovering nicely from a stroke), Delbert McClinton, Candye Kane (I fixed the spelling, Candye!), Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Koko Taylor, Tinsley Ellis, John Lee Hooker, Aretha, Johnny Winter, Ana Popovic, Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Kim Wilson, Buddy Guy, Wilson Pickett —

Driving rhythm, pounding guitar, haunting blues organ, triumphant and sad horns. Man, all it does is reflect the cascading beats of the masculine heart as some woman tramples on our soul.

Elwood lives. Jake’s blood brother, Zee, lives. They’re performing October 8 in Orlando at the House of Blues, where every bar in every HOB location is called Jake’s Bar.

My temperature’s rising and I’m goin’ back to Miami. I owe you guys.