How P.J. O’Rourke Killed “National Lampoon”

Bigtime BigMedia humorist and hero of LB’s childhood P.J. O’Rourke ‘fesses up about a certain dirty deed.

Or is he bragging?

pj_o_rourkeby P.J. O’Rourke

A new Vacation movie is scheduled to be released — or allowed to escape — on July 29. To judge by the obvious, pitiful, frenetic, stupid raunchiness of its trailer, it belongs to the genre known as “post-humoristic.”

The movie declares itself to be a remake  of National Lampoon’s Vacation, the 1983 classic of obvious, pitiful, frenetic, stupid innocence. But the words “National Lampoon” are never mentioned in the trailer. This is doubtless a relief to those two good souls in Funny Heaven: John Hughes, who wrote the script for the original, and Harold Ramis, who directed it. Yet the absence of the magazine’s name causes pangs of ancient regret to old duffers who held NatLamp dear in the 1970s and early 1980s.

We remember how the publication was a font of youthful nihilism’s dark, ironic genius (albeit with the obvious, pitiful, frenetic and stupid qualities that entails).

We remember how, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the magazine went to hell. National Lampoon now seems damned to the point that its name isn’t even worthy of being attached to a summer cineplex dump-fill featuring the Hangover wimp dentist as leading man and a Chevy Chase cameo.

Sick transit gloria. What a shocking fall for Lampoon‘s shock humor. And it was my fault.

I was editor-in-chief of National Lampoon from 1978 through 1980, when the magazine began sinking. It limped on as a monthly until 1985, but I was one of the last original creators still on board.

The failure was caused by success. From the inaugural issue of National Lampoon in 1970 until he left in 1974, Michael O’Donoghue was the most important influence on its style, tone and content. He went on to become the first head writer for Saturday Night Live. Before becoming the first stars of SNL, John Belushi and Chase starred, alongside Christopher Guest, in the 1972 off-Broadway play National Lampoon Lemmings. Belushi recruited Bill Murray for the 1973-1974National Lampoon Radio Hour cast, which included Richard Belzer. Murray and fellow Radio Hourperformer Gilda Radner starred in the 1975 off-Broadway National Lampoon Show. Hughes started a spectacular career writing for the Lampoon. Ramis started another scripting National Lampoon’s Animal House with NatLamp co-founder Doug Kenney and Chris Miller, author of Lampoon‘s popular Animal House short stories that inspired the 1978 movie.

If you see a pattern, it’s called money. What do you think the proper comparison would be between how much Hughes was paid for writing National Lampoon’s Vacation and how much I paid him for the short story “Vacation ’58,” upon which the movie was based? If you’re thinking chalk and cheese, you like to eat chalk better than John did.

Even in the salad days of magazine publishing, there wasn’t a lot of lettuce on the plate. Playboyused to pay — cue Dr. Evil moment — a dollar a word.

By 1980, talented young writers with youthful nihilism’s dark, ironic genius had as many opportunities as there were Porky’s sequels.

Besides, National Lampoon was never a pleasant place to work. The office was rife with the clubby snits and snubs of its clubby, snitty progenitor, Harvard Lampoon, founded in 1876. Some of the snits were a century old. Plus having a bunch of humorists in one place is like having a bunch of cats in a sack.

As the boss, I had the people skills of Luca Brasi in The Godfather and the business acumen of the fellows who were managing New York’s finances in the 1970s (remember the Post‘s headline “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD”).

Read it all at Hollywood Reporter