In his 2006 book A Futile and Stupid Gesture: How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy Forever, Josh Karp characterizes the staff of the magazine Kenney founded as “a group of brilliant, overeducated skeptics and their leader [Kenney] who came together by providence and changed the dialogue and content of American humor forever while paving the way for Saturday Night Live, The Onion, The Simpsons, and nearly everything funny that has happened since 1975.”
Less heralded but equally important is the imprint the magazine made on comedy recordings. The early '70s were a breakthrough period for comedy albums, with the counterculture spinning out seemingly as many comedians as rock bands, and everyone from the Firesign Theater to Albert Brooks took advantage of post-Beatles studio trickery to spice up their routines. One of the most prominent albums of the era was National Lampoon's Radio Dinner, issued on Blue Thumb in 1972, the first in a series that included 1973's Lemmings, a recording of a stage show parodying Woodstock; 1977's That's Not Funny, That's Sick; and 1982's White Album.
As you'd probably expect, most of the National Lampoon albums are audio routines. “Mister Roberts,” originally issued on That's Not Funny, That's Sick, features Christopher Guest parodying Mister Rogers while interviewing a jazz bassist played by Bill Murray. As opposed to Eddie Murphy's classic “Mister Robinson's Neighborhood” sketches on SNL, Guest and Murray don't get their laughs by throwing their source out of context, but by hewing to it closely; there's real affection here, both for Fred Rogers and for Murray's black jazzman. It also ends with a perfect exchange. Roberts: “Well, we're going to go to the Magic Kingdom.” Bassist: “No, man, it's too early for me — I've got to drive.”
That accuracy extends to the Lampoon's numerous music parodies, which are as good a tonic for classic-rock radio burnout now as they were for a counterculture prone to taking itself too seriously then. Many of the best of these were Christopher Guest's work. Three of his folk-music parodies included on Greatest Hits of the National Lampoon prefigure his 2003 movie A Mighty Wind. (The recordings, though, were skewers of their period rather than the early-'60s folk revival Wind dismantled.)
Bob Dylan and the counterculture are both mocked in “Those Fabulous Sixties,” in which Guest portrays Dylan helming a TV commercial for a Ronco-style compilation titled Golden Protest. (” . . . And of course, my own ‘Masters of War.'”) A pinched-voiced Chevy Chase sings “Colorado” (originally on Lemmings), which skewers the pits of post-hippie back-to-the-land folk: “Infectious hepatitis was the only thing that came to stay/ In January in the Colorado Rockies.” “Well-Intentioned Blues” has Guest viciously (and precisely) impersonating James Taylor, singing, “I wish I was a Negro/ With lots of Negro soul/ So I could stay true to my ethnic roots/ And still play rock and roll . . . So I wouldn't have to sing the middle-class, liberal, well-intentioned blues.”
“I'm a Woman” is equally savage: Gilda Radner sings a variant on Helen Reddy's “I Am Woman,” only to be constantly interrupted by the men running the session: “You're not singing it right!” Radner, of course, is all apologies, and keeps her cool until one of the studio honchos sneers, “I thought she could hack it, but it looks like she's having a tantrum” — whereupon she loses it.
Still, for sheer precision, no other Lampoon musical parody came close to “Magical Misery Tour,” 90 percent of whose lyrics came directly from the mouth of its target: John Lennon, in his iconic Rolling Stone interview with Jann Wenner shortly after the Beatles'breakup. Over a piano-bass-drums backing track that sounds like an outtake from Lennon's Plastic Ono Band (specifically, a cross between “Mother” and “God,” taken at a quicker tempo than either), Hendra spits out verbatim excerpts from the Wenner interview in a warbling Lennon impersonation: “Paul said he hated Yoko/ Tell me why should Yoko have to take that kind of shit/ Shit from those fucking sons of bitches/ George said she gave off evil vibes/ I should have beat the shit right out of him/ Him and all his Hare Krishnas.” The chorus? “Genius is PAIN!” It ends, of course, with primal screaming, before Yoko Ono (played by Melissa Manchester, who also provides the piano on the track) pipes in: “The dream is over.” For the counterculture, this was true enough. For National Lampoon, though, it was just beginning.