Future of National Lampoon Unclear

When we last left Natty Lamp, J2 board member Daniel Laikin was poised to take over J2 Communications with big plans to restore the humor icon to its former glory and a June 30 deadline to come up with the cash or bust. It is now November and the deadline has long passed, but the deal has not died. The deadline was extended several times, most recently to November 15. I can only guess what state of limbo the current staff finds itself in. For more detailed and up-to-date info, check out J2 Communications news on Yahoo! FinanceUpdate: According to an announcement on November 19, the deal is dead and J2 is now seeking other buyout offers. Meanwhile, Laikin and his partners have filed a lawsuit against J2 and J2 has filed a counter suit. It’s not clear what all of this means to the future of National Lampoon, but it is hard to see how it will help.

NationalLampoon.com News

In the months since my rather lukewarm review last October, NationalLampoon.com appears to be getting better. In fact, I would say that it has now clearly risen above the abysmal level of the final print issue (November 1998). They are even up for a Webby this year. There is still a lot of room for improvement, particularly in the looks department.

I had a chance the other day to speak with Scott Rubin, the editor-in-chief, and it sounds like they are really trying hard, though their resources are more meager than one would expect for such an ambitious and high-profile venture.

He says one of the advantages they have over the old print version is lead time. In the old days, stories would appear in the magazine at least two months after they were written, seriously hampering the topicality of the humor. On the Web, articles can be available online almost as soon as they are finished.

Scott finds comparisons to The Onion frustrating. National Lampoon was doing news story parodies in its News On The March section long before The Onion, yet the popularity of The Onion(not to mention National Lampoon‘s being a bit late to the dot-com party) has meant that NationalLampoon.com has had to be careful not to be perceived as an imitator.

 Scott, it turns out, is as big a fan of National Lampoon‘s golden era as any visitor to this site. The Flashbacks section has been very popular, but getting permission to run old material has often turned out to be a nightmare. In many cases, especially if the author or artist was a freelancer, NationalLampoon.com can’t simply scan it and put it on the site. Past articles that were written by staffers are the property of National Lampoon, but those by freelancers belong to the freelancers. This is as it should be. The problem is that many of the copyright holders (particularly cartoonists) for whatever reason have refused to allow NationalLampoon.com to run their stuff. It’s a sad situation, and not uncommon in the publishing business. If you’re wondering when they will ever put every issue of National Lampoon on CD-ROM (like Mad magazine did) now you know why it hasn’t happened yet.

 (Reading back issues of the magazine, you would think that all those guys were pals who loved to hang around together and are all off somewhere enjoying their retirement talking about the good old days at the ‘poon. The truth is that many of the people who worked on the magazine never even met and the ones who did work together often ended up hating each other’s guts. Some of them are still bitter over stuff that happened twenty or thirty years ago. I know because I have heard from some of them.)

The biggest problem with NationalLampoon.com (and things National Lampoon in general) has been with the management at J2 Communications, the owner of National Lampoon.

But this may be about to change. Daniel Laikin, one of J2’s board members, is in the process of taking over the company. If everything goes as planned, Jim Jimirro will step down as CEO and the company will change its name to National Lampoon.

 Laikin sounds very bullish, according to an article that appeared on AuthorLink.com in March (If you want to read the article, see Late March in their Archive section. It’s about a quarter of the way down the page. Linking directly doesn’t seem to work.) and plans to re-establish ties to former contributors and other people involved in the magazine, movies, and other ventures. Mr. Laikin has even contacted me (!) recently to say that he plans to renew the connection to Harvard Lampoon. He also says they will probably not be back in the magazine business, but that they haven’t closed the door to that possibility.

Will it happen? I certainly hope so. This could be one of the best things to happen to National Lampoon in a very long time.

Errata From London

Bobby London has informed me of some factual errors about him on the Answers page. They are now corrected. (I got the bogus information from Matty Simmons’ book. I’m getting the impression he wasn’t too big on details.)

Where Do Former NatLamp Editors Go? 

Apparently, they go on to write for children’s television. Sean Kelly, Ellis Weiner, and Brian McConnachie all write regularly for Noddy, a PBS children’s program about a mentally ill young boy (Truman) who has vivid hallucinations regarding his grandfather’s toy shop in which he believes all the toys are alive. McConnachie also wrote for Shining Time Station, a show about talking trains which featured George Carlin as a six-inch-tall station master. (If you are familiar with McConnachie’s work in National Lampoon, all of this makes perfect sense.) Peter Gaffney, a NatLamp editor in the early ’80s, was one of the creators of Rugrats and wrote many of the early shows. It’s good to know our nation’s youth is in their capable hands.

New Christopher Guest Movie: “Best In Show”

National Lampoon Radio Hour alum Christopher Guest has just come out with a new movie called “Best In Show” building on the same mock-documentary improvisational technique that gave us “Waiting for Guffman” and “This Is Spinal Tap.” All the major cast from “Guffman” return (in different roles) including Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hare (both SCTV alums), Fred Willard, and Parker Posey. The premise this time is the mildly bizarre world of people who enter their dogs into dog shows.

Hendra Launches Gigawit.com

National Lampoon alum Tony Hendra recently launched a humor website / publishing company called Gigawit (www.gigawit.com). It would be perhaps unfair to compare it with National Lampoon Dot Com, but I will anyway. While they are in the same general ballpark humorwize, they are at opposite ends of the spectrum on the presentation scale. While National Lampoon Dot Com sports a cluttered, sleezy, not-quite-done-by-professionals look that makes the early issues of the National Lampoon look like Martha Stewart Living, Gigawit looks tasteful almost to a fault but feels uncomfortably light on content. Hopefully, that will change (the part about the content, I mean). Inspite of the selfconsciously-drole little cartoonies sprinkled throughout the site, it shows some promise of being a genuinely funny alternative to the how-low-can-you-go-for-laugh school that seems to prevail elsewhere (including National Lampoon Dot Com).

(I sometimes wonder if some serious misunderstanding occurred back in the ’70s in regards to National Lampoon‘s approach to humor. They didn’t care if they offended anyone as long as it was funny. Some people seem to have concluded from this that offensive=funny. That’s my theory, anyway.)

Hendra has an interesting strategy. In addition to the website, Gigawit also plans to publish books using an on-demand distribution system that skips the traditional publishing industry. It’s also actively soliciting submissions and contributions from anyone who think’s they’re funny.

Update: Gigawit appears to be gone. Hard to tell since I don’t read Chinese.

Finally, Some Competition

In fall of 1999, National Lampoon, which ceased publication about a year before, went online as National Lampoon Dot Com (www.nationallampoon.com). At first, there was just a teaser—a rather lame Flash animation. A little while later, the site debuted. It was more flash (literally) than substance and had a lot of annoying sound effects. Recently, it has settled into a more conservative mode of presentation and has generally gotten better. It’s still a pales when compared the magazine at its height, but it’s not without merit. The new material on the site is like a less sophisticated (and less funny for the most part) version of Modern Humorist or The Onion.

National Lampoon Dot ComThe best part—especially for fans of the early years—is the Flashback section, where they have slowly been building up a collection of articles from past issues and bits from the Radio Hour, including many things I get queries about. A good example that really takes advantage of the internet is Tony Hendra’s “Deteriorata,” a parody of the hoary old dorm poster blather “Desiderata.” Not only are the complete words there—including a PDF facsimilie of the poster you can print out—there is also the audio version from Radio Dinner in its entirety (albeit with a rather goofy and gratuitous bit of animation) as a bonus.

Here is a list of some of the articles and bits they have put online:

P.J. O’Rourke’s “Foreigners Around the World”
Tony Hendra’s “Deteriorata” from National Lampoon’s Radio Dinner
John Hughes’ “Vacation ’58”
Michael O’Donoghue’s “The Churchill Wit” and “The Vietnamese Baby Book,”
John Weidmann’s “Are You a Homo?”
Doug Kenney’s “First Blow Job”
Gerald Sussman’s “Dogfishing in America”
Michel Choquette’s “Stranger in Paradise”
“Gymnasty” from “That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick!”

Now, if they will put up the Mr. Rogers/bass player bit from “That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick!” maybe people will finally stop bugging me.

(Note to National Lampoon Dot Com’s “Scanner Bitch” (who I know visits here from time to time): Strongly consider adding the following articles: John Hughes’ “My Vagina” and “My Penis,” B.K. Taylor’s “The Appletons” and “Timberland Tales,” Micheal O’Donoghue’s “How to Write Good,” any of Ted Mann and Todd Carroll’s “O.C. & Stiggs” pieces, “Bernie X”…

Update: They’ve apparently removed the Flashback section some time ago. Bummer.