Checking In with…National Lampoon’s Lemmings

Whatever happened to predictability, the milkman, the paperboy, evening TV…and the writers and actors of the off-Broadway musical, National Lampoon’s Lemmings?

In 1970, National Lampoon magazine, a spin-off of the Harvard Lampoon, published its first issue, under the leadership of Doug Kenney, Henry Beard, and Robert Hoffman. The pages were filled with brilliant and hilarious parodies, and the magazine soon became a calling card for comedy nerds. It became so popular that the magazine was able to stage an Off-Broadway play, one that would spoof Woodstock and hippies and all that psychedelic bullshit, making fun of people like Joan Baez and Donovan in the process. It was called National Lampoon’s Lemmings, and it launched the careers of some of the biggest names in comedy history, including many of the eventual writers and actors of Saturday Night Live.

Here’s what everyone’s up to today.

John Belushi/Chevy Chase

For this week’s “This person/these people is/are so famous that you really don’t need me to write about them in any sort of in-depth way,” we have John Belushi, who starred in and co-wrote Lemmings, and Chevy Chase, who just acted. (The two famously had a love/hate relationship, which I’m pretty sure is everyone’s relationship with Chevy Chase.) Animal House, Community, Caddyshack, you know the deal (and sadly, what happened to Belushi).

Christopher Guest

Christopher Guest could easily fit in the “so famous” category, but he’s more fun to write about, especially because his career doesn’t have a long stretch of nothing, like Chase’s, or end in “and then he died,” like Belushi’s. Guest, or should I say 5th Baron Haden-Guest (it’s a U.K. peerage title), is the world’s most famous mockumentary filmmaker, having written and directed three of the genre’s finest movies (Waiting for Guffman, Best In Show, and A Mighty Wind) and co-written another (This Is Spinal Tap). Even his lesser work — like For Your Consideration, Almost Heroes (which he just directed), and The Big Picture — is still pretty darn good. His acting resume includes roles as the six-fingered count in The Princess Bride, Dr. Stone in A Few Good Men, and Nathan Goldfrappe in The Invention of Lying. Guest released an album, Memories of Summer As a Child, as a member of the Beyman Bros in 2009, and has no upcoming films scheduled. He seems perfectly content being married to Jamie Lee Curtis.

Henry Beard and Doug Kenney

In case founding National Lampoon (with Robert Hoffman) isn’t enough for you: Beard and Kenney wrote the mega-infamous Bored of the Rings. Solo, Kenney co-wrote Caddyshack (with Harold Ramis and Bryan Doyle-Murray) and Animal House (with Ramis and Chris Miller), while Beard began authoring (mostly humorous) books, including A Sailor’s Dictionary, Leslie Nielsen’s Stupid Little Golf Book, and Miss Piggy’s Guide to Life. In 1980, Kenney grew depressed, partially due to the negative reviews Caddyshack was receiving (fools!), and his good buddy Chevy Chase suggested the two take a trip to Hawaii. They went but soon Chase had to return to work, and before Kenney’s girlfriend, Kathryn Walker, could arrive, the Lampoon co-founder passed away after falling off a 30-foot cliff. Ramis summed it up in a way only he could: “Doug probably fell while he was looking for a place to jump.” As for Beard, who friend after friend have described as a guy who knows EVERYTHING, he’s relatively off the radar now, but in 2009, he wrote Golf: An Unofficial and Unauthorized History of the World’s Most Preposterous Sport. He’s married to fellow writer Gwyneth Cravens, and the two have a child, Astrid Cravens, who works as an artist out of Brooklyn.

Garry Goodrow

Best known for his stage work, Goodrow’s most famous role is playing Ernie in The Connection, the 1959-1960 Obie Award winner for Best New Play. Four years later, he helped form The Committee, a San Francisco-based improv group whose other members included Hamilton Camp and Kathryn Ish (and later, David Ogden Stiers and Rob Reiner). After the success of Lemmings, Goodrow became an in-demand character actor, appearing in dozens of movies and shows, like WKRP in Cincinnati (he played Bob Burnatt, a disgruntled old DJ who holds up WKRP’s live broadcast location) and Dirty Dancing (as one of the older residents of Kellerman’s). His most recent role was in 2008, as Trenchcoat Man in Ari Gold’s Adventures of Power.

Paul Jacobs

Paul Jacobs was the musical director for Lemmings, and he even got to sing “Lemmings Lament” as David Crosby and “Papa Was a Running Dog Lackey of the Bourgeoisie.” (He also co-wrote the Bob Dylan spoof “Positively Wall Street,” “Lonely at the Bottom,” and “Megadeath.”) Jacobs was a gifted composer and ended up working with Meatloaf, co-writing five songs for Mr. Loaf’s Bad Attitude album. He even joined the rocker’s Neverland Express live band from 1981-1985, playing piano, keyboard, guitar, and providing backup vocals, too. After leaving the group, he and his wife, Sarah Durkee, began writing songs for Sesame Street, including “I Love My Elbows” and “With a Little Yelp from My Friends,” sung by Moe Cocker, a Muppet dog that Jacobs voiced. Jacobs and Durkee now compose songs for PBS’s Between the Lions, an educational program designed to help kids read. Earlier this year, Jacobs was nominated for Best Music Direction and Composition at the Daytime Emmy Awards (sadly, he lost Penguins of Madagascar — damn those Lampoon hatin’ penguins!)

Alice Playten

Making your Broadway debut in an Ethel Merman-starring musical is the theatre version of a comedian’s first stand-up gig occurring right before Louis CK’s set. It’s nerve-wracking in the short term, but beneficial in the long. Alice Playten’s first theatrical role was in Gypsy, where she was the understudy for Baby Louise from 1959-1961. From there, Playten went to another Broadway show, Oliver!, playing Nancy’s friend Bet, and in 1968, she received a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actress In a Musical for Henry, Sweet Henry, written by Bob Merrill (who also penned “(How Much Is) That Doggie In the Window?”). She’s also acted in Caroline, or Change, Seussical, and Spoils of War. For many (or just me?), she’s best known as the voice of Beebe Bluff on Doug, or as Tim Curry’s goblin servant, Blix, in the cult classic Legend (Tom Cruise’s pre-Top Gun movie). Scratch that: her REAL most famous role is starring in that Alka-Seltzer commercial from the 1970s, where Playten makes her husband an array of disgusting meals, culminating with “marshmallowed meatballs and poached oysters!”

Sean Kelly

National Lampoon magazine began in April 1970 — Sean Kelly began writing for National Lampoon in July 1970. He knew a good thing when he saw it (and contributed to said good thing), and wound up becoming a senior editor for the publication, staying on staff until 1984. In the years between, he helped write (and co-direct) Lemmings, obviously, and became the founding editor of Heavy Metal, a sci-fi and fantasy magazine. Kelly’s written a staggering number of books — including Saints Preserve Us!: Everything You Need to Know About Every Saint You’ll Ever Need and Who in Hell…: A Guide to the Whole Damned Bunch — and beginning in the early 1990s, for TV. His two-part episode of Goosebumps, “Stay Out of the Basement,” totally scared the crap out of me when I was young, and he’s also penned episodes of Shining Time Station (when George Carlin was Mr. Conductor), Between the Lions, and The Magic School Bus. He now lives in Brooklyn (represent!) and teaches at Pratt Institute.

Mary Jennifer Mitchell

The Internet’s at a bit of a lost when it comes to Mary Jennifer Mitchell. There’s little information out there, and what there is, like “actress Mary Jennifer Mitchell, who had been romantically involved with numerous Lampoon employees, filled the other female role” from A Futile and Stupid Gesture, doesn’t say much. What we do know is: Mitchell played Joan Baez in Lemmings and a housewife in Fore Play, a Troma film starring Zero Mostel, Estelle Parsons, and Jerry Orbach. So, um, she kept good company? If you’re out there reading this, Mary, hit us up.

Tony Hendra

The first National Lampoon editor hired by Doug Kenney and Henry Beard, Hendra is a product of St. Albans School (one of the oldest schools in the country and where Stephen Hawking graduated) and Cambridge University, where he was a member of Footlights, an amateur theatre club. Other famous Footlighters: Douglas Adams, John Oliver, John Cleese, and Graham Chapman, the last two of which Hendra became friends with (Cleese even offered Hendra a role in a never-made NBC show, which he passed on — basically, he could have been a Python). In 1963, he teamed with Nick Ullett, forming the cleverly named “Hendra and Ullett” comedy duo — the two were soon after on The Dean Martin Show, The Tonight Show, and The Merv Griffin Show, among many other appearances. Hendra co-created Lampoon’s first album, Radio Dinner, which spoofed George Harrison’s then-recent Concert for Bangladesh, and served as co-editor-in-chief of National Lampoon from 1975-1978. Afterward, he started to freelance write, with his finest work coming during the Newspaper Strike of 1978, where he, along with Christopher Cerf, George Plimpton, Freddy Plimpton, and Rusty Unger (with contributions from Carl Bernstein, Frances FitzGerald, Michael Arlen, Jerzy Kosinski, Terry Southern and Nora Ephron), created the Not New York Times, a picture-perfect mockery of the Grey Lady. Their best headline: “An Exotic Drug, ‘Cocaine,’ Appears Popular.” Later, they would parody the Wall Street Journal (Off the Wall Street Journal) and the Irrational Inquirer. In 1984, he appeared as manager Ian Faith in This Is Spinal Tap (“The Boston gig has been canceled…I wouldn’t worry about it, though; it’s not a big college town”) and became co-creator, producer, and writer for Spitting Image, an extremely popular puppet show in the U.K. that ran until 1986. In the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, he did more freelance work, both acting (including a role on Miami Vice) and writing (the screenplay to The Great White Hype, starring Samuel L. Jackson, and articles for Esquire, GQ, Men’s Journal, Vogue, and New York, as the magazine’s wine columnist), and from 1993-1994, Hendra was the editor-in-chief of Spy Magazine. In 2002, he wrote an article for Harper’s called “Morning In America: The Rise and Fall of National Lampoon,” which can be accessed here…if you have an account with the magazine. There’s also a whole sordid affair between him and his daughter (it involves sexual abuse and a book called How to Cook Your Daughter) that I really don’t want to get in to, so here’s a link.

Anne Beatts

Anne Beatts, the first female editor of the Lampoon, co-wrote one of the magazine’s most famous spoofs: an ad showing a Volkswagen Beetle floating in water and below the photo, it reads, “If Ted Kennedy drove a Volkswagen, he’d be President today,” referring to what happened at Chappaquiddick on July 18, 1969. Her fearless style of comedy got her a writing gig on Saturday Night Live, where she stayed from 1975-1979. Beatts was one of the three female writers to work on the show in season one, along with Marilyn Suzanne Miller and Rosie Shuster, and as you can imagine, it wasn’t easy. In an interview Beatts did with People, she said, “John Belushi often went to Lorne and asked him to fire the female writers,” but she added, “Basically it forced us into a position of we’ll stay up longer, we’ll write more, we’ll work harder.” In 1982, she created Square Pegs, which wasn’t a big hit at the time (it only lasted one season), but has become a cult classic in the years since and helped launch the career of a young Sarah Jessica Parker. Five years later, she produced the first season of the Cosby Show spin-off A Different World. She has rarely written for TV since, but she did pen a humor column for the Los Angeles Times from 1997-1998 and is now an adjunct professor at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. She also teaches sketch comedy and is working on a documentary called The Girl In the Room, about female comedians, with Eve Brandstein.

John Boni

Like so many others in the Lampoon gang, the career of John Boni, one of the main brilliant minds behind the Mad Magazine parody “What, Me Funny?” is all over the place. There’s, of course, the TV writing, for shows like Three’s Company and Lassie and General Hospital and Harry and the Hendersons and The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo and the wonderful Fernwood 2 Night and America 2-Night, starring Martin Mull and Fred Willard. (I’ve always wanted to include all of those shows in a single sentence.) He also performed in The Fantasticks and had an Open Salon blog, which was updated until mid-2010, mostly about politics, with posts like “Turn Off the Radio, You Fucking Spic Bastard” (that one could probably use some context). He still performs comedy in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

PJ O’Rourke

If you’re the most quoted man in the Penguin Dictionary of Modern Humorous Quotations…well, that’s just impressive, and that’s exactly what PJ O’Rourke is, unleashing such gems as, “Earnestness is stupidity sent to college.” He’s also the guy who wrote “How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink” for National Lampoon in 1979. As “America’s premier political satirist,” he has released a slew of best selling books, including Parliament of Whores and Give War a Chance. (Yes, he’s a conservative, one of the very few who make a living out of being funny.) Among other accomplishments: co-writing National Lampoon’s 1964 High School Yearbook, a sort-of basis for Animal House; appearing on NPR’s Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me quiz show; working as the foreign affairs desk chief at Rolling Stone; and having articles published in Playboy, the Atlantic Monthly, the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard, the New York Times Book Review, and every other important newspaper and magazine out there. He lives in New Hampshire, continues to write, and doesn’t much care for computers.

Zal Yanovsky

Hi! My name is Author of Article and you might remember Zal Yanovsky as the original guitarist of the Lovin’ Spoonful, whose hits include “Daydream” and “Summer In the City,” or as the guy who got arrested for buying pot and narc’d on his dealer, so he wouldn’t be deported. This pissed a lot of hip people off (he was considered, as they say, a “square,” man) and he actually (well, supposedly) quit the Spoonful because of it. (A fun Wikipedia note: “On July 14, 1970, Yanovsky was one of the clients of the famous Cynthia Plaster Caster. This entailed having a groupie provide oral sex while Cynthia Albritton poured dental cast over his erect penis, providing a “cast” for her collection from famous rock musicians.” If you go to Albritton’s penis-decorated website, you’ll see that Yanovsky was the 28th person she made a cast for, right after Argent’s Bob Henrit.) He released one solo album, Alive and Well in Argentina (and Loving Every Minute of It), helped write the Donovan parody “Nirvana Banana,” toured with Kris Kristofferson in the 1970s, and retired from music in the later part of the decade. Yanovsky opened a restaurant, Chez Piggy (and a second one, Pan Chancho Bakery, in the early 1990s) with his wife, and even released a cookbook. Sadly, in 2002, Yanovsky passed away from a heart attack at his home in Kingston, Ontario. He was 58.

Josh Kurp thinks “Papa Was a Running Dog Lackey of the Bourgeoisie” is the greatest song title ever.

Checking In with…National Lampoon’s Lemmings