This landmark publication was once an institution that gave rise to an entire generation of America’s most famous comedians.
The Harvard Lampoon has been making students and faculty laugh (and sometimes cringe) since 1876. Three of its staff members were reluctant to part ways with it after they graduated, so Doug Kenney, Henry Beard, and Robert Hoffman decided to license the magazine for a national version in 1969.
The National Lampoon released issue #1 in 1970, presenting itself as a more mature version of Mad or the college-only Lampoon. Its controversial covers also routinely caused a stir, the most famous of which was the January 1973 cover featuring a worried look dog with a gun against its head with the caption, “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog.
Needless to say, plenty of animal rights groups weren’t amused.
Throughout the ‘70s, many of America’s most respected humorists wrote for The National Lampoon, including original SNL writer Michael O’Donoghue, longtime Rolling Stone columnist P.J. O’Rourke, and future film director John Hughes. It wasn’t long before the publication’s gags began to spill over into spinoffs in other formats like books and records. The Lampoon’s radio program and stage show served as an incubator for many of the era’s most famous comedians. John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray and Gilda Radner all cut their teeth there. The organization lent its name to feature films in the years that followed and the words “National Lampoon” appeared beside the titles of hit comedies like Animal House and Vacation.
Unfortunately, the late ‘70s and ‘80s were not kind to the magazine itself. The three founders sold it in 1975 and, as more and more of its staff went off to bigger and better projects, the publication lost much of its edge and cultural impact. Editor-in-Chief Matty Simmons took over in 1985 and fired the entire staff before appointing his two sons as editors. It was the beginning of the end. As The National Lampoon’s financial woes increased, its publication schedule was reduced. Actor Tim Matheson managed to take control of the magazine in 1989 and continued to license its name to various film and video projects. Despite his best efforts, the organization wasn’t sustainable. After publishing only annual issues for three straight years, The National Lampoon’s final installment hit newsstands in November 1998.