Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Turn It Up

Recently, a friend sent hours of audio pleasure, more Jack Benny and Fred Allen, Bill Hicks bootlegs, Hunter Thompson rambling to college kids in 1977, Devo in Japan, 1980. But what really jazzed me was The National Lampoon Radio Hour, sixty minutes of satirical assaults at the peak of that magazine's power. The timing of this arrival couldn't be more perfect.

I haven't heard these shows since I listened to O'Donoghue's master tapes, none of which I was allowed to copy due to their fragility. The Radio Hour was a brilliant if doomed attempt to re-energize the form, and I can't think of anyone trying it today, certainly not on the same scale, much less with comparable talent. In one long bit (one of many -- filling time quickly became a concern), O'Donoghue, George Trow, Henry Beard, Doug Kenney, Anne Beatts, Brian McConnachie, Sean Kelly, and Gerald Sussman discuss humor as a source of natural energy that, like oil, is running out and must be conserved.

"We consume 61 percent of the world's humor," Beard says, "and produce somewhat less than nine percent."

Beatts and Brian suggest that in order to save humorous energy, tell jokes only to those who'll appreciate them. O'D adds that telling jokes to the elderly and non-English speaking people is wasteful. Kenney laments extinct jokes, sharing the last known elephant joke ever uttered.

Q: How can you tell an elephant is dying?

A: It rolls around, twitches, trumpets in pain, blood runs out of its trunk and vultures come and pick out its eyes.

Trow gently admonishes, "You could've saved that one, Doug."

"We may need to ration humor on a need-to-laugh basis," warns Beard.

"We've always heard, 'Always leave them laughing,'" says O'D. "Well, we can't do that anymore. Sometimes we just have to leave them smiling. Sometimes we just have to leave."

While there are some clearly scripted lines, there's also a lot of riffing. Listening to these Lampoon greats talk over each other, try to top each other, and laugh with each other gives a taste of what Lampoon meetings and dinners must have been like. Not for the shy or slow-witted. With these minds going at it for several intense years, it's no surprise that the Lampoon cannibalized itself, letting the likes of P.J. O'Rourke to lord over the ruins, steering the enterprise toward frat/jock humor. There was no rationing of racist, queer-baiting jokes under O'Rourke. He enjoyed a surplus.

Listening to the Radio Hour also brings back Chevy, Belushi, Gilda, Bill Murray, Christopher Guest, and Harold Ramis from their pre-SNL/SCTV/Animal House/Caddyshack period. They were energetically different, somewhat radical, sometimes wistful, despite all the death humor. Once big money and celebrity beckoned . . . well, that story's been told.

These shows inspire and sadden me. As I continue down the performance path, to be resumed next week in NYC, much of the older forms I'm comfortable with are flaking away, revealing a persona I've yet to fully understand. The Radio Hour reminds me of the beginning, listening with my friend Mike when we were 13, many references over our heads, but creative fire blazing our minds. Amid the horror of my young life, these voices suggested another path. I'll let you know if I ever reach its end.

I hadn't seen this piece until recently. It's O'D at his professional zenith in 1980, just before his return to SNL and career frustration and marginalization. Michael's living large here, playing the enfant terrible for the camera, his apartment a prop and memento filled backdrop (and of course I love the Mondo mask). I spent years in that place and remember every thematic display. There were moments when I closed my eyes and quickly reopened them, expecting to be back in Indiana. It seemed like a dream. Maybe it was.