Revamped National Lampoon Radio Hour Goes Full 2020
Still twisted and sharpening the lampoon
In this age of perpetual reboots, there's a comeback on the horizon, and it's not always the one you expected. National Lampoon, that storied Seventies and Eighties comedy brand that brought us Animal House and a million Chevy Chase movies, is back with a reboot of the irreverent National Lampoon Radio Hour. Running from 1973 through 1974, the original sketch show featured the likes of John Belushi, Michael O'Donoghue, and Gilda Radner before Saturday Night Live was even a glimmer in NBC's eye, and it skewered everything from hippie culture to Hunter S. Thompson's gonzo journalism. Now the show is back with that signature sketch comedy mischief, a new cast, and an updated format as they celebrate 50 years of National Lampoon.
This weekend the Lampoon was supposed to perform at SXSW and relaunch its seminal live show Lemmings in New York (post now postponed due to coronavirus), but the podcast listening queue is already 11 episodes deep. So how do you modernize a radio show that most young listeners likely only know by reputation? Turn it into a podcast. Keep the name. Retain the original ethos by casting 10 up-and-comers and some more-familiar names in Cole Escola (Difficult People) and Jo Firestone (Shrill). And finally: give the performers a wide berth, allowing them to create the show's voice. Performer Alex English (The Rundown) described the freedom provided by National Lampoon: "They were like, 'This is your show. Make it what you want to make it.'"
This meant encouraging the cast to write to their strengths, despite any imposter syndrome they might have felt about taking over a legacy brand. Meg Stalter (one of Vulture's Up-and-Coming Comedians of 2019), who's known for her character videos, described the supportive vibe of the writer's room. "They really wanted us to write in our own voice and do the stuff we normally do, because that's why they hired us," she said. "I thought I'd get in my head about it, and then it was like, oh, everyone's so supportive."
English described a generous working atmosphere that encourages him to take risks, even as he refines his craft. "It helped me learn to economize my words and get straight to the joke."
In contrast to the original Radio Hour, the new cast is far more diverse across the board – a welcome change that carves out room for wider perspectives in the show's takedowns of American life. Not that they take themselves too seriously. English jokingly noted that he and Rachel Pegram are NLRH's first African American cast members. "So we are Black history. There's Dr. King, there's Malcolm, and then there's myself and Rachel."
The more diverse cast goes a long way toward making NLRH current and more widely accessible. One standout sketch includes "Anything But a Black Woman," a game show where male contestants choose between going on a date with an accomplished Black woman or, in one case, a corpse – in a cutting commentary on the racism in online dating.
Other sketches have less of a satiric target, with characters that are emotionally off the rails, like a cheerleader (Stalter) who overshares about her parents' sad marriage. That's Stalter's specialty. "My favorite is to play women on the edge, who're acting like everything's okay," she said.
Still other sketches take familiar concepts and flip them on their heads, like a role-playing Grindr date that brings out a partner's actual daddy issues. That misdirection is something English relishes. "I love taking something serious, building that tension, and then making it completely different."
Stream the National Lampoon Radio Hour podcast on Spotify and at www.nationallampoon.com/podcasts/radio-hour. Read our interview with National Lampoon President Evan Shapiro at austinchronicle.com/screens.
This story has been updated to reflect that the Lemmings shows have been postponed.