The relaunch of National Lampoon as a comedy production house begins in earnest this week with the Dec. 19 debut of “National Lampoon Radio Hour,” a sketch comedy podcast written and performed by Cole Escola, Jo Firestone and clutch of rising-star comedians.
On the latest episode of Variety‘s Strictly Business podcast, National Lampoon president Evan Shapiro discusses the guiding principles behind the effort to revitalize the comedy brand that was a primal force in the careers of Gilda Radner, John Belushi, Bill Murray, John Hughes, Christopher Guest, Harold Ramis, Michael O’Donoghue and other heavyweights.
The company founded in 1970 as a humor magazine by Harvard Lampoon alumni expanded into a radio sketch comedy series, albums and live stage shows. As industry legend goes, the founders of National Lampoon turned down the offer from Lorne Michaels to develop the original “Radio Hour” into a TV series. That prompted Michaels to hire away many from the Lampoon stable to kickstart “Saturday Night Live” for NBC in 1975.
Given National Lampoon’s history with the “Radio Hour,” a podcast made sense to start a new era for the company. During the interview recorded in the comedy performance space at Brooklyn’s famed Union Hall, Shapiro also shares a clip from the new-model “Radio Hour” featuring a spoof of ABC’s enduring reality series “The Bachelorette.”
Listen to this week’s episode of Strictly Business:
Video of the podcast performers in action on each episode will be uploaded to National Lampoon’s YouTube channel — a precursor to what Shapiro hopes will be a TV development pact for the property. Shapiro sees the podcast and YouTube offshoot as a handy way to “monetize the development process.”
The podcast also takes a cue from the Lampoon’s past by offering promising young comedians “a safe haven and format where they can really do anything,” Shapiro says. “It’s a platform to critique and satirize mainstream culture.”
The National Lampoon brand hit hard times over the past two decades. Two of the previous owners went to prison in 2010 and 2012 as part of a financial fraud case involving manipulation of the company’s stock price. PalmStar Media, an investment vehicle run by film finance veterans Kevin Frakes and Raj B. Singh, bought the company as a distressed asset in 2017. Shapiro was recruited to drive creative efforts in May.
Shapiro said he’s looking at the rebirth of Marvel or the more recent return to prominence of the classic Archie Comics characters as inspiration for building the next generation of National Lampoon stars and projects. The company aims to integrate itself back into the cutting-edge comedy world with the podcast, live shows around the country and at a dedicated performance space in New York, and a host of film and TV projects in development. Shapiro has a long resume in comedy including stints as the head of IFC and NBC’s short-lived Seeso streaming platform.
“We want to be the brand that people want to wear on their chest,” Shapiro said. The live component of the comedy business gives them an opening to become part of what Shapiro sees as “the comedy lifestyle” for hard-core fans of standup, improv and sketch troupes. “Media brands that have engaged communities, ones that are sustained over time — those are going to be the truly successful media enterprises” of the future, he said.
One thing listeners won’t hear on “Radio Hour,” which is set for an 11-episode initial run as weekly installments, is an avalanche of Trump-related humor. True to the spirit of the company that generated such box office smashes in 1978’s “Animal House” and the Chevy Chase-led “Vacation” movie franchise, National Lampoon aims to offer a “twisted mainstream” skewering of contemporary culture. But it will not be overtly political — an edgy choice, given the environment.
“We are going to take on culture, not politics,” Shapiro said. “We’re holding up a mirror to the culture that needs to know that those jeans do make your ass look fat.”
“Strictly Business” is Variety‘s weekly podcast featuring conversations with industry leaders about the business of media and entertainment. A new episode debuts each Wednesday and can be downloaded on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, Stitcher and SoundCloud.