March was supposed to be a big month for National Lampoon.
The content production company that hung out an “Under New Management” sign last year had scheduled a series of 50th anniversary celebrations this year designed to spur its revival. The plan was to use podcasts and live events to introduce a new generation of subversive comedians affiliated with the brand name that helped launch the careers of John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase and others.
One by one, the comeback events carefully plotted by veteran producer and executive Evan Shapiro were canceled. National Lampoon had planned to make a splash at the SXSW festival with a series of live events. A re-imagined version of National Lampoon’s Off Broadway show “Lemmings” was set for showcase performances at the Public Theater’s Joe’s Pub venue on March 14-15. But none of that came to pass as the threat of the coronavirus pandemic came into focus. And more plans for events on the West Coast this month had to be tabled.
“This just felt like a ton of coughing bricks falling on our head,” Shapiro told Variety. But Shapiro quickly realized that it was time to “put our big boy pants on” and find other ways to tubthump the brand.
“We are going to mobilize into this void and try to take advantage of all the relationships we have with the talent that we’ve aligned ourselves with,” Shapiro said.
Like so many other content producers, National Lampoon has made a quick pivot to online efforts in the hopes of keeping brand name in the ether as home-bound Americans search for entertainment. The sudden loss of income is acute for comedians who rely on club dates and tours for their livelihoods.
National Lampoon is now hosting “National Lampoon: Quarantine Live!” live stream showcases via YouTube and other platforms on Tuesday and Friday nights, starting at 9 p.m. ET. The presentation comes complete with pitches from host Harrison Greenbaum for viewers to tip individual comics via Venmo.
National Lampoon also made the decision on Monday to release the pilot for prospective single-camera comedy “Max Riddle” on YouTube. The Max Riddle character has had some exposure via social media post from creators Matt Yeager and Jeff Skowron. Riddle, played by Skowron, is a forty-something guy on the spectrum who loses his job as a movie theater ticket-taker to a robot in the opening moments of the pilot, directed by Yeager. It’s a blend of dark and light comedy set in a struggling Rust Belt town.
The pilot was produced on spec a few years ago and was an official selection of the 2017 New York Television Festival. Shapiro has shepherded the project through development at an unnamed streaming outlet. He is still determined to get it set up as a TV series, but for now he’s hoping to generate advance buzz. Given the sudden change in the national mood, Shapiro sees Riddle as a hero for desperate times. The cast also features Mary Birdsong (“Reno 911”) and Brandon J. Dirden (“The Americans”). Shapiro, Yeager and Skowron executive produced the pilot — on a four-figure budget — with Josey Roberts as producer.
“The Rust Belt is the place in America that time forgot,” Shapiro said. Yeager and Skowron “have such a good handle on that part of the world.” Skowron’s performance is informed by his own experiences with OCD, he added.
National Lampoon has also had some traction with another quickly hatched idea for a short-form series dubbed “The Bright Side.” The one-minute episodes feature comedian Michael Palascak with un-ironic takes on the positive aspects of the sudden changes brought by the pandemic.
National Lampoon’s early focus on podcasts as incubators for film and TV ideas has proven prophetic. The company has a partnership with Spotify for the “National Lampoon Radio Hour” weekly podcast, which bowed Dec. 19.
“The idea is to build traffic and engagement and sell sponsorship (into ‘Radio Hour’),” Shapiro said. “We are still open for business. But we are shifting our business models to meet the needs of the current environment. We can’t write big checks but we are out there every day trying to find a way for comics to get paid.”
(Pictured: “Max Riddle”)