National Lampoon’s documentary vacation

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In its heyday of the 1970s, National Lampoon produced scores of funny articles, sketches and movies. But can the true story of the people who created it be funny too?

That’s the question Doug Tirola, a veteran documentary producer, will answer when he begins directing his nonfiction film about the iconic comedy brand next month.

Tirola announced Tuesday he was putting together a film about National Lampoon, securing permission and archival material from the company that holds the rights. Now comes the tricky part of tracking down the legends who subverted pop culture with zeal and acumen -- and then conveying their comic genius on screen.
“The hope is not to make just a history of the National Lampoon but to make a movie that’s as irreverent and funny as the National Lampoon itself,” Tirola said in an interview.

The National Lampoon was created by alumni of the Harvard Lampoon. In its salad days of the early- to mid-1970s, it was known for a series of subversive articles and covers (Che Guevara getting slammed with a cream pie comes to mind), as talents like Henry Beard, P.J. O’Rourke and John Hughes worked on and contributed to the magazine. Several other creators went on to Saturday Night Live fame, and the magazine indirectly spawned next-generation humor publications like Spy and the Onion. There were also radio shows, comedy troupes, etc.

In the film world, National Lampoon was best known of course for the Vacation franchise, which kicked off with the iconic 1983 Chevy Chase-Beverly D’Angelo film. Over the years there have been attempts to restart the brand -- a publishing entity was launched about a decade ago, and there’s a remake of the original “Vacation” in the works with David Dobkin (“Wedding Crashers”) producing.

But Tirola (who’s also producing the documentary, with partner Susan Bedusa), says you don’t have to take an ultra-contemporary approach to make a good film; you can go the historical route and be just as effective. “To fans who love National Lampoon, the people who created it weren’t behind the scenes. They were stars just like anyone you saw in the sketches or the films.”


And while documentaries about comedy can sometimes be a lot less funny than their subjects, Tirola says he sees some neat parallels between the creators and their creations. “What I’m hoping is that in making this documentary, we capture the political world and our everyday world the same way the magazine did.”

(Tirola says he has rarely or never-before-seen material as well as a number of well-known personalities lined up for the film, but declined to offer specifics.)
Tirola previously produced a nice little documentary called “All In,” about the cultural influence of poker. If he can effectively make the case for a card game changing the world, he should definitely be able to do it with an entire school of comedy.

-- Steven Zeitchik

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