Cracking up every December with the madcap Griswold clan of the 1989 comedy classic National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is one of cinema’s best-loved and most gut-busting Yuletide traditions.
Chevy Chase as put-upon patriarch Clark Griswold, Randy Quaid as deliriously down-and-out Cousin Eddie, and their merry misadventures with a huge houseful of mayhem-making family members represent the absolute height of holiday movie hilarity. That's no small feat for a movie spun off from a groundbreaking humor magazine that most young people don't even realize was...well, a groundbreaking humor magazine.
Christmas Vacation may now have even surpassed in popularity National Lampoon’s initial transformation from monthly newsstand satire into the big-screen business, the history-making 1978 blockbuster, Animal House. It’s also the last NatLamp flick of note to make any kind of cultural impact, save perhaps for the minor mirth of 2002’s Van Wilder.
That doesn’t mean National Lampoon ever stopped making movies, though.
In the 21st century, the NatLamp brand has been decimated by a tsunami of direct-to-video dreck such as the Paris Hilton sorority vehicle, National Lampoon's Pledge This! (2006); as well as the likes of National Lampoon’s Dirty Movie (2011); National Lampoon’s Another Dirty Movie (2012); and National Lampoon Presents: Surf Party (2014).
However, none of those really count as “movies,” per se. What follows, instead, is a chronological roundup of National Lampoon projects that played to paying audiences in proper theaters.
Financially, some did better than others; none, alas, has survived the time-honored test of not reeking.
National Lampoon’s Movie Madness aka National Lampoon Goes to the Movies (1982)
Following Animal House, National Lampoon sat poised to reinvent Hollywood in its own anarchic image. The company spent considerable time and expense with future Gremlins director Joe Dante and Vacation screenwriter John Hughes developing a show biz satire in the form of a meta-sequel, Jaws 3 – People 0 (the script remains legendary among comedy nerds).
Rumors have long floated that Mr. Jaws himself, Steven Spielberg, pressured Universal to not make fun of his signature blockbuster, although the official reason given is that "it just didn't work."
From there, NatLamp failed to get a film launched for four long years, ultimately only being able to cobble together Movie Madness, an abominable omnibus of genre spoofs that limped into limited release before polluting late-night cable schedules for a spell in the ’80s.
Movie Madness consists of three episodes: “Growing Yourself,” a send-up of ’70s sensitive male dramas with Peter Riegert (Boon from Animal House); “Success Wanters,” a spoof of female making-it-big sagas modeled on the ersatz Jacqueline Kennedy Onasis biopic, The Greek Tycoon; and "Municipalians", a wacky urban cop adventure featuring Robby Benson and Richard Widmark that ranks inferior to the very weakest installment of Police Academy: The Animated Series.
The poster tagline for Movie Madness speaks volumes about the film’s crap content, offering only the laughably literal and non-committal come-on: "The First Movie From National Lampoon Since Animal House!”
National Lampoon’s Class Reunion (1982)
Class Reunion marks the debut of National Lampoon editor John Hughes as a screenwriter. It’s a murky, clunky send-up of suburbanites confronting unfinished high school issues, combined with—bizarrely but not interestingly—a full-on spoof of ’80s slasher movies. One character, apropos only of a chunky vomit gag, is also possessed by the devil.
A year later, Hughes scripted Vacation (based on his uproarious NatLamp short story), and then reinvented teen cinema by way of Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Popular culture has famously championed what have come to be known as “The John Hughes Movies.” Class Reunion, although truly not funny and not good, suggests a weirder, potentially (maybe) fascinating path that John Hughes might have taken.
National Lampoon’s The Joy of Sex (1984)
The Joy of Sex is an adaptation-in-licensed-title only of a 1972 marriage manual that freaked out an entire generation of school-age snoops who happened upon it in their parents’ nightstands (and who have subsequently spent decades attempting to un-see the book’s realistic pencil illustrations of hairy hippies in manifold throes of connubial bliss).
Paramount optioned Dr. Alex Comfort’s gazillion-seller just to cash in on the book’s socko moniker. Numerous screenwriters took countless cracks at crafting a Joy of Sex script before the studio’s rights expired in 1984.
Actor and world-class wit Charles Grodin penned a meta-take about a hapless writing trying to turn a sex guide into a narrative film. When that didn’t fly, Grodin tweaked it into his 1985 satire, Movers and Shakers.
In 1982, Paramount teamed with National Lampoon for a Joy of Sex script by John Hughes (yes, him again) in the anthology mode of Woody Allen’s original, brilliant 1972 success in this supremely sparse field, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask).
The Lampoon version reached pre-production with Penny Marshall set to direct and John Belushi in talks to star. Some accounts claim that Belushi freaked out so severely over a segment in which he’d have to don diapers as an adult baby that it kicked off his final, fatal drug spiral.
Finally, Paramount beat the rights-reversion deadline by slapping both the National Lampoon brand and the Joy of Sex title onto a dank, unfunny, unsexy ’80s teen T&A romp that squanders some of the brightest talent that oft-derided genre produced.
Michelle Meyrink (The Outsiders, Revenge of the Nerds) stars as a high-school senior convinced she’s got just weeks to live and therefore committed to losing her virginity ASAP. Christopher Lloyd (Taxi, Back to the Future) plays her fascist football coach father. Martha Coolidge (Valley Girl, Real Genius) directed, but protested the final version of Joy of Sex that Paramount piddled out to drive-ins before rushing it on to home video. You won't blame her.
National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1 (1993)
Emilio Estevez and Samuel L Jackson co-star in an Airplane!-style gag-a-minute parody of Lethal Weapon and other action movies. The “1” in Loaded Weapon’s title is a joke itself, socking it to the genre’s propensity to mass-produce sequels.
The early 1990s actually unleashed a spate of similar genre spoofs on the hit-and-miss order of Hot Shots!, Dracula: Dead and Loving It, Fatal Instinct, the Naked Gun franchise.
Coming out right around the moment’s peak, Loaded Weapon actually proved to be something of a box office success, although not enough of one to warrant somebody to have to pen a joke title for Loaded Weapon 2.
National Lampoon’s Senior Trip (1995)
Senior Trip serves up a decade-too-late ’80s-style teen sex farce about high school party animals lighting farts and chugging brews during a jaunt to Washington, D.C.
In a tellingly timely touch, Senior Trip’s top-billed stars are those favorites of ’90s kids: Tommy Chong as a bus driver who’s—get this—stoned all the time, and Matt “Max Headroom” Frewer as the teenage troublemaker’s hapless school principal. Kids in the Hall comedian Kevin McDonald turns up as a Star Trek nerd.
Solely distinguishing Senior Trip from today’s National Lampoon-defiling DVD drivel only in that it garner a one-week nationwide theatrical release.
On a personal note, your author caught Senior Trip on opening night at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood, where I witnessed Kevin McDonald’s fellow Kids in the Hall cracker-upper Mark McKinney and Scott Thompson mercilessly mock their cohort up on the screen. That beat the unholy f—k out of the movie, I assure you.
National Lampoon’s Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj (2006)
Seventeen years after Christmas Vacation, National Lampoon momentarily jump-started its film division with Van Wilder, a fitfully amusing campus farce that sort of finalized the star-making process of Ryan Reynolds.
Politically incorrect at the very last moment when movies (and everything else) could be, Van Wilder established enough of a following on cable and home video to get a sequel green-lighted. Considering that Reynolds had moved on, the studio focused instead on the hero’s second-in-command, Taj, played by erstwhile Kumar (of Harold and Kumar), Kal Penn.
Hitting theaters just in time for the Christmas movie glut, The Rise of Taj bombed mightily at the box office and sank rapidly into oblivion. Regardless, still another follow-up, Van Wilder: Freshman Year, went straight to DVD in 2009. The franchise has lain dormant since then.
BOOB TUBE BONUS: National Lampoon Takes on TV
While continually attempting and repeatedly botching their big-screen endeavors, National Lampoon also took some swings at television. Unlike the movies, though, there’s not a non-stinkbomb in this boob tube bunch.
National Lampoon’s Hot Flashes was a five-night D.O.A. pilot spoofing local news shows that aired in 1984 and, throughout the ’90s, the company rubber-stamped a slew of limp cable movies of no particular note (Attack of the 5-Foot-2 Woman, The Don’s Analyst, Daddy’s Day Off).
A few National Lampoon TV misfires definitely do warrant a sneer here, however.
National Lampoon's Disco Beaver From Outer Space (1978)
One of HBO’s very first comedy specials tapped Tony Hendra, who co-created National Lampoon’s acclaimed Off-Broadway production Lemmings, to oversee an anything-goes sketch revue. What resulted was a coke-addled takedown of cable television centered on a dork in a beaver costume and a gay vampire named “Dragula.”
National Lampoon's Delta House (1979)
Stunningly, stupefyingly, National Lampoon tried to translate the hard-R raunch of Animal House into an ABC sitcom that would anchor the network’s 8pm family hour. The show followed the campus adventures of the original gang after they were joined by Josh Mostel as “Blotto” Blutarski, kid brother of John Belushi’s Bluto.
Shocking no one, Delta House didn’t work. Like, not for one split second.
What does remain shocking, though, is how many of the movie’s original stars signed on for the series (including John Vernon as Dean Wormer, Stephen Furst as Flounder, and Bruce McGill as D-Day) and that the show was written by many of National Lampoon’s most dynamic scribes (including, of course, John Hughes).
Delta House did boast a decent roof-raising theme song by Meat Loaf collaborator Jim Steinman, though.
National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie's Island Adventure (2003)
Randy Quaid and Miriam Flynn reprise their Vacation series roles as Cousin Eddie and Cousin Catherine in an indescribably witless nonentity of an NBC movie.
After a monkey outperforms Eddie at a nuclear, he shipwrecks his family on a deserted island. Hence: Cousin Eddie's Island Adventure.
The paycheck-cashing, tropical-location-enjoying cast also includes Ed Asner, Fred Willard, and Eric Idle, who cameos as his stiff-upper-lip, accident-enduring character from European Vacation. Danna Barron, original Griswold daughter Audrey, returns as well. None of them have ever appeared in anything worse—and that is saying something!