The National Lampoon Radio Hour: Albums, History Of Comedy's Legendary Show
Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Garry Goodrow, and Alice Peyton. Source: Magnolia Pictures
Before Saturday Night Live was a thing, The National Lampoon Radio Hour was the place listeners went for smart, incendiary comedy. It was a show for young people, by young people and it’s stayed a cult classic listening experience since its inception. Numerous important figures in the world of comedy during the ‘70s and ‘80s can be traced back to The National Lampoon Radio Hour. The show made use of its immense talent by strapping them with characters, kooky voices, and insane antics that up until that point most listeners weren’t used to hearing on the radio. Comedy luminaries like Harold Ramis, Bill Murray, and John Belushi (among so many more hilarious comedic voices) were writers and cast members on the show making it a must listen experience for fans of satirical comedy.
The show was an hour long until it wasn’t
One of the most fitting things about National Lampoon’s Radio Hour was that for most of its run it was only 30 minutes long. After the show was conceived by the National Lampoon Magazine staff they assumed that they could definitely crank out an hour of comedy on a weekly basis, but that wasn’t the case. For the first 13 weeks of the show, stating on November 17, 1973, listeners were treated to a legitimate hour of comedy. The writers and producers quickly discovered that writing a new hour of television every week was intensive, back breaking work, and it burned through their material faster than they assumed. To keep their sanity they cut the show down to 30 minutes.
The cast was a comedy dream team
If the words “National Lampoon” don’t prick up your ears or relay a transmission to your comedy sensors then the cast of this show certainly will. Much of the cast went onto appear on the first couple of seasons of Saturday Night Live which is why performers like John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, and Gilda Radner hold such high places in the echelon of comedy. Aside from SNL alums the show featured Harold Ramis of Ghostbusters, Stripes, and Groundhog Day fame, as well as Christopher Guest (This Is Spinal Tap) and Joe Flaherty of SCTV. This being 1973 and 1974 every cast member on the show was on fire but they weren’t thinking about how important the show would become, they just wanted to have fun. As comedian and cast member Richard Belzer put it, “We were smart-asses, but we didn't realize that we were going to... affect the culture the way we did.”
The recording studio was actually in the "National Lampoon" office
What kind of studio can tame the kind of madness that occurred on The National Lampoon Radio Hour? The National Lampoon studio, of course. Rather than schlep their way down to the NBC or CBS studios the shows were written and recorded within a few feet of one another. The studio was built into the offices so the crew could pop into record their show whenever they needed to and then deliver the finished product to their distributors.
While it was great for the Lampoon to have their own studio, the fact that they weren’t doing it live created an issue for their listeners. The show was in a syndicated type broadcast which meant that the 600 radio stations who carried the program played it at different times. This made it hard for the show to pick up steam and gain as loyal a fanbase as it deserved. Furthermore, advertisers were nervous about backing such risqué material which made the program less desirable to stations.
They released a lot of albums
With more than a year’s worth of shows in the bank, The National Lampoon Radio Hour had more than enough material to put out as many records as most rock bands in the ‘70s. The first album that released from the program was The Missing White House Tapes, which got its start as a single before being expanded into a full length LP in 1974 and subsequently nominated for a Grammy for Best Comedy Recording of the year. A year later they released Gold Turkey a collection of their best sketches from Radio Hour. Anyone who hasn’t heard the show should definitely check out this compilation in order to really get into the groove of the show. The album did so well that it was followed up by two more “greatest hits” collections before releasing the National Lampoon White Album which was released in 1980, long after the show came to an end, but featured many of the original cast members.
Luckily many of these albums were re-released as CDs in the '90s, which means that they're out there even if they've gone out of print. Don't fret if you can't find your favorite collection of tracks, many of them have been lovingly digitized.
Everyone involved was successful
It’s wild to look at the cast of characters involved with the Radio Hour (Chevy Chase, Christopher Guest, Joe Flaherty) and realize that just about everyone who wrote on the show or spoke into a microphone was on the fast track to becoming a successful comedian of comedic actor. Some of the cast members went off to appear on Saturday Night Live, others starred on SCTV, and some of them are names that you’ll see popping up in the writing credits of some of the biggest movies of the ‘80s and ‘90s. There hasn’t been a program that’s this chock full of huge stars aside from The Avengers, but in this case the star power was organic and it’s never going to be recreated.
Tags: Chevy Chase | Gilda Radner | Harold Ramis | John Belushi | National Lampoon | Radio
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