National Lampoon’s Lemmings (1973)

I’d seen and heard about this famous 1973 Greenwich Village revue hit in the pages of  NATIONAL LAMPOON when I read it like cultural contraband in class and the playground (some kids got busted for SWANK or HUSTLER — I got busted for HEAVY METAL and NATIONAL LAMPOON). All I knew from the ads for the album version was that it was a parody of Woodstock — “Woodchuck: Three Days of Peace, Music & Death.” Starring John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Christopher Guest, Alice Playten among others, written by Tony Hendra, Doug Kenny and P.J. O’Rourke, the show brilliantly fused forevermore the brilliant improv and caricature skills of Second City to the wicked black satire of the Lampoon that would ultimately lead to “Saturday Night Live.” Although the album exists as a sample of these youngsters at the early top of their game, the show was allegedly videotaped for Home Box Office (yes Virginia, HBO has been around for that long) but I’ve found no evidence of this  — although this version consists only of the “Woodchuck” section of the revue. Finally brought forth after decades of dormancy, LEMMINGS: DEAD IN CONCERT 1973 (aka THE NATIONAL LAMPOON TELEVISION SHOW as the wobbly chyron informs us) is a fascinating, hilarious and sometime brilliant takedown of the Woodstock Generation, skewered in that amoral, savage Lampoon style, a potent mixture of elitism and satire. The show’s theme is that the concert is a tribute to 60’s death and nothingness, presided over by a series of skits and bands patterned after familiar pop icons that encourage the audience to kill themselves. John Belushi is the emcee, a scruffy dynamic presence already busting at the seams with smartass energy — I love his warning that “The brown strychnine has been cut with acid.”

Of course, the musical acts are the highlight of the revue, expertly crafted parodies with their own catchy charm, not surprising given that Christopher Guest wrote most of the tunes. “Floyd, Pavlov, Adler and Young” is a deadly take on CSN&Y, featuring Chase on drums, Belushi on bass and Guest on lead guitar. It’s cool to see him and Belushi onstage together. Guest is also absolutely transcendent as a reluctant Bob Dylan (until handed cash) performing “Positively Wall Street” in the best imitation I’ve ever seen, going back and forth from his raspy folk voice to his “Nashville Skyline” twang. Alice Playten (aka “Blix” from Ridley Scott’s LEGEND) won an Obie Award for her work, killing as a proto-Joni Mitchell. Rhonda Coullet folk-rawks as Joan Baez, singing the show’s most outrageous song, the ultimate anthem to guilty liberal rage. Not surprisingly, Belushi busts out his dynamic Joe Cocker to top it all off. By the end, the final band aptly titled “Megadeath” unleashes a sonic blast of cynicism, an eerie harbinger of the 1970’s punk rock EST cocaine apathy to come. The video here is fairly raw and the audience seems pre-selected for the final act of mass suicide, but this is a wonderful cultural artifact, a chance to enjoy a group of bright talents who would soon alter the American comedy landscape. Amazingly, although the show’s original cast recording has been available for years, there’s been no official release for this rare, unique video snapshot of a cynical new generation of satirists bred by National Lampoon.

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14 Responses to “National Lampoon’s Lemmings (1973)”

  1. You can now stream the video on Netflix. I just watched it. It doesn’t star Alice Playen by the way.

    • Really? I thought she does play Joni Mitchell here, though definitely Rhonda Coullet is Joan Baez — tough to get accurate info about this TV version taped at Queensboro Community College! Thanks.

      • bill vallely Says:

        Alice was in the original Off Broadway production, not the later touring show that was videotaped.

        The woman was 5 foot nothin’, and vocally blew everyone else off the stage.

  2. Fursealclubber Says:

    You neglected to mention a major contributor to the NL Lemmings show and LP, and that’s the show’s Music Director, Arranger and performer, Paul Jacobs, a very talented NY musician.

    Check the Lemmings songwriting credits at this link.

    http://www.marksverylarge.com/recordings/lemmings.html

  3. Jeff Blackman Says:

    I feel lucky that I was able to see this show. I was 18 at the time and was a big National Lampoon fan. My girlfriend and I sat there and watched John Belushi roll down the isle in a “Joe Cocker” seizure!

  4. were can i get this album or cd please send me a email reply

  5. bill vallely Says:

    I saw the original Off Broadway production, twice. Got to talk with John Belushi before the show started. There’s an entire first act to the show that wasn’t recorded. The show opened with “Deteriorata”. Another notible number was a parody of JC Superstar called “Jackie Christ, Superstar.” Jesus was a stand up comedian. “A lot of people think My father is skinny. That’s wrong. That’s an immaculate misconception. He’s fat. He’s very, very fat. He’s so fat…..that when he sits around the Universe, HE SITS AROUND THE UNIVERSE……Thank you.”

    • christian Says:

      Gawd that sounds amazing. Wish there was an official filmed version. What did you and Belushi chat about?

  6. wallpaper…

    […]National Lampoon’s Lemmings (1973) « Technicolor Dreams 70[…]…

  7. So exactly WHO alleges this was done for HBO? The Dangerous Mind post about this, which came after yours, and repeats the Playten mistake, leading to me to assume that your piece is a primary source for it, isn’t any more enlightening.

  8. Dale Causeway Says:

    “‘Floyd, Pavlov, Adler and Young’ is a deadly take on CSN&Y”

    That’s actually Freud, Marx, Engels & Jung.

  9. Dale Causeway Says:

    Clarification: on the Lp, it’s “Freud, Marx, Engels & Jung.” On the videotape it’s “Freud, Pavlov, Adler & Jung.” Not sure I understand the Pavlov joke. People acting like Lemmings, animal behavior, etc.?

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