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.