Lemmings (1971) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Lemmings is a long-buried treasure recently unearthed by the National Lampoon' staffers when they were cleaning out some storage areas. It's more of a historical treasure than an entertainment classic, but it will thrill some of you nonetheless.

In 1971, the Lampoon people staged their first New York show, far off Broadway, starring five talented young actor/musicians. The show was a spoof of Woodstock and the Woodstock generation, the "Woodchuck Festival of Peace, Love and Death", in which the "Rock Festival" was being held to facilitate suicide. The idea, I guess, was that the entire generation consisted of lemmings who would run off a cliff if their leaders told them to and, in fact, were doing just that with drug abuse.



The show is good, not great. The tape is terrible in quality. It was made by amateurishly slicing together footage from two primitive vidcams which simply recorded a stage performance. The show was not staged for the camera, but for the theatrical audience, including the cheap seats. Since this is simply a recording of the actual live show, the acting was not toned down to movie or TV levels. Since it was recorded live, there were no retakes if the actors flubbed the jokes.

To the great credit of the current Lampoon people who found the tape, they didn't overhype this product. They just wanted to get the product out to the people who might be interested. In fact, they didn't even make any packaging for the tape. It comes in an unmarked package, at a reasonable price. Their fulfillment is done expeditiously. I ordered it on a Saturday. 10 minutes later, I got an e-mail saying it had been shipped. It was in my mailbox Monday.

You might enjoy it, but I think you probably have to be born between 1945 and 1960 to get much of anything out of it. For example, you have to understand the context of the Bob Dylan jokes, or the whole Dylan segment is pointless. The counter-culture considered Dylan to be one of its prophets, but in reality Dylan was de-politicizing just as everyone else was becoming radicalized. At the height of the counter-culture, Dylan issued an album of apolitical hayseed country music, including a duet with Johnny Cash. The song "Dylan" sings in the show reflects that paradox.

Although the show itself isn't near the apex of the Lampoon's entertainment efforts, there is something very interesting about it. Three of the five young performers are Chevy Chase (then called "Chevey" Chase), John Belushi, and Chris Guest. Remember this is some time before Saturday Night Live. Chevy was probably the least important performer in the group, but Guest and Belushi are two of the three stars. Belushi plays the announcer at the faux Woodstock, so he gets to deliver a very high percentage of the spoken dialogue as he introduces the acts in turn. He also gets to do his famous Joe Cocker impersonation. Guest does several impersonations, including one of James Taylor and two of Bob Dylan (early folk-balladeer, and then Nashville Skyline rube). All of the impersonations are outstanding. The female star sent up the distaff icons of the day, Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez. Belushi's caustic introductions could be hilarious. At first Bob Dylan wouldn't come on stage, but Belushi drew him out with a big wad of money. Belushi introduced Joni Mitchell as a woman who could really help the lemmings in the audience die, because she was known to bore people to death. Remember, however, that this is a stage show, and all of this was played much too "big" to be really effective when recorded by a camera five feet away. The broad acting style really steps on the verbal humor.

The songs are funnier. The great genius of the National Lampoon was that they attacked the counter culture just as viciously as they attacked Nixon and Agnew. And they spoofed literature and history as easily as contemporary politics and entertainment. They were a bunch of very smart guys who collectively possessed a wide knowledge base and an all-encompassing sense of humor. This particular stage show did nothing much more than satirize the Woodstock generation and its idols, saving its sharpest barbs for radical chic.

And they could be vicious.


James Taylor, North Carolina boy with a publicly aired history of mental illness, sings:

Farewell to New York with your streets that flash like strobes

Farewell to Carolina, where I left my frontal lobes ...

I can hear those contracts calling

I'm too sensitive to stay

So my highway toes are thumbing me away

Joan Baez, queen of folk protest, sings:

Pull the triggers, niggers

We're with you all the way ...

I'm the world's madonna - donna - donna - donna - don

I'm needed from Belfast to Bangladesh

So many grievous wrongs

For me to right with tedious songs ...

This type of satire was aimed at only the very most sophisticated audiences, and was not highly commercial. Ask yourself this - who was the target audience? In those days, commercial success came to those who pandered to the counter-culture. Saturday Night Live, assembled a couple of years later by some of the same people, made fun of Nixon, deferred to counter-cultural icons, and occasionally glamorized drug use. The Lampoon people, on the other hand, invited the citizens of the counter-culture into Lemmings, and then told them that they were mindless sheep, that their idols were humbugs, and that their drug use was suicidal. Some members of the counter-culture had the ability to laugh at themselves, but most were too self-important, so this show was in for a bit shorter run than "The Fantasticks".

Bottom line: don't expect a sophisticated film with slick production values. It's like watching a high school spring musical taped by someone's dad.

Except that three of the performers became stars. 

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