New Horizons in Tastlessness

“The rest of ‘The National Lampoon Radio Hour’ contains sketches we couldn’t possibly show on the air.”

The 1974 NBC news report, in which a reporter utters the above phrase in a tone now reserved for declarations on teens eating Tide Pods, focused on a new radio show and sketch comedy stage revue from the creators of National Lampoon magazine. The players involved in the show included Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Harold Ramis, Christopher Guest, and an oft-bearded Bill Murray. If that sounds like a familiar conflagration of improvisational virtuosity, it might be because it’s also a good portion of the original cast of Saturday Night Live—which, incidentally, NBC found it could possibly put on air two years later.

Remarkably, the crew emerged organically, nearly fully formed, from the offices of the magazine, where a studio had been set up to record the show, which aired nationally across nearly 600 stations but struggled to find sponsors. The performers had gravitated to New York City from Second City troops in Chicago (like Murray) and Toronto and found like-minded collaborators in the magazine’s writing staff. The magazine, itself an upstart offshoot of the Harvard Lampoon, had been founded by recent Harvard grads Doug Kenney and Henry Beard just a few years prior, and our NBC newsman puts it fairly when he calls its brand of humor, “anarchistic social satire.”

Michael O’Donoghue, an original Nat Lamp contributor (and later editor), created the show with the same savage and profane sensibility he’d brought to print. He, too, went on to what was then called simply Saturday Night, becoming the original head writer. The radio show existed just briefly, a little more than a year, but its nucleus, in various combinations, cut a swath through the pop culture of the next two decades that included not just SNL but also Animal House, Spinal Tap, Caddyshack, and Ghostbusters. And while those cultural touchstones took a fair bit of time to become the beloved classics they are today, nothing the Radio Hour cast has done since ever struck quite the nerve that led that NBC news reporter to characterize them as, “Reaching out for new horizons in tastelessness.”

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