The new comedy album Are There Any Triggers Here Tonight? is the first in more than three decades to be released under the National Lampoon banner. To many, this is not an immediate cause for celebration. There’s a whole generation that has only seen the Lampoon name affixed to direct-to-DVD duds like The Legend of Awesomest Maximus.
Tony Hendra gets it. He was present at the revolution, when National Lampoon launched as a satirical magazine out of Harvard University in 1970. Starting as a writer, he was the first editor to be officially hired by cofounders Doug Kenney and Henry Beard. That he has returned to the fold to shepherd Are There Any Triggers Here Tonight? rekindles hopes that the Lampoon could once again be associated with the kind of iconoclastic satire that would influence Saturday Night Live, The Onion and The Daily Show.
In its heyday, the magazine was defined by the infamous January 1973 cover threatening to kill a dog if the consumer didn’t purchase that issue. The Lampoon empire branched out into theatre (Lemmings), recordings (the instant classic Radio Dinner), radio (The National Lampoon Radio Hour, whose ensemble included pre-SNL Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Bill Murray and Gilda Radner) and movies (Animal House, the Vacation franchise).
But what has the Lampoon done for us lately? Ronald Reagan was president in 1982 when the last non-compilation album, Sex, Drugs, Rock ‘N’ Roll & the End of the World was released. The magazine ceased publication in 1998. Hendra had left two decades prior. But creating satire and “outwardly directed attack humor” is in his bones, he told Playboy.com.
Hendra is best known as cricket bat-wielding band manager Ian Faith in This is Spinal Tap. He wrote the definitive history of Baby Boomer generation humor, Going Too Far: The Rise and Demise of Sick, Gross, Black, Sophomoric, Weirdo, Pinko, Anarchist, Underground, Anti-Establishment Humor. He co-produced Radio Dinner and performed its high point: “Magical Misery Tour,” featuring Hendra as John Lennon and lyrics derived from Lennon’s “the dream is over” interview with Rolling Stone magazine in 1970. “I was the walrus!” he wails, perfectly channeling peak primal-scream Lennon. “Paul wasn’t the walrus! I was just saying that to be nice but I was actually the walrus!”
There’s a slow-motion civil war going on, and you’re worried about micro-aggression and safe spaces.
Triggers is a collection of sketches that range from the absurd (an interview with Kim Kardashian’s ass, a Bernie Sanders sex tape) to the more squirm-inducing Chez Rectal restaurant bit (don’t ask). A more politically pointed sketch finds a congressman trying to clarify “misunderstandings” surrounding a law he authored that would put gays in storage lockers. Its contents are a sampling of audio work culled from The Final Edition Radio Hour, an outgrowth of the web-media parody Hendra and Jeff Kreisler launched in 2011 as a send-up of the New York Times’ supposed last edition. (One key headline from its faux-front page reads, “Kristof: I Need a Micro-Loan to Get Home.”)
The album comes at a conflicted time for comedy. There have never been so many outlets for content and programming. With the usage of “fuck” on the new basic cable FX series, Atlanta, you can cross another word off of George Carlin’s list of seven words you can’t say on prime time.
There is also unprecedented interest in the process of comedy, and inside-baseball websites, podcasts and satellite radio shows such as Splitsider, WTF with Marc Maron and Unmasked with Rob Bennington scratch that itch via interviews with comedians and industry insiders. This is a mixed blessing, especially when it comes to the business of making people laugh, Hendra said. “There’s no question there’s hundreds of outlets and podcasts and comedy experts and so forth. I have this fake statistic, which is that 93.7 percent of male users of the internet think they’re funny as shit; the good news is that 93.6 percent of them are not. I think there is a tremendous number of really mediocre talent out there that is getting more attention than he or she deserves.”
Hendra bemoans how stand-up “has really overtaken comedy. A great friend of mine called it ‘entrepreneurial comedy.’ It probably mirrors the solopsism in the culture. I honestly don’t want to hear yet another comedian telling about their inner lives, childhood traumas and personal tastes. It doesn’t interest me. But that’s what people think of as comedy and they keep lapping it up. I don’t know how it survives.”
And then there’s political correctness—a term that grates on Hendra—which has put some comedians on the defensive. In August, Ellen DeGeneres was compelled to deny she’s racist after she tweeted a Photoshopped image of her on the back of Olympic champion Usain Bolt with the caption, “This is how I’m running errands from now on.”
In the Lampoon’s glory days, there were no safe spaces from pieces such as “The Vietnamese Baby Book,” “The Nazi Dr. Doolittle” (he made the animals talk) and “Gun Lust Magazine.” “A number of us were truly, deeply politically committed to one cause or another, even if the cause was deciding that politics was completely useless,” Hendra said. “We were angry, but for very good reason. We were being drafted against our will in a brutal, immoral war with no way of getting out of it unless you were lucky or rich. And we weren’t cocooned against this stuff, which is what I think is the problem here. This is all about kids who have been brought up on the internet, which is like looking in a mirror. They are just terrified of having anything about that disturbed.”
Colleges, where students once embraced anarchic voices like National Lampoon’s, are now avoided by some A-list comedians who despair of the perceived oversensitive campus culture. The first track of Triggers addresses this trend, as the cast’s attempt at a live college performance is thwarted by conflicting and escalating protests. “Sarcasm hurts my feelings,” one offended party proclaims. “I don’t feel safe here.” Another adds, “He’s a sarcasm survivor!“
In August, the University of Chicago released a letter to its incoming students that it did not support trigger warnings—alerts about material some might consider sensitive, controversial or trauma-inducing—or safe spaces. “That action is exactly [the thinking] that triggered us,” Hendra said. “I think we’re on the cusp of this thing, and I’m glad we’re getting the album out there. We’ll see how offended people are.”
More than 45 years since he first wrote for National Lampoon, Hendra’s sense of outrage has not dimmed. Elvis Costello once sang, “I used to be disgusted, but now I try to be amused,” but one senses that the opposite is true for Hendra.
Ultimately, he has two words for those more concerned with trigger warnings than they are with actual triggers being pulled around them. “There’s a slow-motion civil war going on, and you’re worried about micro-aggression and safe spaces,” he said. “Come on, guys. Get real.”