Back in the early 70’s (pre-SNL), if you were a comedy fanatic, barely out of your youthful adolescence stage, there were a few places for you to turn to. MAD Magazine and Monty Python initially helped develop your love of comedy, but the older you got, the more you got to appreciate the more biting satire that came with comedy mainstays such as The National Lampoon magazine. And in 1973, National Lampoon partnered with folks now regarded as some of the comedy greats (John Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Harold Ramis, Chevy Chase, Christopher Guest, and Michael O’Donoghue) to bring us a short-lived but renowned comedy radio program that helped further shape our comedy sensabilities.
And now here we are, in 2019, in a time when so much comedy has become reliant on the political of it all, that we revisit the magic that is the National Lampoon Radio Hour as a podcast. With some of the hottest up and comers in comedy contributing, from Brett Davis to Rachel Pegram to Martin Urbano and Megan Stalter (to name but a few), the Radio Hour has made its triumphant return as a podcast, with headwriters Jo Firestone and Cole Escola helping to make sure that the comedy institution is staying alive and well.
Jo Firestone has been a remarkable mainstay of the New York comedy scene for many years now, captivating audiences with her unique perspective and brand of humor. This lead to her becoming a writer on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, and even becoming an on-air contributor (most notably with her taking on the role of Betsy Vos). We recently spoke to Jo about the Radio Hour, her favorite bits from the show, why Radio Hour is like buying something from Old Navy, and why she likes to listen to news podcasts.
The first time I ever saw you was at the 2015 Andy Kaufman Awards. And I remember you doing a bit where you are passing out falafels while rapping about it. And as I’m watching it, I’m thinking “This is someone truly interesting.”
(Laughs). I guess that’s what that piece was. It was interesting more than anything else. But I appreciate you sitting through that.
Of course. Now I love that you and your team have brought back the National Lampoon Radio Hour. I truly never thought I’d ever get to see that come back, but I am happy it’s baclk.
I guess you never really think “I hope they reboot this. I hope they reboot that.” Sometimes things come up and you think “Well, this would be interesting.” So then you do your best to try to fulfill whatever fantastical legacy is left behind. Especially when it’s a reboot, because sometimes you’re doing jobs where it hasn’t been done before. I didn’t think, like, on my vision board “They will reboot it as a podcast and I will be writing for it.” It seemed like a good group of people and it seemed like it would be a fun job. And it did turn out to be a fun job and was a good group of people.
Had you heard any of the original show before you got this gig?
Yeah, it’s like this comedy institution, but we weren’t kind of like going to perform the scripts from that show. I think one of the perks of that show is that it feels so fresh and it feels so timely and it feels so of that moment and of those performers and writers. So it was very clear to us from the start that we were going to kind of make our own thing using this existing name, and hoping that the people that did like that show either won’t hear about this show or…. I think the overlap of this show might be small, but I think that’s okay.
And also it’s like, I think with comedy people like this idea of “Who’s the next John Belushi? Who’s the next whoever?” But the point of comedy is that there’s these original voices that come out. It’s not theater. You’re not performing the role of John Belushi. You’re your own person. And the fact that we had all these really originally and defined voices, and it’s like all these people with really unique voices are all coming together, so it would be a waste not to just have them do their own thing and see what came out of it. It’s kind of like the last version of this show. Clearly these people weren’t trying to do anything other than be themselves and make something cool or weird.
And I really appreciate the originality factor. It’s, honestly, more of just the name than anything else.
Exactly. It’s like Old Navy. You buy an Old Navy shirt but it’s not going to be the same Old Navy shirt that they made in 1998, but you kind of get the gist and the sizing is about right.
Have you guys been in contact with anyone from the original show?
Can you walk me through a bit about how the writing process is for a podcast? I assume there is your standard writer’s room.
So we had five weeks to write it and we’d do two episodes a week. And what we’d do is we would have two random topics by anyone in the room. Like for example heat and night. And then everybody would pitch stuff based on those two themes and whatever got laughs in the room we would tell them to write stuff like that. And then from there, people would read theirs out loud throughout the week and get feedback and everybody would help each other to make it as funny as it could possibly be. And then we’d have a big table read with everything. And then the stuff that got laughs we kept in and the stuff that didn’t get laughs, we mourned. We mourned deeply and tearfully. Tenderly.
So as you’re doing the show, would you find stuff that wouldn’t translate as well to the audio format that you’d have to steer away from?
I think if it was a pretty visual… We tried to keep that in mind with the writing. How to keep it as more of a world and how to use sound effects. I think if it was super visual, I think everybody in the group got a sense of that. But there’s also this video component so it has to work both ways, almost.
Do you have any particular favorite moments or sketches from the show? That really made you laugh?
You know, Martin Urbano has an ongoing bit about how he’s a sexual predator. And it’s like so bold to do at this time, at the time of people being cancelled or being called out, and he’s spinning that on its head and just kind of proudly saying he’s a pedophile and/or a sex offender at all times. Nobody is so brave to do that. He’s like pushing down boundaries there in a very unheard of way, at least for me, and that always cracks me up.
But everybody is so funny and so boundary pushing. There are some things where I think I’ve just heard them so many times that I don’t think about them as a shocking thing or something that is really out there, but there’s one sketch where Rachel Pegram is talking about the opening graphics for Pixar. And it’s a whole sketch about a woman who has never seen that before and thinks it’s an entire movie. And it’s like taking little things and kind of expanding on it and playing on it. And it kind of just shows how her brain works. It’s fun. I like that one a lot.
I love that this is being done as a podcast, because it seems like the medium was tailor-made for something like this that goes beyond your typical recorded conversation.
Yeah, who knows what people listen to podcasts for. I’m curious myself.
What do you usually go for with podcasts?
Well, you know, I usually try to scare myself every morning with the news. That’s pretty much it. I know Cole, who’s the other head writer of the show, he listens to this thing called Memory Palace, which is very soothing but also sometimes very depressing vignettes of history. I’ve tried that as well. It’s pretty nice.
I imagine to listen to other comedy podcasts might be too much after surrounding yourself with comedy all day.
I would say I’ve spent maybe a quarter of my life at this point watching or listening to comedy. And of course I love it. But I would say if I never saw a comedic piece of art ever again, I wouldn’t forget to laugh. I could always think of things I’ve seen before. But I think other people they have room, still. And that’s who this podcast is for. It’s like that fundraising thermometer at telethons. Mine is full of comedy moments and memories. And others, it’s just beginning. The marathon is just beginning.
And going back to the show, the fact that the show now exists as a podcast allows even more boundaries to be pushed, because there is no language regulations in the world of podcasting.
Well, I think there were a few boundaries that the producers put down, but they all make sense.
You don’t want anything that could get someone in trouble five years from now.
Yeah, we don’t need any slander or anything like that. For the most part, we try to keep it real nasty.
Episodes of the National Lampoon Radio Hour Podcast can be found on Spotify every Thursday as well as on the National Lampoon YouTube page.