With a little help from my friends: National Lampoon’s “Lemmings,” featuring John Belushi as Joe Cocker

By on September 23, 2015

All this week Night Flight is paying tribute to the influential National Lampoon — mainly because this Friday, September 25th, Douglas Tirola’s new documentary Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story Of The National Lampoon will be released by Magnolia Pictures in limited theaters around the country — and so today we have this clip of John Belushi as Joe Cocker, and Paul Jacobs as Leon Russell, from National Lampoon‘s “Lemmings” Roadshow in 1973.

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Starting on January 25, 1973, and running for 350 performances, National Lampoon magazine — which was at its circulation peak at the time — sponsored a musical comedy revue called “National Lampoon’s Lemmings,” which became New York’s biggest off-Broadway hit musical for the 1972-73 season.

The show’s first act featured sketch comedy, but its second act was given over to “Woodshuck: Three Days of Peace, Music & Death,” an elaborate satire of the Thanatos-celebrating rock festival, during which the cast of seven portrayed various characters performing, attending, or commenting on the travesty that was Woodstock (at least it was a travesty as far as the parody went), making fun of popular early 70s artists like Joe Cocker, James Taylor, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and others.

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At the time, in the early 70s, singer/songwriters were ripe for parody as they were among the popular best-selling musical artists of the day, but the closing song was a general-purpose send-up of heavy metal by a fictional group called Megadeath.

Belushi’s Cocker impression was so good, by the way, that during the third episode of “Saturday Night Live” in its first season, when Belushi was becoming a breakout star, producer Lorne Michaels did not have a musical guest, but host Rob Reiner was familiar with Belushi’s Cocker bit from seeing it performed with the “Lemmings” and he requested that Belushi sing “With a Little Help From My Friends,” delivering such an incredible rendition that culminated in an onstage meltdown that Cocker himself later admitted to Rolling Stone magazine that he didn’t know who he was really hearing at first, saying, “I thought John was lip-syncing it, just for a few bars.” (Read more here).

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The Woodshuck festival — a free rock festival — sort of combined the ideas of both the love and peace vibe of Woodstock, crossed with the death vibe of the Rolling Stones’s free concert at the Altamond Raceway, seen in Albert Maysles’s documentary concert film Gimme Shelter (which we told you about here), which is memorable for many reasons, including the fact that a Hell’s Angels biker stabbed and killed a concertgoer who had brandished a revolver, ostensibly because he was attempting to shoot someone, possibly Mick Jagger. The show’s overall title itself had actually come from a descriptive snippet of dialogue heard during the film: “It’s like the lemmings of the sea.”

The “Lemmings” songs were not listed in the program, and the sketches changed throughout the musical’s run, making it difficult to say what was happening in each performance. Both the incredibly talented Christopher Guest and Paul Jacobs (seen here in this clip above, parodying Leon Russell) wrote the music and lyrics for the entire show.

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In addition to those mentioned already, Garry Goodrow, Mary-Jennifer Mitchell, Alice Playten (as “Golden Oldie”), Nate Herman, Bob Hoban, Peter Elbling, Archie Hahn, and Zal Yanovsky were also Lemmings cast regulars. The show also spotlighted up-and-coming performers like singer Melissa Manchester and actress Stockard Channing.

Although there was no official “Lemmings” script — much of it was improvised, rehearsed and performed — the head writer on “Lemmings” was Tony Hendra, from TV’s topical “That Was The Week That Was,” who was also the first managing editor of the National Lampoon although quite a few of you will recognize him as Ian Faith, the manager of Spinal Tap. Hendra was assisted throughout by Sean Kelly, and David Axlerod, along with various members of the cast, who created much of their own dialogue. Hendra and Kelly were also credited both as co-directors.

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Left to right: Garry Goodrow, Alice Pleyten, Christopher Guest, John Belushi, Paul Jacobs, and Chevy Chase, with Tony Hendra (in front)

Uncredited writers included National Lampoon co-founders Henry Beard and Doug Kenney, Anne Beatts, John Boni, P. J. O’Rourke, and Harold Ramis. The entire show was heavily inspired by pieces that Michael O’Donoghue wrote for the National Lampoon magazine, but, due to his many conflicts with those who were writing “Lemmings,” he was left uncredited. Shame, that.

The show was moved from venue to venue, but was first presented at New York’s Village Gate, and then moved over to the New Palladium, located at 51st Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues in New York City, near Rockefeller Center, where the cast were certainly seen performing by TV producer Lorne Michaels, who would later conspire to hire away some of the best of the principal Lemmings — including Chevy Chase and John Belushi, who did his killer Joe Cocker impression as a Lemming here first– for his new sketch comedy TV show for NBC, “Saturday Night Live.”

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Belushi, in fact, stars here as the concert’s emcee, advising audiences to avoid certain drugs (a parody of the “brown acid” stage patter heard in Gimme Shelter), and saying things like “the man next to you is your dinner.”

The Lemmings cast. Left to right: Garry Goodrow, Peter Elbling, Chevy Chase, Chris Guest, John Belushi, Mary-Jennifer Mitchell, Alice Pleyten

Paul Jacobs’s rockin’ “Lemmings Lament” was followed by Guest, who co-wrote and performed a satirical portrait of Bob Dylan (“Positively Wall Street”), which skewered Dylan’s retreat from radical politics.

Guest’s Dylan was followed by Alice Playten’s performance of “Pizza Man,” a dead-on parody of 1960s biker songs, like the Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack.” Written by Hendra, Guest and Kelly, the song details a girl singing about her dead boyfriend who died in a highway smash-up and ending up looking a lot like pizza. Playten ended up winning an Obie for her work in “Lemmings.”

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The Lemmings: Alice Playten (in front), and left to right: Paul Jacobs, Chevy Chase, Christopher Guest, John Belushi, Mary-Jennifer Mitchell, with Gary Goodrow (in back)

This number was followed by Chevy Chase’s wicked parody of John Denver (“Colorado”), and then Guest again, who this time parodies James Taylor with “Highway Toes”, a tuned that poked fun at Taylor’s mental state and his song “Carolina in My Mind,” with lyrics like: “Farewell to Carolina, where I left my frontal lobe.”

Like Playten, Guest was nominated for an Obie, for his musical score, but did not win the award, although he was seen as one of the breakout stars at the time, noted for his musical abilities, his uncanny skills at mimicry, and his sharp writing, which could also be heard on “The National Lampoon Radio Hour,” the magazine’s thirty-minute off-shoot which incredible performances by Guest, Belushi, Chase, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, and Richard Belzer. The “Radio Hour” ended up running for nearly sixty episodes, before folding in 1974.

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Belushi, Guest, Chase

Despite all of this success, however, one of the incredible things to note about this period was that, even as National Lampoon’s circulation is said to have jumped up with new subscriptions that can be directly credited back to the popularity of the “Lemmings” show, the magazine’s publisher didn’t believe the stars of the show had anything to do with it and when Guest, Belushi (who regularly stole the show from everyone, hands down) and Chase went to Matty Simmons, of 21st Century Communications, the magazine’s publisher, and asked for a raise, they were turned down (according to Tony Hendra, writing in Harpers‘s magazine in 2002), and actually told they were “a dime a dozen.”

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Sensing that there was something special going on at the Village Gate, however, the burgeoning HBO cable network hired director Joshua White — the Joshua behind the legendary Joshua Light Show that had accompanied concerts at 60s rock temple the Fillmore East .. he was the long-standing husband of Alice Playten — to direct a planned “Lemmings” TV special, which is where this footage originates from. HBO, unfortunately, ultimately decided not to air the special once they saw the footage.

White would go on to direct another early Lampoon production, Disco Beaver from Outer Space, made specifically for HBO in 1978, which became the lowest-rated comedy show in the history of the HBO network. We’re going to tell you about that one later this week.

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.