In our current era of endless reboots, remakes and reimaginings, it’d be no surprise if The National Lampoon Radio Hour, featuring a whole new cast of young, talented comedians, ruffled a few comedy nerd feathers. That, however, would be missing the point of Lampoon—which later birthed Saturday Night Live and films of varying quality—entirely.
“This has always been a young person’s brand and we… the whole idea of Lampoon besides the idea of twisting mainstream is to fight the power, is to be subversive, to punch up. And it’s really hard to fight the power when you are the power,” producer and National Lampoon president Evan Shapiro (Portlandia, Comedy Bang! Bang!) tells me.
At the center of this latest iteration of NLRH, formerly home to the likes of John Belushi, Gilda Radner and Bill Murray in the early ‘70s, are comedians Cole Escola and Jo Firestone. Escola has appeared on Hulu’s Difficult People and often features on At Home with Amy Sedaris as her neighbor, Chassie Tucker, but many will know him from his off-kilter YouTube sketches in which he usually dons a wig and plays some vaguely deranged character. Firestone, who’s written for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, co-stars in Joe Pera Talks with You and recently appeared in Shrill.
The pair serve as lead writers on NLRH, though self-effacingly Escola says of their editing, “I would say we hurt people’s sketches more than we helped.”
Firestone clarifies in her distinctive warbly voice, “It’s more like, everybody rides horses, but we open the barn.”
The cast, which Escola and Firestone helped assemble, is rounded out by celebrated New York comedians Brett Davis, Alex English, Maeve Higgins, Aaron Jackson, Rachel Pegram, Lorelei Ramirez, Megan Stalter and Martin Urbano. The group wrote the sketches in Bushwick over the course of five weeks, then spent a week recording at Vinegar Hill Sound in DUMBO.
“I’d say a lot of writers rooms are very notoriously fraught and stressful, and this was like—there was not a lot of ego in this one,” Firestone explains, adding, “I think we’re hoping that it turns out really good because it was such a nice room that it’s like, if it has to be a bad room to make a good thing, that’s really unfortunate.”
Shapiro, who has recently placed himself at the cross streets of streaming services and podcasts with Seeso (rest in peace) programs like My Brother My Brother and Me and Take My Wife, also spoke glowingly of the cast.
“It just felt really organic and natural and nice and fun and different and there’s just nothing—I haven’t heard anything like this,” he says. “I also don’t know a group of people collectively like this,” he says. “It’s actually, I think, a snapshot of comedy on the whole right now. It’s much more, I think, a community-based thing than it’s ever been. I think podcasting is a big part of that, because everybody is on everybody else’s shows.”
Escola was one of the first comedians the producers signed on because, to Shapiro, he’s “the Batman of the group. I consider Batman the leader of the Super Friends, not Superman, but that’s a topic for another time.” That makes Firestone “Wonder Woman and/or Superman, depending on how you want to look at it.”
When I mention this comparison to Escola and Firestone, the latter jokes, “I’ll take it. I mean, we’re obviously very inspired by superheroes… We start with a lot of pull-ups and um, and once we’re physically fit we’re ready to write.”
The lead writers met about a decade ago at the alternative theater company Ars Nova, an occasion which neither remembers very clearly (Escola guesses that they looked familiar to each other because “we met in a past life.”). Escola hosted, which he admits was not his forte at the time.
“I just didn’t understand the concept of hosting, that you had to be entertaining. I was just like, ‘Why do they need someone to say who’s next?’ ” At the live show of NLRH, it was clear just how far Escola’s come in those 10 years, introducing the audience to the performers with quick wit. After a brief round of stand-up, the show kicked off in earnest with an uproarious sketch by Jackson, and each subsequent bit fired off at mile-a-minute speed.
“[Aaron] was like, ‘I have to go first with, uh, this sketch about a grandpa who wants his granddaughter to have sex with pandas.’ And he’s like, ‘Okay, okay,’’ Firestone recalls. “And like his backstage hesitancy to do it was so funny compared to what he performed on stage. It’s kind of a nice little behind-the-scenes moment.”
The podcast premieres on the Forever Dog network and all available podcasting platforms on December 19, with episodes also appearing weekly on Spotify starting on December 26. It blends the surreal and the familiar much like its namesake did nearly 50 years ago. Sure, it’s a new millenia, and we are verging on a new decade, but there will always be fresh, hilarious comedians to skewer the establishment.
Clare Martin writes about comedy, music and more for Paste.