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The Punch Line, Please 

Too few laughs in The Hollywood Retorter

Wednesday, Dec 11 2002
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A FEW YEARS AGO, A FAMOUS SCREENWRITER sat in a newly minted studio mogul's office and pitched a script. It was about the comedic mishaps of men on a hunting trip. The executive was known for his sense of humor, but he sat there stone-faced, then passed on the spot. "Hunting?" said the incredulous mogul. "Jews don't hunt. I don't get it."

"Getting it" is what being Jewish in Hollywood is all about. So when the National Lampoon decided, after being missing in action for 15 years, to revive its special-edition parodies, it targeted The Hollywood Reporter and Hollywood Jews.

Oy vey.

"This was just letting people know we're back, and our sensibility's back," Doug Bennett, National Lampoon's executive vice president, told the Weekly on the eve of the release of its 16-page The Hollywood Retorter, which this week started showing up without fanfare in the mailboxes of 4,000 top entertainment names.

Lampoon editor in chief Scott Rubin, who is quick to point out he himself is Jewish, says the subject of Hollywood Jews was chosen because it's such a taboo in this town. Even the L.A. Times, in a news brief, shied away from mentioning the "Jewish" articles. "Well, who are we kidding? There're a lot of Jews in Hollywood. But no one wants to admit that. This was just having fun with the fact that a disproportionate amount of Jews are in the entertainment business."

And the punch line is . . . ?

The lead story, illustrated with a photo of Jeffrey Katzenberg, claims that "After years of Jewish executives and producers concealing their Jewishness, Jewish entertainment moguls were announcing a new network, JewTV. Not only does the article contain faux quotes from Katzenberg, Barry Diller and Michael Eisner, among others, but it has The Simpsons' producer, James L. Brooks, renaming that show The Simpsteins and revamping the storyline: "Homer will own a small check-cashing business, Marge will be racked with guilt for not properly mothering her children to death, and Bart will be a hypochondriac obsessed with anti-Semitism who will constantly nudge his dad to describe the deaths of many of his dead relatives who died in the Holocaust."

(Expectedly, not everyone who received the parody issue realized it was a spoof. On Monday, one geriatric Hollywood flack barked to his snickering underlings: "Let's get our clients on this new JewTV. Maybe even their own talk shows.")

Another article reports that "Jew rotisserie leagues" are the latest Hollywood trend. "At agencies throughout L.A., assistants and CEOs alike are poring through their Hollywood Creative Directories, getting ready for this season's Fantasy Jew rotisserie-league drafts." Points are scored for achievements like marrying a trophy shiksa, making a Survivor rip-off, and furthering the career of Adam Sandler. "Picking the right Jews can be tricky," one enthusiast is quoted in the send-up as saying. "Last year, I went with Eisner #1, and he tanked. The only thing that saved me was that I picked up Sumner Redstone as a free agent. I guess people didn't know he's Jewish."

If that's not enough, a news brief claims a New York City teenager "is in hot water after trying to extinguish the entire Jewish race from the face of the Earth on Tuesday. The 16-year-old boy had apparently seen a similar stunt nearly pulled off by the Germans on the History Channel and was trying to imitate it."

ONCE UPON A TIME, THE NATIONAL LAMPOON was synonymous with comedy because of its edgy magazine and the 1978 movie Animal House starring John Belushi. Then the brand lost all meaning during several-too-many Chevy Chase Vacation sequels. Today, only baby-boomers remember the company's 1970s heyday when it grew out of the Harvard Lampoon and expanded into books, radio shows, albums and comedy tours, spawning so-called talents like P.J. O'Rourke and John Hughes. When Cosmopolitan magazine made Burt Reynolds a centerfold, the National Lampoon followed with a pinup of Henry Kissinger. But by 1998, the magazine was yanked, though the company did find a new audience for its humor on the Web. Post-millennium, National Lampoon was the target of a hostile takeover by a dot-com millionaire from Indiana, Dan Laikin, ending in a nasty legal battle for control over parent company J2 Communications.

Today, Bennett insists National Lampoon is the most recognized brand in humor, quoting a recently commissioned marketing study claiming a 93 percent name recognition in the 15-to-54 male demographic. "That's up there with Coke. It opens up so many opportunities," he boasts. Though the tech and publishing executive arrived at the Lampoon in 1999, only this year could he start securing a string of new branding deals: six books with Rugged Land publishers, a minority investment by ex-BMG music boss Strauss Zelnick, the purchase of the in-dorm TV network Burly Bear, which reaches 3.5 million college students on 420 U.S. campuses.

But the Lampoon movie franchise has faded. Even Ivan Reitman, the Animal House producer who hasn't had a bona fide hit film in years, was quoted in USA Today as saying the brand name is "fairly irrelevant' to moviegoers now. Proof was NL's recent low-budget college sexcapade National Lampoon's Van Wilder, which took in only $20 million.

For now, The Hollywood Retorter won't go on sale at newsstands but will be available on the NL Web site. Though the humorists claim to have spent several months on the project — "we had a team of 46 lawyers, then got it down to 38, then just one that never slept," jokes Rubin — the results hardly draw blood. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer sets Morocco on fire. CBS Entertainment president Nancy Tellem has never seen an episode of Becker. Sony America CEO Howard Stringer announces "exclusive direct content for the human subconscious." DreamWorks SKG becomes SKGR by adding Eric Roberts. MGM/UA president Michael Nathanson mourns the death of the studio's "script-choosing" parrot. Producer Scott Rudin buys a screenwriter's grocery list. And Michael Ovitz forms Artists Valet Group to reinvent how parking is conducted in Hollywood.

But some bits do have bite. Those overhyped writers boot camps are now "Writers Concentration Camps." There's a dead-on obituary of an agent "reviled by many, hated by all, who finally died almost amazingly of natural causes." New junket rules at Paramount warn reporters "to remember we all work for the same media conglomerate, we know where your kids go to school and drifters owe us favors." Product placement is advertised on the Zapruder JFK-assassination film. And the Coalition of California Rehabilitation Centers congratulates its celebrity alumni "on staying alive."

The final page is a house ad for the National Lampoon featuring a group of guys — presumably the issue's staff — pissing on the Hollywood sign. They should have taken aim at their own work instead. The magazine and the company as a whole have to move way past this tired shtick if it's going to survive.

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