- - Sunday, November 6, 2016

If all Tony Hendra ever did was play manager Ian Faith in Rob Reiner’s brilliant mockumentary “This Is Spinal Tap,” then then his place in comedy history would be secure. But long before that he appeared on Ed Sullivan’s, wrote for National Lampoon and produced legendary 1970s albums that launched the careers of everyone from John Belushi to Christopher Guest.

Mr. Tony Hendra’s latest project sees him returning to a recently re-organized National Lampoon to produce a new album, “Are There Any Triggers Here Tonight?” a comedy album as raw and edgy as it is funny.

Mr. Hendra spoke about the new album and how he almost ended up a member
of Monty Python.

Question: How did you get your start in comedy?

Answer: At Cambridge University, where I was in an organization called Footlights, which is a bit like The Harvard Lampoon dedicated to satire and comedy.

My year at Cambridge included Graham Chapman and John Cleese. My first professional start in comedy was with Graham Chapman. We had a comedy team in London that did very well for a while until Graham decided he wanted to become a doctor.

Then I got another partner from Footlights called Nick Ullett. We ended up in New
York.

Q: When John and Graham formed Monty Python, were you still in touch?

A: I stayed in touch with both John and Graham. In fact, at one point John
wrote to me in the States and said, “We’ve got some interesting ideas floating
around. You might want to come home and work with us.” At the time we
had a TV series pilot deal with NBC. So I said no.

Q: Had you said yes, you could have been a Python.

A: That would be an arrogant thing to claim. Certainly it would have been
very interesting if I had decided to go home. I don’t think I’m really a funny enough performer to have fit in with those guys.

Q: How did you end up working with National Lampoon?

A: My partner Nick Ullett and I worked together for about five years between 1964 and 1969. We were successful, did Ed Sullivan, Merv Griffin, Hollywood
Palace and all those awful ‘60s variety shows.

Eventually I couldn’t take it anymore. Comedy on television in the ‘60s was just so removed from what was going on outside the studio: Vietnam, sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. I broke up the act. I ended up writing for this magazine, The National
Lampoon. I was delighted. This group of people were the exact opposite of
the comedy I had been forced to do the previous five years.

Q: You then produced National Lampoon’s albums.

A: The first album we did I produced with a guy called Michael O’Donoghue
from SNL. It was called “Radio Dinner” in 1972. No one had done parodies of
rock ‘n’ roll people.

I did a parody of John Lennon. I wrote an extremely rude parody of Joan Baez. The powers that be — or that were at the Lampoon, then wanted another album soon after. We decided to do a live album that was a full-scale parody of Woodstock. I produced that and directed it. It opened at the Village Gate in 1973. It starred John Belushi, Chevy Chase and Christopher Guest in their first sort of real jobs ever.

The radio show grew out of these albums.

Q: That is an amazing talent pool. Do you have any idea that they were going to go on to be huge successes?

A: When I first cast Belushi, I thought, “There’s a superstar in the making.” He was just incredible. The energy. I thought he had a big future.

I wasn’t sure about Chevy, although he made me laugh a lot. Christopher was just a brilliant technician — the best musical parodist we ever had. By the time late 1974 came around, Lorne Michaels was looking for a cast for his show
“Saturday Night Live.”

Q: Why didn’t you join the cast and Michael O’Donoghue at SNL?

A: I made a vow when I broke up our comedy act before that I would never
work in television again. [laughs] I hated it that much.

Somebody from NBC came over at one point and pitched the Lampoon to be involved in this late-night show they were doing. And everybody, including O’Donoghue, said, “Absolutely not!”

Q: Why so long in between albums, and why put one out now?

A: For the last 20 to 25 years, the National Lampoon has been run by morons and criminals. The previous proprietors both went to jail. I got to know these new proprietors who are not only not moronic and not criminal, but actually really wanted to refurbish the brand.

It occurred to me that my own group, The Final Edition Radio Hour, really do National Lampoon-type material. It seemed logical that the Lampoon would produce this album with us.

Q: How do you think this album fits in today’s comedy landscape?

A: Whatever the landscape is, we’re doing something that hasn’t really been
done, and not at this level of production, since the National Lampoon radio
hour.

I believe that we are in a period that is very much like the early-‘70s. Same polarization, same fury, same issues. These times call for this kind of satire.

Q: Did Christopher Guest get you your part in “Spinal Tap”?

A: Actually, no, although I’m certain that helped. It was Rob Reiner, who I
had known when I lived in Los Angeles briefly in the ‘60s. He made the
call to my agent and said, “We want Tony to play a character who is
completely untrustworthy. And a real sh*t. Is he available?”

It was glorious fun.

Q: Why do you think the film has had such a lasting appeal, especially to people who worked in the music business?

A: These guys, the main characters, are so innocent and harmless and stupid
that they have an immensely appealing evergreen quality. It’s also extremely funny, which sort of helps.

Q: Do you own a cricket bat?

A: I do own a cricket bat, but it’s only so I can sign them and give them away to friends. My slogan is “F*** the napkin!”

National Lampoon’s new album, “Are There Any Triggers Here,” is out now.


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