NEW YORK – National Lampoon's Van Wilder, a gross-out comedy opening Friday, may make some moviegoers long for the days when John Belushi's exploding human zit gag in Animal House looked like innocent fun.
But we're not in 1978 any more.
National Lampoon is no longer the irreverent humor magazine that spun off from the Harvard Lampoon to become a countercultural icon.
That's been pretty much dead since 1995 — but the name lives on as a 2-year-old Web site and a brand name Artisan is tapping to help promote Van Wilder, a college flick starring Tara Reid and Ryan Reynolds.
"I don't know how well the film will play, but it certainly can't hurt having the National Lampoon name attached," says box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian, of Exhibitor Relations Co.
"I think for a lot of moviegoers that somehow adds credibility to the movie."
During its 1970s heyday, the magazine featured important writers like P.J. O'Rourke, John Hughes and Michael O'Donoghue, and it built a reputation based on a savvy mix of locker-room chuckles and racy social satire.
Its skewed humor was exemplified by the famous cover featuring a picture of a dog with a gun to its head and the caption: "Buy this magazine or we'll shoot this dog."
Gleeful political incorrectness and a capacity to shock were the hallmarks of the magazine, but it didn't survive the conservative climate of the late '80s.
The magazine's humor grew stale and more sophisticated readers didn't warm to its childish jokes. It slowly petered out, publishing annually from 1995 until its swan-song issue in 1998.
National Lampoon hasn't lent its name to a theatrical release since 1995 —and hasn't been associated with a good movie since European Vacation in 1985.
Enter nationallampoon.com, a Web site the former magazine's owners started up two years ago.
Maybe the movie's 18- to 35-year-old target demographic won't care, but its link to National Lampoon is less than organic.
Animal House and Vacation were actually spawned from articles that had appeared in the magazine — Chris Miller's "The Night of the Seven Fires" and John Hughes' "Vacation 58," respectively.
But with Van Wilder, Artisan first made the movie, then approached the National Lampoon site to promote Van Wilder.
Both sides stood to benefit.
At test-screenings of the film, "what was really eye-opening was the level of awareness the audience had for the National Lampoon brand," says Amorette Jones, head of marketing for Artisan.
"Everyone recognized the name as something that means comedy — quality comedy."
And Van Wilder had enough bare breasts and fart jokes to win the National Lampoon stamp of approval. "It's like someone spent millions of dollars on a marketing campaign for our site," says Web site editor in chief Scott Rubin.
"We went to a screening and we liked the movie — it fit in with what National Lampoon is about," Rubin says, adding that they had turned down approaches from studios to use the name in the past.
Rubin and the Lampoon writers then created a back story and interactive games based on the film, "as if the movie was spawned from Web site content," Rubin said.
Rubin won't say how much Artisan paid them to use the name, but it is believed to be in the $1 million range.