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During the 1970s and early 1980s, a few films were made as spin-offs from the original National Lampoon magazine, using some of the magazine's creative staff to put together the outline and script, and were cast using some of the same actors that performed in The National Lampoon Radio Hour and the stage show National Lampoon's Lemmings. The first of the "National Lampoon" movies was a (not very successful) made-for-TV movie called Disco Beaver from Outer Space, broadcast in 1978.
The second, and by far the most successful film, was National Lampoon's Animal House (1978). Starring John Belushi and written by Doug Kenney, Harold Ramis and Chris Miller, Animal House became one of the highest grossing comedy films of all time. Produced on a low budget, it was so enormously profitable that from that point onward for the next two decades, the name "National Lampoon" applied to the title of a movie was considered to be a valuable selling point in and of itself.
There is considerable ambiguity about what constitutes a "National Lampoon" film because, after the success of Animal House, a large number of movies were subsequently made that had "National Lampoon" as part of the title, and in some cases used actors that had been associated with other National Lampoon productions. Many of these so-called "National Lampoon" movies were unrelated projects, because during most of the 1980s and the 90s, the name "National Lampoon" could simply be licensed on a one-time basis, by any company, for a fee. There are also cases where a film, originally released outside the US under one title, has had "National Lampoon's" added to the title for US release; for example the 2004 Canadian release Going the Distance, which was only branded a National Lampoon film in its American theatrical and DVD releases.
In 2002, the rights to use the name became the property of a new company that also decided to use the National Lampoon name as their company name. Critics such as the Orlando Sentinel's Roger Moore and the New York Times' Andrew Adam Newman have written about the cheapening of the National Lampoon's movie imprimatur; in 2006, an Associated Press review said, “The National Lampoon, once a brand name above nearly all others in comedy, has become shorthand for pathetic frat boy humor."