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With Anne Beatts, The Joke Was Always on President Ford

[UPDATE, April 22, 2021: Back in 2019, when Donald Trump was still president, we resurfaced this 1974 page, written by Anne Beatts, from our archives. Beatts blazed a path through the boys’ club of comedy writing in the 1970s, most notoriously as the brains behind the 1973 fake Volkswagen Bug ad that ran in National Lampoon with the tagline, “If Ted Kennedy drove a Volkswagen, he’d be President today.” If you don’t get the punchline we can only say that checking it out is one internet rabbit hole that is worth plunging into. You can start here. Beatts, who was born in 1947, passed away earlier this month. —R.C. Baker] 

On November 27, 1973, the U.S. Senate voted 92-3 to confirm Gerald R. Ford as Richard Nixon’s vice president after the elected veep, Spiro Agnew, had resigned due to a bribery scandal. Nine months later it was Nixon himself who stepped down to avoid impeachment for various high crimes and misdemeanors, and Ford, formerly a congressman from Michigan, became America’s first — and so far only — appointed president. 

Turns out, the joke was on him. 

Ford is probably best remembered for Chevy Chase’s merciless portrayal of the president as a bumbling buffoon on Saturday Night Live, as in this clip from the comedy hit’s first season, in 1975.

Anne Beatts was a writer for SNL in those early years, making her an anomaly in a field that was then a fairly impregnable boys’ club. But Beatts (pronounced “Beats”) had earlier battled her way into another bastion of postwar American humor, National Lampoon magazine, eventually becoming its first female contributing editor. Despite that success she was still struggling for recognition. In an interview in Vice’s Broadly, Beatts recounted a meal with the magazine’s co-founder, Henry Beard, in which she asked him why more of her work wasn’t getting into print. His reason was succinct: “I just don’t think chicks are funny.” Beatts went on to say, “I cried and lost a contact lens in my soup — instead of punching him in the nose, which is what he deserved. So I stopped writing for the magazine altogether.”

Perhaps that was a bit of luck for the Village Voice. In the December 30, 1974, issue of the paper, Beatts contributed “Gerald Ford’s Joke Book,” observing, “If there’s anything we as a nation need right now, it’s the ability to laugh at our troubles.” Ford was a promising target because he had already gained a reputation for his malapropisms and physical clumsiness, traits Chase would begin wildly exaggerating a year later. In the Voice, Beatts displayed her chops by taking Ford’s penchant for misdelivering punchlines to old jokes by bending their banality almost 360 degrees so that they became absurdly funny again:

“A man went to see a psychiatrist. ‘Doctor, I have a terrible problem,’ he confessed. ‘It’s my memory. I can’t remember anything for more than a few seconds.’”

“’How long have you had this problem?’ asked the doctor.”

“’I don’t remember how long I’ve had it,’ the man answered.”

Beatts runs through a repertoire of such off-kilter chestnuts until she twists her concept even a few more degrees to deliver a joke that is perhaps more current than ever:

“Do you know the country is going to the dogs?”

“Yes, and if you hum a few bars I’ll sing it for you.”    ❖


John Belushi: He Who Laughs First

It’s not easy to offend. We’re so tolerant, the folks in the National Lampoon Show can’t even get a summons for burning dollars on stage. They’ve got to go a long mile to pass the limits of acceptability where satire begins. But there al­ways are limits. Our ever-so-liberal consciences finally shudder at mockery of the blind, paraplegics, blacks, Jackie Onassis. We’re horror-struck by our laughing. The sane agree: they’ve gone too far.

Too far for the Lampooners means something different: when the audi­ence stops laughing. Laughter, according to the director-star co-au­thor of the National Lampoon Show, John Belushi, is good. If they’re laughing, even if they hate them­selves for laughing, they’re having a good time.

Belushi is a satirist not because he’s mean, he says, or neurotic, like many satirists, but because he likes to make people laugh. He likes to laugh himself. The touchstone for all his material is whether he and his friends think it’s funny. Unlike mass-market comics, who must gear their message to their audience. Be­lushi trusts his material to find its own audience of kindred spirits. He does not want to browbeat or abuse or humiliate his audience, merely to communicate with them via laugh­ter, not preach to them (although some of his skits bear a moral load), but share with them the way he is.

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On stage, Belushi plays the ma­lignant hulking heavy — the security officer checking the audience for exportable aliens, a greedy Cypriot archbishop advertising his Big-Ma­karios hamburger chain, the macho stud who thinks he can seduce a girl by insulting her. His cherubically overripe face is made sinister by a beard and eyebrows that he will suddenly arch almost out of his skull. (In college he played Cardinal Wool­sey.) In “Lemmings,” the previous National Lampoon show, which parodied the rock scene, he “did” macho of machos Joe Cocker. It’s no surprise that when 12 years old. Belushi’s idol was Brando, whose “The Wild One” he tried to imitate. (By imitating Brando’s performance as a gay in a subsequent film, “Re­flections in a Golden Eye,” Belushi happened on his startling Truman Capote imitation. One wonders from these multiple mirror tricks whether a Capote might not always be hiding inside a Brando, and vice versa.)

Belushi is so aggressive in his act, one is surprised by his mildness and modesty. Now that the National Lampoon Show is closing for a breathless nine-month tour with a new cast, he is just another out-of­-work actor waiting by his telephone praying producers will not oblige him to come to them. In two years in New York he has never had to audition and the prospect unnerves him. “Because you’re in a revue, they think you can’t act. You’re not serious. I did serious acting in col­lege and stock companies. I can do it. But nobody believes you.”

Complaining, though, is not Belushi’s way. When asked, “Does that bother you ?” he shrugs, “Yeah, it bothers me,” as if his being bothered was both obvious and unimportant. What matters is his good fortune. Born in Chicago in 1949, he grew up studying Brando. At the University of Illinois, he formed a satirical skit group. He also did serious acting. He left college in his Junior year, when he discovered Second City in Chicago, where the likes of David Steinberg. Peter Boyle, Mike Nichols, Elaine May, and Alan Arkin got their starts. It amazed him that the kind of skits he had been doing as a lark could be considered serious work. He joined. One day a director called, looking for someone who can “play an instru­ment, do imitations of rock stars, improvise, do comedy.” “I can do all of it,” said the unabashed Belushi, and landed the role of the announcer in “Lemmings.”

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Next came the National Lampoon Radio Hour, which he acted in and helped write, and of which he later became Creative Director. The show was a popular success but offended too many sponsors to maintain the requisite advertising, Then came the present National Lampoon Show, which Belushi directed, having de­vised it with his other original cast members.

Belushi is grateful to the National Lampoon organization but not uncri­tical. “It’s a security trap. Good money, a lot of freedom. They let you write your shows and put them on with no hassles with producers or red tape. They spend as much as you need. But it gets so you can’t escape. Nobody considers you legitimate because you’re National Lampoon.” Now the Lampoon wants Belushi to help write a movie, but Belushi isn’t sure. There’s still that Brando dream glittering in his eyes.

It’s not going to be easy for him. “I couldn’t stand acting in a lousy play,” he says. “I like acting on my own stuff because I know it’s good.” He is uproariously critical of bad acting, especially of the overacting of the Negro Ensemble Company, which he parodied in a skit called, “Raisinette in the Sun — or, Don’t Bother Me I Can’t Act.” If I were a director, I’d be wary of Belushi, not because he’s difficult, but because his standards are high and his wit lacerating.

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He has another revue he could do, but he’s tired, for now, of revue work, although that may be just post-closing doldrums and not a per­manent attitude. The single route of the stand-up comic he avoids like death. “I hate clubs,” he says, almost shuddering, “the noise at the bar, the talking. When I was at Second City, I met Shelley Berman for a few seconds on an airplane. Because Berman used to be at Sec­ond City, I introduced myself and said, ‘I’m at Second City now.’ He looked at me for a moment and said, ‘stay out of the clubs.’ That’s all. Then he said it again, ‘Stay out of the clubs.’ ”

Nightclubs, for Belushi, mean iso­lation, hostility, standing alone on stage and trying to communicate with a boozy crowd who couldn’t care less. The joy of theatre for Belushi is social: working and laughing and inventing together. Al­though he occasionally sits down and writes out a solo piece, most of his writing is improvisational, which, he says, “is as much writing as sitting down at a typewriter. You suggest something, you do it, then you work on it, remembering the good beats.”

Most of the hysterical high-points of the National Lampoon Show were developed improvisationally. For in­stance, having Jackie Kennedy on a celebrity panel show was one person’s idea. Having a starting gun was someone else’s. Having Jackie, in her unforgettable pink pillbox hat and dark glasses, duck under her seat at the sound of the gun, was yet another person’s idea.

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I asked Belushi if the Jackie skit wasn’t “too far.” He shrugged: “Everybody laughs,” as if laughter were the ultimate justifier. Strange­ly, it is. If the skit was merely cruel, as many people thought “The Dead Sullivan Show” was, then one couldn’t laugh, at least not healthily, wholeheartedly. The Jackie moment is not laughing at assassinations, but at our absurdly reverent attitude toward the woman. In laughing at her, we reduce her to a more human, familiar size. Similarly, the skit about Mary Tyler Moore as a blind girl is not cruel to the blind but equalizing, making them no more sacrosanct than the rest of us. Blind people who’ve “seen” the show, says Belushi with a grin, come up afterwards saying it was terrific and they know even better blind jokes and thank God someone was finally  treating them like the rest of the world.

To be a successful satirist, one must love life. It is the love that tells you when is “too far.” I know John Belushi is compassionate because his depictions of monsters are less horrible than pitiable. His insight into the weakness hiding behind the stone appearance should stand him in good stead if he ever gets his chance to play the hero, the Brando.


Fat, Drunk, and Stupid: “National Lampoon” Gets the Netflix Treatment

Doug Kenney is not as famous as Bill Murray or Chevy Chase or John Belushi, but he should be. As the visionary behind the National Lampoon magazine and radio show and the creator of Animal House and Caddyshack, Kenney helped launch their careers, as well as those of many others, laying the groundwork for modern comedy along the way. Director David Wain’s new film, A Futile and Stupid Gesture, looks to give Kenney his proper place in the comedy pantheon, as a legend whose legacy still looms large.

Wain (Wet Hot American Summer) was introduced to Kenney’s story when producer Peter Principato gave him a copy of Josh Karp’s biography of Kenney, A Futile and Stupid Gesture. “I grew up on Animal House and Caddyshack,” says Wain. “They were major, key influences on my life and work, but I didn’t really know Doug’s story. When I learned it, I was completely utterly fascinated.” Wain and Principato teamed up with co-writers Michael Colton and John Aboud to transform Karp’s book into a film that shares Kenney’s story with the world.

The film follows a fictionalized version of Kenney, played by Will Forte, as he struggles to fit in at Harvard. As a preppy-loathing guy who grew up in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, the only place he feels comfortable on campus is at the Harvard Lampoon, the university’s satiric newspaper, and with classmate Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson). When Kenney graduates, he convinces Beard to give up his law school dreams to launch the National Lampoon, a big-time version of the campus rag.

Kenney and Beard brought together a team that, month after month, put out one of the edgiest, drollest, most inappropriate, and laugh-out-loud-funny magazines ever, paving the way for much of modern comedy as we know it, including Saturday Night Live, SCTV, and The Simpsons. The magazine was a hit, and soon started spinning off side projects, including a high school yearbook parody that sold 1.5 million copies, comedy records, and live shows. Kenney then ventured to Hollywood to make Animal House, before leaving the Lampoon to make Caddyshack. His struggles with drugs and depression resulted in his life coming to a tragically early end under somewhat mysterious circumstances involving cocaine, Chevy Chase, and a cliff.

In a shift for Wain, who earned his comedy stripes with sketch groups The State and Stella, the film is essentially a docudrama. To tell Kenney’s story, Wain opted to cast Martin Mull as an older, still-living version of Kenney to act as a sort of one-man Statler and Waldorf, directly addressing the viewer with his sharp-edged narrations. When the movie opens with Kenney’s childhood in Ohio, Mull rolls his eyes: “You really want to start there?” Later, when Chevy Chase (Joel McHale), John Belushi (John Gemberling), Gilda Radner (Jackie Tohn), Christopher Guest (Seth Green), and Bill Murray (Jon Daly) are introduced, Mull turns again to the camera, saying, “So, yeah, these actors don’t look exactly like the real people, but come on, you think I looked like Will Forte when I was 27? You think Will Forte is 27?”

Mull’s character is also used to draw attention to the misogyny and general unpolitical correctness that were so prevalent in the pages of the Lampoon and in the comedy world at the time, cleverly preempting the critique that the Lampoon had only one woman and no people of color on staff. “It was an important element of contextualization that we needed to have in there,” explains Wain. “It was helpful to have that narrative device to give perspective from a modern lens.”

Will Forte as Doug Kenney and Domhnall Gleeson as Henry Beard in “A Stupid and Futile Gesture”

Mull had another role on set, though, because while Wain and the cast and crew may have heard stories about the Lampoon, Mull was actually there. “I knew three-quarters of the people in this film personally,” says Mull. “It felt like a time warp.”

It wasn’t just Mull who felt a bit dazed by finding himself on a set surrounded by well-known actors portraying other well-known actors. “It was bizarre,” says Emmy Rossum, who plays Kenney’s girlfriend, Kathryn Walker, in the film. “Everyone was constantly referring back to old tapes, making sure that they were moving and walking and talking correctly.” The effect of famous actors playing other famous actors (such as Seth Green playing Christopher Guest) was occasionally uncanny, particularly with McHale’s pratfall-filled take on Chevy Chase, his former Community co-worker. “I’m in awe of what Joel did,” says Wain. “He really had his whole presence and way of being in a room that we all know because Chevy Chase is such a massive icon.”

Thanks to years of research into Kenney’s life by Wain and writers Colton and Aboud, interviews with former Lampoon writers, and poring through documentaries like Doug Tirola’s recent documentary Drunk, Stoned, Brilliant, Dead and back issues of the National Lampoon, the film gives viewers a glimpse of what it may have been like to work within the barely contained chaos of a roomful of drug-fueled comedic geniuses. “Having been to the Lampoon offices I dare say it was maybe 10 percent more of an ordinary office than depicted in the film,” says Mull. “It was a pretty bizarre place.”

Drugs, sex, fistfights, and alcoholic binges were all part of life in the Lampoon’s New York offices, and the wild times spilled over into the pages. The result was a magazine that paired dirty comics and pictures of topless women with brilliant pieces of political and literary satire, like “The Love Song of J. Edgar Hoover” or a pseudo-racist pamphlet called Americans United to Beat the Dutch, which tells readers to identify the Dutch by their beer and/or cheese breath. Perhaps the most famous issue was when they pointed a gun at a dog and threatened to shoot it, if you didn’t buy a copy. It was jaw-dropping, incendiary, offensive, and, frequently, a genius cross between The New Yorker, Playboy, and Mad. “When you read the magazines, you get a sense that it wasn’t full of people meeting deadlines,” says Domhnall Gleeson, who plays the National Lampoon co-founder and resident adult, Henry Beard. “It’s hard to make something great and they did it—and they had a good time to do it.”

Their comedy frequently crossed the line, and the film features a montage of the many threats of lawsuits, harangues from the publisher, hate mail, and occasionally more that came into the office after each issue was published. “I was shocked to learn that dynamite was sent to the offices,” says Rossum. “The Lampoon was such a button pusher—it was so offensive to some people that they actually sent a stick of dynamite to the office!”

While Wain’s film is funny, documenting Kenney’s tragically short life is an inherently sad task, and Wain had to balance the humor with the very real drama. “Tackling a person’s life is just super hard,” Wain says. “Especially Doug’s, because it’s filled with humor and whimsy and fun and a boatload of pain and a horribly sad ending.” Kenney was frustrated professionally after Caddyshack failed to reach the success of Animal Housethe mountains of cocaine he and Chase were imbibing undoubtedly didn’t help. He died in Hawaii in circumstances summed up in the film by Harold Ramis, as played by Rick Glassman: “He probably fell while he was looking for a place to jump.”

While Kenney’s story ends in tragedy, Wain was making a film about his life—and that life was filled with laughter. “It’s about humor. It’s about comedy. It’s about people who are incredibly funny,” says Wain. Those “incredibly funny” people were not just the ones who made the Lampoon an icon, populated the early days of Saturday Night Live, and went on to films like Animal House and Caddyshack. In A Futile and Stupid Gesture, the cast was as funny as the characters they were portraying. “When you put 20 really, really funny people together, everyone is doing bits—not only on camera, but between takes they are doing different bits. It’s like controlled anarchy,” says Rossum. It was Wain who was responsible for controlling it.  “Corralling that energy into one creative force takes a lot of creative skill,” says Gleeson. “Both Doug and Henry did that at the Lampoon and David did it with the film.”

“David is an astounding director that he can take all these disparate human beings with different approaches to being funny and have them all in one room to be funny together is pretty extraordinary,” says Mull.

The crossover between real life and fantasy came to a head at the end of the movie, where the comedy world had gathered for Kenney’s funeral. It’s an ironically solemn affair that leads faux Bill Murray to remark to faux John Belushi, “Every funny person in the world is here. And no one’s laughing.” Wain didn’t want to end the film on a sad note, though, and with a little inspiration from Animal House, Wain stumbled upon a creative solution: a funeral food fight, where the cast cut loose.

“We only shot the food fight once,” says Rossum. “I was very, very committed. I had loaded my bra with coleslaw so I could get right back into it and keep throwing. It was very fun.” It’s a fitting end to a film that proved there is humor everywhere; it just takes the right person to find it.

A Futile and Stupid Gesture is now streaming on Netflix.


Rick Meyerowitz’s ‘Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead’—A Graphics Bonanza

“If Ted Kennedy drove a Volkswagen, he’d be President today.”

Your reaction to that headline, accompanied by a deadpan photo of a floating Beetle, says much about your age, politics, and sense of decorum. This 1973 parody of a Volkswagen ad that touted the Bug’s buoyancy is lovingly reproduced in Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, an oversize tribute to National Lampoon magazine’s elaborately art-directed satires.

The fact that Teddy’s political career wasn’t completely ruined after he caused a young staffer’s death by driving his car off a bridge, in 1969, speaks volumes about the Kennedy family’s influence. The ad parody, on the other hand, makes you proud—sort of—to be an American. Had one satirized Hitler in such a fashion, the next stop would be Dachau. (Though Volkswagen—born of the Führer’s promise of a “people’s car”—did sue National Lampoon for unauthorized use of the VW logo.)

Launched in 1970, the Lampoon was soon notorious for its shocking (some might say tasteless) imagery, such as Kelly Freas’s 1971 cover painting of Lieutenant William Calley aping Alfred E. Neuman over the line “What, My Lai?” That Vietnam massacre was revisited in a 1973 article featuring Ron Barrett’s startling photo collages, “Wide World of Meat.” Similar to feminist artist Martha Rosler’s Vietnam-era cut-and-paste images of upscale American homes haunted by victims of military atrocities, Barrett juxtaposed a slab of meat garnished with olives against the villagers’ mangled bodies and the caption “Meat Lai thrills a hungry nation.” Such take-no-prisoners satire made these savvy marriages of text and image more indelible than the political actions of the ’70s fine-art world, as when sculptor Robert Morris closed down his Whitney exhibition to protest the bombing of Cambodia.

In Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, illustrator Alan Rose recalls that the Lampoon‘s stories were “visually driven,” the graphics allowing less educated readers (as opposed to the magazine’s white, mostly male Ivy League editors) to enjoy spoofs of such ancient texts as “The Code of Hammurabi.” Artist Randall Enos illustrated that Babylonian law code with slapstick drawings of the king chopping various appendages from hapless slaves and oxen rutting with temple prostitutes.

Elsewhere in the volume, author Rick Meyerowitz notes that, like Goya, the cartoonist Charles Rodrigues often “left the viewer unsettled.” And laughing: In a typically scabrous panel from 1986, one beefy babushka grouses to an even frumpier companion, “The Soviet Union has to be the worst Goddamn place in the world to be a transvestite!”

Lampoon-style humor has been swallowed whole and regurgitated by comedic mainstays from Saturday Night Live to South Park, but the original magazine’s graphics still pack a punch. Mara McAfee’s Norman Rockwell–inspired painting of newlyweds brawling across the cover of 1979’s “Heterosexuality” issue should convince even the most hysterical straights that if gays want marriage, by God, they can have it.

Underground Gallery: London Transport Posters, 1920s–1940s

Eye-catching graphics sprouted beneath London’s streets shortly after the First World War—modernist posters informing Tube passengers about museum shows in Piccadilly Circus and ducks frolicking in Kew Gardens. Edward Johnston’s bold, 1918 Underground logo of a red circle bisected by a horizontal blue bar has since withstood numerous variations, notably the hollow outlines employed by László Moholy-Nagy, an artist well known for his ghostly photograms.

Graham Sutherland’s 1938 painting of a bucolic scene materializing in a gray office includes a newspaper clipping cajoling commuters to “Go into the country now. Do not wait for Easter. It may be snowing.” The poster’s claustrophobic tone and surrealistic rending of space would be ratcheted to intense heights a few years later in the paintings of Sutherland’s close colleague, Francis Bacon.

The Blitz spawned terrific design, as Londoners navigated a city blacked-out against Nazi bombers. James Fitton’s luminous 1941 “Wear or Carry Something White” envisions pedestrians shrouded by a plum-colored night. Another admonishment from that same year couldn’t be more British: “When coming up from a brightly-lit below-ground station pause and let your eyes grow used to the gloom.”

The Museum of Modern Art, 11 W 53rd St, 212-708-9400. Through February 28, 2011


A Hill of Beans Amounts to Not Nearly Enough Farting and Disrespect

Quoting Paul Fussell in his funny book Bad, “Music grows BAD as . . . it becomes pretentious and asks to be treated respectfully.” This describes the whole world of pop. But now let’s stick to extreme metal, as defined by genre zines like Pit and Decibel.

One reads of some thick young man who toils in study “of the brittle breakdowns and militant messages of Earth Crisis records, while also reading up on veganism [and] politics . . . [thus] passing through the crosshairs of his pen were such forgotten targets as organized religion, apathy, and consumption.” As tortured unintentional humor, it’s tops.

Lucky for us, there are a couple things even better than orthodoxy in metalcore. For instance, death and math metal, or the conceit that higgledy-piggledy blasting noise is good because it takes brains to play it; and/or guttural burping for vocal tracks, delivered under the delusion that printing the lyric sheet makes entertainment. Only Lee Dorian of Cathedral knew how to get around the latter, shouting “Dyn-O-Mite!” and calling himself a disco supernova/master Casanova during breaks in the down-tuned riffs.

Lawnmower Deth, too, put a whoopie cushion under the pretensions. Fifteen years back, Sharp Fucka Blades of Hades riffed and grunted for two minutes before segueing into calliope music. Recently, Vincebus Eruptum furnished “Who Farted?” —the “vocalist” spilling the question over dirty crunch, pausing a moment before adding, “You did!” Jibes make records memorable by opening unlistenable style to the off-limits: hooks or head-banging rhythms, like “Who Farted” ‘s unexpected lurching groove. However, just trying to do funny without rock muscle is lame, disqualifying all the Agoraphobic Nosebleeders (Frozen Corpse Stuffed With Dope) and Morticians (Hacked Up for Barbecue) of the planet who trade only in one-liners. Be daring, idiots—end the crummy CDs and write your lyrics in blogs, à la National Lampoon‘s old Rolling Stones parody “Flatulent Girl:” “I’m looking for a girl who goes poot everywhere.”

Today’s men (and a few women) of metal are too tough, because to be a laff riot is weakness and no frailty is brooked when Calvinist tasks are required—for instance, “giving your blood to the doomsday machine” for Arch Enemy’s Dead Eyes See No Future. With a really strong girl at the helm to also sing a Manowar tune, their music is as pompous and strict as necessary, hence, sufficient for boys with vagina dentata fantasies. Meshuggah’s I—from Scandinavia, just like Arch Enemy—is another Hobson’s choice, the math metal cranking of widgets at 9 a.m. in the bottle cap factory. Both record covers show eyeballs from Hell, perhaps not so much great minds thinking alike as too many chips of lead paint in the art department’s beer.

Blood Duster’s “I Wanna Do It With a Donna,” though, is the best catchy death metal song, perhaps ever. The cookie monster wants to sniff his Donna’s hair but is pushed aside for the chorus, delivered exuberantly by a Donna ringer. The opening number of the CD quotes AC/DC, telegraphing a whole lot of blooz riff and a killer drummer. In “Sellout,” the cookie monster sings his wish for a hit single. Fat chance—but at least it doesn’t require a libretto.