Matty Simmons, who passed away on April 29th at 93, will undoubtedly be best remembered as the publisher of National Lampoon and producer of National Lampoon’s Animal House. He was also a writer, an ad man, an Army veteran, a magazine magnate, one of the inventors of the credit card, a film producer, and the chairman of the most iconic comedy brands of the 20th century. But, beyond all of that, he was a kind man.
I was lucky enough to meet Matty almost 20 years ago, as he was a friend of my father. Even then, in middle school, I knew he had produced Animal House, and I was a bit awed to meet Hollywood royalty. But the truth is, I expected him to be the cliché film producer, strolling in with a perfectly cut suit, barely containing the massive ego underneath. But that’s not what I found in Matty. Instead, I was surprised to find a man who seemed genuinely interested in my schoolwork. And when it came to bragging, I soon learned he’d rather catch me up on the exploits and triumphs of his kids, his grandkids, and even his great grandkids, than talk about himself.
Matty’s own triumphs were many. After serving in the Army during World War II, he became something a wunderkind in the ad business after the war, launching Weight Watchers Magazine and basically inventing the credit card for Diner’s Club with two other partners.
Then there’s National Lampoon. It all started when he was approached by two young Harvard grads, Doug Kenney and Henry Beard, who wanted to take the Harvard Lampoon to a wider audience. Matty partnered with them to found and publish the wildly successful National Lampoon Magazine.
While Chairman at Lampoon, Matty would help launch the careers of a who’s who of comedy, including Bill and Brian Doyle Murray, Gilda Radner, Ivan Reitman, Harold Ramis, Chevy Chase, John Belushi, and countless others. The National Lampoon Radio Hour and National Lampoon’s Lemmings would redefine comedy. When approached by NBC for a late night show for Saturday nights, Matty turned them down, citing the time constraints he was already facing with his workload at Lampoon. So, NBC would instead hire away Lampoon’s performers, go with Lorne Michaels, and start Saturday Night Live.
National Lampoon was a magazine known for its take-no-prisoners attitude, which left many fires (metaphorical) and even a bomb threat (literal) for Matty to deal with on an almost daily basis. On the rare instances when I could get him to open up about his time there, Matty would tell stories of dealing with the clashing egos of geniuses and a constant onslaught of boycotts from enraged readers across the country. But, amidst all the chaos, Matty held it together, reflecting his undeniable penchant for finding and nurturing young talent.
There was the time he fired (and almost immediately rehired) Bill Murray over a disagreement about a paycheck — which was off by less than a dollar. Or the time he had a sweet conversation with John Belushi during a staff picnic in Central Park, only to realize after the fact that Belushi had eaten the entire basket of food himself. Clearly, Matty was comfortable with anyone he met and interacted with. His time at National Lampoon would transition from print to film when Matty produced National Lampoon’s Animal House in 1978. Amazingly, this first foray into film would become the highest grossing comedy of all time, until the release of Ghostbusters in 1984. He followed up the success of Animal House with the wildly popular Vacation series, starring Chevy Chase.
Along with his obvious success in comedy, Matty was undeniably a success as a father. He is survived by his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren (as well as his beloved dog, Lady), who carry on his impressive legacy. His son Michael Simmons is one of the premiere music critics in the country, as well as a talented musician himself. His daughter Julie Simmons-Lynch is a program manager at Cornell University. Andy Simmons followed his father’s footsteps into print media, as an editor at Reader’s Digest, and his youngest daughter, Kate Bradley Simmons, has followed her father into entertainment, appearing in TV shows like The Knick and Curb Your Enthusiasm, as well as appearing in the Netflix film about the making of Animal House, A Futile and Stupid Gesture.
I consider myself immensely lucky to have gotten to know Matty, and to call him a friend. With his passing, the magazine world has lost one of its great titans, the comedy world has lost an icon, a family has lost its patriarch, and the world has lost a profoundly kind man.
Watch The Saturday Evening Post’s interview with Matty Simmons from April 2016.
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