Actually, there were few naysayers in 1978. You may not realize it (or remember -- the '70s were a heady time) but when Animal House was released into theaters, Time Magazine proclaimed it one of the year's best, and Roger Ebert gave it four out of five stars, something that National Lampoon's Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj couldn't achieve if it sacrificed children to the unholy one. Can you believe that? Once upon a time, National Lampoon movies were critically lauded. But then they also attracted talents like John Landis, Amy Heckerling, John Hughes, and Harold Ramis who could actually write and direct comedy. Even if you wanted to dismiss a film like Vacation as a bit clunky and crass (and I'm sure many did -- no critical record seems to survive on Google for this one), there was no denying that we could all recognize something of ourselves and our parents in the Griswold family. I doubt anyone walked out of National Lampoon's Barely Legal and said that. (In fact, former National Lampoon magazine writer P. J. O'Rourke told The New York Times in 2005 that what became of the company "breaks my heart, to tell you the truth." See? Movies can crush souls.)
Is it possible that National Lampoon could ever make another Animal House or Christmas Vacation? What happened to them that they went from such classics as Clark Griswold and Bluto Blutarsky to the depths of depravity that was National Lampoon's Gold Diggers, the aforementioned Barely Legal, or Dorm Daze? Sure, they don't have Landis, Chevy Chase, or Hughes anymore but they must have some members of the old guard left, right?
Not really. The company which now distributes such wastes of celluloid has little to do with the talent of the 1970s and 1980s. In 1991, it was purchased by J2 Communications and essentially used as a name licensing company, where the company was paid for the use of its brand on titles. This is the move that gave you such works of genius as Senior Trip, and while it saved the company from financial death, it was at far too high of a cost.
It's actually rather surprising that this licensing deal earned them any money. The tragedy is that when National Lampoon was good and reputable, they made more money. According to Box Office Mojo, Animal House actually made $120,091123 million at the box office in 1978. When it was re-released in 1979, it climbed to $140,600,000 and has gone on to become one of the most profitable films of all times in VHS, DVD, and merchandising sales. Vacation made $61,399,551 million in 1983, its far more legendary seque Christmas Vacation made over $71 million in theaters in 1989. Even Vegas Vacation and Loaded Gun (arguably the beginning of the end) managed to pass the $20 million mark, which is more than any of its licensed films did. Barely Legal only made $26,511 at the box office.
There's hope that National Lampoon could pull themselves out of the land of sleazy dreck. In 2007, National Lampoon announced that they would be financing, producing, and distributing their own films again. Its current CEO Dan Laikin promised that it was a longterm goal for the company to the New York Times. "When I came in, we had to re-energize the brand and cut back on the licensing, because the only way to take control of the brand was to make sure that ultimately we put it on projects that we are proud of."
So, what projects has National Lampoon could say they were proud of? National Lampoon Presents The Beach Party at the Threshold of Hell, Ratko: The Dictator's Son, and National Lampoon: The Legend of Awesomest Maximus (formerly National Lampoon's 301: The Legend of Awesomest Maximus Wallace Leonidas.) In three years of independent financing, they have only managed to produce something Meet the Spartans already did to the detriment of all that was good and pure in this world.
Is there any hope for this once glorious brand? Could they ever produce another Animal House, or another holiday comedy that soothed you with the knowledge that you and yours weren't alone? (Hey, it soothed my family, but we also come from a long line of insanity. I'm still convinced we might have been the inspiration.) There's an awful lot of good comedy talent coming through the ranks (the Judd Apatow crew, the current crop of Saturday Night Live castmembers like Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Andy Samburg), and if just one Funny or Die filmmaker could come up with a good script, it might be enough. Even the Dark Ages produced a Renaissance, after all.