The cover of That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick: The National Lampoon and the Comedy Insurgents Who Captured the Mainstream, is a telling sign of just how much author Ellin Stein immersed herself in researching her new book. An illustration by longtime Lampoon artist Bruce McCall depicts a hand holding a skewer run through such figures as Santa Claus, an angel, the Statue of Liberty, Uncle Sam and a panda bear. Stein respects her subject, internalizes and even admires it, though she is willing to break out the blade herself wherever necessary.
Comedy and culture make interesting dance partners. To what extent one influences or reflects the other is a fluid question. The founders—Henry Beard, Doug Kenney and Rob Hoffman—developed their taste for near all-encompassing rebellion at the Harvard Lampoon, which took a leap forward from its twee past during their tenure in the 60s. The output increased, and the humor changed. They found success parodying other media like Time, Life and especially Playboy. And the targets shifted. It was no longer the self-deprecating “me like a schmuck” attitude and more a cutthroat “you like a schmuck” mentality, as Stein points out. That fight against the accepted and the unquestioned carried over when National Lampoon started in 1970, and continued until Nixon left office and the counterculture seemed to have won. Then, sadly, it faded.
Stein offers a brilliantly detailed account of the formation, rise and fall of the Lampoon as a magazine, focusing on the period from the mid-60s to the late 70s. No aspect of the Lampoon’s creation or impact is left unexamined, from the major players’ individual psychological motivations to the external pressures of putting out a commercial magazine. Comparing Michael O’Donoghue’s comic philosophy to that of subsequent contributor Ted Mann, for example, she writes, “instead of using jokes to explore the gap between cruelty and the sentimentality used to mask it, Mann’s target often seemed to be compassion itself.”
The Lampoon was created by a group of mainly privileged kids who saw the hypocrisy of the prevailing institutions of the 50s, and who were emboldened by the expanding freedom of expression that unfolded in the 60s, but didn’t align themselves with the political forces behind the changes. Stein reveals the rabble-rousers standing firmly in the middle, taking their shots at everything from Nixon to hippies, while looking to make good money for their efforts. And though the Lampoon is the obvious focus of Stein’s storyline, she gives proper time to an impressive breadth of other players—satirical troupes like Beyond the Fringe and The Committee, as well as competing magazines like MAD and The Real World. And of course much time is devoted to Second City and Saturday Night Live, whose histories are hopelessly tangled with the Lampoon.
Stein ends with Kenney’s death as the final blow, though in her epilogue she offers a brief history of how it limped along to its current hollow status of propping up crappy sex comedies. But those first ten years were a grand, dramatic arc executed by comic voices that helped build the foundation of the modern comic sensibility. How Stein fit that into just 400 pages is an impressive feat.
A National Lampoon Reading List:
- National Lampoon: The Humor Magazine Complete Collection – If you can get your hands on this, you can find all of the pieces Stein references.
- The Real Animal House: The Awesomely Depraved Saga of the Fraternity That Inspired the Movie by Chris Miller – Animal House comes late in Stein’s book, but for more on the roots of that story, check out this delightfully debauched and gleefully offensive book by the writer whose stories helped inspire the movie.
- Mr. Mike: The Life and Work of Michael O’Donoghue by Dennis Perrin – O’Donoghue is one of the more colorful characters in Lampoon history. Perrin offers a very detailed history of the stylish and incendiary figure.
- A Futile and Stupid Gesture: How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy Forever by Josh Karp – Another history of the Lampoon, but with more of a focus on Kenney.