Monday, December 29, 2014

That's Not Funny, That's Sick by Ellin Stein

Just finished barreling through That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick, a history of The National Lampoon.  All told, it’s a fascinating read.  The National Lampoon sprung out of the college humor magazine, The Harvard Lampoon. College humor mags had been kicking around since the 20s, but as the 60s rolled along they were primed to take advantage of the 60s cultural zeitgesit.  The college humor magazine was a great format to poke fun at changing societal values.  Magazines like The Lampoon were in a great position to take the piss out of both sides of the cultural divide.  Juvenile, puerile, but intellectual, The Harvard Lampoon and its ilk spoke to a younger, increasingly cynical, anti-authoritarian generation. Recognizing that their generation’s worldview was not being expressed by other magazines, a group of Lampoon graduates decided to take The Harvard Lampoon national.

Anyone interested in comedy and satire in print, TV, and movies will find many points of entry here.  As The Lampoon gained its footing as a satire and parody mag, it also began producing stage productions and comedy albums.  People getting their start in various Lampoon endeavors include SNL stalwarts, Chevy Chase, John Belushi and Dan Akyroyd, SCTV lynchpins Joe Flaherty and Harold Ramis, directors Ivan Reitman, John Landis, and Christopher Guest, to name but a few.

For me, the book was most interesting when discussing how The Lampoon fit into the broader comedy movements of the 60s and 70s. The Lampoon isn’t seen in a vacuum. That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick looks at how The Lampoon related to other magazines like Mad and The Realist, and to comedy troupes like Second City, The Committee, The Credibility Gap, The Firesign Theater, and Monty Python.  Likewise, as The Lampoon embarks on video projects, we see how they fit in with more political video pioneers like TVTV.  If anything, I would have loved to see an even broader view of the comedy landscape.

The book also takes a long look at the early years of SNL and the careers of Chase and Belushi, in particular.  These were great sections of the book, but part of me felt like it was a little bit of a cheat.  Granted, Chase, Belushi, and SNL writers Michael O’Donoghue and Anne Beatts came through The Lampoon, and Donoghue and Beatts were absolutely central in both the development of The Lampoon and early SNL, but the book seems to veer away from The Lampoon and capitalize on the notoriety of its more popular, younger rival in SNL for long periods of a time. 

That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick does have its rough patches.  It often wanders away into contributors’ non-Lampoon projects for stretches, and it could also be tighter. It doesn’t always find the right balance of Lampoon history and in-depth descriptions of particular articles and issues.   Regardless, it charts a progression of art, politics, and culture from the early 60s through the early 80s, and does so through the lens of comedy movements and satire, shining a unique perspective on those eras.

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