That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick: The National Lampoon and the Comedy Insurgents Who Captured the Mainstream by Ellin Stein; Norton, 448 pages ($27.95). They began at Harvard, as so many American writers do (Emerson, T.S. Eliot, e.e. cummings, John Dos Passos, John Updike, Robert Creeley). Specifically, they began in a three-story building topped by a tower with a pointed roof affectionately known as “The Castle.”
That’s where you’d find the Harvard Lampoon, a “combination social club and humor magazine” with a long prankish history and an astonishing influence on American culture of the past half century. That’s where Henry Beard and Doug Kenney sprang from to create the National Lampoon that, in turn, helped, in Stein’s words, to “trigger a chain reaction of ground-breaking projects that would spread to theater, records, radio, television and movies, making satiric and subversive humor a gateway to commercial success … It was a pebble thrown into a pond, with ripples ultimately including ‘The Simpsons,’ The Onion, ‘This Is Spinal Tap,’ ‘South Park,’ ‘The Daily Show,’ ‘30 Rock’ and ‘Superbad’ but its most significant and proximate influence was on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ the breakthrough television show that, for over 35 years has been the premiere launching pad for American comedy talent.” And, one might say, tidal quantities of comedy and satire provided part of the basic attitude and value system of almost every current American under the age of 70.
No one has ever told the story better than this, traveling all the way up (beyond the book’s scope but implicit) to “This is the End” at your current megaplex. All the figures, famous and otherwise, are here – Kenney, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Lorne Michaels, Harold Ramis, John Landis, P.J. O’Rourke, Tony Hendra, George W.S. Trow, Gilda Radner, Ann Beatts, and Bohemian anarcho-elitist Michael O’Donoghue, who, in the very first skit of “Saturday Night Live” played a language instructor teaching John Belushi, as a foreigner, how to say “I would like to feed your fingertips to the wolverines.”
Stein did interviewing for the book in the ’70s and ’80s, but there is no explanation why the book took so long to write. But, bless us all, here it is. – Jeff Simon