National Lampoon magazine was a boon when I first discovered it at the approximate age of 12. At the time I thought they only made Vacation movies, and perhaps so did my mother, considering she bought the subscription to the issues I ended up “borrowing”. For me, the pages inside were something akin to a fabled adult version of Mad magazine with profane comics and naked ladies and jokes that I wouldn’t get for a few more years.
This may have kicked off something of a precocious puberty in this reviewer, but it also jump-started my extant fascination with irreverent comedy into light speed. I never looked back.
Naturally, National Lampoon was much bigger than the Vacation flicks or even the hawked and soon dogeared issues that I had boggarted. In fact, by the time I discovered the magazine it was still hilarious and dangerous and fun, but it had, indeed, passed its prime. Ellin Stein’s new documentary book That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick: The National Lampoon and the Comedy Insurgents who Captured the Mainstream focuses deeply on this heyday and its immediate and longer-lasting aftermath, but takes its time delving far back into the roots of and influences on this groundbreaking group, all the way through an informative epilogue that takes us through to the present-day.
This epilogue takes the form of a character catch-up, much like the one that precedes the closing credits of Animal House, with 19 pages detailing the names of many of this long story’s players and where they are now (or, at least, what they contributed afterwards). With detailed appendices of acknowledgements, footnotes and a detailed index, That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick is the complete story and a bag of chips (the equivalent of DVD extras on a visual documentary), but these inclusions make the exclusion all the more surprising.
For one thing, Stein is primarily detailing a very visual medium, that of a popular and impactful print magazine that spawned albums and stage shows and a lot of movies, to boot. Yet unlike many factual books of its kind, That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick contains no set of darker pages toward its mid-section to present these visuals from any of the endeavors the company and its rotating group of talented creators. Aside from the creative and well-representative cover, there are no images whatsoever in this tome even when they are sorely needed. Legendary magazine covers are described, not shown, influential comic strips are hinted at, but never represented and photographs that must be seen to be believed are talked about, but remain unseen.
In almost all other ways, Stein’s biography of the Lampoon is decidedly and excitingly thorough. Stein reaches back not only to the advent of National Lampoon magazine but, as she should, all the way to the college comedy collective that spawned it, The Harvard Lampoon and traces its own history back long decades before its national successor reached for comedy gold. Stein explores predecessors, influences (like Mad) and even similar magazines surrounding the Lampoon, but never lets the focus drift from her subject and its incredibly irreverent and even dangerous and dark humor.
With names like Chevy Chase, the Second City (and its televised spawn, SCTV), Bill Murray, Christopher Guest, Lorne Michaels, Saturday Night Live, Dan Aykroyd, and the tragic (yet impactful) cases like John Belushi and Doug Kenney laced throughout the entire story of this book, virtually any comedy fan born in the last three generations will find something familiar in That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick. Accordingly, Stein reaches far beyond the Lampoon’s hey day and explores the dominoes that fell at the Lampoon’s own prompting. Seemingly unrelated works like This is Spinal Tap,Gilda Live, Where the Buffalo Roam, The Blues Brothers and Caddyshack are all explored from the vantage point of National Lampoon as the prime mover.
As complete as the book seems, it still could use those illustrations, detailing the visually vital things Stein discusses. There is also a certain insiders density to be found here that feels good if you’re a reader with all prerequisites met, but for new people looking to learn about The National Lampoon, this can be a bit of a dense read. With no mention of perennial photo strip model Annie Sprinkle (much less a photo thereof) and the familiarity of referring to certain stars by their friendly names vs professional names (“Chris Guest” is truly, if not obviously, comedian and musician Christopher Guest, although that’s not immediately apparent) That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick is almost entirely complete, if occasionally confusing, and a smart read for comedy history fans. Nor is this, in itself, a terribly comical read.
Stein’s warts-and-all approach to this tale is occasionally witty, but just as often cynical and tragic, just as the many players behind the pages were. This isn’t a book about the comedy that made it into the magazine and movies but the oft-decadent, sad and disastrous people and events that led to the funny that propped up The National Lampoon.