If You Don't Read This National Lampoon Article We'll Shoot This Dog!

Experienced Lampoon fans may wonder where certain semi-obvious inclusions are and non-experienced Lampoon fans may find this read a dense ride, but for the baby bear who can sample this book right down the middle, everything is comically just right.

That's Not Funny, That's Sick: The National Lampoon and the Comedy Insurgents Who Captured the Mainstream

Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Length: 464 pages
Author: Ellin Stein
Price: $27.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2013-06

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.






A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.