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

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

by Ellin Stein

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“Dazzling.”—Hollywood Reporter

Labor Day, 1969. Two recent college graduates move to New York to edit a new magazine called The National Lampoon. Over the next decade, Henry Beard and Doug Kenney, along with a loose amalgamation of fellow satirists including Michael O’Donoghue and P. J. O’Rourke, popularized a


“Dazzling.”—Hollywood Reporter

Labor Day, 1969. Two recent college graduates move to New York to edit a new magazine called The National Lampoon. Over the next decade, Henry Beard and Doug Kenney, along with a loose amalgamation of fellow satirists including Michael O’Donoghue and P. J. O’Rourke, popularized a smart, caustic, ironic brand of humor that has become the dominant voice of American comedy.

Ranging from sophisticated political satire to broad raunchy jokes, the National Lampoon introduced iconoclasm to the mainstream, selling millions of copies to an audience both large and devoted. Its excursions into live shows, records, and radio helped shape the anarchic earthiness of John Belushi, the suave slapstick of Chevy Chase, and the deadpan wit of Bill Murray, and brought them together with other talents such as Harold Ramis, Christopher Guest, and Gilda Radner. A new generation of humorists emerged from the crucible of the Lampoon to help create Saturday Night Live and the influential film Animal House, among many other notable comedy landmarks.

Journalist Ellin Stein, an observer of the scene since the early 1970s, draws on a wealth of revealing, firsthand interviews with the architects and impresarios of this comedy explosion to offer crucial insight into a cultural transformation that still echoes today. Brimming with insider stories and set against the roiling political and cultural landscape of the 1970s, That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick goes behind the jokes to witness the fights, the parties, the collaborations—and the competition—among this fraternity of the self-consciously disenchanted. Decades later, their brand of subversive humor that provokes, offends, and often illuminates is as relevant and necessary as ever.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
The National Lampoon has changed the landscape of American comedy. Stein (contributor, New York Times and Variety) provides an in-depth look at the magazine from its debut in 1970 through its various offshoot radio, television, and film projects such as the hit movie Animal House. By having conducted extensive interviews of the editors, writers, and production team, she re-creates the story of how the magazine, which was based on the Harvard Lampoon, developed into a best-selling humor magazine and training ground for some of the most beloved comedians in recent American history. Saturday Night Live stars such as John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, and Chevy Chase all got their start doing projects associated with the magazine. The author also describes the magazine's 28-year history in the context of its time period, and provides insights into the people who worked on the print magazine and related Lampoon media. VERDICT For fans of the magazine and pop-culture enthusiasts.—Donna Marie Smith, Palm Beach Cty. Lib. Syst., FL
Publishers Weekly
The story of the National Lampoon begins with a group of disaffected Harvard boys in the late 1960s who decide to produce a satire magazine. Journalist Stein leaves no tangent unexplored and no petty grievance unaired as she traces the magazine’s evolution and growing fame; forays into radio, stage, television, and movies; and its inevitable decay. The tumultuous 1970s provided innumerable subjects for mockery on both sides of the political spectrum, though the Lampoon didn’t pretend to have a loftier social goal than to garner some crude laughs—and some paychecks. Despite Stein’s detailed chronicles of the writing and business evolution of the magazine, the book itself isn’t particularly funny. Jokes that worked 40 years ago have been removed both from the immediate context of the magazine and from the social context of the period. Stein’s explanations of visual gags are even more problematic. She takes her subject seriously, when any of the people interviewed would be the first to point out how absurd it was. Though the book succeeds as journalism, and Stein shapes the magazine’s uneven history into a coherent narrative, readers shouldn’t expect many laughs. Agent: Chris Parris-Lamb, the Gernet Company. (June)
The Daily Beast
“This idea of a magazine’s personality kept coming back to me as I read Ellin Stein’s charming and detail-rich new history of the National Lampoon, That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick, because it is not really a history at all, but a portrait. You can’t pick your offspring’s personality, and the way a personality develops on its own, involuntarily, through an array of influences of varying importance and salience, echoes the way the Lampoon personality emerges in the pages of Stein’s book—through a pastiche of eyewitness recollections, some of them contradictory, many of them fascinating, and all accompanied by the author’s breezy running commentary on the cultural storms that swirled in the background.”
“Stein offer detailed portraits of the people behind the magazine’s success in a seminal time when politics and comedy intertwined with incendiary results…. A serious treatment of a funny topic.”
Hollywood Reporter
“Stein’s description…is dazzling.”
Michael Precker - Dallas Morning News
“A worthy addition to the comedy library.”
Boston Globe
“This rich history of humor, commerce, and backstage conflict is recounted in lively prose and admirable detail by veteran entertainment writer Ellin Stein. Buttressed by dozens of original interviews, as well as access to older ones and to all the yellowing back issues, That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick captures neatly the eccentric personalities and fiery times that converged to propel radically offensive material to the forefront of the American consciousness.”
Weekly Standard
“It’s not much of stretch to call this exceedingly thorough and wildly entertaining history of modern American comedy a bible on the subject. Ellin Stein goes deep and dirty on the topic…. A book that will serve as a cultural reference work for the ages. And a blast from the past to read.”
Ellary Eddy - Realize Magazine
“If you ever picked up an issue of the National Lampoon, or misspent your youth in the sixties and seventies; if you ever wondered about the origins of Saturday Night Live or, in fact, ever had any interest in the course of American humor from the late sixties onward, this is a book to read…. That’s Not Funny takes you on a ride through what was, arguably, the heyday of American humor.”
A. V. Club
“For one thing, the history of the Lampoon is a good story, and Stein may be the first person to devote so much of a book to it who doesn’t have her own ax to grind.”
Time Out New York
“A must for aficionados of comedy history, and will give the rest a different perspective on the current humor landscape.”
Kurt Andersen
“Smart, knowing, and deeply reported, the definitive history of one of modern American humor’s wellsprings.”

Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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Meet the Author

Ellin Stein has contributed arts features and criticism to publications including the New York Times, The Times (of London), the Guardian, the London Telegraph, and Variety and is a former reporter for People and InStyle magazines. She currently lives in London, where she teaches screenwriting at Goldsmiths College, University of London.

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