“It is the curse of the humorist,” P.J. O’Rourke once remarked, “to be laughed at.” Few have been more badly burned by this paradoxical truth than those wits, real and half, who toiled for The National Lampoon, the alternately clever and juvenile humor magazine that debuted in 1970 and became one of the decade’s biggest publishing successes. Along the way, the Lampoon popularized several skeins of humor — some salubrious, others less so — launched the careers of dozens of celebrated writers and performers, and demonstrated, well before the ascendancy of Martha Stewart, the potential for multimedia branding: into radio, theater, books, records, TV, film. Indeed, millions who never browsed the magazine or its ’60s antecedent, The Harvard Lampoon, memorized every line of “National Lampoon’s Animal House” (1978) and cheered Chevy Chase’s bumbling pursuit of Christie Brinkley in “National Lampoon’s Vacation” (1983).
Yet while the brand lives on, still churning out fare like “National Lampoon Presents Surf Party” (2013), the magazine itself never attained the highbrow respect achieved by other venues for satire, like The New Yorker or SPY, and it ultimately ceased publication in 1998.
This rich history of humor, commerce, and backstage conflict is recounted in lively prose and admirable detail by veteran entertainment writer Ellin Stein in “That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick.” Buttressed by dozens of original interviews, as well as access to older ones and to all the yellowing back issues, “That’s Not Funny” captures neatly the eccentric personalities and fiery times that converged to propel radically offensive material to the forefront of the American consciousness.
That the Lampoon’s humor sprang from a collegiate sensibility — specifically, Harvard’s — is not in doubt. But not all collegiate humor is created equal. Former contributing artist Bruce McCall, who also designed the dust jacket for this volume, observed that the National Lampoon’s editorial staff seemed composed mostly of “angry adolescents who didn’t get enough sex in their teens.” “Our humor is white, middle and upper class, male-oriented and effete,” Lampoon cofounder Henry Beard acknowledged in 1974.
Those were heady times for Beard and his classmate and cofounder, Doug Kenney. The previous year, the magazine’s most famous cover — showing an anonymous hand pointing a gun at the head of a nervous dog, with a header reading IF YOU DON’T BUY THIS MAGAZINE, WE’LL KILL THIS DOG — sold more than 600,000 copies (when the American reading populace was considerably smaller); and the following year, ad sales peaked at $3.5 million ($15 million in current dollars).
But Stein, for all her passion for the subject — or perhaps because of it — never ventures an answer to the central question she poses throughout: namely, whether the Lampooners, with their routine jabs at blacks and Jews, their unfunny jokes about gang-rape and the underclass, “were making fun of their own prejudices or if they were simply reinforcing stereotypes . . . mocking small-mindedness or embodying it.” The closest Stein comes is to murmur that, as the ’70s wore on, “it became increasingly difficult to tell.” Lampoon editor Gerry Sussman also demurs: “We were anti-everything.”
“SNL” fans will cherish Stein’s insider anecdotes about the early antics of John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, and Gilda Radner; and for devotees and survivors of post-counterculture culture, that sophisticated yet languid strain of snark that rose as Nixon fell, “That’s Not Funny” will offer a guided tour down memory lane, a chortling contact high as the needle touches down on a scratchy reprise of The National Lampoon’s greatest bits.
For the rest of us, “That’s Not Funny” presents a tough slog through 400 pages of material that leans too heavily on interview quotes and has largely been covered in other books, most notably the 1987 memoir of former Lampoon editor Tony Hendra, entitled “Going Too Far.” Worse, Stein’s writing is plagued by inaccuracies (the year of the Tet Offensive, the title of the Beatles’ “Something”), abominable run-on sentences, and clumsy constructions (“female humor-generating capabilities”? “sperm conservationist Norman Mailer”?).
That anyone at all is still writing about the National Lampoon may reflect not so much the magazine’s enduring impact — gamely, Stein finds a lineage with The Onion — as the self-regard of a now-aged youth cohort that was the first to proclaim, in the person of Jim Morrison and the Doors, “We want the world and we want it now!” The late George W.S. Trow, a former president of The Harvard Lampoon, summed it up best in “Within the Context of No Context,” the memoir that originated as a New Yorker essay in 1980: “An adolescence had to be improvised and that it was improvised — mostly out of Rock-and-Roll music — so astounded the people who pulled it off that they rightly considered it the important historical event of their time and have circled around it ever since.”James Rosen is the chief Washington correspondent for Fox News and author of “The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate.”
Correction: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this review noted inaccuracies in the book, including the use of an incorrect adjective to describe a person from Afghanistan. An early galley described a Harvard classmate of National Lampoon editors Henry Beard and Doug Kenney as being “Afghani.” That was changed to the correct “Afghan’’ before the final version was printed and released.