If they say the best books are like a conversation with the author, then ‘That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick – The National Lampoon and the Comedy Insurgents Who Captured the Mainstream’ by (disclosure: friend of ten minutes hate) Ellin Stein goes one better. A conversation where the author allows you to eavesdrop on some of the funniest men and women America produced in the at times quite dour latter half of the last century.
How the Lampooners went from Harvard grads to ruling the newsstands, then to household names on Saturday Night Live, followed by kings and queens of Hollywood via a steady conquering of print, radio, stand-up comedy, improv theatre, TV and movies – wielding an influence far beyond the things they actually created themselves – is a heck of a tale. Crafted by Ellin Stein and including one-on-one interviews conducted over many years, it is fair to say it crackles off the page, with all the intrigue and derring-do, deal-making and double-crossing you would expect from such a talented gang.
While it seems safe to say that The National Lampoon’s reputation for counter-culture activity was perhaps over-stated – mostly by themselves – Thats Not Funny, That’s Sick doesn’t shy away from calling them out on it, quoting one contributing editor’s view that,
It was a commercial venture from the start, and subversion was the product being sold.
The parallels with the music industry are clear and Stein’s narrative is adept at placing the magazine in the context of the politics and culture as the idealistic late ’60s becomes the cynical ’70s and block-busting ’80s. I was reminded of Philip Seymour Hoffman, as Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, lamenting of the money men:
…they will ruin rock ‘n’ roll and strangle everything we love about it.
It is not always clear if the right subjects were being lampooned, with certain editors claiming that anything and anyone was a legitimate target and still others stating their attempts to work from a ‘base of integrity’. That base was still so firmly rooted in the white, male, college frat-dwelling mindset that the guys had a hard time wrapping their heads around the fact that non-male, non-white, non-Ivy League types could also produce humour. (In case you wondered where present-day Hollywood gets it from…)
In the UK, writers tend to work alone and the teams that are locked in a room until the hilarity is honed are largely unknown to us. Perhaps this adds to the Lampoon mythology and brings it closer to the legendary sporting teams we love to laud. It is clear that what Stein calls the Lampoon’s ‘gym of the intellect’ fostered a competitiveness that spurred some individuals into levels of fame that can be difficult for such sensitive types to contend with. The push and pull between the mercurial types and the ones who have to manage their ‘output’ is painfully and truthfully detailed.
There are some books where the epilogues are to be skipped or glanced at, but not here. As the roll of honour in That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick lists, there is not an element of the media that remains untouched by an NL alumni. Not all have remained in comedy, with everything from serious drama to children’s cookery books making use of their talents. Given their starting point in satire it is perhaps strange that so much of mainstream American cultural life wouldn’t exist without them – although perhaps it takes more to erase that Ivy League destiny than growing one’s hair long and lighting a joint…
A fascinating snapshot of the era and a kick up the bum, or ass as our American cousins would say, for creative readers from what must be one of the most prolific groupings of writers and performers ever gathered. They would probably make faces at any use of the word ‘inspirational’, but tough. It is both an inspiration and a real pleasure to listen in on their tales.
Author photograph by Paul Rider