Despite National Lampoon’s recognizability as the comedic brand behind such movies as Animal House, Vacation and, yes, Van Wilder, the magazine behind the name is nearly forgotten today.
Drawing on extensive interviews, journalist Ellin Stein recounts in her sprawling new history That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick, how the magazine was, during its brief early-’70s heyday, the boot camp for some of pop culture’s greatest comedians.
When Doug Kenney, Henry Beard and Rob Hoffman joined the Harvard Lampoon in the mid-’60s, the humor magazine, founded in 1876, was a venerable institution whose fortunes long had been in decline.
The trio helped revitalize the Lampoon with a series of hit one-off parodies, and by 1970, they had part- nered with Matty Simmons, a former Diner’s Club executive, to launch National Lampoon.
The magazine was a quick success, becoming profitable in only six months and reaching
sales of more than 500,000 by 1972. The original found- ers ended up playing only a peripheral role in its success, as new staffers including P.J. O’Rourke, Mike O’Donoghue (Saturday Night Live’s first head writer) and Tony Hendra came on board.
Even bigger success came as National Lampoon was spun off into stage shows (Lemmings), a radio program (Radio Hour) and comedy albums — which, thanks to Lampoon’s free- wheeling and experimental atmosphere, attracted such people as John Belushi, Chevy Chase and Bill Murray.
Stein’s description of these three years — from 1972 to SNL’s debut in 1975 — is dazzling (and is better than Tom Shales’ Live From New York), as is the stretch documenting how, in 1975, Kenney, magazine writer Chris Miller and Harold Ramis (who worked on the radio show) began writing a movie based on the magazine’s best-selling 1964 High School Yearbook parody. That film became 1978’s Animal House — which made Belushi a movie star.
Stein fittingly ends the book with Kenney’s tragic death in 1980 from either a suicide or accidental fall off a cliff in Hawaii (Chase had taken him there to help kick a drug habit). Without him, there simply wasn’t much Lampoon story left to tell.
That's Not Funny, That's Sick by Ellin Stein (Norton, June 24, 288 pages, $26)