That's Not Funny, That's Sick: Origins of National Lampoon

New Pop Culture Book

Drawing on interviews, journalist Ellin Stein recounts in her sprawling history “That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick,” published this month by Norton how the magazine was during its early-1970s heyday the boot camp for some of the greatest comedians of our pop culture.

When Doug Kenney, Henry Beard and Rob Hoffman joined the Harvard Lampoon in the mid 1960s, the humor magazine, founded in 1876, was a venerable institution whose fortunes had been in decline. The trio helped revitalize the Lampoon with a series of hit one-off parodies. By 1970, they had partnered with Matty Simmons, a former Diner’s Club executive, to launch National Lampoon. The magazine was a quick success, becoming profitable after six months, reaching sales north of 500,000 by 1972.

The original founders played 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. Greater success came as National Lampoon was spun off into stage shows (Lemmings), a radio program (Radio Hour) and comedy albums. Thanks to Lampoon’s free-wheeling and experimental atmosphere, it attracted such gifted actors as John Belushi, Chevy Chase, and Bill Murray.

Stein’s description of these three years, from 1972 to SNL’s debut in 1975, is intriguing, 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 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.