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That's Not Funny, That's Sick: The National Lampoon and the Comedy Insurgents Who Captured the Mainstream Hardcover – June 24, 2013

4.5 out of 5 stars 13 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

We all know the success of Second City and its offshoots, including the long-­running Saturday Night Live (SNL). But there’s another comedy story that hasn’t been given its proper due, until now. In 1969, history was made when recent Harvard graduates Henry Beard and Doug Kenney moved to New York to edit a new magazine, the National Lampoon. Within a decade or so of its founding, the Lampoon’s absurdist and subversive humor would not only enter the mainstream, but it would, for all intents and purposes, become the mainstream, which led, ultimately, to South Park, The Daily Show, 30 Rock, and the Onion. Journalist Stein offers detailed portraits of the people behind the magazine’s success in a seminal time when politics and comedy intertwined with incendiary results. Many of the big names are here (Bill Murray, John Belushi, Harold Ramis, Gilda Radner), but it is the untold story that resonates the most, the secret history of a profession that, like the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield, doesn’t get the respect that it deserves. A serious treatment of a funny topic. --June Sawyers

Review

The National Lampoon burst into being when I was fifteen and changed my life―led me to write satire, become an editor at its Harvard College mother ship, make friends with its founders and editors, and cofound Spy magazine. Ellin Stein chronicles how it changed American culture as well. That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick is smart, knowing, and deeply reported, the definitive history of one of modern American humor’s wellsprings.” (Kurt Andersen, author of True Believers, host of NPR’s Studio 360)

“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.” (The Daily Beast)

“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.” (Booklist)

“Stein leaves no tangent unexplained and no petty grievance unaired as she traces the magazine’s evolution and growing fame.” (Publishers Weekly)

“Stein’s description…is dazzling.” (Hollywood Reporter)

“A worthy addition to the comedy library.” (Michael Precker - Dallas Morning News)

“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.” (Boston Globe)

“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.” (Weekly Standard)

“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.” (Ellary Eddy - Realize Magazine)

“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.” (A. V. Club)
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 464 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (June 24, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393074099
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393074093
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.5 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #261,950 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
There have been more than a few books written about National Lampoon and the people who worked there. As proprietor of Mark's Very Large National Lampoon Site, I've read them all, but none of them puts the history of the magazine and its spin-offs in context the way this book does.

If you think of the Lampoon phenomenon as a big tree, with the magazine as the trunk, other books have drawn more detailed pictures of certain parts of the tree, or even from a point of view inside the tree.

Stein's book is the first to step back and draw a full picture of the tree, from its roots in the Harvard Lampoon to the many branches and twigs that have grown from it over the years, including many branches that barely get mentioned in other books. The book has clearly been in the works for a long time--some of the people interviewed are no longer with us. It includes quite a bit of material I've never seen before.

If you want to know about some particular aspect of National Lampoon--the life of Doug Kenney, the life of Michael O'Donoghue, Tony Hendra's take on it all, Rick Meyerowitz's favorite stuff from the magazine, or Chris Miller's history of Animal House--there are other good books to choose from.

But for anyone who is interested in the big picture of National Lampoon's history and cultural influence, Ellin Stein's That's Not Funny, That's Sick is the one to get.
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Format: Hardcover
Ellin Stein's smart, well-written history of the National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live is full of hilarious quotes and sensitive portraits that offer fresh insight into familiar figures such as Chevy Chase and Gilda Radner. But the book is more than a collection of one-liners. In hindsight, it seems obvious that satire would be a vehicle for exploring the changes in society: satire, unlike broader forms of humor, is so tied to the quirks and follies of a particular era. This is a very funny book, but it is also both poignant and important. From the glory days of the National Lampoon, a brilliant humor magazine founded on a whim at a time when overhead was low and energy was high, to the present day, when spontaneousness, creativity, and subversiveness are losing out to "key players" and "thought leaders," terms that the NatLamp's editors would surely have skewered, this book reminds us that it's 4 a.m. in America, with a bad hangover. Nobody has brought this news home in quite the way Stein does, and I found myself very moved by the book's ending, which I won't give away here. Here's hoping the book functions as a blueprint for creative subversion. Life in the U.S. may not be fun anymore, but at least we have Ellin Stein and the whole cast of characters from satire's heyday to remind us of when it was.
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Format: Hardcover
This book is fascinating, funny and effortless to read. It flew by. It is essential reading for anyone interested in humor and who wants to know how it was altered by the 1960's counterculture. It will make you laugh helplessly. I was a bit concerned that I would know some of the stories, having read about SNL, which grew out of the Lampoon, but there is so much here that is fresh and new. It's no surprise to see this book all over Manhattan. The author, Ellin Stein, is like a great emcee: after the first few minutes you stop noticing her flawless touch and simply enjoy watching the story unfold. She gives you context without distracting you from the narrative. And the title is a lie: this IS funny. And it's a joy to read.

Alfred Vanderbilt
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Format: Hardcover
Other reviewers, in particular Mark Simonson, have expressed the best reasons to read this history of America's greatest humor magazine: while other authors have traced the history of the "Lampoon" within the context of a biography of one of its major talents (Doug Kenney, Michael O'Donoghue), this book is about the magazine itself, which had a fascinating history fraught with the kind of turmoil you only get when you bring a dozen or so brilliantly funny and intelligent men and women together and watch them try to agree on anything. (Thankfully, at least often enough to create a magazine's worth of satire, they occasionally did). The author had the advantage of having interviewed principals such as Kenney in the magazine's formative years, and so her account contains quotes which do not appear in any recent book or article on the subject (trust me, I've read everything published about the "Lampoon" or anyone remotely connected with it since at least nineteen-eighty-whatever year "Going Too Far" was published). Because of my fanatical reading, I was actually uncertain whether or not I'd learn anything new here, but I did, not all of it pleasant: e.g., I had been completely unaware of one editor's evidently well-known but little-discussed anti-Semitism. The author also goes into greater detail about the magazine's side projects - its stage shows and especially its albums, which were the first "Lampoon" works I ever bought - than any one else.Read more ›
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