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Spit Take Saturday: That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick!

Comedy >

9780393074093_p0_v1_s260x420Welcome to Spit Take Saturday, courtesy of Brown Paper Tickets’ Comedy Doer Julie Seabaugh and her professional comedy criticism site The Spit Take. Julie’s goal with the site is to “elevate the public perception of stand-up comedy to that of a legitimate art form, and to enable comedy criticism be taken as seriously as that of theater, film, music, food, even video games. No a**-kissing. No bias. No mercy. Just honest, unfiltered, long-form reviews written by professional, knowledgeable comedy critics.” 

Every week Julie will select an entry from the site to be included on our blog and hand-pick some related events happening that week that she feels all you comedy lovers out there will appreciate.

So, without further ado, let us introduce you to this week’s Spit Take Saturday!

The cover of That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick: The National Lampoon and the Comedy Insurgents Who Captured the Mainstream, is a telling sign of just how much author Ellin Stein immersed herself in researching her new book. An illustration by longtime Lampoon artist Bruce McCall depicts a hand holding a skewer run through such figures as Santa Claus, an angel, the Statue of Liberty, Uncle Sam and a panda bear. Stein respects her subject, internalizes and even admires it, though she is willing to break out the blade herself wherever necessary.

Comedy and culture make interesting dance partners. To what extent one influences or reflects the other is a fluid question. The founders—Henry Beard, Doug Kenney and Rob Hoffman—developed their taste for near all-encompassing rebellion at the Harvard Lampoon, which took a leap forward from its twee past during their tenure in the 60s. The output increased, and the humor changed. They found success parodying other media like Time, Life and especially Playboy. And the targets shifted. It was no longer the self-deprecating “me like a schmuck” attitude and more a cutthroat “you like a schmuck” mentality, as Stein points out. That fight against the accepted and the unquestioned carried over when National Lampoon started in 1970, and continued until Nixon left office and the counterculture seemed to have won. Then, sadly, it faded.

Stein offers a brilliantly detailed account of the formation, rise and fall of the Lampoon as a magazine, focusing on the period from the mid-60s to the late 70s. No aspect of the Lampoon’s creation or impact is left unexamined, from the major players’ individual psychological motivations to the external pressures of putting out a commercial magazine. Comparing Michael O’Donoghue’s comic philosophy to that of subsequent contributor Ted Mann, for example, she writes, “instead of using jokes to explore the gap between cruelty and the sentimentality used to mask it, Mann’s target often seemed to be compassion itself.”

The Lampoon was created by a group of mainly privileged kids who saw the hypocrisy of the prevailing institutions of the 50s, and who were emboldened by the expanding freedom of expression that unfolded in the 60s, but didn’t align themselves with the political forces behind the changes. Stein reveals the rabble-rousers standing firmly in the middle, taking their shots at everything from Nixon to hippies, while looking to make good money for their efforts. And though the Lampoon is the obvious focus of Stein’s storyline, she gives proper time to an impressive breadth of other players—satirical troupes like Beyond the Fringe and The Committee, as well as competing magazines like MAD and The Real World. And of course much time is devoted to Second City and Saturday Night Live, whose histories are hopelessly tangled with the Lampoon.

Stein ends with Kenney’s death as the final blow, though in her epilogue she offers a brief history of how it limped along to its current hollow status of propping up crappy sex comedies. But those first ten years were a grand, dramatic arc executed by comic voices that helped build the foundation of the modern comic sensibility. How Stein fit that into just 400 pages is an impressive feat.

By Nick A. Zaino III

Follow @SpitTakeComedy on Twitter or Like us on Facebook.


Can’t get enough of the written comedic word? Check out:

Saturday, July 13 I Lee Camp Live at the Gold Room  Portland, Maine  Camp’s popular “Moment of Clarity” web series has evolved into a book, and now, full length show with a full, grassroots funded 1st season beginning this fall! He has been a featured guest on many shows including: Countdown with Keith Olbermann, Viewpoint with Eliot Spitzer, ABC’s Good Morning America, BBC’s Newsnight, and RT’s Breaking the Set. His comedic writing skill has been lent to The Huffington Post and The Onion, and he was a featured performer at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

Friday, July 26 I Mick Foley: Tales From Wrestling Past Comedy Show  Corpus Christi, Texas  He’s a three-time WWE champion, a hardcore legend and a member of the WWE Hall of Fame. Now, Mick Foley is unleashing the same trademark blend of wit and wisdom, wildness and warmth that made his books so beloved (five self-penned New York Times best-sellers) into his one-man spoken-word stage show.

Tuesday, September 3 Disalmanac Book Release Show   New York, New York  @Disalmanac and are the Web’s homes for fact-like facts, and now they are a book-like book! Join Disalmanacarian Scott Bateman to celebrate the publication of Disalmanac: A Book of Fact-Like Facts! There will be special guests, fact-like facts and more! For more information, please visit