Inspired by Ellin Stein’s new book That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick: The National Lampoon and the Comedy Insurgents Who Captured the Mainstream, Teddy Wayne charts the rise and fall of National Lampoon:
Congenial chuckles were not [founding co-editor Michael] O’Donoghue’s goal. “I’ve always considered comedy what you use to get people to swallow the pill, not the pill itself,” he said, along with this deathless epigram: “Making people laugh is the lowest form of humor.” He considered himself a moralist, and a livid one at that — who was still able to exert mastery over his feelings: “Rage is only interesting when it’s controlled. When you repress those emotions, you always get something artistic and interesting.” His highest-profile heirs today are Chris Rock and Louis CK, whose moral anger fuels their comedy without stepping (in Rock’s case, barely so) over the threshold of Lewis Black’s or Sam Kinison’s exhausting fury, and for whom the point is often less to get a laugh — let alone self-congratulatory applause — than to provoke thought. With O’Donoghue’s influence, and Vietnam’s escalation, the National Lampoon couldn’t help but become more political than its ivory tower predecessor [the Harvard Lampoon], attacking both the right and left for their conservatism and hypocrisy, respectively. And, as with the response to The Onion today, people loved being reminded of their flaws. …
The magazine’s circulation dwindled through the ’80s and published its last issue in 1998, but to most readers, it unofficially ended in 1980, when a vacationing [co-founder Doug] Kenney was found dead at the base of Hawaiian cliff in an apparent suicide at age 32. His death was received by his peers with equal parts sadness and gallows humor; the best line was that Kenney “had slipped and fallen while looking for a place to commit suicide.”
The NL ceded its satirical reign first, in the late ’80s, to Spy magazine, which derided the lifestyles of the rich and famous, and then, in the new millennium, to the media-oriented Onion and Gawker, the politicized Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, and finally to anyone with a Twitter account and a misspelled opinion. In the last two decades, the surviving brand has pumped out over thirty films, some given the NL imprimatur, many straight-to-DVD and with titles the original Lampooners would have heaved up only for parodic target practice (2007’s Homo Erectus, aka National Lampoon’s Stoned Age).