… I wanted this to be better. Gene Siskel had a line about whether a movie was preferable to the equivalent amount of time spent staring at a blank wall. I seriously had to take breaks from this even though my phone was dying and I was pinned under a sleeping baby; my alternative was literally a blank wall and I had to think about it.
I don’t want to complain too much about the recitation of the National Lampoon’s best bits in this book, for fear of coming off like Frank Zappa. Writing about music may be like dancing about architecture, and explaining a joke might remove all its humor, but I legitimately like seeing how the mechanics of humor work. Somehow this book manages to drain the humor from the most famous sketches and gags without expanding upon their creation or their creators; it’s less an exploration of humor than an autopsy.
This book, a history of the National Lampoon, manages to touch on all the expected parts of the magazine’s social history without illuminating any of them. You learn about the people behind the magazine, but there’s so damn many and they’re badly differentiated that you don’t get a sense for who anyone is. (Frankly, sometimes familiarity isn’t even a guarantee; I knew a lot of the names and still got lost. The author has a penchant for reintroducing faces we haven’t seen in chapters like she just mentioned them last paragraph.) You learn about the jokes but not why they were funny, or what cultural impact they had. You learn what happened, but without context, so none of it is significant.
My favorite example is one throwaway line about O.C and Stiggs – a National Lampoon film about the eponymous magazine favorites – directed by Robert Altman. We never hear about the supposed popular characters other than the one line about their movie directed improbably by one of cinema’s great auteurs except as a passing mention between Animal House and Caddyshack, other than to announce they were popular. But, there are meandering chapters about the first months of the publication and the Harvard Lampoon. We get pages on why it was a boys club, how they skirted the line between bad taste and mischief, but no SENSE of why things worked.