Despite some deadly outbursts of seriousness, this idiosyncratic account of postwar humor and comedians is short on explanation and long on quotation. And thank God for that. For whenever former stand-up comedian and National Lampoon editor Hendra waxes historical, his prose bogs down in clichÃ‰s, with capital letters for emphasis. In Hendra's not so profound view, the deliriously sick humor of our time is a direct response to ""The Big Catch"" (i.e., the bomb) and ""The Box"" (television, of course), both part of the ""Official Version"" of things. From out of the ""Cultural Wasteland"" of the 50's came Mort Sahl, the brainy stand-up satirist whose live act relied on a single prop--the day's newspaper, with its headlined ""Lies and Deceptions."" And after Sahl, the deluge--a flood of lunacy that manifested itself on stage and on the page, from Sahl's arch-rival, the lyrically foul-mouthed Lenny Bruce to Harvey Kurtzman, the maestro of Mad magazine. Camelot begat countless jesters, each with an appealing shriek of his own; milquetoast Bob Newhart, hipster George Carlin, neurotic Woody Allen, and so on. Not surprisingly, Hendra's narrative of inspired nuttiness leads to The National Lampoon. And even if he exaggerates this parodic magazine's importance, its ""anarchic energy and radical skepticism"" did result in the deliberately sophomoric Animal House, one of the most popular films in history. How NatLamp also spawned outrageous radio shows, loony stage revues, and ""Saturday Night Live"" (a ""rip-off"" in Hendra's view) makes for an engaging, if not always very deep, tale. At its best, full of antic anecdotes and gossipy guffaws.