Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon
Dynamic documentary traces the rise and fall of a comedy empire
Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon (2015)
Directed by Douglas Tirola
Comedy has an ability to capture the spirit of the times like no other genre of entertainment. Think “The Soupy Sales Show” in the late ’50s or Lenny Bruce in the early ’60s or “Laugh-In” in the late ’60s. Bloom County in the ’80s. Jerry Seinfeld in the ’90s. “The Daily Show” in the 2000s. Each was a product of its time and remains an iconic representative of its era. Timing, they say, is everything in comedy. If that’s the case, then the argument could be made that the National Lampoon magazine was the zeitgeist-grabbing comedy trendsetter of the 1970s.
Douglas Tirola’s entertaining documentary Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon certainly makes a convincing case for that assertion. Who else could have goofed on Ted Kennedy, Che Guevara, Richard Nixon and George Harrison with equal relish? With interviews from the creators, testimonials from admirers and pages of hilarious evidence from the publication in question, the film gives National Lampoon the kick-ass eulogy it so rightly deserves.
The notable humor magazine started, of course, as the Harvard Lampoon—a sort of highbrow spoof of Ivy League college life. A commercial, nationwide spin-off of the magazine was launched in 1970 by Lampoon staffers Doug Kenney and Henry Beard. The indefatigable duo shepherded the magazine through countless staff shakeups and corporate buy-outs and produced endless satirical articles over the decades. The magazine eventually folded, long after its prime, in 1998. But it’s important to recall and recount the influence the mag had on subsequent generations of comics. Without the Lampoon, there would be no “Saturday Night Live,” no Animal House, no Caddyshack, no “Simpsons.”
Tirola (Actress, Hey Bartender) clearly wants to hit viewers with the energy and excitement of National Lampoon’s early issues. His documentary is a nonstop, multimedia barrage of images, words, cartoons, interviews and voice-overs. He backbones the film with a solid start-to-finish chronology of the magazine’s life span. But in highlighting so much of its contents, he builds a powerful nostalgic feeling among longtime devotees and creates a solid understanding of what it was like for newcomers. (It was—to be concise—crass, smart and funny as hell.) Tirola also digs up a treasure trove of archival material, allowing Kenney and Beard to speak for themselves. They’re a fascinatingly mismatched duo—one a grinning Florida surfer dude, the other a tie-wearing Manhattan socialite—and the clear driving force behind the once-great humor empire’s success.
It’s sobering to remember just how big a business these two irreverent East Coast college kids built on rude jokes and raunchy parodies. There was a long-running radio show, a popular off-Broadway play, a series of best-selling record albums, several books (including Bored of the Rings) and a handful of smash hit movies (Animal House, Vacation). Tirola’s briskly paced documentary film digs up a lot of the major literary contributors (Christopher Buckley, P.J. O’Rourke, Al Jean, Bruce McCall, Ed Subitzky) and a lot of celebrity admirers (Judd Apatow, John Goodman, Billy Bob Thornton). It’s a bit of a bummer Tirola and his crew couldn’t entice more of the legendary comic actors who gave NatLamp’s early radio/stage/TV outings their distinctive bite. Granted, most of them split off to start rival hallmark “Saturday Night Live” (Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, John Belushi, Michael O’Donoghue and Harold Ramis) and many of them are dead (Radner, Belushi, O’Donoghue, Ramis). But where are guys like Christopher Guest and Brian Doyle-Murray, who were there on the ground floor? We do have John Landis, Tim Matheson and Kevin Bacon to talk about Animal House. And the normally grumpy Chevy Chase proves surprisingly open and poignant talking about his best friend Doug Kenney. A few more of the big faces and Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead might have knocked it out of the park. Oh well, viewers can always console themselves with long-lost footage of Belushi doing an amazing Joe Cocker imitation in the Lampoon’s popular 1973 Woodstock parody Lemmings.
As a cultural slice-of-life snapshot, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead does a fine job explaining how a bunch of overly literate East Coast beatniks sold bawdy jokes to the unwashed masses in the post-Watergate era and created modern comedy in the process. But the film’s lasting impact comes in showing how a tiny handful of creative minds (the “drunk, stoned, brilliant, dead” men and women of the title) fought for their crazy, boundary-pushing, uproariously funny vision. Sure, it took its toll in drugs, friendships, money and mortality. But it’s a funny fucking story.