'Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon'
When we hear the words “National Lampoon” these days, we tend to think of ‘Animal House’, ‘Vacation’, and then a slew of absolutely horrendous movies with that label above the title. That’s a real shame, because even though it’s pretty much vanished into obscurity, the National Lampoon institution was once at the forefront of American comedy.
The Lampoon was a satirical assault on good taste and American values that helped redefine all comedy that followed and launched a collection of the great comedic minds of a generation. Unfortunately, these days it’s hard to even find a single back issue to serve as evidence for those triumphs. On the plus side, at least this documentary now exists to share the weird and wacky National Lampoon tale to the generations that missed out on all the filthy fun.
Director Douglas Tirola’s straightforward talking-head history of the brand kicks off in the Harvard Lampoon, skipping over the vast history of that elitist humor mag to focus on two plucky students named Doug Kenney and Henry Beard, who turned the school club into a lifestyle during their time on campus. They published a successful ‘Lord of the Rings’ parody while still in school and graduated with the dream of transforming the Harvard Lampoon into a national publication. Somehow, through the wallet of Matty Simmons, they pulled it off. The early days of cranking out the magazine in New York were filled with the usual struggles, but soon they found their voice and a collection of brilliant nutcases to add to their madhouse.
The big success started with art director Michael Gross, who had the skills necessary to perfectly mimic actual ads and magazine spreads for the Lampoon’s satirical targets. Kenney and Beard remained the dominant editorial voices, but soon they started bringing in folks like dark genius Michael O’Donoghue (future ‘SNL’ head writer), P.J. O’Rourke, Chris Miller (‘Animal House’), John Hughes (yep, that one), Anne Beatts (‘SNL’), and future ‘Simpsons’ star writers Al Jean and Mike Reiss. The magazine became a twisted and nasty satirical voice for a generation. Simply hearing the folks in the film discuss some of the articles still has the power to shock and draw huge laughs. With its fearless abandon, irreverence and sexual permissiveness (the thing was filled with nudity), National Lampoon soon became a massively successful magazine and cultural phenomenon.
As success of the magazine grew, the Lampoon began to stretch out. It launched a hit live comedy show and radio program that brought in then unknown performers like John Belushi, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Harold Ramis, Gilda Radner and Christopher Guest. Everything the Lampoon touched turned to gold. Even when chunks of the writing staff and actors were drafted by Lorne Michaels for the comparatively watered-down ‘Saturday Night Live’, the Lampoon managed to find new voices and branch out further, eventually peaking with the huge cinematic success of ‘Animal House’.
Sadly, most of the major players in the Lampoon story are dead, but Tirola manages to wrangle up survivors like O’Rourke, Beatts, Jean, Reiss, Simmons and Tony Hendra (best known for playing Spinal Tap’s manager) to spin hilarious tales of an insane office filled with rampant drug use and epic fights. It’s a tale as wild as you’d hope. The success and influence are explored through oddball fan interviews with the likes of Judd Apatow and Billy Bob Thornton (no, I’m not sure why either). To lend the doc dramatic weight in the final third, the filmmaker focuses on the tragic death of Doug Kenney. An influential comedic genius, Kenney died under mysterious circumstances in his early 30s, which many assume to have been a suicide shortly after the release of ‘Caddyshack’ (which he co-wrote and produced).
The late inning focus on the death of Kenney lends ‘Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead’ a certain weight and emotional payoff, but unfortunately Tirola also skips over the sad and slow demise of the Lampoon itself. The movie briefly touches on the desperation to keep the ship afloat after all the original players left and new editors focused on boobs to sell books in the ’80s. However, it glosses over how Matty Simmons eventually sullied the reputation of National Lampoon forever by selling off the brand name to anyone who wanted it to lend legitimacy to their horrible book or movie.
‘Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon’ ignores huge and unkind portions of National Lampoon’s history, yet at the same time also gives a definitive and ruckus account of its incredible highs and influence. It might be straightforward and rose-tinted, but at least there is finally a documentary about the National Lampoon. Hopefully, the original issues of the magazine will be preserved and re-released at some point as well, but for now this doc will do. It’ll help get the word out and provide some nostalgia, if nothing else.