Note: This review was originally published back in January 2015 as part of our coverage for the Sundance Film Festival.
Long before The Onion and years before Saturday Night Live, three Harvard graduates — Doug Kenney, Henry Beard, and Robert Hoffman — founded America’s first national humor magazine, National Lampoon. Success didn’t come knocking overnight, but throughout the ’70s the monthly publication would expand into a media conglomerate that included books, albums, radio shows, theater productions, television programs, and blockbuster films.
We should all be thankful. That’s the conclusion director Douglas Tirola wants his audiences to reach at the end of his fantastic rock ‘n’ roll documentary, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon. In an all-too-breezy 93 minutes, Tirola flips through the pages of the institution’s riotous history with help from its many writers, editors, animators, and comics. It’s a rib-tickling ride of a story that demands your laughter, your curiosity, and your tears.
Yet it’s also a poignant documentary for a time when nostalgia runs rampant, satire’s under fire, and comedy’s experiencing its own renaissance. Tirola points to these parallels without lifting up his finger. He lets his various talking heads do the explaining. “Through humor, you can tell the truth,” Billy Bob Thornton insists. “It’s the job of a satirist to make people in power feel uncomfortable,” Tony Hendra argues. And they did. Very well, in fact.
Kenney and Beard were merciless. They lambasted Ted Kennedy following his Chappaquiddick incident with a caustic Volkswagen ad, sent Hitler to a nude beach in their “Stranger in Paradise” photo spread, and criticized Kentucky Fried Chicken with a provocative piece of animation that would spawn a barrage of knee-jerk think pieces today. It was a time when risks were met and statements were made; it was a wild frontier in pop culture criticism, and they came in guns ablaze.
What’s fascinating is how so many of their ideas have become common practice. One of the Lampoon’s earliest issues was dubbed “Nostalgia,” and Beard contends in the doc that everything prior to 1970 was up for grabs. In hindsight, it’s a refreshing thought given that every publication (including this one) mines the past for content today, from incessant “Best of” lists to rose-tinted commentary on events that occurred as recently as five years ago.
Even their structural design was pioneering. How many modern rags have reached out beyond their text and ink? Video commentary, podcasts, galleries, and offline events are all mandates of the most popular outlets today, and to think, this volume of content was once revolutionary. Now, it’s a survival tactic.
Prescient qualities aside, Tirola’s documentary does an extraordinary job at conjuring up the cultural zeitgeist behind the Lampoon’s salad days. Amidst the sound bites, the interviews, and the rare footage, there’s an exhaustive supply of the magazine’s most iconic covers, artwork, and bylines by Michael Gross, Cloud Studios, Sam Gross, et al. And each piece moves and hovers on screen, which adds an hallucinatory experience, as if the doc’s one big issue of the long-defunct publication.
In some respects, though, this is really about the Lampoon’s tragic co-founder Doug Kenney. From his impromptu exit early in the magazine’s ascent to his fragmented attempts to crossover in Hollywood, and eventually to his mysterious death in Hawaii, Tirola centers much of the story around the enigmatic talent, which is smart, as it allows him to avoid the more depressing latter days of the Lampoon, when it further derailed into obscurity. His closest friend and partner-in-crime Chevy Chase revisits the last few moments he had with Kenney, and never has he appeared more human. It’s emotional.
But the whole story is pretty emotional when all is said and done. Sure, National Lampoon will forever be an integral part of comedic history, having brought up the likes of John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, and so many more, but there’s something tragic in how it all sputtered slowly out of control at the end. They essentially lost to Lorne Michaels after he snagged their talent and broadcast their gags to even wider audiences. Watching Belushi do his Joe Cocker impersonation for the Lemmings album and then seeing him revisit the same performance on Saturday Night Live … man, it’s fucking brutal.
To his credit, Tirola doesn’t dwell too long on the misfires. Instead, he celebrates the Lampoon’s flagrant touchstones, and there’s no disputing that their myriad successes will live on forever. Think about it: What college freshman hasn’t seen Animal House? Who hasn’t wasted an afternoon watching Vacation for the 67th time? When will Caddyshack ever fall out of favor as being one of the greatest comedies of all time? You don’t have to answer these; Tirola does it for you.
Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon begins with Bowie (“Jean Genie”) and ends with Bowie (“Changes”), and that’s a fitting marriage. Both The Thin White Duke and the underdog publication defied the limitations of their respective fields and changed them for the better. We likely won’t ever open a new issue of the Lampoon, but whatever we do flip through will have the Lampoon name to thank. That goes way beyond any Saturday night.
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