National Lampoon: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead
Documentary; directed by Douglas Tirola. Magnolia Picture release.
*** out of 5.
When I was not yet a teenager, one of my happiest discoveries in my development as a wannabe humor writer/cartoonist was my dad’s National Lampoon magazines. Full of hilariously sick cartoons, darkly brilliant parodies of ads, other magazines and pop culture in general, while full of bawdy things, this felt like I thing I was both not supposed to see and also needed to showcase to all my friends. Like Monty Python, their work was skewering things that needed skewering, even while also making references young me didn’t always get. The magazines featured plenty of sexy references, drawings, just general naughtiness I really shouldn’t be seeing (but hey, I had divorced, hippy-ish parents so whatevs.)
Not too much later, when my stepdad entered the picture, he introduced me to his collection of National Lampoon Radio Hour records. By that time many of the comic performers featured on those audio skits were well known - Gilda Radner, Harold Ramis, both Bill and Brian-Doyle Murray, and so on. When I put these on audio tape, they became pretty popular with my circle of friends, even if most of these skits were recorded 10-15 years earlier.
Like Judd Apatow (featured in the film), if maybe not to quite the extent he was, I was kind of a comedy nerd growing up. I loved standup comedy, sketch comedy, I really loved parodies, anything that made fun of something else. I read every issue of Mad Magazine, from my time and before, several times over. And then another staple became the Lampoon-produced magazine parodies. For better or for worse, this stuff warped my brain. So who were the deranged lunatics who ran the Lampoon asylum? The new film National Lampoon: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead does a good job at surveying them all.
Many recognizable comedy names are interviewed, saluting how great and important the National Lampoon was - despite how annoying that documentary technique has become, it’s an acceptable way to start the story off, even if the editing is jumbled. We see behind the scenes photos of all the original NL editors and writers, interwoven with somewhat engaging interviews with many who were involved and/or were huge fans. There is a brief overview of the business of starting and running the magazine, which may be only of interest to true Lampoon-ophiles and magazine history nerds. To its credit the film does show the things that didn’t work (including early issues of the mag where the art direction went in the wrong direction), and Tirola keeps things zipping along with tons of evocative Lampoon artwork and cartoons.
You get a glimpse at the core Lampoon staff’s male, at-times misogynistic bent by seeing how women were depicted and how the few women on staff got involved: There were talented women like Gilda Radner at the center of things in the Radio Hour spin-off, and Janis Hirsch and Anne Beats (both in the film) on the writing staff, but make no mistake, this was a boys’ club.
Featured players are the original circle of Lampoon founders and editors, including the ingenious if odd Tony Hendra, the one-of-a-kind editor Doug Kenney, whose life and early death is covered here poignantly (one of the few times you'll see Chevy Chase get emotional), and the late Michael O’Donoghue who "was not from Harvard, he was from Buffalo,” a brilliant writer and producer who co-founded the Lampoon and then would co-write the Grammy nominated comedy music album Radio Dinner with Tony Hendra. Because of that album's success, he landed the plum job of directing (and acting in) The National Lampoon Radio Hour.
Starting with the Lampoon’s live sketch comedy and Woodstock parody “Lemmings,” their music and radio parodies brought forth to the world people like John Belushi, Christopher Guest and Chevy Chase. The film then shows how the Lampoon's "empire" spun off into films, the first of them (Animal House and Vacation) successful, most of the rest of them, not as much. I also hadn't realized that the Lampoon gang had a chance to do a late night sketch comedy show before Saturday Night Live, and turned it down. Instead, they lost some of those same players (Belushi, Chase, Radner) to SNL and regretted it.
From "Lemmings," Chevy Chase satirizing John Denver and James Taylor (right when both weren’t even at their peaks of popularity):
[long before Bill Hader and Fred Armisen gently satirized the same in their "Blue Jean Committee" spoof for Documentary Now.]
National Lampoon: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is stylistically pleasing, Tirola keep things bopping along, integrating tons of the Lampoon's diverse, out-there artwork with closeups and animation. (The artwork that included one of the greatest—and most infamous—magazine covers in publication history:
At any rate, while the documentary has its typical moments of talking heads in reverence and starts to feel a little long at times, it’s full of priceless footage and interviews, and is especially a fun watch for anyone who fancies themselves a comedy history nerd, and/or who like me grew up reading the Lampoon magazine under the covers late at night, snickering themselves to sleep. So much of their work may seem “so wrong” by today’s more PC standards, but coming on the heels of Vietnam, and then in the “Morning in America” false happy of the Reagan era, the boundary-pushing dark comedy the sprang forth from the Lampoon and its successors was a much needed antidote.