‘Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon’ Chronicles the Rise and Fall of a Comedic Trailblazer

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Throughout the 20th Century, there were a number of satirical publications that left an impact on the cultural zeitgeist. At the dawn of the ‘70s, The National Lampoon was at the forefront of satire, pushing the boundaries of taste while tickling the funny bone of a generation. It was like a counterculture, R-rated version of Mad Magazine, and served as predecessor to the harsh satire commonly found today with The Onion. But as the publication grew in stature, culminating in a string of feature films, the magazine itself suffered before ultimately ceasing publication in 1998. Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon, a new documentary by Douglas Tirola, explores the magazine’s ascension and decline, though it focuses much more on the ascension than the decline.

Tirola has assembled a who’s who of interview subjects – from Lampoon co-founder Henry Beard to writers like P.J. O’Rourke to stars like Chevy Chase to those affected by the work like Judd Apatow. The story of the Lampoon is given a lively presentation, with brief animated segments directly pulled from the pages of the magazine.

The story unfolds in chronological order. There’s the rundown of the magazine’s origins, being an offshoot of the famous, albeit infrequently read, Harvard Lampoon. Eventually, Beard with co-founder Douglas Kenney get their big break with a parody of Mademoiselle which was commissioned by the magazine itself. This leads to a wave of parodic features for a variety of magazines, including Sports Illustrated and Playboy. But the name Harvard has connotations of intellectual elitism, and their new publication will be dubbed The National Lampoon. With the financial backing of Matty Simmons, the Lampoon would assemble a motley crew of comedic talent always willing to push the envelope.

As the film progresses it changes from a rags-to-riches story for a bunch of drug-addled comedians to an examination of how the National Lampoon became a victim of its own success. There was the successful stage show Lemmings, which featured such emerging talent as John Belushi and Chevy Chase. Then there’s the National Lampoon Radio Hour, which featured other emerging talent like Gilda Radner, Harold Ramis, Bill Murray, Christopher Guest, and more. As the Lampoon expanded, their talent became more and more in demand with many of them departing in a mass exodus to Saturday Night Live. Even as they were hemorrhaging talent, the Lampoon continued to publish its magazine, invade the airwaves, and expand to cinemas.

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is able to coax hearty laughs just by presenting some of the most outrageous elements from the pages of the Lampoon as well as its Radio Hour. However, most of the interview aren’t too comedic, focusing instead on the numerous personal and professional feuds that emerged over the years before the implosion. Of all the people that come and go, the film places its greatest focus on Lampoon co-founder Doug Kenney. A brilliant mind undone by his demons, Kenney tragically passed in 1980. Whether it was suicide, murder, or an accident remains mystery.

When it comes to decline of the Lampoon, not much attention is really paid to the stark decline that started in the ‘80s before its eventual demise in the ‘90s. Interviews with P.J. O’Rourke, who was at one point editor-in-chief, and others do little to shed further light on messy demise of the satirical institution. The film only discusses movies involving the gang behind the Lampoon up until National Lampoon’s Vacation, entirely omitting the lackluster straight-to-video comedies that did more to tarnish the brand than any mass exodus could.

As someone raised on Mad Magazine, seemingly oblivious to the publication outside of its satirical yearbook, it did make me want to dive deeper into the Golden Era of the National Lampoon, and to that end the film could be considered a rousing success. As a portrait of a magazine that had its moment in the sun and faded, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon is an entertaining and lively little documentary. But it isn’t a film that dives much deeper into the greater decline that befell the publication, instead opting to explore the decline of its originators. After all, isn’t comedy inherently tied to tragedy?

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon opens in select theaters and VOD on September 25th, 2015. For more information go the film’s official website.

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