After watching Doulgas Tirola’s Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, which traces the development and decline of the National Lampoon comedy empire, it’s hard to imagine a satirical magazine quite like them existing today. On one page, if we can imagine flipping through a 2015 copy, there’d be a grotesque cartoon ridiculing presidential hopeful Donald Trump, then on the next page, there might be a deranged bit mocking Bernie Sanders, Pope Francis or the group Black Lives Matter. No one was safe from the Lampoon’s satirical eye, and that was all the fun. The Lampoon brand of say-anything outrageous humor made people laugh, but it also made many uncomfortable. This is perhaps best illustrated in the magazine’s iconic 1973 cover, which showed a dog with a gun to its head and a caption reading: “If you don’t buy this magazine, we’ll kill this dog.”
What Tirola’s documentary attempts to show is the impact this alcohol-and-drug-fueled magazine had on the American cultural landscape. The experience comes off as mostly educational, with some insight into the dynamics of an operation that was volatile, competitive and surprisingly fruitful. The film moves in straight-forward chronological order, starting with the magazine’s origins at Harvard University with Doug Kenney and Henry Beard at the helm. With the duo’s intellectual and comedic powers combined, the magazine quickly grew and eventually blossomed into a media Titanic as the Lampoon made its way onto the radio, the stage and the nation’s movie screens. Tirola tells the story via talking heads: former writers and art director, as well as people influenced by the Lampoon, like Judd Apatow and Kevin Bacon. There’s also a healthy amount of archival footage showing the young talent of greats like John Belushi, Chevy Chase and Bill Murray. Yet while Chase gives Tirola an interview, Murray is notably absent.
As a history of the Lampoon, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead has a strong focus on the magazine’s early years – when the publication found its voice and audience. One storyline followed throughout the movie is that of Kenney, the magazine’s co-creator. His comedic energy and genius was a catalyst that helped the magazine explode onto the national stage, and he went on to work on the scripts of Animal House and Caddyshack. When not pumping out reams of material, he appears to have been drunk or high, or a combination of both. He died mysteriously after falling off a cliff in Hawaii at the age of 33. Depression is thought to have played a role in his passing. In the film, one of his former colleagues speaks about his death in Lampoonish fashion. The joke is short and devastatingly funny, because it harbors a seed of truth. It’s something one could imagine Kenney laughing at, as it’s precisely the kind of humor that made his magazine’s legacy.
Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is playing at the Lagoon Cinema.