If you were a teen in the 90s or later, you probably associate the National Lampoon brand with sophomoric movies (Pledge This! anyone?), if indeed with anything at all. But the Lampoon’s original 70s incarnation as a smart, bitingly satirical publication is being rediscovered, with two books on the subject in the last five years – my own That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick, a cultural history of the early Lampoon, and Rick Meyerowitz’s lavishly illustrated book of Lampoon artwork, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead – now joined by Doug Tirola’s entertaining and absorbing documentary of the same name.
Why should we care about a magazine that was funny 45 years ago? Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead makes a case for the National Lampoon as both an incubator of and inspiration to some of comedy’s leading heavyweights, and enlists the likes of Judd Apatow, John Goodman, Ivan Reitman, John Landis, and Kevin Bacon (Bacon’s impression of Landis alone is worth the price of admission), along with long-time Simpsons writer/producers Mike Reiss and Al Jean – recruited to the Lampoon straight out of Harvard – to testify to its influence.
Making a movie about a magazine presents the filmmaker with a challenge (it is, after all, a motion picture, so asking the audience to read pages of text is not going to cut it), one that Tirola meets by combining a barrage of well-chosen Lampoon imagery, not just covers, illustrations, comics, Foto-Funnies, and LP sleeves, but also some new pieces created just for the film and animated versions of some classics (fans of Sam Gross’s “frog legs” cartoon will be especially delighted). All are interspersed with recollections by former contributors, atmospheric candid photos, and rare performance footage.
The well-chosen clips are truly a treasure trove for anyone interested in the roots of modern comedy. We see a very young John Belushi, Harold Ramis, Gilda Radner, and Bill Murray (plus an unidentified Joe Flaherty) in the radio studio working up the sketches that later became the live National Lampoon Show, Christopher Guest nailing a James Taylor parody in the first Lampoon stage show (a parody of Woodstock called Lemmings), and an uber-cool Chevy Chase not only performing but also playing drums in the same show. Even more amazingly, the DSBD crew has unearthed a clip of Marshall McLuhan giving his view of the Lampoon, opining “the hotter the issue, the more they cool it with hilarity.”
However, the core of the film is not one of these famous names but the now almost-forgotten gifted humorist and Lampoon lynchpin, Doug Kenney. It is easy to see why the filmmakers structured the story around Kenney (I did it myself) – aside from a dramatic personal story, he was there for all of the Lampoon’s important moments in various media and co-created two of its most memorable products: The 1964 High School Yearbook and the first and best Lampoon movie, Animal House.
Since Kenney is no longer here to speak for himself, we get a portrait of both him and his milieu drawn by colleagues, who include Lampoon writers P.J. O’Rourke, Sean Kelly, Tony Hendra, and Chris Miller, art directors Michael Gross and Peter Kleinman, illustrators Meyerowitz, Bruce McCall, and Shary Flenniken, and publisher Matty Simmons, to name just a few.
They also pay tribute to later contributor John Hughes and to another departed instigator, Michael O’Donoghue, who set the magazine’s dark, coruscating tone. “Henry did the brainy stuff, Doug did the funny stuff, and O’Donoghue did the outrageous stuff,” as writer Ellis Weiner observes.
Tirola has also scored a real coup by enticing the notably private Lampoon co-founder Henry Beard to finally speak about his days as the overworked rock of the magazine and, movingly, of his relationship with the troubled Kenney.
The story takes us from the Lampoon’s roots at Harvard (where Kenney and Beard cut their humor-writing teeth), through the magazine’s flowering after some initial stumbles, the whirlwind of fun and drugs and sex that came with success, the heat accruing from the profusion of successful albums, radio programs, and live shows, and the accompanying pressure that proved too much for the fragile Kenney.
Then came the slow deflating of the balloon resulting from the spotlight and talent moving to Saturday Night Live and Hollywood, the internecine feuds, the magazine’s race to the bottom to deal with declining sales, and everyone simply getting older.
Because of the aforementioned unsuitability of encouraging reading, the film can’t convey how well-written and sharp many articles were. The Lampooners wrote to please themselves, and didn’t worry about a wide-ranging frame of reference frightening the readership. There were plenty of naked ladies and masturbation jokes to counter the impression of intellectualism.
Speaking of naked ladies, the sheer number of them and merry objectification in the images is jaw dropping by modern standards. Because the film’s approach is fairly hagiographic, asking the creators their views on this – were they into it, were they embarrassed by it, was it just par for the course at the time – is outside its remit.
Nor can it explore which Lampooners were inclined to check their middle-class white male privilege. They would have hooted with laughter at the very idea, but the concept, if not the painfully self-righteous phrase, was very much in the air at the time and in fact many of the magazine’s most hilarious articles arise from their ambivalence about their status and the traditional image of masculinity.
Another inevitable omission is a sense of how many of the Lampoon’s targets have remained distressingly relevant – environmental degradation, the power of big oil, the rightward drift of the Republican party, the decline of American power and the chest-thumping this engenders… it’s a long and depressing list.
The result is that DSBD may be one for pre-existing fans. But looking at what the film doesn’t do is beside the point. More important is that it does such a lively, stylish job of capturing what made the Lampoon “insanely great” and able to warp so many young minds, to the benefit of us all.
Ellin Stein is the author of That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick: The National Lampoon and the Comedy Insurgents Who Captured the Mainstream (W.W. Norton) and has written for publications including the New York Times, Slate, Salon, the Nation, the Village Voice, and Variety. For BBC Radio, she has written for topical news satire programs The News Quiz and The Now Show and profiled musical satirist Tom Lehrer.