Garry Goodrow, Peter Elbling, Chevy Chase, Christopher Guest, John Belushi, Mary-Jennifer Mitchell and Alice Peyton in Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead (National Lampoon/Magnolia Pictures)
From roughly the 1970s to the ’90s, National Lampoon magazine dominated the print comedy landscape with its fiery mix of avant-garde absurdity, acerbic satire and off-the-wall edge. Wont to take on sacred cows like organized religion, politics and the burgeoning culture wars, the magazine’s staff of hungry, up-and-coming young comics propelled the Lampoon to theretofore unseen heights: a top-rated radio show, a series of hit books, live touring events and, of course, a string of hit movies such as Animal House and Vacation. Nearly four decades after the publication’s rise to glory, director Douglas Tirola attempts to explain and dissect the Lampoon’s indelible impact on modern pop culture with his touching, raw new documentary Drunk Brilliant Stoned Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon.
Though Tirola’s tone can come off as cartoonishly hagiographic at times, it would be hard to argue with his claim that almost all major touchstones of the contemporary comedic landscape stem from the Lampoon, which launched the careers of talent such as Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Christopher Guest and countless others. Originally conceived by Harvard University students Doug Kenney and Henry Beard as a spinoff of the staid college humor rag The Harvard Lampoon, National Lampoon quickly gained national notoriety among coeds in the early ‘70s for its raunchy brand of “blue” humor. This success was then parlayed into a popular stage show called “Lemmings,” which came to be known as something of a minor-league launching pad for the then-nascent “Saturday Night Live.” By the late ‘70s, the Lampoon had become so ubiquitous that the only natural next step was Hollywood. With the release of Animal House in 1978, the ascendency was complete, and the Lampoon became synonymous with mainstream American comedy.
Of course, the title Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is far from an arbitrary one. It’s no secret that the most brilliant comedians are usually the most troubled, and the Lampoon’s young staff proved that adage to a ’T.’ Founder Kenney died in 1980 at the age of 33 after a falling off a cliff following a raging cocaine bender. Several of the other most talented Lampoon alumni were similarly wracked with addiction, and some – like the legendary Belushi – paid the price with their lives. As the Lampoon’s biggest superstars graduated into the Hollywood elite, they abandoned the magazine that started it all, thus leading to the company’s sad decline into obscurity during the late ‘80s.
Nevertheless, the intrepid Mr. Tirola seems loathe to allow the Lampoon’s legacy to be tarnished by the sands of time, as Drunk Stoned allows the genius hilarity of the classic magazine articles to speak for themselves. Unafraid to linger on talking heads, Tirola also gives a soapbox to Kenney contemporaries like writer Tony Hendra and co-founder Beard, who fill in the blanks with sharp color commentary. Overall, the film may not reinvent the wheel when it comes to entertainment docs, but it does avoid the trappings of Monday-Morning-Quarterback sentimentality and portrays the National Lampoon just the way its creators would: in the harsh, unsparing light of truth.
Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead
In theaters Oct. 2
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