Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon

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I was born in 1969, so when it came to magazine satire and parodies, my brother and I read MAD magazine religiously. The name “National Lampoon” was something I merely saw attached to a few movies I liked: Animal House and Vacation. Decades later, the name attached to a movie meant very little; just look at the over 20 horrible comedies that came out in the 2000s.

When I was writing jokes for a morning radio show in 1989, my boss was laughing at one of my bits as he said, “This is just like something ‘National Lampoon’ did once.”

He later handed me a few of their albums. As I listened, I glanced at the liner notes and  saw the names Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, John Belushi…these were legends in comedy. I listened to the albums and fell in love with the comedy. I still hadn’t seen their actual magazine, though. With all the photos of topless women, maybe they were just well hidden at the bookstores.

More recently, I had been Googling to see what had happened to the various performers from This is Spinal Tap. Obviously, I knew about the main guys (Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer, former National Lampoon members). I wondered about the guy who played their manager. His name is Tony Hendra, and he was one of the early editors of National Lampoon. Yet online, I was mostly reading about the accusations of child molestation his daughter made against him.

The documentary didn’t cover that, and they didn’t talk about all of the drugs and deaths that occurred with this comedy troupe. They didn’t shy away from the partying, either.

Director Douglas Tirola did a great job of combining fun animated segments straight out of the magazine, as well as talking head interviews that were rather interesting. You got the big names like Judd Apatow, John Goodman, and in a rare turn, a Chevy Chase that wasn’t annoying or arrogant. Not sure why Meatloaf was commenting on things, but he did. Now, I can understand why Bill Murray wasn’t there, but what in the world did his brother Brian Doyle have going on? Heck, Billy Bob Thornton even makes an appearance with a Cheshire grin, talking about how much he liked the raunchy rag.

The documentary pats itself on the back a lot, and doesn’t delve into a lot of the dirt it could. Yet it’s interesting to learn about the history of so many comedy greats, and how this show was a launching pad for many (The Simpson’s, Saturday Night Live, writer/directors Ivan Reitman and John Hughes). It was fun to learn about their off-Broadway production The Lemmings (where Belushi did his Joe Cocker bit before SNL stole him and some other cast members; Christopher Guest doing a James Taylor impersonation before his mockumentary that poked fun at folk singers –  A Mighty Wind). And as I’ve always said about documentaries, it’s a blast to learn something about a character we never knew. Doug Kenney, one of their brilliant writers, is certainly a character.

Kenney cofounded National Lampoon magazine in 1970, with Robert Hoffman and Henry Beard. Rolling Stone writer, and former Lampoon editor, P.J. O’Rourke wrote a coffee table book (of the same name), and if you’re a fan of Lampoon, it’s probably worth seeking out. I’d also recommend the book Live From New York for SNL fans, but I’m getting a bit off topic.

A lot of the satirical pieces they showed might not be as funnier to see now as they were at the time, especially since nobody else was doing that. Today there’s SNL, The Onion, Howard Stern, and a million other people blogging their own pieces of satire on You Tube. You’ll still chuckle at the kind of balls they had to hire somebody that looked just like Hitler, and the photo shoot with him on an island.

It was also fascinating to see how an idea could develop. A parody they did on an old high school yearbook, goofing on the various types you find in school…would eventually become Animal House – one of the highest grossing films in 1978.

With Tony Hendra, who was an established writer for a wine publication, and many of the other intellectuals working at the magazine, you forget they actually wrote lengthy pieces with subtle humor. Many will just remember the various nude photos.

It’s amazing to think that this magazine had over a million subscribers at one point, and other magazines like Mademoiselle actually gave them a bizarre deal in order to be parodied. The radio show was carried on well over 500 stations, and their first album got a Grammy.

The Hitler vacation story ended up being resold to magazines in various countries.

It would’ve been nice to get a little more info on actors we were familiar with, but perhaps the filmmakers felt their stories had been covered to death (no pun intended). It also works that this is a breezy 90 minutes.

The documentary was bookended by David Bowie tunes. We started with the upbeat “Jean Genie” and it finished with “Changes.” Perfect.

Having the movie end with the theme from Vacation – not so perfect. Not only did we just hear that in the remake of Vacation, but…how do you not use the song from Animal House? These guys, some Harvard graduates, were like a big crazy frat house. Sometimes they’d even ask their bosses to bring them pot, or they’d snort a few lines off their arm before a big meeting.

Anybody that loves comedy, or documentaries, should rush out to see this. It’s playing at the Hillcrest Landmark, and is available on demand.

It gets 4 stars out of 5.

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