Release Date: September 24, 2015 (Limited and VOD)
Director: Douglas Tirola
MPAA Rating: NR
Run Time: 98 Min.
It’s an unfortunate thing, but some of you younger readers may only know The National Lampoon as that company that made a couple good movies a long time ago and a slew of straight-to-video garbage since then. In actuality however, The National Lampoon was one of the biggest comedy institutions of the late ’60s and ’70s and helped kickstart the careers of some of the biggest names in the world of humor.
In the new documentary Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, director Douglas Tirola takes a look back at the early days of The Lampoon – how it got started and how it became a dominant force in all things satire, from its offensively brilliant magazine and its weekly radio program to eventually its Off Broadway and film presence.
The film begins with a look at The Harvard Lampoon, the country’s oldest humor magazine, which was founded in 1876. Two of the magazine’s editors, Doug Kenney and Henry Beard, decided to spin the concept off into a national magazine, and The National Lampoon was born. As the magazine grew in popularity, the brand eventually grew into novels; a radio show, featuring Gilda Radner, Christopher Guest, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Harry Shearer and Bill Murray, among others; and a popular Off Broadway show titled Lemmings, which also featured Belushi, Guest and Chase, as well as many other talented comedians.
Growing up, I was always a huge fan of The National Lampoon, but I could never find old issues other than the few my dad kept from his college days and an occasional battered copy at yard sales. The magazine was all but gone when I was old enough to read it, and I always wanted to learn the story of how it came to be and how it ended up crashing and burning so hard.
Thankfully, the documentary does indeed detail how The Lampoon managed to become such a powerhouse in comedy, with tons of interviews with some of the earliest contributors, including Chevy Chase, P.J. O’Rourke, Anne Beatts, Al Jean and Henry Beard. It mostly stays focused on the magazine itself, again something I was thankful for, as most of us know about the various films with the Lampoon label, and the story of Doug Kenney, the co-creator and backbone of the whole operation.
What the film doesn’t delve into is the downfall of the brand into the straight-to-video crap-fest it is today. I understand the film’s main focus is the magazine, but that wasn’t really touched upon either, other than some of the interviewees mentioning it going downhill after some editorial shakeups. Sure, it’s shitty that things went bad with the brand, but I just want to know how National Lampoon’s Vacation can be under the same banner as National Lampoon’s Master Debaters.
That aside, this is still a must-see for fans of what I consider to be our golden age of comedy. Even with publications like The Onion picking up the torch, there has never been – and probably will never be – a magazine as ballsy and unabashedly outrageous as The National Lampoon. Hopefully this film will spark some new interest in the magazine, and we can get a nice series of collected issues in trade paperback form, similar to what MAD Magazine does, but for now, if you’re looking for a good companion to the film, you can check out the book that this documentary was adapted from, also titled Drunk Stone Brilliant Dead, or check out the Internet Archive where you can find dozens of back issues scanned and available for free.