Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon: A Quest for Fun, by David Bax
Douglas Tirola’s Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon is such a lively, effusive and agreeable movie that it almost manages to convince you it’s worth watching. But underneath the boisterous surface, it suffers for ignoring the National Lampoon’s incisive cultural relevance in its heyday in favor of emphasizing the wild personalities and debauchery that defined the magazine.
Tirola follows the Lampoon from its founding by Harvard and Harvard Lampoon alumni Doug Kenney, Henry Beard and Robert Hoffman in 1969 into the early 1980s, locating its endpoint not at the dissolution of the magazine in 1998 but in the wake of Kenney’s 1980 death. Interviews with a wide variety of people from across the Lampoon history such as Kevin Bacon, Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Al Jean, John Landis, Tim Matheson, P.J. O’Rourke and Ivan Reitman as well as famous fans like Judd Apatow, John Goodman and Billy Bob Thornton are mixed with photos from the era, movie clips and clever employments of old Lampoon articles.
That impressive star power is likely what will get you in the door to see Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead but the most rewarding element is the way Tirola repurposes those old cartoons and photos from the magazine itself. Of course, we get to see plenty of them as they existed and, occasionally, with some animated augmentations but Tirola finds other uses for them as well. Lacking much in the way of footage from the time, he presents actual bits from the magazine with the dialogue bubbles changed to turn them into illustrations of whatever scenario is being described by the interviewee. So, a meeting with the publisher is shown as two dogs facing off against their master or a full page panel intended to be an illustration of a child’s idea of the perfect adult future is instead employed to capture Kenney’s wildly successful experiences in Hollywood.
This makes for fun viewing while also serving as one of the film’s rare reminders that the content of National Lampoon in the 1970s was vital, imaginative and hilarious. It was also often stupendously offensive in the way that only truly smart people can be. That killing of sacred cows mixed with a large helping of social and political insight is a forebear to the comedy of guys like Trey Parker and Matt stone, creators of South Park. But we only really get glimpses of that kind of impact. Instead, Tirola is much more interested in the famous faces that would go on to Saturday Night Live and the movies.
When he does give us glimpses of this kind of great stuff (a cover with the quote “Give me a magazine cover with a beautiful girl, a dog, or a baby on it, and I’ll give you a magazine that sells” accompanied by a photo of a beautiful woman serving a plate of dead dog to a baby), he’s usually framing it within the brainlessly raucous and crazy reputation that has stuck to the Lampoon ever since the 1978 release of Animal House. That’s a cheapened version of what the magazine represented but Tirola embraces it wholly. For instance, National Lampoon often featured images of topless women and Tirola appears to have featured every single one of them in his movie.
Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is a fun sit with a group of funny people (as well as a rare moment of a sympathetic Chase when he recalls the death of his best friend Kenney) but just like the Lampoon itself, which devolved into a brand name to slap onto uninspired direct-to-video sex comedies, it’s hard not to mourn what it could have been.