Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon
Review by KC Carlson
Inspired by the 2010 book of the same name (but different subtitle: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Writers and Artists Who Made The National Lampoon Insanely Great by Rick Meyerowitz), Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon is a 2015 documentary film starring all those (surviving) writers and artists discussing what made that magazine so special and so iconic for a sliver of time during the 1970s. That film, which I was lucky enough to see last year while it was making the rounds of film festivals, is now available on DVD and Blu-ray by Magnolia Home Entertainment — the go-to film company for pop culture documentaries.
It’s a must-see for all those interested in the history and development of comedy in the 1970s. Back then, the National Lampoon name was all over magazine racks and bookstore shelves. The magazine was a publication put together by Harvard graduates and Harvard Lampoon alumni Doug Kenney, Henry Beard, and Robert Hoffman in 1969, when they first licensed the “Lampoon” name for a monthly national publication. (Before the Lampoon started, Beard and Kenney wrote the best-selling Lord of the Rings parody Bored of the Rings.) The National Lampoon developed itself as a “brand”, producing original books and other publications including National Lampoon 1964 High School Yearbook Parody, Cartoons Even We Won’t Dare Print, and numerous collections based on the popular “True Facts” section of weird real-life “news”.
Comedy albums such as National Lampoon’s Radio Dinner (1972) and 1973’s Lemmings (based on their stage show at the time) would inspire almost a dozen vinyl audio releases. The National Lampoon Radio Hour was a nationally syndicated weekly radio comedy show in 1973 and 1974. Many of the featured performers would later branch out to other iconic comedy ventures including TV’s Saturday Night Live (John Belushi, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Christopher Guest, Gilda Radner, and many more), SCTV, and motion pictures including the iconic National Lampoon’s Animal House (now preserved in the National Film Registry) and the National Lampoon’s Vacation series (originally inspired by John Hughes’s magazine prose story “Vacation ’58”).
All of which is background for Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon describing in detail the seemingly incestuous relationships between “NatLamp” and what would become major comedy institutions beyond these often humble beginnings.
An amazing number of comedy legends, writers, artists, and NatLamp staffers are interviewed for the documentary including Chevy Chase, John Landis, Judd Apatow, Kevin Bacon, Tim Matheson, John Goodman, Billy Bob Thornton, Meat Loaf, Christopher Buckley, Henry Beard, Matty Simmons, Tony Hendra, P.J. O’Rourke, Chris Miller, Anne Beatts, Mike Reiss, Sean Kelly, Brian McConnachie, Michael Gross, Chris Cerf, Peter Kleinman, Judith Belushi Pisano, Rick Meyerowitz, Ivan Reitman, Bruce McCall, Al Jean, Beverly D’Angelo, Ed Subitzky, Sam Gross, and many others. Archival footage of deceased Lampoon staffers and performers, including John Belushi, Gilda Radner, and Michael O’Donoghue, is also included. Doug Kenney’s mysterious 1980 death is much discussed in the final third of the documentary.
The problem is, if you weren’t there, you may not get the appeal. The documentary does a wonderful job bringing together many of these creators, including key layout and design professionals, to reminisce over their time there. But the underlying key facts about the magazine — particularly what happened to it and how a once-nationally-known brand went off the rails and finally disappeared — are missing. Those who were there will better appreciate the history, since they’ll already know the backstory and interest of the magazine.
I was a original era National Lampoon fan. I bought the magazines — was actually a subscriber for at least a year or two — collected the albums, listened to the radio show with my high school friends, even drove three hours in a car full of people to see the local premiere of Animal House (which wasn’t being shown at all in our college town). But I was an odd reader of the magazine (or at least now feel that way after watching the documentary). Much of the film focuses on the major articles and features of the issues, which is as it should be, considering the early raw talent of many of those contributors.
But I came into the Lampoon originally for the comics, turning to the back pages Comics section before anything else to check up on the ongoing adventures of Nuts by Gahan Wilson, or Trots and Bonnie by Shary Flenniken, or Cheech Wizard by Vaughn Bodē, or Dirty Duck by Bobby London, or the absolute weirdness that was a Sam Gross cartoon panel. It was also a thrill to see work by any number of comic book artists “moonlighting”. Neal Adams, Larry Hama, Frank Springer, Joe Orlando, Tex Blaisdell, and others produced multi-page comic book parodies for NatLamp over the years. Some of this art is shown in the film, but none of it is credited, a major lack.
There is an unfortunate self-congratulatory feel to the majority of the documentary, as well as a “boys club” atmosphere to some of the proceedings. National Lampoon was by, for, and about well-off white guys.
There’s a lot of different behind-the-scenes factions to the National Lampoon story, and given some of the massive film successes which came much later than the original magazine, and the defections that led to bigger successes elsewhere (talking about you, Saturday Night Live), it’s not really that surprising that some people possibly still hold grudges about things that happened over 40 years ago. This is most obvious when it comes to co-founder, writer, and editor Henry Beard’s departure from the magazine after its first five years.
Director Douglas Tirola somehow convinced Beard to be involved in the documentary, even though, upon leaving the magazine in 1975, he told Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead author Rick Meyerowitz that he would “never speak or write about his experiences during the five years he edited the National Lampoon.” Yet, here he is, all over the documentary with wonderful commentary and insight. The film is so much better for that. One does wonder, though, just what happened during his time there and if his departure — told from various perspectives — was as bridge-burning as it sounds.
As for the “boys club”, Johanna had issues with how often the magazine, based on the various articles shown on screen, treated women as props, particularly when it came to showing them topless. There are a lot of breasts visible in this movie, comparatively few female contributors participating, and virtually no on-screen discussion of the sexism involved. A short sequence does tackle the attacks on the mag for being racist (which, it appears, from the few pieces shown, they were), but the white guys comment instead about how they weren’t racist, they were satirists.
That doesn’t address the point. No one at any time tackles how privileged these Harvard kids were, or how much of their game-changing “humor” was just using dirty words, naked bodies, and shocking juxtapositions. This is a loving history, not one that challenges or reevaluates the content in light of a much more diverse culture today. There’s a lot of loose talk throughout the film about how much of the female nudity that appeared in the magazine (and frequently on its covers) was foisted upon them by demands from the publishers (you know, the guys paying the bills) to help increase the “bottom line” with as many “boobies” as possible — inside and out. I’m not completely convinced of this.
In reality, not everything was wonderful about the National Lampoon “machine”. As the documentary very honestly points out, the first several issues were pretty horrible/forgettable. A major turning point for the magazine was the hiring of Michael Gross as art director for the magazine in November 1970. The early issues were said to be “boisterous, uncommercial, chaotic” and “the articles and the art jumped off the page, but not in the same direction,” according to Meyerowitz’s book. Within two issues, Gross helped turn the Lampoon around and obviously provided clarity for the talented writer/editors Henry Beard and Doug Kenney, who were with the magazine since the beginning.
This was the start of an incredible five-year or so run of the magazine where pretty much everything fired on all cylinders, which is the main focus of this documentary. Around 1975, the three founders (Beard, Kenney, and Managing Editor Robert Hoffman) all left the magazine. At the same time a number of NatLamp’s stage talent and writers (including John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Michael O’Donoghue, and Anne Beatts — and, soon to follow, Bill Murray) left to join the fledgling Saturday Night Live TV show. The magazine continued with new editor-in-chief P.J. O’Rourke and up-and-coming writer John Hughes (who died in 2009, so is not a big part of this documentary, but is accounted for), and it was still considered well-regarded, but no longer “revolutionary”.
What isn’t in the movie is this additional history: In 1985, Matty Simmons moved over from the business end of the Lampoon, fired the editorial staff, and appointed his two sons as editors. By 1986, the magazine was only published six times a year. There was a brief reprieve in 1989 due to a hostile takeover by producer Daniel Grodnik and actor Tim Matheson (“Otter” in National Lampoon’s Animal House). But in 1991, a company called J2 Communications bought the magazine (and, ultimately more importantly, the rights to the National Lampoon brand name). J2 had little interest in publishing the magazine, and very few issues were actually published between 1991 and November 1998 — when the contract was renegotiated and J2 was then prohibited from publishing further issues of the magazines. Talk about going from a bang to a whimper. This was the actual end of the magazine, which apparently no one in the documentary wanted to talk about, at least on camera.
And who can blame them? Most of those later issues looked horrible. I certainly didn’t buy or read them. I had moved on long before that, as I suspect thousands of others did as well. It’s a fair point that much topical humor ages and fades badly, and it’s often true that what was “shocking” or “cutting edge” to the previous generation is just “ho-hum” to the next. National Lampoon (the magazine) failed largely because it could not develop a new audience, nor find a way to retain its previous readers. Like much of the earlier creative staff, those readers also moved on.
J2 did continue to crank out direct-to-video releases under the National Lampoon name — over 30 films were eventually made between 1993 and 2013, not even counting the 10 or so additional made-for-TV projects. This, of course, completely tarnished whatever “cred” the original National Lampoon ever had. This Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead documentary goes some way to finally set the story straight.
The most powerful piece of the film is the exploration of what happened to Kenney. He was thought to be a genius, and his excessive contributions fueled much of the praise in the early years of the publication. Then came his departure from the magazine, then his move to Hollywood with Animal House and Caddyshack, followed by time in Hawaii with Chevy Chase, then his disappearance and death there. It’s a horrible capsule picture of how delusional drugs can make a creative person, with some darkly funny descriptions of his out-of-control habits. The four word title of the documentary and the book succinctly (and sadly) describes Kenney’s life and work.
The running time of the documentary is 95 minutes. For the video release, there is over an hour of Bonus Features including additional interview footage; thoughts on Animal House, Saturday Night Live, and favorite National Lampoon pieces; the artists of National Lampoon; discussions of drugs in the office, working in NYC, and aborted film Jaws 3 People 0; and celebrities reading the works of Doug Kenney and John Hughes. (The studio provided a review copy.)