These days the term “National Lampoon” doesn’t mean a whole hell of a lot; the name seems to exist as little more than a flimsy, tacked-on brand for low-end indie comedies like Gold Diggers, Dorm Daze, and Surf Party, but it wasn’t always that way. Not very long ago, National Lampoon used to represent the smartest, darkest, and bravest voices in American satire. And now we have the documentary film to prove it, or at least remind us.
Published from 1970 to 1998, National Lampoon was a brutally funny and frequently controversial offshoot of the publication the Harvard Lampoon, and it would be a launching pad for some of the generation’s finest writers and comedians. A (much) more adult-oriented spin on the satirical material found in Mad Magazine, National Lampoon proved to be a highly successful enterprise, not only because of the frequently shocking and incendiary magazine, but also because of the comedy albums, radio shows, stage productions, and films the company produced.
So what happened? How could such a powerfully successful publication run itself into the ground so quickly? That’s what the funny and fascinating Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon aims to explain. Slickly produced and loaded with great comic book-style art and archival materials, this documentary offers a great oral history of the publication’s rise and fall, as told by dozens of people who were actually there.
Packed with great interviews with all sorts of former National Lampoon employees — from publisher Matty Simmons and co-founder Henry Beard to writers P.J. O’Rourke, Anne Beats, and Al Jean — Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead provides a “warts and all” portrait of why the magazine was so damn great, as well as why it was doomed to flame out relatively quickly. Some of the film’s best moments come from some of the higher-profile National Lampoon performers: Tim Matheson and Kevin Bacon offer some Animal House recollections; Vacation veterans Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo provide some nice moments; director John Landis and producer Ivan Reitman dole out some nice anecdotes as well.
While the film works as an excellent breakdown of National Lampoon’s all-too-brief moment in the sun, it’s also packed with fantastic archival material. Clips from the old albums and radio shows work as breaks between the numerous interview segments, but the filmmakers also offer a generous helping of on-stage and behind-the-scenes material. Fans of American comedy history will love the old footage of John Belushi, Bill Murray, Brian Doyle-Murray, Harold Ramis, Gilda Radner, Joe Flaherty, Chevy Chase, and Christopher Guest — all pre-fame, but already brilliantly funny.
Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead earns very high marks for not sugar-coating the infamous history of National Lampoon. It works as a bittersweet lesson on the dangers of excess — it also works as a touching (and well-deserved) memorial for the late Doug Kenney. The co-founder of National Lampoon (as well as the co-writer of both Animal House and Caddyshack) died in 1980, which is pretty much precisely when the magazine started to devolve into irrelevancy.
The history lesson ends in the early ’80s, which means that we get no explanation as to how the National Lampoon brand kept getting slapped onto low-rent movie titles long after the magazine fell apart. Perhaps that’s a story for a completely different documentary; Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is entirely focused on the “Golden Era” of National Lampoon, and that’s probably for the best.
4.5 renegade comedy burritos out of 5
IMAGE: Universal Pictures