Aside from being the best movie title of the year, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is also a damned accurate one. The tale of The National Lampoon, the 1970s humor magazine that became a multimedia brand, is filled with abundant drug use, genius battering-ram comedy, and an unfortunate casualty or two. What Douglas Tirola’s film recognizes, and smartly reinforces, is that The Lampoon was much more than a ribald rant of counterculture. It was the embryo of everything that popular comedy became in the decades to come. Tirola’s proverbial flip through the Lampoon yearbook is a cinema Smithsonian, a humor history lesson with a warped sense of nostalgia – especially if you like your nostalgia with plenty of boobs and cocaine.
I’d always thought of The National Lampoon’s comedy as the type that didn’t make you laugh out loud, but impressed you with its combination of intellect and blatant offensiveness. Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is similar, entertaining with cheeky creativity rather than going for guffaws. As expected, it’s filled with talking heads, from Chevy Chase and Judd Apatow to a killer lineup of the magazine’s former editors, writers and art directors. Tirola chooses soundbites exceptionally well, capitalizing on the fact that his subjects built careers on knowing how to tell edgy stories. It’s practically a slam dunk.
Tirola’s deep respect for the Lampoon universe keeps the documentary livelier than it should be, even when it’s dragging and a bit jagged (kind of like an all-night bender). The director-producer shows his love through some extra effort, creating Lampoon-like illustrations of guests like Kevin Bacon and Billy Bob Thornton to accompany their opinions. He’s trying to literally bring the print page to life, and you have to admire that.
The National Lampoon story starts at Harvard University, where writers Doug Kenney and Henry Beard helped twist the snooty, century-old Harvard Lampoon into something more grotesque and culturally relevant. By the time they had a publishing deal in the late 1960s, the nation was ready for a magazine that would piss in every corner of the establishment.
Tirola captures two elements of the Lampoon remarkably well. The first is the staff’s insane devotion to artistry and detail. The Lampoon team became masters of magazine mimicry, a skill that reached its nadir with “The National Lampoon High School Yearbook,” a notorious parody that, according to the film, had roughly 50 storylines. It was the idea that gave birth to Animal House, and it was also a reflection of manic writers like Kenney and Beard, who could amp up with drugs and put in 100-hour work weeks.
The second piece of Lampoon history that lights up the screen is the collection of young actors that became part of the magazine’s radio and stage shows. In one wondrously historic scene of archival footage, we see John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Brian Doyle-Murray, and Harold Ramis, rehearsing in a recording studio. They’re all green, young, and electric with excitement. It’s a moment full of magic and promise, made melancholy by the fact that three of the players are no longer with us. But it’s clear that their talent was to be deep and infectious.
Tirola’s story stays consistent enough to tell of the magazine’s demise, thanks to the memory of publisher Matty Simmons, the guy who took on all the madness and eventually turned it into a few hit films. We learn of Doug Kenney’s short life, John Hughes’ penchant for filth, and the hundreds of articles that would make the Lampoon famous. Oh, and boobs. Plenty of boobs.