A consistently hilarious look back on the National Lampoon, and the comedians who turned it into an institution.
Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon
Depending on your generation of comedy, the name National Lampoon likely signifies drastically different levels of quality. For decades, the media empire developed some of the most influential comedy and comedians of their era, including names like John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Billy Murray, Ivan Reitman, Christopher Guest, and more. Documentarian Douglas Tirola uses the deep archives of sharp, satirical National Lampoon material to pull together a hilarious, rapid-fire biographical documentary on the history of the Lampoon. Complete with interviews from National Lampoon co-founder Henry Beard, Animal House director John Landis, and former chief executive of the Lampoon Matty Simmons, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon is replete of material to thrill Lampoon fans.
The documentary draws from years of funny material and the deep roster of iconic humorists associated with the National Lampoon brand. The magazine’s distinctive illustrations become fully animated and the assortment of ridiculous Lampoon photoshoots are arranged into hysterical slideshows. Some of the best insights that Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead provides are into individual gags and issues. In tracing the development behind standout material like the Yearbook issue or the infamous cover of the “Death” issue, Douglas Tirola’s documentary reveals the thought process that birthed such darkly twisted humor.
Recognizable names such as Chevy Chase, Ivan Reitman and Al Jean appear for interviews, but Tirola also pulls from writers like Michael O’Donoghue, Tony Hendra and P.J. O’Rourke for revealing tidbits about the early days at the Lampoon. As Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead moves through the creation and establishment of the National Lampoon brand, it seamlessly integrates profiles on a collection of important figures to the story. The film highlights nearly all the major writers, illustrators and businessmen who brought the company from a small magazine to a nationally recognized media conglomerate.
Large sections are devoted to two chief contributors who have both died: Douglas Kenney and John Belushi. Kenney co-created the Lampoon with Henry Beard, but by Beard’s own admission Kenney was the driving force while the magazine was young and growing. Kenney’s absence from the documentary is strongly felt, since his work resulted in much of the most memorable output from National Lampoon; however, Chevy Chase’s emotional reflection on his last days with Kenney is one of the film’s most touching moment. Belushi, too, is showered with adulation. As the star of Lampoon’s first live show “Lemmings,” and their first feature film Animal House, Belushi’s impact on National Lampoon was massive.
Whenever the interviews veer towards the more upsetting aspects to National Lampoon’s story, the interviewees tend to brush aside the question. For every great success that the National Lampoon had, there was a falling out or a missed opportunity, such as when NBC approached Matty Simmons about creating a Saturday night sketch show before Lorne Michaels had a chance to pull from the Lampoon’s cast. The story is steeped in touchy subject matter, from inter-office hostility to drug addiction and death, but the documentary mostly skirts past these unhappy moments.
The first on-camera interview in Tirola’s film comes from Billy Bob Thornton, who like fellow celebrity fans of the Lampoon Judd Apatow and John Goodman, reminisces on the influential and biting humor of the magazine’s early days. It reveals the documentarian’s intentions to an extent, this is a nostalgia-driven piece meant to celebrate the legacy of National Lampoon. The film treats just about everything that happens after National Lampoon’s Vacation like an ellipsis at the end of a sentence. Instead, it focuses on (mostly) men with decades of separation from the National Lampoon looking back on their fond, funny memories.
Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon may not tell the complete story behind National Lampoon, but it’s the best examination that National Lampoon had to offer. Tirola’s film is energetic, plowing through the hilarious backlog of National Lampoon magazine clippings or radio segments fast enough to stay constantly entertaining. The frequently funny documentary is a fitting ode to one of comedy’s vital institutions.
Originally published as part of our 2015 Tribeca Film Festival coverage.