Sundance 2015: National Lampoon's 'Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead' is a Must-See Lesson in Comedy History
by Ethan Anderton
January 25, 2015
Sadly, for anyone under the age of 30, the name National Lampoon is synonymous with terrible straight-to-DVD comedies, with the exception of the more celebrated films of the Vacation franchise (the original and Christmas Vacation). However, National Lampoon has a legacy that stretches decades as it served as the launching point for some of the most iconic talents in comedy, both in front of the camera and behind it. Without National Lampoon, there may not be a "Saturday Night Live" or Ghostbusters. The documentary Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead takes an in-depth look at the rise and fall of the adult humor magazine.
The arrival of this documentary couldn't come at a more relevant time after the tragic terrorist attacks on French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo made headlines around the world. Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead takes a look at the creation of one of the most bold, irreverent publications to ever hit the newsstand, with unforgiving and relentless prodding of society in all forms. From its Ivy League roots as The Harvard Lampoon as the brainchild of Douglas Kenny and Henry Beard, National Lampoon became the voice of counterculture where no topic was sacred. Whether it was racism, politics or sex, the magazine skewered it.
Thankfully, for those who weren't born or of age during the magazine's prime, the captivating documentary is chock full of artwork, comics, stories and more that show off just what kind of comedy they produced, making you feel like you're part of the success all those decades ago. The magazine comes to life in animated form, used to illustrate the fascinating anecdotes of those who made National Lampoon the staple comedy nerds and artists still know it as today, even if it's mostly defunct. It's always lively, never boring, and is just as funny as any comedy.
Beyond the magazine, there are great tidbits of the work that spawned from the success of National Lampoon magazine. Segments are bridged by amusing snippets from National Lampoon Radio, and there's spectacular never-before-seen archival footage from various shows that were recorded, like the album "Radio Dinner," which was a fake concert put on that featured the talents of Gilda Radner, John Belushi, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Harold Ramis, Christopher Guest and other comedy icons. The amount of talent that came into these doors, and eventually would come to walk out of them, is mind-blowing, and seeing them work like this outside of what we've already seen on television is magical.
Director Douglas Tirola paints the magazine mostly in a favorable light, choosing to highlight the greatness the magazine and eventual media domination National Lampoon had rather than putting much focus on the gutpunches when shows like "Saturday Night Live" took a lot of their talent. Audiences will also be surprised to learn of talents like John Hughes creating some truly racy and raunchy material. Doug Kinney also has plenty of ups and downs, including his ultimate demise that surprisingly has conflicting views from those who knew him best. But this is undoubtedly still a celebration of comedy and an array of now aged and graying writers who were at the right place at the right time with the right amount of talent to make it work.
But for me, what's truly fascinating and full of commentary on society today is some of the material shown on screen, which includes a lot of bare breasts and asses. Beyond the fraternity house level of nudity, the material produced decades ago wouldn't be touched by any media company today. It's audacious and jaw-dropping humor that would result in various organizations getting bent out of shape, trending hashtags and demanding public apologies today.
In fact, it was one of these groups, the Christian Coalition, whose objection to a baby in a blender gag in the magazine that resulted in the magazine losing pretty much all of their national advertising. This makes for an abrupt end to the documentary, but perhaps no more abrupt than the end of National Lampoon itself. It also just goes to show you how society has changed, weakening our artists, striking the fear of persecution into their pens and voices. But the great ones will persist and fight back with irreverence, always coming back for more.
Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is a time capsule of comedy that we may never see the likes of again. It was a place that had no limits, bolstered creativity, made careers, and brought people laughter that still lasts today in films like Animal House and Vacation. This documentary is a must-see for comedy nuts, but just as enjoyable for audiences who like to laugh and are interested to know more about some of the most iconic comedy stars to ever work in show business. National Lampoon may not be as prominent as it once was, but Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is a surprisingly sobering reminder of the legacy that comedy can leave behind, always influencing the future. You can read every copy of National Lampoon on Archive.org.