Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead - The Story Of The National Lampoon

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday September 25, 2015

A scene from ' Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead - The Story Of National Lampoon'
A scene from ' Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead - The Story Of National Lampoon'  (Source:Sundance Institute)

Why has no one ever made a documentary about the origin, rise, luminous success, and eventual demise of the humor magazine National Lampoon? Good question. Here's the answer: Now, someone has.

Director Douglas Tirola takes us on the journey in his film "Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead," beginning with the magazine's roots -- the Harvard Lampoon, a college humor publication started in 1876 -- and describing how two Harvard students who worked on that magazine in the 1960s translated the college magazine into a national brand. It helped that they were a pair of comic geniuses.

Doug Kenney and Henry Beard were their names, and they got a major boost from Matty Simmons, a New York businessman (and the innovator who came up with the concept of the credit card), when Simmons agreed to finance their venture. Kenny and Beard wrote juvenile, silly stuff with a sharply satiric political point; once they had Simmons' backing they were able to track down kindred spirits like Michael O'Donoghue, Anne Beatts, and Tony Hendra, as well as a team of editors and, eventually, a gifted art director who gave their ideas visual punch and unified the look of each issue. (Other funny writers followed, including P.J. O'Rourke and John Hughes... yes, that John Hughes, the guy behind a string of 1980s teen dramedies like "The Breakfast Club" and "Sixteen Candles," and the "Home Alone" movies.)

Celebrity interviewees like John Landis and Chevy Chase appear early on, and it takes a while to realize they aren't there randomly. As the story unfolds, the course the National Lampoon took tarts to make sense of American humor in the last two decades of the 20th century: The magazine gave rise to a stage variety show, which drew on the talents of a troupe called Second City. These included John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray... in short, the crew who would become the cast for "Saturday Night Live." In fact, NBC approached National Lampoon about a "Saturday night satire show," but the Lampoon staff were stretched thin with new issues on paper, a radio show, and other projects; a TV sketch program would have been too much. But Lorne Michaels simply snapped up the Second City players, and a number of writers, from National Lampoon. "You could almost feel the energy sucked out of the magazine and put into that show," muses one interview subject.

Kenney and Beard had a buyout deal in place with Simmons from the start, and when the time came and they collected (the terms gave them a handsome payoff of $7 million), Kenney simply wanted to take his money and go. Simmons, though, came up with a plan to retain him: He promised Kenney a movie. After a script by Harold Ramis and Kenney was given a polish by a third writer, National Lampoon contributor Chris Miller, the result was filmed as "Animal House," the 1978 feature that launched National Lampoon as a movie making brand. John Landis directed; Ivan Reitman produced. Creative connections were forged that would go on to bear plenty more fruit in non-Lampoon projects like "Caddyshack" and, later on, "Ghostbusters."

Great partnerships tend to sizzle along until the fizzle, and this seems to have happened with Kenney and Beard; the magazine they founded began to sink as they drifted apart and their attentions turned to other things; but the final nail in the magazine's coffin lid? I won't spoil it. Suffice to say, you won't be surprised, only enraged anew.

"They became all of modern comedy," one commentator notes of the magazine's early core staff. Yes, maybe. In hindsight, such things can seem obvious. What isn't at all clear is who, if anyone, will launch the next great wave of highly charged, culturally-recalibrating American humor. The 1960s and '70s were a cauldron for such creativity because, as another interviewee notes, "It was like we had an attic full of culture that had been accumulating from 1945 to 1970 -- and we had opened the trap door..." What they found were undercurrents of resentment and a fervent need to break away from WWII-era conformity, all of which makes for culturally rich soil. One wonders if we now live in such a tepid, trivial time that fermentation of that sort is defused before it can really get going.



Director :: Douglas Tirola
Writer :: Mark Monroe
Writer :: Douglas Tirola
Producer :: Douglas Tirola
Producer :: Susan Bedusa
Executive Producer :: John Battsek
Executive Producer :: Nicole Stott
Film Editor :: Joseph Krings
Film Editor :: G. Martinez
Original Music :: Bryce Jacobs

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.