One of the most enjoyable parts of watching Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon, a documentary about the incredibly influential comedy magazine and production company, was hearing the gasps from the audience of critics when racist, sexist, or just plain filthy jokes from the various National Lampoon media were featured. The fact that this material still shocks explains why it would be impossible for something like National Lampoon to exist today. We’ve veered to far into mandatory political correctness, where every joke is offensive to somebody and Patton Oswalt uses 53 tweets to ensure his preschool riddle is not construed as offensive to anybody.
When Harvard alum Doug Kenney, Henry Beard, and Robert Hoffman began publishing National Lampoon with publisher Matty Simmons in 1970, absolutely nothing was sacred… nor should it have been. The 1960s were a decade of counterculture and political change, and National Lampoon rode that wave throughout the 1970s. Along the way, National Lampoon became more than a magazine – music albums, stage shows, a radio show, and movies under the brand name followed. The National Lampoon media empire launched the careers of comedic talent in television and film, including John Belushi, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, John Hughes, Gilda Radner, and Harold Ramis. In fact, Saturday Night Live would have never existed if not for National Lampoon. Director Douglas Tirola explores the triumphs and tragedies of the National Lampoon staff through interviews with the contributors themselves, lifelong fans like Billy Bob Thornton and Judd Apatow, vintage clips, and dozens of clippings from the funniest magazine ever published.
Documentaries, even those about comedians, aren’t usually particularly funny. Tirola must have realized that telling the story of the National Lampoon without borrowing liberally from the magazine’s content itself would be a waste of time. Because of that, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon is by far one of the funniest documentaries I’ve ever seen. I am a big fan of Tirola’s Hey Bartender, a movie that was every bit as serious as Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon is silly. Yet both of these documentaries look at people who supremely devoted to their craft. In fact, we can thank National Lampoon for training those who would go on to create Saturday Night Live, the Simpsons, Spinal Tap, and countless other comic treasures, along with perhaps the crown jewel of the National Lampoon, Animal House. What would the world be like without Animal House?
Naturally, the documentary trails off with the 1983 movie National Lampoon’s Vacation and doesn’t go into detail about the long declining years of the magazine, which ceased publication in 1998. It comes right after the discussion about the “failure” of Caddyshack (how anyone could think of that comedy classic as a failure is beyond me) and the mysterious death of Lampoon co-founder (and Caddyshack producer) Doug Kenney. That is a downer in itself, and there is no mention of the post-1985 era where Simmons was Editor-In-Chief (and Simmons makes it clear that he didn’t want to talk about it anyway), so I don’t fault Tirola from avoiding that era. All of the key contributors were long gone, and it makes for a better documentary to focus on the brand’s best years. After all, once you show clips of John Belushi and Bill Murray, the comedy isn’t going to get any better, right?
While I know Live From New York is the opening night film at Tribeca this year, I’d argue that a far better documentary about the prototype for the Not Ready for Prime Time Players should be in that spot instead.