While it’s likely known now to younger generations as a brand that launched some classic ‘80s movies, once upon a time the savagely pointed satirical magazine National Lampoon was the voice of comedy in the United States. Founded by Harvard humorists Douglas Kenney and Henry Beard, the naughty and provocative creators of National Lampoon slid their sneaky fingers under the bra strap of cultural gatekeepers, and after some heavy petting, rested it right on the pulse of the zeitgeist. Founded in the 1970s, as the flower power ideals curdled into the cynical and angry era of Watergate and Vietnam, National Lampoon’s establishment-challenging irreverence and taboo-breaking gallows humor mainlined right into the darker countercultural current. A product of their less-idealistic generation, these outsiders’ incisive wit, ballsy hilarity, and transgressive political, social, and sexual views arrived just when the nation was at its most desperate need for a laugh.
Eventually veering towards a mainstream breakthrough, launching side projects like a radio show, comedy records, live performances, and movies, the magazine grew into an American humor empire that helped unleash such already-burgeoning Second City talents as John Beluishi, Harold Ramis, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, Brian Doyle Murray, Christopher Guest, and more. But as a bold and cultural skewering rock n’ roll-like operation, National Lampoon eventually lost its potency and cultural currency thanks to the usual suspects of drugs, egos, hubris, and ambition.
Directed by Douglas Tirola (“A Reason To Believe,” “All In: The Poker Movie”), “Drunk, Stoned, Brilliant, Dead: The Story of National Lampoon” is a simple but effective chronicle of the often unsung men and women who helped create a humor kingdom, from the founders to the writers, art directors, publishers, advertising men, and all the key satirists who lent the magazine its bite. At its center are the two polar opposite forefathers, the brilliant, but troubled soul of the magazine: Doug Kenney, and the laceratingly funny beating heart and brain, Henry Beard. As the doc journeys through the long and storied history, it gives due to other classic touchstone writers, such as the vituperative Michael O’Donaghue and his more congenial British counterpart, Tony Hendra (John Hughes got his start at the magazine in its later era).
Featuring testimonials by those who were there (Ivan Reitman, John Landis, Chevy Chase); those who felt its Brobdingnagian impact (Judd Apatow, John Goodman, Kevin Bacon); and seminal, comedy-significant footage — the halcyon years when Second City alumni Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, and John Belushi were tapped to run their live performances and record their radio shows — ‘National Lampoon’ is an important and even funny document of this special place in time. Featuring lots of unearthed, never-before-seen footage that is surely catnip for comedy enthusiasts, pop culture aficionados will likely find the doc a pure delight too. But it must be said the archetypal sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll documentary travelogue through trailblazing parts of our culture (see “Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films,” “Not Quite Hollywood,” “Being Evel,” and “Roger Corman: Corman’s World”) are becoming increasingly conventional and are often low on insights.
Sure, these docs deliver an entertaining ride through the past, often told by the players they were there, but the “Boogie Nights”-ish energy and rise and fall narratives don’t often illuminate much beyond the wild and crazy times, while giving a contextual frame to their modern influence. A stock quality to these type of documentaries has coagulated in recent years both in story and from — movies about ahead-of-their-time mavericks always try to inject rock n’ roll swagger (‘Lampoon’ features David Bowie, T-Rex, and other zeitgeist-busting rock tracks), but it all gets to be a bit predictable.
Like most of these tales, the National Lampoon’s success story begins to mirror that of a rock n’ roll band, where egos, drug casualties, and the burdens of being big begin to ruin all the fun. Making matters worse for the magazine is when “Saturday Night Live” began in the late ‘70s. The Lampoon’s talent was quickly drained by Lorne Michaels‘ quest for his show to become the hippest place for comedy. And as one of its key founders dies in an apparent suicide/possibly unsolved murder, a sadness and existential angst casts a pall over the magazine that it cannot overcome.
It should be said the importance of National Lampoon in our culture, comedy or otherwise, cannot be overstated. The magazine set the standards for contemporary American comedy for decades to come. They gave us the comedy greats that launched the classic “Saturday Night Live” cast; seminal movies like “Animal House,” “Caddy Shack,” and “National Lampoon’s Vacation”; and talents like John Hughes, PJ O’Rourke, and writers like Al Jean and Michael Reiser, who went on to run “The Simpsons.” So as a document and artifact of this seminal time in comedy — an era that one of the writers compares with Hemingway’s time in 1920s Paris chronicled in a “Movable Feast” — it’s vital. But can the nostalgic documentary essay can ever transcend its formula: the history of an institution, with familiar rise and fall narratives, about a time capsule of culture you may not know as well as you think. Talking heads, rock n’ roll spirit, and animated elements of the magazine come to life in comedic form. There’s certainly nothing wrong with this approach, but it’s certainly becoming formulaic.
Comedy enthusiasts will love the look back on the groundbreaking magazine, its talented players, and the way the doc captures its irreverent spirit. While Doug Kenney and Henry Beard are certainly worthy of their own lionizing spot on the comedy canon mantle, one can’t help but think the film’s standard operating procedures are certainly tame compared to the wild institution itself. [B]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.