Stephen Holden said in his New York Times review of tonight’s documentary, DRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD: THE STORY OF THE NATIONAL LAMPOON that the film “looks longingly back at the 1970s when a smart, tasteless joke could make you laugh out loud without worrying about hurting someone’s feelings or being attacked on social media”. Whether he’s lamenting the political correctness of today or applauding it is debatable, but when you consider the magazine published an article calling the Indian race “dismal, obsequious demi niggers whose gods have too many arms and legs” you know that even then, they took things too far. And then some.
From the 1970s through to the (very) early 1990s, it could be said that there was no hipper, no more outrageous comedy in print than the National Lampoon magazine. It was hailed as a groundbreaking, laugh out loud tome that pushed the limits of taste and acceptability - and then pushed them even harder. Parodying everything from politics, religion, entertainment and the whole of American lifestyle, the Lampoon eventually went on to morph into everything from successful radio shows to albums, live stage revues and hugely successful movies. Some, like ANIMAL HOUSE and NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VACATION, launched dozens of huge careers that still continue today, and industry names like Judd Apatow list the Lampoon crew as akin to comedy gurus.
Director Douglas Tirola's DRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD focuses mainly on all the glory years of National Lampoon: the drinks, drugs, clubs, parties… oh and smashing publishing records, too. It’s a fast-paced watch full of big personalities, and part of documentary’s easy charm lies in the fact that Tirola’s subjects are a group of messed up but very clever satirists, a cabal of misfits who at one time helped make National Lampoon the second most popular magazine in the US and a world-changing counter- cultural force.
Founders Doug Kenney and Henry Beard are the main subjects, a couple of damaged visionaries who, along with the help of publisher Matty Simmons, launched the magazine. For those not so familiar with its history, the National Lampoon magazine actually spun off a Harvard publication in 1970. It immediately went in hard on all manner of subject matter, with no holds barred. Politics, race, gender, the rich, the famous – they were all fair game and National Lampoon tore them to shreds.
The magazine’s New York office was reportedly a hub of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll, with the brief being: do whatever the f**k you want, as long as a stellar magazine came out at the end of each month. It comes as no surprise to learn that women were ridiculously under-represented at the offices, and when they did land a job there it was generally as a nude model or as a writer who was almost always objectified by her co-workers
In 1974, the magazine’s monthly circulation apparently exceeded one million – an insane amount by any era’s standards. It’s funny to note though that even when sales were healthy, no ad agency in its right mind would recommend that their client buy space in there - the humour was just that irreverent. Deadline became like a coke-fuelled marathon that ensured they kept up with demand, and inevitably, there was a fall: think broken friendships, drug casualties, untimely deaths, and other assorted tragedies.
But back to tonight’s the documentary, which features rare and never before seen footage that will thrill comedy nerds and casual fans alike. The film is also the story of the generation of writers and performers who took over and reinvented American comedy after a kick start at Lampoon’s, like John Belushi, Christopher Guest, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Anne Beatts, Harold Ramis, John Hughes, Michael O'Donoghue and P.J. O'Rourke (who was responsible for the aforementioned, outrageously racist quote).
In conclusion, I found DRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD: THE STORY OF THE NATIONAL LAMPOON to be a little one-sided, applauding generally bad behaviour a little too much for my liking. What it does do is truly give you the sense of how savage and uncompromising the National Lampoon was in its heyday - In the era of “social media mad c*nt Jimi Jackson” and questions like “is the Mad Butcher’s racist?” it is an interesting watch, especially given how far many of their jokes really did go.
DRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD: THE STORY OF THE NATIONAL LAMPOON premieres on Thursday 26 January on Rialto Channel