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BY SEAN EGAN | While not everyone can claim intimate familiarity with the early work of National Lampoon, the highly influential magazine’s distinctive brand of humor and ideology is certainly still felt today. The Lampoon and its alumnus successfully reached their tendrils into almost every medium of entertainment, making the publication ground zero for modern American comedy. With everything from “Saturday Night Live,” “The Simpsons” and the films of John Hughes and Judd Apatow claiming ties to National Lampoon, preserving the history of this long-defunct publication for modern audiences seems all too important.
Douglas Tirola’s new documentary attempts to catalog all of the crazy, live-wire, drug-addled energy and inspiration that went into producing the Lampoon in its ’70s heyday. It’s a lively, irreverent and well-researched film that works as a zippy primer for any unfamiliar with National Lampoon, and an entertaining exercise for those already well-versed in its unique comedy styling.
The film impressively captures the magazine’s tone and style through its use of stylish animation, created via manipulations of actual Lampoon illustrations and photographs — giving the feeling that scenes from the film were ripped right off the page. In addition, rare archival footage from offices, stages and recording studios (often featuring comedy icons like Bill Murray, John Belushi and Harold Ramis) immerses audiences in the world of the Lampoon. Set to an era-appropriate soundtrack featuring the likes of David Bowie, the movie lives and breathes the Lampoon’s countercultural vibe.
Tirola also does well capturing lesser-known, behind-the-scenes personalities — which were often just as outsized as any of the actors associated with the publication. Colorful characters such as the stoic and reserved co-founder Henry Beard, misanthropic writer Michael O’Donoghue, no-nonsense publisher Matty Simmons and straight talking art-director Michael Gross populate the Lampoon’s story, and watching the clash of personalities is thoroughly entertaining. Most importantly however, Tirola takes significant time to highlight the tragically short life of Doug Kenney, the brilliant and beloved co-founder and editor — who by all accounts provided the magazine (and by extension this documentary) with its heart.
In aid of this, Tirola assembles a wide swath of interview subjects, ranging from big-name celebrities (Apatow, Kevin Bacon, Billy Bob Thorton) to the surviving staff members themselves. The interviews are both nostalgic and celebratory. Everyone agrees that working at the Lampoon was something special and important, some of the best times of their life — and everyone who encountered the Lampoon cites it as a formative influence. While this is nice enough to hear, and the subjects often inject humor into their talking head clips, it’s more diverting than particularly illuminating.
This lens of nostalgia becomes slightly problematic though, when considering some of the content of the magazine itself. For better or for worse, National Lampoon was a publication that pushed boundaries, coming firmly from the free speech, “everything can be made fun of” camp. While this certainly resulted in sublime satire (much on display here), it also produced some of the Lampoon’s more tasteless pieces (often dealing in ugly stereotypes and slurs that wouldn’t fly today). In its adoration of the magazine, the film allows a lot of these pieces to be uncomfortably passed over without much critical scrutiny — only halfheartedly defending its status as satire.
But things become more interesting when the subjects get more self-reflexive. This is illustrated best by a disarming sequence in which Chevy Chase describes the final days he spent with Kenney, his best friend, before his untimely death. Recounting a trip to Hawaii with bittersweet humor, Chase speaks candidly about their bond and struggles with substance abuse and depression. It’s a raw and emotionally affecting scene.
“Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead” does a lot to convince audiences of the rock star status of the publication’s comedy icons, but is even more engrossing in these instances where it lets its subjects be relatable, and sometimes painfully human. By allowing these more emotional elements to come to the fore while tracing the magazine from its inception to its inevitable end, Tirola makes a compelling case for National Lampoon’s continued importance and vitality — and a fitting tribute to its legacy.
TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW | DRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD: THE STORY OF THE NATIONAL LAMPOON
Runtime: 92 minutes
Directed by Douglas Tirola
Thurs. 4/16 & Tues. 4/21, 9:15pm & Fri. 4/24, 8:45pm at Regal Cinemas Battery Park (102 North End Ave. at Vesey St.)
$18 ($3.50 phone & web reservation fee)
Visit tribecafilm.com/festival or call 646-502-5296