4th Row Films, 2015
Director: Douglas Tirola
Writers: Mark Monroe, Douglas Tirola
Out of 5: 4

It’s one of those funny twists to history that we have Mademoiselle magazine to thank for much of our contemporary humor. In the 1960’s, Mademoiselle hired the Harvard Lampoon, the university’s humor magazine, to provide a parody section for one of their issues. An overwhelmingly favorable response in the form of subscription cards inspired the Lampoon staff to go beyond campus and seek national distribution for their latter magazine parodies of Playboy, Life and Sports Illustrated. The success of those issues convinced two editors, Douglas Kenney and Henry Beard, that there was an audience for a national Lampoon. The magazine’s birth, quick expansion into a multi-media empire that included books, records, movies, radio and stage shows, and its long decline are the subjects of Douglas Tirola’s Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon.

The movie gets its title from Rick Meyerowitz’s 2010 memoir and art book, which has the advantage of Meyerowitz having worked at the Lampoon almost from the beginning (he’s also responsible for their early unofficial mascot of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa in gorilla form). The film’s structure is similar to Ellin Stein’s invaluable in-depth history of the magazine That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick: brief snippets from interviews with those who haven’t succumbed to the title’s fourth word are illustrated as though you’re flipping through the magazine. Most impressive is an interview with Henry Beard, who has rarely talked about the Lampoon after he left in 1975, standing on a desk and saying “I hated every minute of this,” according to the film.

The National Lampoon’s art director Michael Gross had an innovation, which seems obvious in retrospect: to insist the parody resemble the thing being mocked as closely as possible. Anything visual could be reproduced and parodied on its pages – other magazines and books, television shows, children’s games. The Lampoon was multimedia even before they thought of making records, radio or stage shows. Their first album Radio Dinner carried Gross’s idea into the realm of audio. The parodies of Bob Dylan, game shows or stoned teenagers sound just like the real thing. Much of the credit has to go to Christopher Guest’s skill at impersonation. The skits and songs were that much funnier for it.

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead does something subtle and unique with the images chosen. In most documentaries, an image of what is being discussed will be shown, but Tirola instead illustrates his history with the Lampoon‘s humorous takes on its topics. When John Lennon is mentioned, for example, rather than show a standard stock photo, Tirola uses images of Lennon from the magazine, including the “Foto Funnie” John and Yoko did for the March 1972 issue. When Rolling Stone is mentioned, instead of seeing a copy of the magazine you see the National Lampoon parody. Rather than show what’s commonly agreed on as history, Tirola shows a comic version, a parallel universe made up not of facts but a subversion of them.

KennedyVWUnfortunately, sometimes the images used are confusing and haphazard, chronologically inaccurate. When Anne Beatts, who began writing for the magazine because her boyfriend was one of the writers, mentions “I got into comedy the same way Catherine the Great got into politics…on my back” the point is illustrated by a Shary Flenniken comic that Beatts had nothing to do with and was in fact published several years after she left the magazine. A discussion of publisher Matty Simmons sending out a news release to capitalize on being sued by Volkswagen for their “If Ted Kennedy drove a Volkswagen, he’d be President today” ad is illustrated by a memo from Sean Kelly about Metal Hurlant (Heavy Metal in the US). More distracting is when word balloons are superimposed on images, lending a distorted idea of what the piece was about and implying a relationship that may not exist. Brian McConnachie’s anecdote about working in a bar has nothing to do with the Spaghetti Western comic he wrote, despite his words being added to the images. Footage from the National Lampoon‘s films, stage and radio shows fares better, in part because they’re not being translated from a different media and because it’s a chance to watch Bill Murray, John Belushi, Gilda Radner and others before they became famous. Belushi’s bit as Joe Cocker rocking back and forth in an effort to get off of his belly before pulling himself up by the mic stand is a wonder and works on film in a way that the funniest essay can not.

Magazine cover, National Lampoon, 1971
Magazine cover, National Lampoon, 1971

For comedy fans, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is both a greatest hits reel and a source of frustration: “I can’t believe they didn’t mention [insert your favorite here]!” Michael O’Donoghue, Saturday Night Live’s “Prince of Darkness” who also wrote Bill Murray’s Scrooged, doesn’t get nearly enough credit in the film. There’s also little said about the magazine’s cartoonists, who were the Lampoon‘s rock in their own way; even when the Lampoon was awful, their comics and cartoons never faltered.

Hopefully the film will inspire newbies into looking beyond Animal House and lapsed fans to relive the magic, too: all the issues from the golden age can be found via archive.org, and Mark’s Very Large National Lampoon Site is an invaluable resource. The innovation, the shock, the influence it had: none of this would have mattered if the magazine wasn’t funny.

John Hanlon is a writer for Cinephile City.

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