Once in a while, the Cinephile City team detects the need for a couple of similar or competing films to have it out in a bare-knuckle, winner-takes-all bout for critical glory. For this round of THROWDOWN, guest contributor Joel Schlosberg pits two documentaries about comedy greatness against each other and reveals that one of ’em isn’t so tough after all.
Two documentaries about keystones of comedy media recently emerged from festival season: Live From New York!, which aired before the Oct. 3 season premiere of Saturday Night Live on NBC, and Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon, available via video-on-demand services since Sept. 25.
Though their bodies of work generally took very different formats, the institutions of Saturday Night Live and National Lampoon were both sired by irreverent baby-boomers who were eager to spoof ’70s establishment, and they featured much of the same talent over the years. Chevy Chase, for one, appears in both documentaries giving new interviews–a nod to the fact that SNL alumni were so ubiquitous in the broader comedy culture of the ‘80s and ‘90s (constituting most of the Ghostbusters crew and ¡All three Amigos!) that the show seemed the fountainhead of comedy talent. Drunk Stoned even reveals that the SNL team was, in large part, drinking from the well of Lampoon’s radio and stage spinoffs.)
But despite the similarities and inbreeding between the two comedy groups themselves, there isn’t much of an overlap in the approaches used by the documentaries looking to immortalize them. And, sadly, when the two methods for chronicling comedy are viewed side-by-side, only one can remain the last comical doc standing.
Bao Nguyen’s Live! is seemingly less interested in the feel of SNL–or in its place in the world of comedy even–than in its greater significance. On the whole, SNL’s sociopolitical impact gets far more play than most of its famous running gags, meaning clips from sketches (ubiquitous to such films) are surprisingly absent. From its interviews to its narration, the film generally seems concerned with certifying not its comedic achievements but rather its real-world gravitas as political art; to wit, Al Gore, who is identified as both an SNL host and a former vice president in the same breath, gets ample screen time in the film as a embodiment of doing good through good, clean fun (one half expects to see “Al Franken, former cast member and U.S. Sen., D-Minn.”). Oddly enough, Live!’s tone is less NBC than PBS in many moments as a result.
Riffing on the comedy-doc standard in a different way, Drunk Stoned recalls its snarky roots from the get-go and conveys the energy of its subject with sharp pacing, a well-chosen, hard-driving rock soundtrack (it works; think: the wall-to-wall AC/DC songs of Maximum Overdrive), and, perhaps most effective of all, generous samplings of classic Lampoon artwork, much of it presented in motion. To the doc’s great benefit, director Douglas Tirola and his filmmaking team seem to have tapped into a recent trend of using animated or motion graphic snippets to enliven documentaries, its successes ranging from the always-funny Bill Plympton’s appropriately raw, animated sketches in F*CK to the elegantly active traveler’s charts in Maidentrip. By painstakingly animating classic Lampoon visuals, Drunk Stoned brings them off the static page into full-fledged components of the film.
When it comes to documenting the careers of many of the late-20th century’s funniest people, the films tackled history rather differently, too. The New York Times reflected that the “unfocused, skimpy history of Saturday Night Live” ultimately “resembles a smiley-faced Sunday morning infomercial for a vintage pop music collection” more than a thoughtful documentary–an assessment that lands the punchline pretty squarely. SNL and comedy fans alike are aware of the many comedy careers that led to glory, tragedy, or both after “discovery” on the weekly show, but the documentary seems to steer fairly clear of tackling much of its own cast history on either side of the fence, correctly assuming, perhaps, that fans have already gleaned much of this info from the numerous specials, histories, box sets, and memoirs that have been produced in the show’s honor over the past several decades.
Meanwhile, Drunk Stoned takes a somewhat meatier stab at tracing the impact and journeys of the Lampoon gang (if it did seem willing to trim timelines for the sake of a better narrative). As the film illustrates, Lampoon served as a launchpad for ample mainstream actors from P.J. O’Rourke to John Hughes in its day, but the group itself had neither the discipline nor the desire to join it, the film explains. However, while the doc tracks the careers of several of Lampoon’s former comedic heavyweights, an overall nostalgia keeps the main focus of these check-ins on the glory days of Lampoon’s irreverent, censor-free days.
Fans of O’Rourke, for example, might know that the actor, political satirist, and writer (who has claimed he “killed National Lampoon”) eventually wanted to be taken seriously as a political commentator (even if he’d never properly enter politics like Al Franken), perhaps to enter the realm dubbed “funditry,” which Jaime J. Weinman defines as political punditry which “adopts the tone and rhythm of comedy writing” (at times to the detriment of both). But when Drunk Stoned interviews O’Rourke, it confines him to reminiscing about his wilder youth. And while Drunk Stoned restricts its coverage of the increasingly-tarnished “National Lampoon’s…” movie brand to Animal House and the original Vacation, it does tackle these topics (and even Caddyshack, not made under Lampoon’s auspices but the work of its alumni). Live!, for whatever reason, makes no comparable mention of The Blues Brothers, Wayne’s World, or other big-screen creations that sprang from the show.
The accessibility of digital filmmaking opens up countless possibilities for documentary subjects, and may allow comedy fans to get their fill of “behind-the-scenes” info on various comedic mainstays in the near future. The Kickstarter-funded When We Went MAD! A Documentary of Ecch-ic Proportions is already in production, for example, but the stories behind Cracked and The Onion are still untapped territory. However, future documentarians might do well to take a careful look at Drunk Stoned to brainstorm ideas on how to capture the spirit of their subjects, and to examine Live! for examples of how not to.