Film

That Dog’s Dead Now, Anyway: The ‘National Lampoon’ Gets Toasted in a Doc That Doesn’t Dare Enough

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A documentary about a magazine is doomed never to capture the thing it’s documenting. The best that can be said for Douglas Tirola’s Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is that it captures, at times, the heady disbelief of paging through its subject, the National Lampoon, the headwaters of much of American film and TV comedy. But it never captures the dangerous pleasures of actually reading that “adult” rag of satire and id-venting that, like HBO today, underwrote its audacity with the promise of naked breasts.

So, yes, the film is to the Lampoon itself what a View-Master slide is to the Grand Canyon — but maybe a Grand Canyon brimming with booze, coke, and Ivy League self-regard. Here are quick glimpses of Lampoon spreads, some tastelessly riotous and some just tasteless, mostly presented without context: “The Joys of Wife-Tasting”; “De Poor, De Colored, De Marines”; Kelly Freas’s smashing cartoon hybrid of Alfred E. Neuman and William Calley asking, “What, My Lai?”; P.J. O’Rourke’s “How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink”; the best-ever microphone-as-penis joke, with ersatz Rod Stewart tearing into a high note as his mic coats his face in ejaculate.

The filmmakers leave it to you to do the thinking about what all this means. The thrust here is the same as that of any fan-doc about any old band: The Lampoon was great, was shaped by its time, then in turn shaped its time until the drugs stopped being fun and everything fell apart. Its early-Seventies genesis obliges the filmmakers to run with the usual Nixon/Vietnam boilerplate. Perhaps it’s in the interest of parody that their argument — that this clutch of rebels was just what dark-times America needed — also fueled that Evel Knievel doc from a couple weeks back.

It’s dispiriting that a film about a humor magazine that broke and rebuilt the forms of both humor and magazines is itself so staid — and so lacking in sociologic sweep. The focus is always on what the Lampooners did, never on the world from which they erupted, which diminishes the shock that was the magazine’s chief power. Just a couple of years before 1970 and that first issue, the Comstock laws forbade the distribution of information about birth control through the mail; as late as ’66, Boston was still banning dirty books. How was America then swept by a drug-woozy countercultural monthly whose staff of ex-Harvard dudes ran monthly photo-comix of themselves with topless beauties?

The film never states it outright, but its deeper thesis — besides “Remember the Lampoon! Wasn’t it awesome?” — is that boomers of vision seized the freedoms previous generations had been denied, whipped up spectacular comedy but also much gutsy tripe, and then either flamed out, eaten alive by that freedom, or found ways to peddle cleaned-up, less daring riffs on Lampoon-like material to a mass audience.

It makes sense that rebels who got their start at Harvard’s Lampoon would follow their years of smashing instructions at the National iteration with erecting institutions of their own: Saturday Night Live, movies about frat dudes, even The Simpsons, which Lampooners Mike Reiss and Al Jean perfected in its early years — and which Jean has, for over a decade now, piloted through steadily profitable listlessness. Does he ever wonder what jokes his younger self, at either Lampoon, might have lobbed at what he does now?

The Lampoon, the film’s roster of editors and writers intone, could be liberal or conservative or whatever an individual contributor wanted. The ethos of its founding editors, Douglas Kenney and Henry Beard, was to pay as little as they edited. (That’s meant in a good way, not in the way online journalism works today.) Much is made here of how their writers got to say what they aimed to. What the film doesn’t give us as it gushes along: What a piece like O’Rourke’s “How to Drive Fast on Drugs…” actually said behind the canny provocation of its title. It’s available on O’Rourke’s website, and the prim fussiness of its excess now fascinates, coming across like tales of doing blow and feeling up teenagers told by C-3P0. It also, in the ten minutes it demands, reveals much more than the film does about how the libertine impulses of the Sixties curdled into the me-first assholery of Reaganism. Imagine these Lampoon hedonists, at the end of American decorum, athrob with lust and coke and their own daring, all free in a way only kings and Kennedys had ever been, and all still just kids. Is it any surprise they spent so much time writing about their dicks and so little insisting that people who weren’t them should also enjoy the freedoms they had inherited?

The film is mostly talking heads, Lampoon pages, and winning clips of the magazine’s media properties: Tony Hendra and Sean Kelly’s smash Off-Broadway Woodstock parody Lemmings, starring much of the first cast of Saturday Night Live, as well as records and a radio show. (Hendra’s transformation of quotes from a cranky John Lennon interview into a faux Magical Mystery Tour number remains a wonder.) Onscreen these sketches play better than the vintage pages do, as Lampoon pieces weren’t skimmable, Onion-style, the-joke-is-the-headline filler — they demanded to be read.

Those who were there dish some stories and recall infamous pieces. Many attest to the thousands of words banged out by the editors each month, but far be it from the filmmakers to bother to quote some of them. (They’re invested in wasting time with celebrity guests: Why, exactly, does Billy Bob Thornton open the film? Was he maybe in National Lampoon‘s Van Wilder?) Chevy Chase tells a couple good stories about John Belushi and Kenney; with respect to the latter, Chase laces a fine sick joke into a narrative of suicidal depression — his warmest, funniest public appearance in years.

Occasionally, someone bothers to consider why an individual Lampoon piece was significant: Michael O’Donoghue, later SNL‘s first head writer, gets lauded for his infamous “Vietnamese Baby Book,” as despairing a feat of comedy as you will ever see: There, in a meticulously designed fake scrapbook, are baby’s first handprint and baby’s first war wound. Jean and Reiss, meanwhile, can’t find much meaning in their essay “How to Write Dirty — By Justice Thurgood Marshall,” but that title still kills.

Old Lampoon editors shrug in the film about other dark work, especially the white writers’ stabs at race. An O’Donoghue parody of a Tales From the Crypt comic featured a cannibalistic Colonel Sanders chowing down on “Kentucky Fried Coon,” a joke against racists that, sure, scans as “problematic” today but isn’t far removed from the plots of blaxsploitation classics. The film misses many opportunities, but this might be the largest: After the crackup of the Sixties, Americans found themselves free for the first time to speak frankly in the media, to sort out in movies and songs and magazines just what we actually felt and feared on matters of race, sex, war, and whatever else. The Lampoon, in its boob-loving way, was key to that sorting — but then, as the decade ended, the magazine became dumber, more aimlessly crass, its leading lights off in Hollywood working on Caddyshack. Something in the culture that had had some give had now settled, and jokes like those scarifying O’Donoghue specials gave way to the everydude dopiness of Vacation. But that’s a subject for a documentary of greater reach and vigor: How the protopunk viciousness of “The Vietnamese Baby Book” begat Lindsey Buckingham singing “Holiday Road.”

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon

Directed by Douglas Tirola

Magnolia Pictures

Opens September 25, IFC Center