The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"DRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD: THE STORY OF THE NATIONAL LAMPOON"

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead

Growing up, I used to sneak peeks at National Lampoon on the newsstand. It had sexual humor, naked women, occasional bits of blasphemy, and controversial topics treated with politically incorrect abandon. It was scandalous material for my young mind. Something about the Lampoon seemed dangerous, which is what made it just as appealing to adults as it was to a tween boy. The magazine quite literally changed comedy, setting off a revolution, the impact of which can still be felt today. Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon charts the amazing history of this landmark publication.

It all started at one of America's most prestigious universities. The Harvard Lampoon garnered some attention for its bold style of comedy and fearlessness in tackling issues. A popular fashion magazine asked the editors to create a parody issue of their product. It proved so successful that other magazines followed suit. The country suddenly sat up and took notice of a college periodical. Under the guidance of wild-man Doug Kenney and mercurial Henry Beard, the Lampoon eventually moved beyond the hallowed halls of Harvard and into the general public, under a slightly altered moniker. Writers like Michael O'Donoghue (known for his caustic personality, both in writing and in person), Tony Hendra, John Hughes, and P.J. O'Rourke helped set the tone, creating stories and articles that pushed the envelope in every conceivable manner. Talented art designers bolstered the comedy by making the magazine's parodies look like the real deal.

From there, National Lampoon expanded its reach, launching a series of comedy albums, a stage show (that introduced the world to the likes of Bill Murray, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, and Chevy Chase), and eventually movies (Animal House, Vacation). Good times didn't last, though. Drugs were everywhere, and Lorne Michaels pilfered many of the Lampoon's cast and writers for a new late-night comedy show he was developing, called Saturday Night Live. A decline in quality followed, turning the magazine into something that did little more than peddle shock value. The sociopolitical edge that initially made it so thrilling was substantially dulled.

Directed by Douglas Tirola, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead weaves together interviews with writers and artists associated with the Lampoon to look at how it all went down. Stories of debauchery are abundant, making it clear that creative chaos was a key element of success. Kenney, in particular, established an atmosphere in which anarchy was encouraged. No cow was too sacred, no subject untouchable. The participants got wasted and then tried to one-up each other, resulting in some of the most memorably bold comedy ever unleashed upon the American people. Tirola also mixes in hilarious photos from the magazine, plus vintage clips of the stage show, where so many now-legendary comedians got their start. The film is a treasure trove in that sense. You don't expect to laugh so much, or so hard, at a documentary.

But more than just being a simple recounting of Lampoon history, Drunk Stoned gives a strong sense of the players. Many of the people most prominent in its existence had drug addictions, personality disorders, or both. It was these very qualities, it seems, that fueled the no-holds-barred humor. Doug Kenney is an especially fascinating figure. Generally responsible for the magazine's ethos, he had a nervous breakdown and abruptly abandoned his creation for a year, then returned to significant animosity from the rest of the staff. Later, he moved into film production and, when Caddyshack (an unofficial Lampoon product) didn't perform as well as Animal House, became deeply depressed. Heavily addicted to cocaine by this point, he died under mysterious circumstances while hiking in Hawaii. Chevy Chase touchingly eulogizes his best friend in the movie, and it's clear that he still feels the loss to this day, as does comedy in general.

The only weakness here is that the Lampoon's undoing is rushed through. More or less shoved into the last five minutes, major events that caused the magazine to implode are given very short shrift. Understandably, Tirola wanted to focus on the glory days, but further understanding of how a once-thriving magazine crashed and burned would have strengthened the film's celebration of its triumphs.

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead ends with filmmaker Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Trainwreck) espousing National Lampoon's important place in comedy history. The Lampoon influenced him, and he has gone on to mentor a whole generation of comic writers and performers. This cycle is likely to continue for decades to come. What a legacy that is! Comedy is inherently about going to unsafe places, saying potentially offensive things, and taking on subjects the establishment would sooner have left alone. National Lampoon did all of those things and more. Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is a fine tribute to its ballsy methods, as well as a must-see documentary for comedy fans.

( 1/2 out of four)

Note: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is in theaters, on demand, and on iTunes.


Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is unrated, but contains adult language and comic images that may be offensive to some viewers. The running time is 1 hour and 32 minutes.


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