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Josh Reviews Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon

October 28th, 2015

Douglas Tirola’s new documentary Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon tells the story of the rise (and eventual decline) of the brilliant, hugely influential humor magazine The National Lampoon.  The film follows its origins as a Harvard magazine, to its early days as a national magazine, to the eventual expansion of its humor empire to include a radio show, stage shows, and so much more.

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The National Lampoon was the origin of so much of modern comedy.  Its irreverent, take-no-prisoners-in-pursuit-of-a-joke style of humor that could shift from sophisticated political satire to raunchy sex jokes was the precursor of Saturday Night Live and everything that then spun out from SNL.  I was endlessly fascinated, watching this documentary, to see just how much of the style of SNL — as well as how many of its early performers and writers — came from The National Lampoon.

This documentary is tremendous fun, an endlessly intriguing peek at so many of the outrageous — and hugely talented — men and women who started the Lampoon and helped take it to greatness.  There are a lot of juicy inside stories of what went on during those drug-fueled days, which are fascinating to hear about.  More important than that, the documentary is hugely funny.  Most of the people being interviewed — and Mr. Tirola has managed to get an impressively deep array of personalities on camera, both famous faces like Chevy Chase and many of the writers and artists who I had never heard of, but who were intergral to to the Lampoon’s success — are very funny, and so of course they tell very funny stories.  On top of that, Mr. Tirola very creatively brings a lot of great Lampoon material to the screen.  We get to see a wealth of still-images of famous Lampoon covers and interior cartoons and photos.  Many of those images are brought to life on-screen with some simple but effective animation that gives those iconic — and very funny — images an extra bit of life on-screen.  It’s an effective technique, extremely well-executed.

Mr. Tirola also has been able to get access to an impressive wealth of behind the scenes photos, and of recordings of many of those early Lampoon radio shows and stage performances.  There is some phenomenal material here that most people have never ever seen, and this material is the best draw in a documentary that is stuffed full of great stuff.  I couldn’t believe how many famous names in comedy got their start with the Lampoon, and there is some great material in the film highlighting their early work.  I was particularly taken by footage of a very young Christopher Guest’s absolutely perfect James Taylor impersonation, as well as an early version of John Belushi’s wonderful Joe Cocker impersonation (made famous by Mr. Belushi on SNL but which had its origins, I learned here, in the National Lampoon stage show “Lemmings”).

There are so many great moments in the documentary, so much gold that Mr. Tirola has unearthed and assembled for his film.  There’s the footage of Marshall McLuhan praising the Lampoon in counterpoint to the magazine’s many critics.  There’s the fascinating recording of Second City vets — and soon-to-be stars in SNL and movies — Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, and Harold Ramis working together to record a Lampoon radio bit.  So much great Lampoon artwork is spotlighted, from the famous “buy this magazine or we’ll shoot this dog” cover art to the to-this-day jaw-dropping Ted Kennedy Volkswagon ad.  (“If Ted Kennedy has been driving a Volkswagon, he’d be President today.”)

Comedy fans take note: this documentary is tremendous.  Fast-paced, insightful, and very, very funny, it’s a look at the genesis of so much of the best comedy of the last half-century.  This is not to be missed.

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