Filmmaker Douglas Tirola retraces the history of irreverent counterculture magazine National Lampoon, the incubator of many talented writers, cartoonists and comedians. Starting out as the Harvard Lampoon in the early '70s, it ended up featuring live performance, initially to help sell the magazine, which saw the emergence of comedians such as John Belushi, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase and Gilda Radner. This documentary contains archival material as well as new interviews with staff members and notable figures who witnessed the magazine extraordinary ascension, of which the influence is still being felt in modern American comedy.
In Playboy’s finer days – the '70s - there was an old joke: “I only read it for the articles,” meaning that the centrefold of some young femme beauty was but a mere, um, extra. It had me thinking watching this very funny documentary on the origins, influence and times of an American comic institution – 'The National Lampoon' – how many fans actually read it for the satire? Kevin Bacon, one of the films large cast of starry talking heads, admits here what drew him to the mag was the chance to see naked breasts (the ample bosoms of the mag feature, ah, prominently in the movie here, too.) He adds almost as an afterthought that the jokes weren’t bad either. Bacon, born in 1958 is the right age to have consumed the mag in its heyday, 1973-75.
Just about everyone here tries to account for the mag’s allure but I think director John Landis put it best when he explains that for most of us, our favourite years are between 17-24 where every day is a holiday and every night a party. The Lampoon then was a glorious rave, knees-up, rage and rollick between the covers and no one, and nothing, would or could be safe. As one of the Lampoon’s typical slogan jokes put it: “If you can’t fuck it, blow it up.”
Started in 1970 by Douglas Kenney, Henry Beard, Rob Hoffman and publisher Matty Simons, the NL enjoyed a circulation of one million at its peak. The parodies were pungent and rude with lots of poo, bum, wee, and sex gags; the art direction was a glorious mix of sleaze, elegance, and bizarre cartoons. Seeing the excerpts from the very early days here I was struck by how weird things got. Some of the stuff looks like Goya on acid. Robert Crumb who was deeply strange about everything seems positively straight by comparison with the Lampoon at its freakiest. And of course the covers were terrific: the cute cross-eyed doggie with .45 to its head and the caption, ‘If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog,’ is still a fave. When the original Lampooners reminisce on camera about editorial meetings it comes as no surprise to find that these talk-fests involved drugs and booze.
“The point of satire,” says somebody here with wicked glee, “is to make the powerful as uncomfortable as possible.” Nixon, ‘Nam, and a pious, dysfunctional culture of consumer cool were dark rich fertiliser for NL’s particular style of savagery. The film relives some of these fine moments: a colour spread of Hitler on a tropical island holiday which looks like a mutant of National Geographic and Playboy; or the notorious VW ad ‘if Teddy Kennedy drove a Beetle, he'd be President.’
To the casual punter and those poor souls who are uninvested, National Lampoon is but a movie brand known for pics like Animal House (1978, the best of them), and Vacation (1983). But Drunk Stoned Brilliant and Dead is a reminder that the NL’s reach, scope and legacy is rich and varied; indeed it might be thought of the putrid petri dish where an entire generation of North American comics were cultured (that’s the movies take and its hard to argue with the facts.) Besides the mag – which was so naughty and nasty no advertiser would touch it – there were albums like the still superb National Lampoon’s Dinner Radio; a radio program; books; live shows and an off-Broadway hit Lemmings (1973) with John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Christopher Guest (of Spinal Tap) and Alice Playten. Remember Belushi’s priceless spastic parody of Joe Cocker from Saturday Night Live? Well it originated with Lemmings. Indeed that first season of SNL in 1975 managed to poach the best of NL’s talent, which left Matty Simmons unamused. The mag’s fortunes revived under P.J. O’Rourke and the late John Hughes. Incidentally O’Rourke is the only NL alumni, who comes off in the film as not terribly funny off the clock.
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There were movie spin-offs that weren’t part of the Lampoon but had the house style down and cast with NL regulars like The Blues Brothers (1980) and Caddyshack (1980). The latter was produced and co-written by Kenny, who died young in an accident some speculated was either a drug misadventure or suicide in Hawaii in 1980. The way his tragi-comic life of drugs, success and ribald genius is discussed here is the only seam of earnestness allowed to intrude. The rest of the time Drunk Stoned has the air of a casual get together whose only aim is to pay homage.
Director Douglas Tirola who co-wrote the film with Mark Monroe do their best to feed this air of uncritical history and mood of self-congratulation. The style is brisk and light-hearted. This mood is amped by Lampoon style comic strip parodies created especially for the film. These illustrate the behind the pages anecdotes; many of them recording the bed-hopping ego-tussles and politics that characterised life at the Lampoon for staffers. There are no naysayers, and there’s no editorial long view. In a movie which takes in part satire and parody as its subject it seems odd that Tirola and co. found so little air time to discuss gender, political correctness, and even the Lampoon’s big, fat targets like the religious right, with any depth or detail.
This then is a fan's film and the archive alone is priceless: watching the quick fire talent of a young Bill Murray and Harold Ramis is electric. Better still are the new interviews with people like Henry Beard, writer Michael O’Donaghue, Tony Hendra (Spinal Tap), Chevy Chase, and Anne Beatts. They’re a reminder that the best comedy always attacks and behind the boobs and the barbs there was always a piercing intelligence.
Watch 'Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon' on SBS
SBS, Sunday 7 April 10.30pm
Available after broadcast at SBS On Demand
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