‘Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead’ Review

Examining The National Lampoon, the foundation of modern American comedy

Garry Goodrow, Peter Elbling, Chevy Chase, Christopher Guest, John Belushi, Mary-Jennifer Mitchell and Alice Peyton in DRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD: THE STORY OF THE NATIONAL LAMPOON / National Lampoon

As is often the case with such endeavors, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead—a documentary about the early years of the National Lampoon comedy empire—is never shy about showering praise on its subject matter. This is a celebration, not an examination, and those looking for a critique of the brilliantly ribald publication, radio show, off-Broadway play, and film franchise are best off going elsewhere.

But those of you who are in the mood for a trip down memory lane (or know nothing about the troupe other than National Lampoon’s Animal House or, worse, National Lampoon’s Van Wilder: Freshman Year) are in for a treat. Now available on Video on Demand, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead features interviews with a host of staffers from the original magazine, archival footage of impossibly young (and now lamentably dead) stars like John Belushi and Harold Ramis, and, most importantly, the tragic story of Doug Kenney.

Kenney cofounded National Lampoon magazine in 1970 alongside Henry Beard and Robert Hoffman. Everyone seems to agree that Kenney was not only one of the funniest men to have ever lived—he was also one of the smartest. And that, as P.J. O’Rourke notes in the 2010 coffee table book from which this film takes its name, was one of Kenney’s problems.

"Doug was not primarily funny. Doug was primarily smart," O’Rourke wrote in the book, about which more in a moment. "And there’s such a thing as being too damn smart. In order to make sense of life, it’s necessary to be oblivious to a lot of things or to ignore them or to twist them around so they fit with your perceptions of everything else. Doug was unable to do this."

Kenney, born in 1946, died (either by suicide or by slippage or by the hand of a drug dealer, depending on whom you ask; no one saw how his body found its way off that cliff in Hawaii) about 10 years after founding National Lampoon. Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead largely concerns itself with that decade of comedic excellence, an empire that at one point featured a print magazine circulation of more than one million subscribers, a radio show appearing on more than 600 stations, and the third-highest grossing film of 1978. There are endless stories about late nights, brilliant comic minds, drug binges—pretty much everything you’d expect from the sort of folks who would print a pictorial of Hitler on a tropical island cavorting with natives and title it "Stranger in Paradise."

The documentary, being a primarily visual enterprise, does a good job of capturing the chaotic art of the early years of the magazine. Borderline pornographic Polaroid pictures and actually pornographic comic strips intermix with a viciously sardonic sense of humor about the despised Vietnam War and the hated political establishment.

The aforementioned coffee table book, however, does a far better job of capturing the erudition of National Lampoon in those early years. Pieces such as "Che Guevara’s Bolivian Diary," a mockery of the then-recently-departed Che’s later years, and "Law of the Jungle," a 12,000 word faux legal brief outlining the rules of the animal kingdom, exemplify a magazine that was more than dick jokes and timely references. It was an intellectual powerhouse: Some of the writing in these issues was impossibly dense—almost too dense to work as humor. The parody is so pure, so spot on, that one sits back and admires the work like a fine painting, almost too intimidated to laugh.

Then again, these pieces sat next to "Foto Funnies"—which seem to be little more than an excuse for the mag’s male staffers to pose with a variety of semi-nude models—and images of atrocities from Vietnam affixed with ironic captions. The mixture of parody, puerility, and politics would never be allowed today: the cries of "privilege" and "problematic" would be piercing. Today we wouldn’t see the Christian Coalition coming for the Lampoonistas, as happened in the mid-1980s. We’d see Salon and Slate and Tumblr and Twitters Black, Trans, and Feminist.

It’s hard to imagine a more absurd collection of talent than National Lampoon at the height of its powers: Kenney and O’Rourke and Beard, of course, but also Belushi and Ramis and Chevy Chase and Bill Murray and Gilda Radner and John Hughes and Ivan Reitman … the list goes on. If there’s a ground zero for the modern American comedy scene, National Lampoon is it.

Correction: The birthdate of Doug Kenney was originally incorrectly given as 1954, which meant he would have been about 16 when he started the Lampoon after graduating from Harvard. He was brilliant but probably not quite that brilliant. Apologies for the error.