Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is a documentary film chronicling the life and death of the highly influential humor magazine National Lampoon.
It is worth viewing but don’t expect all that much humor. It is not a revue or a series of snippets, like, say a film in The Best of Saturday Night Live series. It is for the most part a straightforward documentary chronicling the life and times of this interesting publication, and the many influences it has had on American culture since its founding in 1970.
It makes sense that it would not be a series of sketches highlighting the humor. After all, National Lampoon was (at least in its first incarnation) a magazine. Film can show a graphic, like a cartoon or photo, but the humor in National Lampoon was at its heart pretty dense stuff. A lot of writing. A lot of detail. You had to pay attention. You had to read. The film gives this density some glancing blows but for the most part it just marches on, chronologically, moving from year to year to year and commenting on the flow of characters and styles.
For me it was a lot of fun to watch the story unfold. I read a lot of National Lampoon in the 1970s, and knew roughly of the narrative arc: brainy Harvard duo Kenney and Beard morph from the Harvard Lampoon to a national magazine almost by chance; immediate success because of the no-holds-barred approach to humor; the magazine spawning related media like the revue Lemmings, radio shows and eventually films. And the eventual draining away of its energy, a combined result of exhaustion, drugs, changing attitudes, genre depletion and the collision with Hollywood. The latter problem is well-explained here–how are you going to keep them down on the farm, at an odd little print magazine, when Big Media and Big Money and Big Fame come calling?
Some of the film plays a little too much like inside baseball. It will mostly be completists who will care what the effect on design was when Peter Kleinman replaced Michale Gross as art director. But small issues like this aside, the film is fun as nostalgia for those who know something of the subject from experience, and it ought to be informative to a younger demographic which is less familiar.
My son, for instance. When he saw I had the movie he remarked that sure he knew National Lampoon. “They did those movies.” Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead demonstrates nicely how much more they did than “those movies”.
Moreover, a glance at the current humor scene will demonstrate quite clearly how much of National Lampoon we still have with us. This is a mixed blessing of course. The Lampoon’s ultra-ironic approach to all subjects was and is tremendously appealing, especially to youth and especially to smarty-pants types that figure they are better than everyone else. That’s the Harvard influence–Kenney and Beard may have been brilliant but they were also awful snobs. If you have ever yearned for some escape from–even for a brief respite from–a diet overly rich in irony you have the Lampoon very much to blame for your condition.
And here’s another irony: while the influence of the Lampoon remains very pronounced in American humor today, much of its material would be absolutely verboten today. The goofy sex stuff may live on in diluted form in Judd Apatow films, but a good deal of the sexual, racial and political humor that was embraced by the smart set back then falls into the category of what Blowhard Esq. calls “couldn’t do it today.” It is pretty shocking in retrospect to see just how outrageous a good deal of the material actually was. It causes you to reflect on how our current era has magically managed to combine anything goes with a new Puritanism.