As the consistent, ever-present talking heads of Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon will tell you, National Lampoon was an important magazine for many reasons, but mainly how it pushed boundaries and made people uncomfortable. Considering how this point gets bludgeoned into the head of the viewer, that National Lampoon was indeed controversial, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is disappointingly straight-forward, never really taking the opportunity to stand out from the countless nostalgia documentaries and assert itself with a fresh viewpoint, the way the Lampoon did.
Despite the film beginning by pointing out that the Lampoon name has been around for around 140 years – starting in 1876 as the Harvard Lampoon – Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead focuses on its high point of the 70s. The transition from Harvard to National came with the introduction of Doug Kenney and Henry Beard, who turned the Lampoon publication into a monster success that would eventually encompass stage shows, comedy albums, books and films.
So how exactly do you show the importance of a magazine in film form? Simply show the publication’s most controversial articles and covers, with little-to-no context and allow the viewer to draw what was so important from them. In quick succession, these articles don’t so much bring laughs, but bring into focus the uncomfortable aspects of them, including overwhelming racism and sexism. Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead posits that the goal of satirists should make people uncomfortable, but rarely does the brilliance of these articles come out through this process, only the problematic issues.
This is even furthered by the overall whiteness and male-driven interviews throughout Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead. Near the end of the film, we see a large group photo, filled with some of the greatest comedic minds in the last fifty years. Yet this photo is almost exclusively white, and despite the photo containing a fair amount of women among its staff, only a handful are interviewed. When archival footage brings up the apparent problems with sex or diversity, it is of course laughed off and little introspection is given into the pale boys club that is the Lampoon.
As the Lampoon moved outside the world of print and into stage shows and film, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead also picks up slightly. We are shown fascinating footage of Lemmings, a Woodstock parody live show that starred John Belushi, Chevy Chase, and Christopher Guest amongst others. With these shows and the recordings of the Lampoon’s radio shows, there’s an opportunity to see the brilliance hinted at in the title from comedy geniuses.
Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead might’ve worked better as a doc on the life of Doug Kenney, the topic of discussion director Douglas Tirola seems most interested in. Kenny goes from a goofy college student to a cocaine addict behind Animal House, one of the biggest comedies of all time, leading to his untimely death from a fall at the Grand Canyon. But just like when the magazine itself is discussed, the life of Kenney is relegated to simple mentioning the facts, before moving right on down the timeline of Lampoon events.
Much like the recent Live From New York documentary – which features many of the same clips and interview subjects – Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is too navel-gazey to be introspective or anything other than impressed by the magazine’s greatness. Yes, the Lampoon paved the way for Saturday Night Live or gross-out comedy films or The Simpsons or hundreds of other great comedy revelations, but by just going down the list of its accomplishments, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead never goes below the surface, only content to simply narrate the events that occurred without any real insight that fans wouldn’t already know.