When I was a kid, I got two life-changing castoffs from my grandfather. The first came from when he was a gravedigger at the Holy Cross Cemetery in Brooklyn. He came across a makeshift ritual site from one of those Satan parties that were popular in the late sixties. When I was five, he brought me the album Witchcraft Destroys Minds by Coven, which was left at the site.
Years later, he was a garbage man and would occasionally bring me shopping bags full of comic books. One of those bags was filled with the Crème de Robert Crumb and a half dozen copies of The National Lampoon. I was eight, they blew my mind. I couldn’t repeat the jokes in school because none of the other kids got them and the teachers would swallow their tongues and I’d have to dig them out of their mouths, which wasn’t as much fun as it sounds.
I told my parents that National Lampoon was just like Mad magazine, but when I recognized the Gahan Wilson comics in my father’s Playboy magazines, they knew. They didn’t stop me, but they knew. Those comics seen from a kid’s point of view led me here to Den of Geek probably more than any other thing. When the albums came out I thought I’d found the new Beatles only to learn it was the old Beatles played backwards at a slow speed in the wrong order.
Up until a few years ago, I still had a fall-out from the magazine in my wallet because it instructed me never to leave home without it. They put a baby in a blender years before it was chic.
Then the movies came out and holy shit they were wholly shit. Not Animal House of course, that and Vacation came directly from the pages of the magazine, but you know which ones I mean. I don’t want to begrudge them their cynical success after they were floundering in the wake of their decline and had to be wrenched from the fire by Delta House’s amateur gynecologist Tim Matheson.
The thing I didn’t see was the live show. I heard about it on the radio. It was in the Village. The Village Gate, where I would later see Toomfoolery and comedians Steve Landesburg and Jon Stewart. In the early seventies it had been taken over by The National Lampoon Radio Hour’s Tony Hendra, along with Gilda Radner, Christopher Guest, Garry Goodrow, Alice Peyton, John Belushi, and Chevy Chase. But it all went back to the magazine that promised me what fun it was going to be when I could finally get really drunk and drive really fast as a way to make my mom cry.
These were my heroes. So when I got the call to see Director Douglas Tirola’s documentary, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story Of The National Lampoon, I was thrilled. About a half hour before the preview, I checked in to see if there would be chemical refreshments. A young man in oversized glasses appreciated my situation but muttered something about my being either too early or too late.
It’s no surprise that funny people live manic lives that sometimes burn too quickly. National Lampoon’s history is littered with the bodies of extremely talented writers and performers who didn’t have an off switch. Tirola doesn’t pull punches probably because, as a fan himself of the show, he knows that those of us watching it recognize everything. Michael O’Donoghue is exactly as he seemed to be, explosive and implosive, sometimes simultaneously. The readers remember stories of Mr. Mike shooting Hendra’s mailboxes and worse.
Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead triggered memories of a million punch lines. It presents the Lampoon very straight because the clips provide enough chuckles. To some in the audience who didn’t grow up on this, some of those laughs might be guilty guffaws, quickly swallowed. The movie doesn’t bother dwelling on the fact that National Lampoon’s humor was considered controversial. The writers were encouraged to offend and broke new ground on irreverence. It might even seem more offensive now than at the time. As O’Donoghue would say to anyone still listening, “Making people laugh is the lowest form of comedy.”
A lot of people write off National Lampoon as frat humor, but it was incisive and socially relevant. Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead told the history of the Lampoon from its start at Harvard. Doug Kenney and Henry Beard inherited the Harvard Lampoon and let Cosmopolitan spoon off the pudding and publish a parody for the advertising exposure. Under old-school publisher Matty Simmons, the magazine grew until it couldn’t be contained in pages and had to come out on vinyl and on stage and then infect big and small screens and change comedy forever.
What also emerges in the film is the perfect work environment. The writers indulged their muses, amusing themselves with drugs, booze, sex and whatever visual aids might inspire the next joke. The writers’ meetings sound like parties and there was always the chance that O’Donoghue might shoot something or throw someone out a window. The movie even gets into the office romances of Anne Beatts, who was first female editor of Lampoon, and O’Donoghue and other sundry office fun.
One of its first writers, Tony Hendra became the first editor in 1971. O’Donoghue and Hendra co-created National Lampoon‘s first album Radio Dinner in 1972. One of the pieces was Hendra’s post-Beatle John Lennon parody “Magical Misery Tour.” The song took exact quotes from Lennon’s tell-all interview with Rolling Stone, when he was in the midst of this Primal Scream therapy and skewered Lennon with it. Lennon would later hire Michael Gross, who defined the look of National Lampoon magazine, as his personal designer.
Gross changed to look of the magazine when he was hired in 1970 for the eighth issue, the “Nostalgia” issue, as art director. Gross came up with the January 1973 “Death” issue cover, “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog.”
Hendra put the record on stage in 1973 when he produced and directed Lemmings, which he co-wrote with co-editor-in-chief Sean Kelly. He unleashed John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Christopher Guest, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Brian Doyle Murray, and Gilda Radner on New York before Lorne Michaels scooped up most of them and put them on Saturday Night Live and ultimately the world stage.
The best part of the movie is that it tells the story strictly through the pages of the magazine and shots of performances while the people who were there, like Hendra, John Landis, Kevin Bacon, Tim Matheson, and artists Arnold Roth and Gahan Wilson, gave the details. They also talked to Peter Riegert, Karen Allen, Stephen Furst from Animal House and Judd Apatow, John Goodman, Billy Bob Thornton and Beverly D’Angelo.
The saddest, of course, is that the Christian right destroyed the magazine after their Lampoons went a step too far. A letter-writing campaign forced all the advertisers, the cigarette and booze companies and Spanish fly manufacturers, to pull out.
Beatts tells how Volkswagen sued the magazine when they ran her VW Beetle car ad that promised “If Ted Kennedy drove a Volkswagen, he’d be President today.” Gross explains how he got that baby in a blender.
P. J. O’Rourke, who also co-wrote some of Lemmings, would become National Lampoon’s managing editor after writing classic commentary, co-wrote National Lampoon’s 1964 High School Yearbook with Douglas Kenney which became Animal House.
It seems like Tim Matheson never lost his faith in the power of National Lampoon. The founders may have buzzed and burnt out on it, but the actor sees the legacy. I was personally saddened to see the usually deadpan Chevy Chase break down when he remembered Kenney, who was found dead under a 30-foot cliff in Hanapepe, Hawaii. After the founder died, National Lampoon ran a cartoon showing a sign next to the edge of a cliff that read “Doug Kenney Slipped Here.” Life is not for everybody, the late O’Donaghue might say.
Douglas Tirola is clearly having fun taking us on this ride through comedy’s desperado past. If you’re a fan of almost any kind of comedy today, you may find its roots in the gems uncovered in this movie. Watching Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story Of The National Lampoon is a the most fun you can have at the movies with your pants on. But don’t let that stop you.