‘Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon’
Douglas Tirola
Genre: Documentary
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

Your usual talked-heads-and-clips-and-images docs don’t tend to be much on the eyes. But the images in “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead,” a chronicle of the rise and fall of the storied magazine National Lampoon, are another story. The very, very R-rated — and way, way more political — cousin to Mad magazine, the Lampoon, launched in 1970, regularly filled their pages with curvy nudes, sometimes cavorting with the type of unsightly men who grabbed issues off the rack. As such, whenever filmmaker Douglas Tirola cuts to an image, more often than not it’s a shocker, whether it’s mere T&A or a beautifully designed satire detailing a “Vietnamese baby book,” complete with “baby’s first wound.” Unlike Playboy, you really did read it for the articles.

National Lampoon is today mostly synonymous with movies — sometimes brilliant (“Animal House”), mostly despairing (“Senior Trip”) — to which they added their name. As such, “Drunk Stoned, etc.” acts as a corrective and a victory lap. There wasn’t much precedent for the free-for-all pessimism that burst from every issue, some of it targeting Washington and the Vietnam War, some of it indulging in adolescent pulchritude. (A typical photo-gag: A guy in bed staring wearily at his erect Malcolm Gladwell: “Not tonight, I got a headache.”) Frank before it was cool, the magazine — and its radio and eventual live shows, plus movies — helped birth much of the grouchy, savage humor that dominates alternative comedy today, galvanizing audiences who were cynical about everything and, at least in the Nixon era, rightly so. 

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Saying their topical humor was political implies hip liberalism — since today righties aren’t so funny — but the ranks were filled by conservatives (P.J. O’Rourke, John Hughes) as well as hardcore lefties like Tony Hendra and Sean Kelly. Their targets were all over the place, whatever got a laugh, even if it was just absurd, like a fake radio PSA from Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. “If you can’t f— it, blow it up,” said ever-tetchy key contributor Michael O’Donaghue, who became one of the many staffers devoured by “Saturday Night Live.” 

The brain-drain thanks to “SNL” and Hollywood is one of the key factors in the brand’s decline in quality and eventual destruction, but its legacy is unquestionable. National Lampoon blew up but its remnants scattered everywhere, not just the rock star talent — including such Lampoon stage show gods as John Belushi, Gilda Radner and Chevy Chase — but the way its snarling tone of permanent, horny, grouchy adolescence can be seen anywhere that uses humor to get at inconvenient truths. Aesthetically, “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead” is meat-and-pototatoes, but what meat and potatoes — all giggled reminiscing and crazy anecdotes, peppered with racy and cutting sights and sounds, and asides like the one where we’re directed towards extras doing coke in the background of the Lampoon-tangential “Caddyshack.” Besides, anything that inspires a pillaging of old NL issues can only be great for America.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge