Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead
DRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD: THE STORY OF THE NATIONAL LAMPOON, not rated, documentary, Center for Contemporary Arts, 2.5 chiles
“Some people might find this an egregious comparison,” says Tony Hendra, a little apologetically, “but my years at the National Lampoon were not unlike the Paris in the ’20s that Hemingway described in A
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times: war raging in Vietnam, protest marches in the streets, a country in turmoil over race and inequality, old social standards on the run, a sexual revolution exploding, trust in government crumbling, and a new generation kicking over the traces and seizing the controls.
And along came three smart kids from Harvard: Doug Kenney, Henry Beard, and Robert Hoffman. They’d run the Harvard Lampoon, a venerable college humor magazine, and they thought they could take it national. And they were right.
The magazine — and its spinoffs in books, radio, recordings, stage shows, and movies — revolutionized American humor. It didn’t arrive by stork. This documentary by Douglas Tirola pays no tribute to the comedy revolution already launched by such legends as Mad magazine, Firesign Theater, Ernie Kovacs, George Carlin, Second City, and Monty Python.
But the National Lampoon offices were as much the locus of the new comedy culture in its best years as Andy Warhol’s Factory was for the art world of that era. It was a frat house, a naughty boy’s club, a delirious and brilliant barrage of in-your-face satire that took no prisoners and held no cows sacred. Fueled by youth, booze, and drugs, it was an equal-opportunity offender. It took on sex, racism, religion, media, government, society, pop culture, and did I mention sex? It turned out bare breasts like bagels at a bakery. It ran such memorable features as a photo spread on Adolf Hitler in the tropics and Vietnam mass killer Lt. William Calley as Mad’s Alfred E. Neuman with the caption “What, My Lai?” The famous cover of its “Death” issue showed a gun pointed at the head of a dog and demanded: “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog.”
Beard was the brains and Kenney the heart of the operation, and the staff included Hendra, Michael O’Donoghue, P.J. O’Rourke, and even a few women, like Anne Beatts. When it branched into performance, it fielded future stars like Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, John Belushi, Christopher Guest, and plenty more.
The movie follows the Lampoon from its launch in 1970 to its peak in the mid-’70s, decline in the ’80s, and demise in 1998. But its first taste of mortality came with the exit of its founding triumvirate when they cashed in the buyout clause in their contract in 1975. An ugly moment comes with an account of Beard, check in hand, standing on a desk and telling his stunned minions, “I’ve hated every minute. F— you!” and heading out the door. In the same year, the launch of NBC’s Saturday Night Live leached much of the outfit’s top talent.
The magazine continued, and the empire grew, but another arrow to its heart was the death of Kenney in 1980 in a fall from a cliff in Kauai. His close friend Chevy Chase gives a moving recollection of the accident — or whatever it was.
There’s a lot of hysterical laughter in the clips and stories on display here and in the reminiscences of the players. But ultimately, if you were around at all for that Camelot of comedy, this documentary will leave you feeling more reminded than enlightened.
— Jonathan Richards
Show me the funny: The staff of the