Documentary Traces The Course Of Today’s Comedy To Published Coarse Comedy
DIRECTED BY DOUGLAS TIROLA/2015
Ever wonder when the exact moment was that mainstream comedy shifted from clean puns and slapstick to foul-mouthed confrontational coarseness? The new documentary Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead makes a strong case for that moment being the popularization of National Lampoon, a counter-culture publication launched in 1970 that soon exploded into radio, live shows, and eventually movies.
Hailing from an era when (as one interviewee put it) the magazines that you read defined who you were as a person, the Lampoon was a ship of fools, steered by a crew of disenfranchised drugged-up “nobodies” (as Marshall McLuhan called them, seen here in a vintage clip). The material generated by these nobodies would indelibly change the face of popular culture for five decades and counting. Without National Lampoon, there would be no Saturday Night Live, no Spinal Tap (and by extension, no Princess Bride), and no Animal House(and by extension, Stripes, then Ghostbusters). The careers of John Belushi, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, Harold Ramis, and Ivan Reitman, all of whom have humble beginnings in National Lampoon extended media ventures, would be radically different or non-existent.
“National Lampoon”, rest it’s filthy soul, was a certifiable barrage of boobs, brains, and bawdiness – not always in that order, but mostly. It was crass and exploitative, but also eye-opening and thought provoking.
Its legacy boasts one of the most famous magazine covers of all time, “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog.” Never before had there been so much white in a pooch’s eyes, and never before was a gun held to an animal so twistedly comedic.
Utilizing the wide depth of graphics, artwork and other original material from the pages (Flash-animating a lot of it for the screen), filmmaker Douglas Tirola manages to recapture and evoke the originally intended responses of shock, nervous laughter, and even repulsion.
Tirola scored interviews with most everyone available and prominent from all eras of the long-ago cancelled “humor magazine for adults”, effectively covering the early, seismic storming-the-gates era of the 1970s, the high-riding name-branding phase of the 1980s, and finally the “crash and burn” time period of late that decade and beyond. The final issue of National Lampoonappeared in 1998, having long outlived its cultural relavence, its brand self-sabotaged by indulging its objectifying baser aspects over any semblance of its one-time comedic inginuity.
Tirola nor his many interview subjects (few of which are the famous people listed above, instead making due with a wide swath of writers, editors, and artists from the magazine itself) ever think to be apologetic, regretful, or remorseful of the epically crass and confrontational mark they made on the popular comedy landscape. Through interviews with famous fans Billy Bob Thornton, Kevin Bacon and Judd Apatow, it is made clear that the unfiltered boys-club intelligencia has impacted the way we laugh and what we’re given to laugh at, both good and not so good, from The Onion to Entourage. Saturday Night Live meanwhile, so celebrated for its 40th anniversary this year, having usurped much of the Lampoon talent pool in its early days, is revealed to be the Microsoft of comedy – less innovative than it was stratospherically successful.
That said, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is actually quite by-the-numbers in terms of the story it tells, and how it tells it. Tirola’s cutting style and rapid tempo shield the fact that this is a talking-head driven narrative playing out in chronological order, helped along greatly by stock footage and magazine images, all assembled to venerate the subject at hand.
Although the information is amusing and significant in terms of how we’ve gotten to where we are, the film all too often leaves interesting tidbits of information in the dust unexplored as it intently plows forward to the end credits. This is Tirola intent on hitting as many bulletpoints as possible, but not always unpacking them. A quickly mentioned reference of how female staffers perhaps didn’t fare so well flies by unexplored, and if you don’t already know what the movie Disco Beaver from Outer Space is, the few clips included only serve to confuse. Furthermore, the flops of National Lampoon, such as the 1982 film Class Reunion, are flat-out ignored.
All too often, a documentary’s laudatory approach seems more about the filmmaker convincing him/herself that their chosen topic is worth the painstaking effort they’re putting forth. In the case of Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, Tirola does sell his point: National Lampoon was culturally significant, and the people behind it were characters into themselves. (The late Doug Kenney, one of the integral founders of the magazine, is revealed to be a fascinating if troubled visionary, as his memory makes even Chevy Chase wistful.) But yes, this film still could pass for a glorified bonus feature on the DVDs for the National Lampoon films Animal House, Vacation, or itself. (Because wouldn’t that be a laugh?)
To quote what is perhaps the Lampoon‘s most lasting off-shoot, Animal House, Fat Drunk and Stupid may be no way to live. But, apparently Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is a way to be remembered. At least, according to this sometimes entertaining, sometimes uncomfortable if transparently one-sided version of history.