Punch-drunk and very much alive, “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon” is a generous and briskly entertaining doc that traces the titular humor magazine’s lasting influence on American comedy. Although the film hews closely to the usual reminiscence-doc formula, ample laughs — both from the original magazine pieces and from their creators’ recollections — make this a real nonfiction crowdpleaser, with broader appeal than even a fest favorite like “Jodorowsky’s Dune.”
After “Smiling Through the Apocalypse: Esquire in the ‘6os” and “Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel,” a cynic might suggest that one could take any publication that had its heyday in the 1960s or 1970s; interview the contributors who were there, man; and concoct a chatty doc-by-numbers. Even so, helmer Douglas Tirola (“All In: The Poker Movie”) pulls it off with style, not only assembling an impressive roster of former Lampoon contributors, orbiters and celebrity fans, but also skillfully presenting a huge amount of material, including animations rendered after the style of Lampoon artwork. (The movie is not based on the coffee-table book of the same title by Lampoon contributor Rick Meyerowitz, although Meyerowitz appears in the film and served as a consultant.)
The pic recaps how the Harvard Lampoon’s Douglas Kenney, Henry Beard and Rob Hoffman started the magazine with publisher Matty Simmons. (Kenney died in 1980 and Hoffman in 2006, but Simmons and Beard are among the main talking heads.) For print junkies, some of the early scenes — which concern the defining of the magazine’s sensibility — will be among the most interesting. Art director Michael Gross explains his critique of an early cartoon involving postage stamps, citing a need to make those stamps look real at a glance, rather than like illustrations, in order to give force to the parody.
Christopher Buckley, who raves about the Lampoon’s famous “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog” cover, expresses admiration for the way the magazine applied its comic sensibilities to the tumultuous times. We see withering sendups of Vietnam, an article called “Stranger in Paradise” that imagines Hitler’s survival on a tropical island, and the iconic “If Ted Kennedy drove a Volkswagen, he’d be president today” fake ad, which, according to the film, prompted a lawsuit. The magazine is celebrated as much for its frequent undraped flesh as it is for its truth-to-power satire.
The broader argument of the movie is that the National Lampoon is more or less where contemporary comedy began; it recounts the progression from the magazine to “National Lampoon’s Vacation.” For viewers unfamiliar with how the brand spread or confused about who was where when, “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead” will be educational. It explains how the magazine collided with Second City cast members for live theater and “The National Lampoon Radio Hour.” (Cursorily mentioned, the Chicago comedy club probably receives less than its due.)
There was also — as Simmons implies in an old TV interview — a wholesale usurping of the Lampoon’s talent by “Saturday Night Live.” It would be hard for a doc like this to miss when so many of its vintage clips feature John Belushi, Harold Ramis, Bill Murray and Gilda Radner. When we reach the part of the story where the Lampoon goes to Hollywood, John Landis gabs about Universal’s skittishness during the making of “Animal House.” The doc also deals with the “unofficial” Lampoon movie “Caddyshack,” which Kenney produced.
Meanwhile, the magazine became a home for the improbably filthy stylings of a young John Hughes (gushed about by editor P.J. O’Rourke) and provided a launching pad for “Simpsons” producers Mike Reiss and Al Jean. Not all of these people knew each other, but the movie creates the sense of a creative whirlwind. Chevy Chase’s memories of Belushi and of Kenney are among the film’s most poignant anecdotes.
Editors Joseph Krings and G. Jesse Martinez ably sift through contemporary and archival material, making montage of old photographs and magazine pages to give the film a present-tense feel. While the tunes are a mostly uninspired mix of scene-setters, the sudden intrusion of “Holiday Road” (used in “Vacation”) over the closing credits feels oddly cathartic.