While it’s entirely possible that the National Lampoon name is primarily known (if at all) by the youth of today as a moniker grafted onto the titles of a series of direct-to-video comedies virtually no one has seen, the legacy of the brand can be witnessed in just about every facet of comedy produced over the last forty years. National Lampoon changed the face of satire and subversive humor, creating some of comedy’s most noted stars and paving the way for such cultural institutions as Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons.
Starting life decades earlier as the Harvard Lampoon, an Ivy League humor rag, the magazine was converted into a national publication by Doug Kenney and Henry Beard in the early ‘70s. The magazine made a tremendous cultural imprint with its boundary-busting humor and sexually explicit nature. This breed of comedy had never been given such a prominent national spotlight before, and the controversial nature of the Lampoon humor managed to completely transform America’s comedic landscape. Many people, films or institutions have been said to have reshaped comedy as an art form, but few have laid claim to that feat as substantially as National Lampoon.
Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, the new documentary about National Lampoon’s legacy, seeks to examine the magazine’s influence, presenting an oral history of its conception, rise and fall through its living participants. Kenney and his crew of writers trafficked in sick, lewd and explosively funny comedy, tearing down taboos with reckless abandon. The gleefully anarchic spirit of the magazine, with cartoons that didn’t overstep the bounds of good taste so much as curb-stomp them, made it a lightning rod for both pearl-clutching puritans and hungry young comedic minds. The magazine found so much success that it spawned the wildly popular National Lampoon’s Radio Hour and launched the careers of such comedy titans as Bill Murray, John Belushi, Chevy Chase and Harold Ramis. Eventually, National Lampoon expanded into films, producing such classics as Animal House, Vacation and, unofficially, Caddyshack.
The greatest strength of Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is in the onslaught of visual material culled from the magazine’s pages that it puts up onscreen. So many cartoons, images and pieces, many of which remain as shocking and hilarious today as they were back then, flit across the screen at a constant, rapid clip. The interview portions are perfectly fine, with contributions from Beard, Chase, Animal House star Kevin Bacon and, for some inexplicable reason, Billy Bob Thornton, but the illustrations and excerpts from the magazine itself are what make Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead pop, and what best convey the irreverent essence of National Lampoon.
As with all retrospectives, the bottom does eventually fall out. The magazine’s popularity ultimately waned, Kenney died in 1980 from falling off a cliff, and SNL pilfered much of Lampoon’s cultivated talent. But Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead successfully makes the case for National Lampoon’s star having burned bright during its heyday. Even if you aren’t familiar with the name, if you’ve ever laughed at anything in popular culture over the last several decades, that’s National Lampoon’s footprint you’re experiencing, whether you realize it or not.
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