If you are a person of a certain age—by which I mean a person who receives unsolicited mailings from AARP—and you don’t mind old-fashioned dirty talk, you will likely find yourself utterly entranced by a wonderful new documentary called Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead. That’s especially true if you watch Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead On Demand, which you can right now, because you can pause it to take those restroom breaks you are probably finding an increasingly urgent call on your attention.
That, in fact, is one of the most compelling things about Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: It’s a story about very young people and their reprobate hijinks mostly told by people who look like they’re ready for the early bird special even though they continue to dress and wear facial hair to mask their advancing years. It tells the story of the rise and fall of National Lampoon, the most important humor magazine ever published in the United States. There is something hypnotic about watching these oldish guys (they’re mostly guys) talk about their drug use, their bizarre work habits, and the glory days of their early 20s when—for a brief but significant time—the world was their oyster.
The director Douglas Tirola (working from a script he cowrote with Mark Monroe) has made a vivid, fastpaced, and visually inventive documentary that makes brilliant use of the Lampoon’s own material: covers, articles, illustrations he animates, and bits from a radio show the magazine produced in the mid-1970s. It’s immensely fun to watch.
The arc of the movie’s story is the life and death of Douglas Kenney, one of the magazine’s two founders. We watch as Kenney and Henry Beard graduate from Harvard and come to New York, talk an old-school Sweet Smell of Success Rat Packer named Matty Simmons into starting the magazine with them, and take off like twin rockets.
The key to the Lampoon’s success was not only that it was funny but that it was professional. It didn’t just have good jokes. It wasn’t just dirty and sophomoric and politically daring. It looked great. The hiring of an art director named Michael Gross—who insisted that its parodies be meticulously designed to mimic their sources as closely as possible—was the moment the Lampoon went from being a twenty-something amalgam of Mad magazine and the underground Zap comics of the 1960s to being something entirely new and entirely fresh. It was also something every half-literate 15-year-old in America simply had to read.
In less than a decade, the magazine had inspired the creation of Saturday Night Live, created a new movie genre with National Lampoon’s Animal House, and seeded American comedy with the performers and writers and directors who have dominated the form from that day to this. It was during this time that Kenney and P. J. O’Rourke created the brand’s enduring masterpiece, National Lampoon’s 1964 High School Yearbook Parody. The yearbook was the perfect encapsulation of everything that made the Lampoon great: its meticulous attention to detail, its pitch-perfect understanding of Middle-American culture, and its refusal to kowtow to the political correctness of its day.
The Lampoon’s success led to its ultimate failure, as all the significant talents in its pages gravitated to movies and television to make their fortunes. It had begun to limp badly by the early 1980s, and the brand has stumbled along, a shadow of its former self, ever since. I wrote a piece for the Lampoon in 1988 and received 10 letters from inmates; it was, at the time, the second most popular magazine in prison, next to Playboy, and inmates made up the magazine’s core subscribers. (One detail missing from the movie, which Matty Simmons explains in his delightful 1994 memoir If You Don’t Buy This Book, We’ll Kill This Dog, is that the franchise was financially troubled from the start because the Harvard Lampoon drove an incredibly hard bargain when it came to licensing the name and ate up much of the profits.)