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Arts & Culture

'Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead' Tells Story Of National Lampoon

Louise Gikow, Michael Gross, unknown, unknown, unknown, unknown, Doug Kenney, Henry Beard in "Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead," a Magnolia Pictures release.
Magnolia Pictures
Louise Gikow, Michael Gross, unknown, unknown, unknown, unknown, Doug Kenney, Henry Beard in "Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead," a Magnolia Pictures release.

New documentary pays tribute to founders of groundbreaking humor magazine

Film Review: 'Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon'
KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews the new documentary about National Lampoon, "Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead."

ANCHOR INTRO: The new documentary Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead provides an oral history of the National Lampoon. KPBS film critic Beth Accomando says the documentary shows how the magazine and its various spinoffs can be seen as the source of inspiration for much of modern comedy from Saturday night Live to The Daily Show. In 1970 a new humor magazine called National Lampoon stuck a middle finger up at the establishment and made history. It held nothing sacred, observed no boundaries, and soon became the most popular magazine on college campuses. Tony Hendra, one of the contributors, explained that if someone wasn’t offended they weren’t doing their job. CLIP Tony Hendra make people in power uncomfortable Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead chronicles the magazine from its counterculture roots to mainstream popularity to downward spiral. At its peak it displayed an uncompromising and hilarious brand of comedy that audaciously took on any issue with a brutal lack of concern for political correctness. Laughter was merely a means of getting to uncomfortable truths. Beth Accomando, KPBS News.

Companion viewing

"Between the Lines" (1977)

"National Lampoon's Animal House" (1978)

"National Lampoon's Vacation" (1983)

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The new documentary "Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead" (opening Oct. 9 at Landmark's Ken Cinema) provides a history of National Lampoon, and shows how the humor magazine and its various offshoots can be seen as the source of inspiration for much of modern comedy from "Saturday Night Live" to "The Daily Show."

In 1970 a new humor magazine called National Lampoon flipped off the establishment and made history. It held nothing sacred, observed no boundaries, and soon became the most popular magazine on college campuses and one of the top selling magazines in the country.

“Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead” chronicles the magazine from its counterculture roots to mainstream popularity to downward spiral. Sadly, many of the key figures in the history of National Lampoon are no longer with us, but director Douglas Tirola assembles as many people as he can (some oddly tangential like Billy Bob Thorton) to tell the story of this groundbreaking and controversial humor publication.

The three key creative figures in the birth of the magazine were Doug Kenney, Henry Beard and Robert Hoffman with Matty Simmons being the man with the business savvy to actually get the magazine published.

Kenney (who died in 1980) and Beard (who is interviewed in the film) come across as the driving forces and the ones who set the absurd, irreverent tone of National Lampoon. At its peak it displayed an uncompromising and hilarious brand of comedy that audaciously took on any issue with a brutal lack of concern for political correctness.

Laughter was merely a means of getting to uncomfortable truths.

Tony Hendra, one of the Lampoon contributors (but perhaps best known today for playing the cricket bat wielding band manager in “This is Spinal Tap”), explains that if someone wasn’t offended, they weren’t doing their job right.

“It is the job of a satirist to make people in power uncomfortable. Really uncomfortable to the point where they go, ‘This has to be stopped,’” Hendra says in the film.

P.J. O’Rourke, a National Lampoon editor, says in an archive interview, “Laughter is entirely a defense mechanism. Laughter is a defense against hostility, a replacement for hostility, a defense mechanism against guilt and embarrassment.”

A trio of famous covers from National Lampoon.
National Lampoon
A trio of famous covers from National Lampoon.

At its peak in the 1970s, it was fearless in tackling politics, racism, sexism, and social taboos with an explosive mix of scathing high satire and low bawdy humor. It was lobbing comic grenades into the mainstream to see what carnage would ensue.

The best work done during that time still has the power to shock and offend because it pushes buttons that most comedy is too scared to touch today because of the pressure for political correctness. But National Lampoon found a way to mix social outrage with outrageous humor (and a large dose of sexual permissiveness) to find a hungry audience.

But something this revolutionary couldn’t keep going forever – egos clashed, talent moved on, success impacted them and Hollywood changed their focus.

“Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead” doesn’t serve up much innovation in terms of its narrative documentary style but Tirola finds great archival material, some lively and insightful interviews, and does an entertaining job of reminding us how important National Lampoon was in the development of modern American comedy.

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