Back in the 1970’s, a little magazine changed the way people viewed comedy and how to make or take a joke. The magazine was called The National Lampoon, and for many people that means the movies. That’s the end of the story and not the beginning. Before the movies were derived from the source material, this magazine gave readers a blunt look at the world and didn’t hold any punches. In other words, it held up a finger at the establishment and said, “we aren’t going to be brainwashed anymore”.
A couple of Ivy League scholars named Doug Kenney and Henry Beard formed the original brain trust and when they connected with publishing wise guy wizard Matty Simmons, the sky wasn’t even the limit. The depth of their raunchy gaze was their limit. In the new documentary, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon, youngsters like myself get to experience the rise and fall of this juggernaut.
Think of the Rolling Stones effect on rock n’ roll and music in general and you have the connection struck by the National Lampoon. Through brash humor, nudity, filthy comics and other devices, it held a microscope to all the protected parties that didn’t want their dirty laundry put in public. Through a series of interviews with the likes of Simmons, Beard, Kevin Bacon, Billy Bob Thornton, Chevy Chase, Christopher Guest, Martha Smith and others, we are given a back stage pass to this madness.
It all started with Kenney and Beard, two smart punch drunk kids who told it like it was and didn’t hold back. Kenney, the more self destructive brilliant dirty poet who was this close to the edge of doom and the more level headed yet just as sharp Beard. They were a team unlike any other and they became millionaires. The magazine became a radio show that brought in the talents of Bill Murray, Harold Ramis and John Belushi. Movies were spawned and even a Grammy nominated political satire infused album. Saturday Night Live was fired up by what this magazine started. Belushi’s talents were first put on display in the magazine, radio shows and eventually the hit film, “Animal House”.
As the old adage reminds us, all good things come to an end. Kenney’s self destructive nature caught up to him. The majority of the writing crew and performers went on to bigger things once Hollywood opened its doors. The magazine got too raunchy and lost some advertisers. The ride couldn’t go on because you are only as great as your last perfect idea.
What should be remembered and appreciated about this magazine and its original idea is the fearlessness it showed with its humor. They didn’t take 200 dollars in passing “Go”. They held up the bank and took everything with its outlandish yet hard to avoid style. At a time where the world’s identity was changing, it used the greatest drug of all and that’s humor. Kenney and Beard swung it like a sword at the audience and demanded their attention. One magazine cover simply said, “Buy this magazine or we will shoot this dog”. Okay, so maybe they did get a little personal but for years it worked and spiked a new brand of comedy. The not messing around kind of funny that is slowly becoming lost these days because nobody wants their tiny bubble invaded.
Co-writer/director Thomas Tirola gets some candid words from original members and honesty from others in telling this story through the finest documentary devices. For someone like myself who can only look at stock footage and wonder what the first page read was like, seeing this documentary was a kick to the head. A reminder for when original humor was a weapon of mass destruction and not an alibi.
When it arrives this weekend at the Tivoli Theater on the Delmar loop, give it a look. Take your mom or dad. Relive something that simply doesn’t exist anymore. When other movie theaters are showing comedies that are so safe and based in a place where real humor doesn’t exist, choose this ride instead. For all the kids who love Old School and Superbad, remember that it all began with Animal House, which came from The National Lampoon’s Magazine. There’s lots of goods in this documentary.