'Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead': The Story Behind the 'National Lampoon' Story

'National Lampoon' has made you laugh even if you don't know it existed.

Do the comedic math: If there wasn’t National Lampoon, there wouldn’t have been Saturday Night Live, Animal House, Caddyshack, Vacation, or the film career of John Hughes. That’s a heck lot of comedy weight.

National Lampoon magazine launched in 1970 and was a spinoff of the Harvard Lampoon. The publication was the brainchild of Doug Kenney and Henry Beard. According to National Lampoon contributor, Ellis Weiner: "Doug did the dirty stuff; Henry did the brainy stuff.”

The pure spirit behind the humor juggernaut was exemplified by the legendary cover with a gun pointing at a worried pooch; accompanied by the words, “If you don’t buy this magazine, we’ll kill this dog.” The groundbreaking magazine pushed the envelope—right up the ass of the establishment—and then pushed it even further. For National Lampoon, nothing was sacred. Oh, and there were also breasts—lots of them.

The groundbreaking magazine pushed the envelope—right up the ass of the establishment—and then pushed it even further.

The new documentary Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of National Lampoon captures the tales behind the legendary magazine that launched an army of comedy legends; featuring stories and interviews from such key players as editorial staffers P. J. O'Rourke and Tony Hendra to Hollywood heavyweights Bill Murray, Judd Apatow, and Chevy Chase.

Director Douglas Tirola (Hey Bartender, A Reason to Believe) chronicles the rise and fall of National Lampoon as well as the unique inner-workings that made the magazine tick and created such rabid fans.

“Like a lot people my age, I came to the National Lampoon through Animal House,” Tirola tells THE KIND.

National Lampoon’s first cinematic outing, Animal House, owes a direct nod to the magazine’s 1964 High School Yearbook parody. In fact, Lampoon alums, Doug Kenney, Chris Miller, and Harold Ramis wrote the Animal House screenplay.

Image via MoviePilot

“My dad was in a fraternity in college and had been sent a letter saying to boycott the movie,” says Tirola—who first became enthralled by an Animal House poster that sat in the lobby of a local movie theater months before it opened. He finally convinced his dad to go see the film on opening night, which warped his fragile young eggshell mind forever. “We went to the 7 p.m. show and afterward immediately got on line for the 9:30. It’s the only film I have ever seen with my dad twice.”

Soon after, Tirola went searching for copies of the magazine through older brothers of friends; he’d also buy the publication at a local store run by two old Italian ladies who didn't seem to care how old he was.

Though Tirola directed Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead with a deep knowledge of the magazine, there were still aspects about the Lampoon that he learned during the filmmaking process: “I didn't realize how directly the National Lampoon affected Saturday Night Live,” he says. “Not only had some of the performers like Gilda Radner and Bill Murray worked on the [magazine’s] radio show, but some of them had toured North America with the National Lampoon show.”

Lemmings, the 1973 National Lampoon live show, starred future SNL greats Chevy Chase, John Belushi, and Christopher Guest; and was written by Lampoon editor Sean Kelly. Saturday Night Live eventually scooped a fair number of Lampoon writers, most notably Michael O' Donahue, known for his "Least-Loved Bedtime Stories.” 

Image via Magnolia Pictures & Magnet Releasing/Youtube

Tirola thinks that National Lampoon’s creative influence on Saturday Night Live went even deeper than just the writers and stars: “One could also make a strong argument that the production design for SNL came directly from the art direction of the National Lampoon magazine.”

True, the publication was equally known for its iconic artwork—that focused on realism to drive home the comedic point. Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead does a great job animating indelible images from the magazine to help tell the Lampoon story; showcasing the work of contributing cartoonists Gahan Wilson, Arnold Roth, and Rick Meyerowitz—who created the iconic Animal House poster that baited Tirola into the Lampoon world.

“I love that they would go after anyone regardless of their politics or how sacred and cherished the person or institution is,” Tirola says; regarding the main aspects he savors about National Lampoon. Animal House, the original Vacation, and the album That's Not Funny, That’s Sick still make me laugh.”

“By today's standards, almost everything in our documentary is too delicate or taboo.”

So with a magazine that was all about pushing things as far as possible, were there topics in Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead that were too taboo for Tirola to explore?

“Yes,” he says. “By today's politically correct standards, almost everything in our documentary is too delicate or taboo.”

Tirola feels we currently don’t have anything as satirically impactful as National Lampoon at the height of its glory. Reason being: “People self-censor for fear that their careers will be ruined; they will be branded as a horrible insensitive person,” he says. “People take themselves way too seriously.”

A main difference in style can be seen on current satirical outlets such as The Daily Show: “People show they care about others or an issue by pointing out someone who they think is saying something they shouldn’t, instead of actually taking an action.”

Ellin Stein—author of That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick: The National Lampoon and The Comedy Insurgents Who Captured the Mainstream—offers more insight.“What was kept from the original Lampoon, by its offshoots, was the resistance to political correctness—a term that was used mostly as affectionate self-criticism within left-wing circles at the time and hadn’t yet been adopted by right-wing observers as a term of abuse,” she tells THE KIND.

The key to good satire is: “There has to be a base of integrity you work off of.”

Stein thinks the Lampoon was propelled by “the cynicism, the embrace of sex, drugs and rock and roll”of the time. But all the magazine's values did not carry forward: “What was jettisoned: the rejection of consumerism, the suspicion of corporate interests, the stinging observation based on a keen analysis and genuine critique.”

Michael O’Donoghue told Stein that the key to good satire is: “There has to be a base of integrity you work off of.” He felt that it wasn’t so much that Lampoon pushed it too far as sometimes didn’t push it with enough skill; some of the magazine’s failings, he noted, came when it was occasionally done in a way that wasn’t “sharp or smart enough.”

Tirola feels that Lampoon occasionally did push it too far—but that was part of its genius; the arena was established to take chances and risks…at all costs: “Once you start putting limits on yourself and setting rules, it changes the whole process and the byproduct,” he says. “It wouldn't have been the same, and people wouldn't still be talking about it, and we probably wouldn't have made a movie about the Lampoon if they weren’t about going too far.”

Tirola wishes he could’ve included content in Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead on the National Lampoon records, classic special editions such as the Sunday Newspaper parody, and scenes on the shelved Lampoon movie project: Jaws 3-People 0; written by John Hughes.

“These are all things I would have liked to include if I could have made a nine-hour Shoah version of the film,” he says.

National Lampoon magazine sputtered along until 1998. Tirola has some thoughts on what led to its demise: “Part was the rock ’n' roll cliché,” he says. “A drug and alcohol fueled cocktail of competing ambitions, envy, jealousy, sleeping with people you shouldn't be, drugs, and just working and playing so hard for so many years that people either left, ran out of ideas, or died.” Another factor, National Lampoon’s biting humor was a pure product of post-Vietnam and Watergate cynicism: “The culture also changed, and people weren't going through as many common experiences; so the audience fragmented and shrank, making the topic of sex one of the only common subjects.”

Also, Hollywood came knocking. Coke-fueled Doug Kenney went on to write and produce Caddyshack with Lampoon cohort Harold Ramis directing. Writer John Hughes became the teen comedy king of the ’80s. Mike Reiss went on to do The Simpsons. Hollywood scooped all the major talent: “It was hard for a magazine to compete with the money and glamour that Hollywood offered.”

Still, National Lampoon’s influence is firmly embedded in our culture. “The legacy is seen in many ways,” Tirola says. “In all of the great work they did, the careers they launched, and all of the amazing work that came from those careers, and still come from their alumni: SNL, Ghostbusters, Sixteen Candles, The Simpsons—just to name a few. It also lives on in how far we still do push things today even if not as much as the Lampoon would have.”

Tirola hopes Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead brings a new audience to the world of National Lampoon and reminds old fans that they’re still part of that Lampoon world: “National Lampoon was special. Whether you worked there, contributed to it, or were part of its many different audiences, you felt you were part of this secret society of people that saw the world the same way you did,” Tirola says. “But until finding the Lampoon, you might have thought you were alone.”

Tirola’s personal takeaway from making Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead was developing a deeper understanding of the National Lampoon story and of those who creatively contributed to the iconic comedy brand: “If you are really lucky, at sometime in your life you will work with a group of people that will inspire you, at times maybe anger you, and that you will maybe on occasion stay out way too late drinking and dreaming,” he says. “And if you are lucky you will create something together that is really special. If you are lucky enough to work in this environment, try to cherish the experience while it's happening.”

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is now in theaters, on Demand on Amazon Video, and on iTunes.