Charting the rise and fall of the National Lampoon magazine, which saw publication between 1970 and 1998 and spawned a media empire, Douglas Tirola’s documentary is a wholly biased and uneven film interested in mythologizing the group behind the brand, rather than offering any meaningful commentary on their output or insight into their antics. For long time fans of Lampoon, looking to relive a youth reading the publication, there’s a lot here – Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead will serve as a proficient and entertaining nostalgia-piece – however for more discerning viewers or those looking to be convinced of the group’s genius, they will find nothing but back-patting and self-aggrandizement from a team of exclusively white, predominantly male individuals that seem overwhelmingly proud of their racist, homophobic, and sexist antics.
The film essentially does exactly what it says on the tin, tracking the rise and fall of their Harvard Lampoon magazine offshoot, which was written by a group that you could definitely call drunk and stoned, possibly brilliant, and often (surprisingly) dead. A number of individuals with ties to the group discuss the magazine’s conquests in chronological order in a talking heads format, often overlaid with images of the satirical cartoons. Inter-cut amongst this recently shot interview footage we see a lot of great material, a lot of which goes behind the scenes of non-magazine related Lampoon outings – chunks of their stageplay, clips from their radio show, and, later, snippets from their movies. Alongside this are a number of appearances from a few unlikely individuals (media theorist Marshall McLuhan, for example) through old stock footage. It’s clear that the powers at work are very funny and often quite intelligent, so why shy away from dealing with criticism?
Women were ridiculously under-represented at the publication’s offices, and when they did land a job there it was generally as a nude model or as a writer who was almost always unconscionably objectified by her co-workers. It’s not clear if any of them (male or female) realized how terrible their actions appear to an outsider, given the ‘boy’s club’ environment that offices operated in. The fact that any discussion that begins to lead down this route quickly forks, heading down a different path, is noteworthy. The header image, one of the press images that has been circulated to advertise this movie, is a prime example of such proud and blatant objectification. By the end of the runtime it’s clear that such behaviour was celebrated; it’s extremely telling that the closing, post-end titlecard, pre-credit anecdote in the film (its punchline, if you will) is about how Doug Kenney (magazine co-creator) would regularly put his penis in the ear of unsuspecting female guests at their parties – funny, right?!
A heap of money has clearly been thrown at this History Films/Sky Original co-production (see: multiple David Bowie originals on the soundtrack, overly glossy presentation etc.),1 so it’s a shame to see something so one-sided and occasionally haphazardly constructed (there’s more than one point in which an image scan is noticeably extremely low resolution, for example) result from such investment. The reason that Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead avoids entry straight onto a ‘worst of the year’ list is that a lot of it is actually pretty funny, although whether it’s festival-worthy is another question given its more conventional TV movie roots.2 Most of their work, while subversive and often offensive, was actually at least chuckle-worthy – particular highlights come in the form of an earlier edition that was devoted to images of a Hitler lookalike holidaying on a tropical continent, an issue in the form of a fake universally applicable high-school yearbook, and footage of pretty much anything non-magazine related that John Belushi was involved with. The decision on the part of Tirola to actively avoid any criticism, however, is beyond problematic and raises questions about ethical documentary making – they make no apologies for the bevy of misogynist, homophobic and racist content of much of their output (and behavior on the part of their employees) and to never deal with this explicitly beyond a throwaway ‘yeah, that’s what we did, deal with it’ line from Chevy Chase of all people is ridiculous.
Overall, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is not really worthy of your time or your restricted flexipass selections. You’d be much better off tossing on one of the movies associated with members of the crew – there’s a lot to choose from out of the more official canon (Animal House, Caddyshack, any of the Vacation movies), Ivan Reitman and Harold Ramis’s back-catalogues (Stripes, Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day etc.), and the works of John Hughes (Weird Science, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off et. al.), who contributed some of the Lampoon’s more bad taste articles in their middle years before pursuing a career in feature film making – or even early episodes of SNL as Lorne Michaels apparently poached many of the Lampoon’s best contributors (something that those who didn’t get picked up are clearly bitter about). They are obviously a very prolific group and beyond deserving of documentary, however maybe some more time needs to pass before we get a film which deals with the entirety of National Lampoon’s output, rather than just their wonder-years, one that is interested in exploring the phenomenon rather than mythologizing the movement.