How the National Lampoon Changed American Comedy, Then Died 

click to enlarge Up-close and personal with National Lampoon in Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead.

Magnolia Pictures/National Lampoon

Up-close and personal with National Lampoon in Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead.

Most people today probably know "National Lampoon" solely as a brand name affixed to a string of mediocre comedy films, an imprimatur of low taste and sophomoric humor. It may come as a surprise that the Lampoon was once a smart, subversive and much-loved magazine that ignited a generation of comedy, burned its way through several media formats and just as suddenly fizzled out, ironically on the heels of its greatest success.

The aptly named Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead tells the story of the Lampoon, its influence and all of its excesses, with an emphasis on the writers and artists who never seemed to realize what a glossy-paged Pandora's box they had opened. It's a wild story, capturing the spirit of the magazine about as well a film can, with heroes, antiheroes, tragedy and a fair amount of hubris.

The National Lampoon started as an unofficial expansion of the Ivy League's Harvard Lampoon, a 139-year-old tradition described by one non-Harvard writer as "one of the most famous things that no one's ever seen a copy of." Under the aegis of the Harvard publication, Doug Kenney and Henry Beard had produced nationally distributed parodies of magazines such as Time and a best-selling Tolkien spoof, Bored of the Rings (still in print nearly 50 years later), when they pitched a new, hard-to-define, semi-underground humor magazine to an indifferent publishing industry in late 1969. They finally found a sympathetic supporter in entrepreneur Matty Simmons, a former credit-card executive looking to break into the magazine business. The rest was history.

But it didn't come quite as easily as all that. After a few uneven issues, the magazine smoothed off some of the rough underground look and hired art director Michael Gross, who developed what became its distinctive style: slick, well-produced parodies that looked like the real thing. If they were satirizing Playboy or Newsweek, the issue would look like Playboy or Newsweek. If they ran a comic-book parody (which they did, often), they used professional comic-book artists and made it accurately, from the fake Comics Code seal on the cover to the fake Sea-Monkey ad on the back. A strong visual style (including the classic, much-imitated "If you don't buy this magazine, we'll kill this dog" cover) and attention to detail pulled the Lampoon away from the juvenile approach of Mad, aiming not just at the usual pop-culture targets but at all culture, from politics and media to sex, drugs and counterculture sacred cows.

The film suggests that the early years of the magazine were dominated by the contrasting personalities of Beard and Kenney, but they were soon joined by other distinctive personalities, chief among them British comic Tony Hendra and Michael O'Donoghue, a dark-humored dandy with a volatile personality. (One of O'Donoghue's running gags involved imagining the gruesome torture of various beloved TV personalities.) Under their guidance, the Lampoon expanded beyond print to create records, a popular radio program called Radio Hour and a series of off-Broadway revues. The live shows brought into the fold many soon-to-be-famous recruits such as Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Christopher Guest, Harold Ramis and Paul Shaffer.

click to enlarge Some of the brains behind the Lampoon. - COURTESY MAGNOLIA PICTURES/MICHAEL GOLD
  • Courtesy Magnolia Pictures/Michael Gold
  • Some of the brains behind the Lampoon.

The most famous of the revues, Lemmings, which introduced Belushi's impersonation of Joe Cocker, was videotaped as part of a short-lived Lampoon TV series and at one time was available on Netflix on what looked like a second-generation VHS tape. The film includes scenes from that tape (now up to its third generation), but also a great amount of rare footage from later Lampoon shows. Fans of Belushi's eyebrow technique will not be disappointed.

But despite its multimedia presence, the magazine was starting to erode. In 1975 Kenney and Beard unexpectedly decided to exercise a buy-out option that had been written into their original contracts, although Kenney continued to work on what would eventually become the first (and best) Lampoon movie, Animal House. O'Donoghue, who by then was running the radio show, feuded with Hendra and finally left. The magazine became increasingly dominated by the conservative (and not just in the political sense) voices of editor P.J. O'Rourke and future Breakfast Club director John Hughes.

The biggest threat to the Lampoon, however, was the result of its own success: When NBC launched a late-night comedy program in '75, it quickly signed most of the Radio Hour cast, with O'Donoghue as head writer. (Bill Murray, who didn't make the cut for what was then called NBC's Saturday Night, was hired by a short lived ABC series titled, coincidentally, Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell.) While the magazine was stuck in creative limbo, their comic brand had been co-opted and diluted.

As readership dwindled, the Lampoon name reasserted itself with the 1978 release of Animal House, represented in the documentary by director John Landis, producer Ivan Reitman and cast members Kevin Bacon and Tim Matheson (oddly, it's not mentioned that Matheson was part of a group that owned the magazine from 1989 until 1991). The success of Animal House sealed its connection to the rising SNL cast, and also gives the film a dramatic climax in the death of Doug Kenney. In 1980, Kenney produced the semi-autobiographical Caddyshack but became depressed by its bad reviews. A few weeks after its release, he was found at the bottom of a cliff in Hawaii, in what was officially labeled an accidental death. The film quotes Harold Ramis' remark that Kenney probably fell looking for a place to jump.

The film follows the Lampoon for a few years after Kenney's death — the bland Vacation films were still to come — but the glory days were over, the optimism and inspiration of its early days wiped out by drugs, greed and fatigue. The early contributors interviewed for the film are, not surprisingly, a little in awe of what they got away with.

Of course, there are omissions: There's no mention of Vaughn Bode, a talented and influential cartoonist who died in what his website calls "a mystic experiment gone wrong" (you can't make this stuff up), and it might have been interesting to hear Lorne Michaels or anyone involved with the early Saturday Night discuss how they viewed the magazine — as a rival or as a fellow traveler? For modern audiences unfamiliar with the publication, there are numerous examples — even in animated versions — of its more celebrated covers and features. It can't really convey the more surreal or literary tone of much of the magazine (especially O'Donoghue's work), so there seems to be an undue emphasis on nudity and the kind of material the Lampoon itself categorized as "That's Not Funny, It's Sick" — but in retrospect, sick humor and nudity were a big part of its appeal.

But they weren't the whole story, as the film reveals. In a time when Saturday Night Live has become exactly the kind of repetitive television institution it was created to mock and programs such as The Daily Show have replaced Time and Newsweek as a major source for news, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is a worthy account of how we got to this place and what was left behind.0x006E

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