by Joshua Brunsting
It’s safe to say that there are few, if any, moments in this nation’s history more formative than the start of the 1970s. Stuck in the middle of a seemingly never-ending and unwinnable war, a revolution was being waged in the culture, finding younger and younger voices speaking out in new, aggressively antagonistic and boundary pushing ways.
One outlet that harnessed the energy of some of the most vital, and some would say warped, minds in all of 70s counterculture was none other than Harvard’s National Lampoon. Launched out of that Ivy League world, the team of Douglas Kenney and Henry Beard joined forces to push every politically correct button the establishment had, delving into the world of cartoonishly perverse satire to bring to their attention the wrongs that so many members of the general public saw every day.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the history of The National Lampoon, a history that has been exhaustively discussed in the superb new documentary from Douglas Tirola, entitled Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead.
A shockingly extensive look at the brand, Tirola’s film is something of a wonder. Sticking very much to the standard retrospective style documentary, Tirola is saved by the same sense of anarchy that would become a calling card for this collective. A raucous mix of archival footage and new interviews, the craft here is relatively standard. That said, Tirola has a superb hand with mood and pace, and the film never seems to have any interest in catching its breath. Energetic, almost to a fault, Tirola has an equally assured hand with the narrative, never mincing words or settling for the glossier version of a story. It was a singular, in many ways angry moment in history, and the rise of this magazine out of that moment in time resulted in some truly legendary moments and careers, as well as some dark aspects as well.
But it’s the pedigree that caches a lot of Tirola’s attention, and rightly so. Launching the careers of comedians ranging from Gilda Radner to Bill Murray, The National Lampoon would be a brand worthy of the glossiest and most reverential of treatments. However, the filmmaker never shies away from the darker side of this period in time, particularly the rampant drug use. It’s in these moments of darkness that clarity is given to the proceedings, proving even these gods of comedy were purely mortal men and women. Whereas most documentaries of this ilk (take the recent onslaught of Saturday Night Live documentaries for example) hold the brilliance of those behind it in too high esteem to ever allow their humanity to truly show, Tirola’s film doesn’t avoid the greatness that would come from this collective, but also lets their flaws shine through. Rarely glorifying these acts, the film instead offers them up as blunt (pun not entirely intended) matters of fact, further extending the anarchic feel that fits the subject and time period.
Overall, while the craft may not be as experimental as many of 2015’s truly great documentaries (this couldn’t be further from a film like The Act of Killing if it tried to be), this is the rare historical documentary that elevates the medium. It may never attempt to experiment with the form, but it does offer up to the viewer an energetic and unforgettable tale of one of the most important comedic collectives in modern history. The National Lampoon brand may be diluted in their never ending cycle of insipid “comedy” films, but few have influenced modern comedy as much as they.