I am a child of National Lampoon and Monty Python. Neither of them existed in their initial incarnation in my lifetime, but their films (the obvious trajectory of creating fresh content) and their influence touch my earliest memories as much as Sesame Street. My parents used to wake me up in the middle of the night to watch John Belushi doing new versions of old National Lampoon skits on SNL, and John Cleese returning a dead parrot on Monty Python.
The first breasts I ever saw were in Animal House, all my family road trips vaguely resembled travelling with Chevy Chase, and the first time I heard Joe Cocker, I thought he was covering John Belushi. Where as Monty Python filled the world with absurdity, opening my mind to situations that my imagination had never visited, the National Lampoon style gave voice to thoughts I had but would never dare say out loud. They are the comedy of shock, of raunch, of crass, of in your face – no where to hide, no way to unhear what was just said. In short, they are the foundation of the modern Hollywood comedy.
DUNKED STONED BRILLIANT DEAD, directed by Doug Tiroli, world premiered at Sundance Sunday to a crowd of enthusiastic comedy fans. The film traces the origins of National Lampoon from the Harvard Lampoon once edited by John Updike and George Plimpton to its early national publication, record albums, off-Broadway performances, radio shows and finally Hollywood films. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of the history is bound to enjoy a more complete picture of the ground-breaking troupe.
The film interviews everyone who is still alive from those days, drawing from the editors, the publisher and, the art directors; and of course recognizable actors (and alumni) like Chevy Chase, Kevin Bacon, and Beverly DeAngelo.
The story flows throughout about style, the aesthetic, and the methodology; National Lampoon were really the rock stars of comedy for much of the seventies. And of course, it’s funny.
How could it not be? Drawing on covers and cartoons from the magazine, sound bites from the radio show, and rare footage of the off-Broadway live show Lemmings, DSBD delivers the comedy goods. I’m not sure I’ve ever laughed as hard during a doc before. But what is really special about the film is how honest it is. There are many former co-workers that don’t talk to each other anymore, and they are often not afraid to point that out. And when the film nears its conclusion, and the story turns to founder Doug Kenney’s mysterious death, DSBD handles that with remarkable sensitivity, especially in the shadow of how hard I had just been laughing. Chevy Chase is wondrously giving with his memories and feelings.
Tivoli’s film never suffers from talking head syndrome. Around and over the interviews the audience is treated to fun animations based on Lampoon artwork and a phenomenal period soundtrack that must have cost a good portion of the budget to clear. The story of the magazine has its own natural rise and fall and the later films (Senior Trip?) – which were more licensing than real Lampoon projects – are ignored in favor of the style and legacy. The film dashes off at a brisk pace and never looses its momentum.
Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is far from a perfect film, and what’s most notable about it is what it’s missing. There is almost no mention of the third founder, Robert Hoffman. Despite one of the writers describing founder Henry Beard leaving the office as after cashing out his option in the company and saying ‘I hope I never see any of you again and I hated every minute of working here,’ Tivoli never confronts Beard about the incident, despite him having more screen time than almost anyone. There are logical luminaries interviewed like Judd Apatow, though others, most notable Billy Bob Thornton, seem to have absolutely no reason to be in the film.
Finally there is the 7 ton rhino in the room, Saturday Night Live. A brief mention of being offered a show on NBC (that the National Lampoon brain trust turned down) and a quick history of the actors and writers essentially being cherry-picked for the show is all we get. Not that this is a history of SNL, nor would we want it to be, but the rise of that show had a very obvious effect on the people still at National Lampoon and that could have been much expanded upon. Finally, there are all sorts of actors that could have been interviewed for the project but are left unseen. Former Lampooners who could have offered insight include Brian Doyle-Murray, Richard Belzer, Christopher Guest, and of course, Bill Murray. In his Q&A after the screening Tivoli mentioned that Chase is the star of the film and he wanted him to speak for the actors, but considering the vast number of writers and editors and art directors represented, having only one actor feels more like laziness than a plan.
DRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD is a blast of a film, and with History Channel on board as a funder, it will certainly see a release in the future. Be sure to follow me on twitter @bearsfonte for my film by film reaction of this year’s festival.