Today, most people probably know “National Lampoon” only as a brand name affixed to a series of mediocre comedy films, a bad taste and sophomor humor. It may be surprising that the Pamphlet was once a clever, subversive, and highly regarded magazine that ignited a generation of comedy, weaved its way through multiple media formats, and just as suddenly fizzled out, ironically on the heels of its biggest hit.
The aptly named Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead tells the story of the Pamphlet, its influence and all its excesses, with an emphasis on writers and artists who never seemed to realize the glittering-page Pandora’s box they had opened. It’s a crazy story, capturing the spirit of the magazine on as well as a movie can, complete with heroes, anti-heroes, tragedies, and a healthy dose of pride.
the National Lampoon started as an unofficial extension of the Ivy League Harvard Lampoon, a 139-year-old tradition described by a non-Harvard writer as “one of the most famous things no one has ever seen a copy of.” Under the umbrella of the Harvard publication, Doug Kenney and Henry Beard had produced nationally distributed parodies of magazines such as Time and a successful Tolkien parody, Bored with the rings (still in press almost 50 years later), when they introduced 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 happen that easily. After a few patchy issues, the magazine softened some of the rough underground look and hired art director Michael Gross, who developed what became his signature style: sleek, well-produced parodies that looked like the real thing. If they satirized Playboy Where News week, the problem would look like Playboy Where News week. If they published a comic book parody (which they often did), they used professional comic artists and did it with precision, from the fake seal of the comic book code on the cover to the fake Sea- ad. Monkey on the back. Strong visual style (including the classic and much-imitated ‘If you don’t buy this magazine, we’ll kill this dog’ cover) and attention to detail pulled the plug. Pamphlet far from the juvenile approach of Crazy, aimed not only at the usual targets of pop culture, but all of culture, from politics and media to sex, drugs and the sacred cows of counterculture.
The film suggests that the magazine’s early years were dominated by the contrasting personalities of Beard and Kenney, but they were soon joined by other distinctive personalities, among them British comedian Tony Hendra and Michael O’Donoghue, a dandy at dark humor with a volatile personality. (One of O’Donoghue’s racing gags was to imagine the horrific torture of various beloved television personalities.) Under their leadership, the Pamphlet extended beyond print to create records, a popular radio show called Radio time and a series of off-Broadway reviews. The live shows brought in the folds of many soon to be famous rookies such as Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Christopher Guest, Harold Ramis and Paul Shaffer.
The most famous of magazines, lemmings, which featured Belushi’s Joe Cocker impersonation, was filmed as part of a short film Pamphlet The TV series and at one point was available on Netflix on what looked like a second generation VHS tape. The film includes scenes from this band (now until its third generation), but also a large amount of rare footage from later Pamphlet shows. Fans of Belushi’s brow 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 buyout option that had been written into their original contracts, although Kenney continued to work on what would become the first (and best) Lampoon movie. , Animal house. O’Donoghue, who was then running the radio show, quarreled with Hendra and ultimately left. The magazine has become increasingly dominated by the conservative (and not just the political sense) voices of editor PJ O’Rourke and the future Breakfast club director John Hughes.
The greatest threat to the Pamphlet, however, was the result of his own success: When NBC launched a late-night comedy program in ’75, he quickly signed most of the Radio time actors, with O’Donoghue as lead writer. (Bill Murray, who didn’t make the cut for what was then called NBC 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 book brand had been co-opted and watered down.
As readership declined, the Pamphlet the name reaffirmed itself with the release in 1978 of Animal house, portrayed in the documentary by director John Landis, producer Ivan Reitman, and actors Kevin Bacon and Tim Matheson (oddly, Matheson is not mentioned as part of a group that owned the magazine from 1989 to 1991). The success of Animal house sealed its connection to the climb 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 his bad reviews. Weeks after his release, he was found at the foot of a cliff in Hawaii, in what has been officially called an accidental death. The film quotes Harold Ramis’ remark that Kenney probably fell looking for a place to jump.
The film follows the Pamphlet for a few years after Kenney’s death – the bland Holidays the films were yet to come – but the glory days were over, the optimism and inspiration of his early days shattered by drugs, greed and fatigue. The early contributors interviewed for the film are, unsurprisingly, a bit in awe of what they’ve managed to achieve.
Of course, there are omissions: there is no mention of Vaughn Bode, a talented and influential cartoonist who died in what his website calls “a mystical experiment gone awry” (you can’t make it up this stuff), and it might have been interesting to hear Lorne Michaels or anyone involved in the early Saturday night discuss how they viewed the magazine – as a rival or as a traveling companion? For the modern audience unfamiliar with the post, there are plenty of examples – even in animated versions – of its most famous 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 type of material that the Pamphlet himself categorized as “It’s not funny, it’s sick” – but in retrospect, the sick humor and nudity were a big part of its appeal.
But they weren’t the whole story, as the movie reveals. At a time when Saturday Night Live has become exactly the kind of repetitive television institution it was created to make fun of and programs such as The daily show having replaced Time and News week as a major source of information, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is a worthy tale of how we got to this place and what was left behind.0x006E