Today, most people probably know “National Lampoon” only as a brand name affixed to a series of mediocre comedy films, an imprimatur of bad taste and sophomoric humor. It may be surprising that the Pamphlet was once a smart, subversive, and much-loved magazine that ignited a generation of comedy, wormed its way through multiple media formats, and just as suddenly died out, ironically after its biggest hit.
The well named Drunk Stoned Shining Dead tells the story of the Pamphlet, its influence and all its excesses, with a focus on writers and artists who never seemed to realize what Pandora’s box of shiny pages they had opened. It’s a crazy story, capturing the spirit of the magazine as well as a movie, with heroes, anti-heroes, tragedy and a healthy dose of hubris.
the national pamphlet 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 Harvard Publishing umbrella, Doug Kenney and Henry Beard had produced nationally distributed parodies of magazines such as Time and a hit Tolkien parody, Tired of the rings (still in print nearly 50 years later), when they introduced a new, hard-to-define, semi-clandestine humor magazine to an indifferent publishing industry in late 1969. They finally found a sympathetic supporter in entrepreneur Matty Simmons, a former credit-card manager looking to break into the magazine business. The rest was history.
But it didn’t happen as easily as that. After a few uneven issues, the magazine toned down some of the rough underground look and hired art director Michael Gross, who developed what became his signature style: slick, well-produced parodies that looked like the real thing. If they were satirizing Playboy Where Newsweekthe problem would look like Playboy Where Newsweek. If they published a comic parody (which they often did), they would hire professional comic artists and do it with precision, from the fake Comics Code seal on the cover to the fake Sea-Monkey advertisement in the back. A strong visual style (including the much-imitated classic cover “If you don’t buy this magazine, we’ll kill this dog”) and attention to detail pulled the Pamphlet far from the youthful approach of Crazyaimed at not just the usual pop culture targets, but all of culture, from politics and media to sex, drugs and the holy cows of the 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 distinct personalities, including British comic Tony Hendra and Michael O’Donoghue, a dandy at dark humor with a volatile personality. (One of O’Donoghue’s running gags involved imagining the gruesome torture of various beloved television personalities.) Under their guidance, the Pamphlet extended beyond printing to create records, a popular radio program called Radio Time and a series of off-Broadway reviews. Live broadcasts brought many soon-to-be famous rookies such as Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Christopher Guest, Harold Ramis and Paul Shaffer into the fold.
The most famous of journals, Lemmingswhich introduced the impersonation of Joe Cocker by Belushi, was filmed as part of a brief 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 tape (now up to its third generation), but also a large amount of rare footage from later Pamphlet shows. Fans of Belushi’s brow technique won’t be disappointed.
But despite its multimedia presence, the magazine was beginning 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 greatest) Lampoon movie, animal house. O’Donoghue, who was then running the radio show, got into an argument with Hendra and eventually left. The magazine became increasingly dominated by the conservative voices (and not just in the political sense) of editor PJ O’Rourke and the future breakfast club director John Hughes.
The greatest threat to the Pamphlethowever, was a result of his own success: when NBC launched a late-night comedy program in 1975, he quickly signed most of the Radio Time cast, with O’Donoghue as head writer. (Bill Murray, who was not selected for what was then called NBC Saturday Nightwas hired by a short-lived ABC series titled, coincidentally, Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell.) While the magazine was stuck in creative limbo, their comics brand had been co-opted and watered down.
As readership dwindled, the Pamphlet name reasserted 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 (curiously, it’s not mentioned that Matheson was part of a group that owned the magazine from 1989 to 1991). The success of animal house sealed its connection to the rise 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 poor reviews. A few weeks after his release, he was found at the base of a cliff in Hawaii, in what was officially ruled an accidental death. The film cites Harold Ramis’ remark that Kenney probably fell down looking for a place to jump.
The film follows the Pamphlet for a few years after Kenney’s death – the bland Vacation 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. Early contributors interviewed for the film are, unsurprisingly, a little impressed with what they’ve done.
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 mystical experiment gone wrong” (you can’t make this up that kind of thing), and that could have been interesting. to hear from Lorne Michaels or anyone involved in the early Saturday night discuss how they perceived the magazine – as a rival or as a fellow traveler? For modern audiences unfamiliar with the publication, there are plenty of examples — even in animated versions — of its most famous covers and features. It can’t quite convey the more surreal or literary tone of much of the magazine (particularly O’Donoghue’s work), so there seems to be an undue emphasis on nudity and the type of material the Pamphlet itself categorized as “It’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. At a time when Saturday Night Live has become exactly the kind of repetitive television institution it was created to poke fun at and programs such as The daily show have replaced Time and Newsweek as the main source of information, Drunk Stoned Shining Dead is a worthy account of how we got to this place and what was left behind.0x006E