Brief clips of the men — and handful of women — who rewrote comedy’s rule book during the 1970s propel “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon.” Douglas Tirola’s documentary is brisk and entertaining, if not especially thoughtful. But then neither was the magazine, whose militant bad taste spawned “Saturday Night Live” and so much more.
Tirola’s not much on dates, but National Lampoon published from 1970 to 1998. Its original editors were Doug Kenney and Henry Beard; they left in 1975, after an alliance with Chicago’s Second City brought John Belushi, Chevy Chase and Bill Murray into the Lampoon’s orbit. (Chase reminisced for the director; Murray did not.) Everyone headed to Hollywood, where things did not necessarily go well.
For viewers who aren’t Lampoon buffs, the parade of editors, contributors and art directors may be too much. Directors John Landis (“Animal House”) and Ivan Reitman (“Caddyshack”) offer commentary. So does, in unexpected archival footage, media theorist Marshall McLuhan.
There are also many of the magazine’s crass illustrations and outlandish cartoons, some animated for the documentary.
Despite its title, the movie doesn’t specify how many Lampooners are dead. It mentions only the unexplained demise of Kenney, found at the bottom of a Hawaiian chasm in 1980. One former coworker offers a wicked line about Kenney’s end, but Tirola is hesitant to conclude that the depressive cocaine addict committed suicide. His reluctance seems incongruous in a memoir of a magazine that considered self-censorship the worst of outrages.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains profanity, nudity and sexual humor. 95 minutes.