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Q&A: ‘National Lampoon’ Doc Director on the Lost Generation of Zingers, Wisecracks, and Dick Jokes

‘National Lampoon’ was the preeminent name in American satire in the 1970s, but after losing its creative brain trust to Hollywood (and ‘Saturday Night Live’), it turned into a purveyor of schlock. A new documentary on the golden age of ‘National Lampoon’ premiered at Sundance, so we sat down with director Douglas Tirola to discuss the rise and fall of an iconic publication.

If TBS, Walmart, and your local Redbox are to be believed, National Lampoon is the leading purveyor of direct-to-DVD comedies, with punny titles (Stoned Age, Endless Bummer) and busty cover models seducing horny teens for a night of soft-core nonsense. That’s not too far from Lampoon’s original incarnation — save for the brand’s biting satire, razor-sharp word-slinging, artful parody, and rebellious core. National Lampoon dropped like an atom bomb on the midcentury’s cautious, politically correct humor, funneling the anger of twentysomething men and women into a raucous cavalcade of spoof journalism and illustration. Lampoon paraded topless women around its pages — sex sells! — but adjacent pages warped young minds with taboos.

What’s impossible to imagine today barely stood a chance in 1970. No one knew if National Lampoon would sell. Cofounders Doug Kenney, Henry Beard, and Robert Hoffman were stars of Harvard Lampoon, then published popular magazine spoofs and book parodies that got their post-university feet in doors. But wry, rabble-rousing kids running their own magazine was a gamble, maybe even financial suicide. For a year, the magazine teetered on the edge of failure, a schizophrenic mess of design, voice, and advertising pandering (there were never enough scantily clad women, according to every publisher involved).

By 1974, National Lampoon sold nearly one million copies a month, branched out into books, comedy albums, radio broadcasts, and stage shows, and inspired outsiders to throw money at its staff, hoping to poach the industry’s sharpest writers. On the comedy timeline, Lampoon’s golden age is right up there with the Greeks forging a laughter mask to sit alongside drama’s frowny face.

Filmmaker Douglas Tirola’s Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon premiered to bellowing laughter and a surprising amount of sniffles at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The film tracks the rise and fall of Lampooners Kenney, Beard, P. J. O’Rourke, Michael O’Donoghue, Sean Kelly, Anne Beatts, Chris Rush, Tony Hendra, Al Jean, Mike Reiss, and John Hughes, as well as live performers like John Belushi, Bill Murray, Brian Doyle-Murray, Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase, Harold Ramis, and Christopher Guest. Tirola’s film is an exhaustive biopic for a spirited brand and a reminder of satire’s essential role in culture — all the more resonant in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

Despite Lampoon’s widely reported history — devotees have been hunting for canonizing morsels since the magazine’s fallout in the ’80s — Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead shades existing stories with revealing interviews and “Holy cow, am I really watching this?” archival footage. I sat down with Tirola in the thick of Sundance to talk National Lampoon, its iconic members, and the magazine’s fight for relevancy.

drunk_stoned_brilliant_dead_the_story_of_the_national_lampoon4th Row Films

When did you start reading National Lampoon?

I think I started reading it like most people. I saw Animal House, probably at an inappropriate age, like Judd Apatow talks about in the movie, and then I sought the magazine after that, probably at an age where I didn’t understand a lot of it, but I liked it. And then I bought the 10th anniversary book, and I’ve kept that with the books that travel with me all through one’s life. I loved the politics of the magazine, which I think people in the last few months are starting to appreciate more, only because of the unfortunate events in Paris. They’re seeing that parody is important.

National Lampoon’s legacy runs deep. Did framing the magazine’s story prove difficult?

I thought the natural place to end the movie was when the last of the original people left. For a lot of the people there, they talk about the first five years, 10 years. The ’80s, there’s some great stuff in there, too, but we’re basically from 1970, maybe in the 60s, starting at Harvard, all the way until around 87.

Lampoon writer Tony Hendra equates the magazine’s original staff to Hemingway’s Lost Generation described in A Moveable Feast. Is that an apt comparison?

My pitch to Tony was exactly what he says. This is like Hemingway’s Paris, this is the Beat Generation, this is the punk rock movement and CBGB in the early ’70s — these perfect moments in time where people don’t really have anything in common except a love of their work that they’re doing. One of the things that attracted me to the story is that this is a positive work story. If you watch a lot of movies, work’s the thing that messes up [lives]. Bad on work, bad on having to make money. These guys wanted to do what they loved as a profession, and I could relate to that as a filmmaker, absolutely. Like, they loved to work. They wanted to find a place where they could do what they wanted to do for a profession. And they did at the Lampoon.

How were Doug Kenney and the writing staff able to push as hard as they did into race, sex, and political humor? Was anyone pushing back?

As much as some of the people had problems with the publisher, Matty Simmons, that was the gift he brought to them. There were lawsuits. He never told them to stop. He didn’t put a ceiling on them, and that’s another thing I related to in the movie, big time, or in the making of the movie. These guys didn’t have a “going too far” and they didn’t work in an environment that was going too far. Maybe some things were misfires, but that’s what brought the greatness. If you’re already censoring yourself, you’re never going to get to that thing that really hits you. There was a point while making the movie where producers were like, “Can we really put some of this stuff in there?” Nelson Rockefeller shooting that guy’s head off, some of the racial humor … we just said, “You know what? They would have, so we’re going to.”

The film features a heap of archival footage from Lampoon live shows and Radio Hour recordings. Where did that come from?

Our film takes place in an era where people were not filming writers unless they were on Dick Cavett or some other show, and these guys weren’t. So there is really not a lot of video. All those photos are all from one photo shoot from the New York Times that Michael Gold did. So one of my executive producers, Molly Thompson, said, “For a movie like this, we have to see something that we haven’t seen before.” Or rarely seen. There was just nothing out there, and what we did is we went back, and everyone we met, we said, “Do you remember anybody with a camera there, anybody with a video camera there?” because it was not an era, certainly [not] like now with cell phones, but even like in the ’80s when everyone was carrying around a video camera. Eventually [editor] Sean Kelly says, “You know, I kind of remember this public station from Canada coming down and doing something.” OK, so we go looking for that. Nothing’s ever aired. Luckily, there’s not a lot of TV networks in Canada in the ’70s. We found somebody up there who was like, “You know, there was something, but guess what: It never aired. There was a problem, it never aired.” And they found that footage. I don’t even think they understood they had it.

The Lampoon’s core group, the ones that come up most in history, are men. But there were several women on the staff, many of whom we meet in the film. What were the relationships like between the sexes, knowing how tough it is on female writers today?

We went out of our way to interview the women involved. I would say this: I do not think it was easy; certainly by today’s standards it wasn’t that easy. But I do think that there was enough respect for the work that if you were giving good work, that trumped the day. There’s a story where Janis Hirsch, who’s still a prolific and successful TV writer, talks about how she was just on the staff. She wanted to be a writer, but she was a staff person. And she tells the story about her [childhood polio] crutches [used in National Lampoon 1964 High School Yearbook], about how Chevy Chase came in one day and grabbed the crutches and started doing this stuff, and at first she was upset, and then she thought, He was actually treating me the way he treated everyone else in the office, and it actually made me feel part of this thing more, because he would do the equivalent even if they didn’t have crutches. But whatever anyone else’s crutch, metaphorically, was — he would do the same thing. And he did that to her — in other words, he didn’t treat her like there was something wrong with her. He treated her like, “You’re like one of us.”

national-lampoon-1National Lampoon

Because of the way it’s framed, watching the film was the first time I felt bitter over Saturday Night Live poaching the Lampoon staff and acting troupe. Reflecting on it, Simmons sounds irked. Does he have any relationship with Lorne Michaels today?

He told me that every time he’s seen him in the last 10, 20 years, he’s been completely nice. I think he got invited to one of the SNL celebrations that they did. But at the time, Matty had an opportunity to do [television]. And for the reasons he stayed, maybe some other reasons, that didn’t happen. I don’t know if it necessarily means [Lorne Michaels] stole the National Lampoon and put it on Saturday Night Live, but not only did it have many of the same writers and performers, it had the same aesthetic. If you think about comedy on TV before Saturday Night Live, it’s pretty much like Lily Tomlin, and she has something that makes it look like she’s at the phone bank center, but it’s not a phone bank center. It’s like, a waiter in a restaurant — they put a weird table down and the guy has a tray he’s carrying glasses on. Saturday Night Live was the first one to say, “We’re gonna build that whole set.” Even Carol Burnett, it’s a couple of things, but those sets look more like a 1950s movie musical, where you know it’s not real. The Lampoon was the first thing to create something where “It’s gonna look exactly like what we’re trying to parody.” And the first place that does it on TV is SNL, and those guys certainly either did it there or learned it there. Michael O’Donoghue did that on SNL. The reason we showed John Belushi’s [Ed Sullivan Show sketch] is that he did that in both places. So I think you have to say that.

And another thing I would say is a little trivia fact about that: The second Off Broadway show, The National Lampoon Show, [which starred] Bill Murray, John Belushi, Harold Ramis, Brian Doyle-Murray, Gilda Radner, played at a place called the [New Palladium], which is on 51st Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues in New York, and if anyone’s familiar with what’s [nearby]: Rockefeller Center. So if there was any doubt, it was right across the street.

The Lampoon eventually got into television with the sketch special Disco Beaver From Outer Space. It’s relatively obscure and everyone involved seems ashamed.

I love Disco Beaver. Disco Beaver was a comedy show on HBO. It’s the lowest-rated comedy show in the history of HBO, and I think one of the great things about the Lampoon was that sort of Mickey-and-Judy “Let’s do it!” “We’re doing a magazine, we want to do a record — let’s just do it.” “We want to do an extra edition — do it.” They wanted to do Disco Beaver. From meeting everybody and interviewing them, it was sort of like, “OK, how much is this gonna cost?” “Ten bucks.” “If you can do it for eight, you can do it.” And that sort of “We’ll take the risk, but we’re not going to take so much of a risk that it’s going to tank the whole magazine.” So that’s really how it came about. Lynn Redgrave is in Disco Beaver, which is just an odd thing as well, and you know, it’s not the masterpiece you want it to be, but it is funny in many ways.

In 1971, Doug Kenney disappeared, eventually surfacing and taking an extended break from the magazine. What provoked his exit?

He went to L.A. at one point, he was on Martha’s Vineyard. I think he just sort of — it was the story of this incredible success so early, unexpected, dealing with the money, dealing with putting this thing out.

He pulled a Dave Chappelle.

He went Dave Chappelle, but at a much younger age. And you gotta remember: Think how young you are when you’re 23. He’s 23 and he’s running the National Lampoon. Twenty-three. But Doug was special in the sense that, when I look at these guys in the pictures we have of them, even though most of them are under 30, they kind of look like adults. People under 30 now don’t look like adults. And that was still at that era when people were in a rush to be an adult. We hadn’t gotten to the point yet where everything is about youth culture, where everything is about trying to stay young. This was about, “I want to be treated like an adult,” like a profession. He is that bridge, that moment that starts to [encourage], “I want to stay young. I want to stay irreverent. I want to not have rules.”

He spent a few months in Martha’s Vineyard taking LSD, writing a novel, and rolling in the mud. To be frank, it’s incredible he survived.

[After] interviewing a lot of people that talked about their drug experiences for this, I’d say some people just have a different chemistry. Just like that one friend who can drink more than everybody else.

Chevy Chase tells a known story I had not heard out of his mouth before. As Caddyshack press ramped up, Chase takes Kenney to Hawaii in hopes of snapping him out of his stupor. Kenney died in Hawaii, but from seemingly unrelated reasons. Was it tough drawing that story out of Chase?

I would say this: I was very happy when somebody said, “This is Chevy’s best performance since Vacation.” I definitely think when you’re interviewing someone it’s almost more of a director-actor relationship than when you’re following someone in a cinema verité. It’s just the two of you, and if they don’t like you, [they] don’t respond to you. I thought it showed another side of him. In the story he tells, you see how somebody like him deals with something negative. And it’s really interesting, and it’s emotional. And there’s comedy to it, and that’s what he does.

I wear Bucks a lot. I wear white Bucks even past September, like you’re not supposed to. So immediately he starts making fun of my Bucks, and you know, natural reaction is to sort of banter back, right? And I just said, “You know what—” I just remember that in that moment I thought, He’s an entertainer. He’s a comedian. I’m the straight man right now.

So the key to interviewing Chevy Chase is self-sacrifice.

It’s not like you just go from “Tell us what your motivation was in Fletch” to “Tell us about Doug Kenney dying.” But we got to that place and he gave it to us. His performance is a gift. I’m very appreciative of what he did for us there, and to some level, proud that we were able to get that.

The film wraps up before entering the ’90s, when financial woes plagued the magazine, causing it to end its 28-year run. Matty says, “It all went downhill and that’s where I’ll end it.” Why leave it hanging there?

I was joking with our executive producer, saying, “If anybody wants to know what happened after that, I’ll just keep the scene that we cut on my phone and show it to them.” You know, there are some interesting things that happened, but ultimately our story was about National Lampoon from its inception to when that era ended, which for me was when the last of the key characters stopped working there or really contributing to there. The personal way in for me into the film is the idea about these people working together. So that group sort of ends there. It’s a special point in time.

What happened afterwards is that someone came in who was very successful, a guy who had been the head of Disney cable, or created Disney cable, and he started licensing the name. But you know what, they never lost money in those years. It certainly killed an aspect of what it was, but as the movie explains, the people that they needed to make that great were now going right off to Hollywood. In the last couple of years, after a lot of legal drama, there are some people who have now taken it over. One of them worked at the Lampoon in the ’80s. I interviewed them as well, and I think they’re looking to try and go back to what that was. What I mean by that is: Animal House, Vacation, and Christmas Vacation all started with short stories from the Lampoon. So imagine if you were going to start a Hollywood, West Coast production company today, and you’re like, “Well, we’ve got to buy some scripts, we’ve got to option some articles, some books,” can you imagine starting from square one any better than the entire archive of that magazine? It would be a great last chapter to our movie in a later edition of it, on a DVD, if next thing we knew that National Lampoon was making movies again.

Matt Patches (@misterpatches) is a writer and reporter in New York whose work has been featured on Vulture, VanityFair.com, and The Hollywood Reporter.