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Sundance 2015: ‘Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead’ is a fitting tribute to comedy legends

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Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon
Written by Douglas Tirola & Mark Monroe
Directed by Douglas Tirola
USA | UK, 2015

The new documentary Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon takes us back to the birth of the ultimate problem child, the National Lampoon magazine.  Arrested development and controlled substances aside, the Lampoon crew shepherded comedy from its antiseptic television roots through the youth counterculture and back into the mainstream again.  It was unfiltered anarchy; vulgar, subversive, and hilarious.  Get ready to laugh, feel ashamed for laughing, and then laugh some more. 

The list of alumni from National Lampoon reads like a who’s who of comedy royalty.  Belushi, Chase, Ramis, Radner, Guest, Murray… and those are just the performers.  That doesn’t include all the writers and illustrators toiling behind the scenes of each fevered edition.  Writers like co-founders Doug Kenney and Henry Beard, along with John Hughes, Al Jean, Michael O’Donoghue, Tony Hendra, P.J. O’Rourke, and illustrators Michael Gross and Peter Kleinman gave life to each perverse whim and off-color joke.  Though many of these contributors went on to fame and stardom, Drunk Stoned focuses most of its energy on the mercurial Kenney.  In the reckless co-founder, director Douglas Tirola finds the spirit of Lampoon; a man whose rise and fall is emblematic of the comedy juggernaut that, perhaps, peaked too soon and aimed too high.

From the very first frame, Tirola crams Drunk Stoned with hilarious archival comics.  Interspersed with firsthand recollections from surviving alumni, we get one lurid image after another racing across the screen.  Even the talking heads are entertaining, as many of their descriptions and accounts are animated in the typically vulgar Lampoon style.  Tirola keeps things moving too quickly to ever get bored, or to stop laughing.

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The opening act is like a tour through the turbulent ‘70s.  Part peepshow, part history lesson, Drunk Stoned helps make sense of an era when all facets of American society were imploding.  It was a time when innocence was yielding to a pervading cynicism about the institutions we once trusted.  We needed a beacon of truth to cut through the bullshit and show us the sleaze hidden beneath.  And the sleazeballs at National Lampoon were just the guys to do it!

Tirola gives us unprecedented access to not only the creative process at Lampoon, but the internal politics, as well.  Fueled by a dangerous cocktail of ego and illicit drugs, these guys lived and loved like there was no tomorrow.  They simply didn’t care who they pissed off, which infused everything they did with anarchic energy.  Even their radio broadcasts, which launched the careers of John Belushi and Christopher Guest among others, feel voyeuristic; like we’re peeking into a pervert’s subconscious.  Tirola beautifully captures a moment in time when everyone was too young and stupid to worry about the repercussions of what they were doing.

Drunk Stoned doesn’t dwell on the untimely demise of several of its subjects, including Kenney and Belushi, but it does place their passing within a larger framework.  Like the Lampoon itself, these performers seem destined to burn brightly and then flame out.  Harold Ramis famously speculated that Kenney, who accidentally fell to his death from a cliff while vacationing in Hawaii, was probably looking for a place to jump when he slipped.  This type of reckless freedom takes a personal toll on the artist, but it also facilitates an unfiltered view of the world that makes them unique.  Tirola wants to celebrate the brief time we had together rather than lamenting what they might have accomplished had they survived.

If you are a fan of Saturday Night Live, SCTV, or pretty much any comedy film from the ‘80s, you need to watch Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon.  This legendary comedy troupe redirected the chaotic energy of the ‘70s into subversive social satire that still feels relevant today.  Rather than precision attacks, they simply aimed their incisive wit at everything in their path.  Educational, inflammatory, and hilarious, this is required viewing for anyone who loves to laugh.


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