The Mademoiselle parody. “Bored of the Rings.” Michael O’Donoghue’s “Vietnamese Baby Book.” The Hitler travelogue, “Stranger in Paradise.” The Ted Kennedy/Volkswagen ad parody. “Baby in a Blender,” an all-time favorite of the Christian Coalition. The “Kill This Dog” cover. No concept was taboo for the National Lampoon, but it had to be funny. Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon, the umpteenth documentary trip down memory lane for self-congratulatory baby boomers, justifies itself in its choice of topics. The magazine and its spinoffs really did change the face of humor in America.
The original Lampoonies came from Harvard, the same place that hatched much ad agency, publishing, and TV network talent in the Fabulous Fifties and Sixties, so it’s no wonder that the things Ivy League undergraduates considered ridiculous became the targets of Henry Beard and Doug Kenney, guiding lights of the mag. As director Douglas Tirola’s merrily assembled doc explains, ads for cigarettes, liquor, cologne, and electronics rescued the publication’s bottom line, and bored middle-class snots eventually lapped up the putdowns.
Saturday Night Live and Animal House made the mag’s humor available to a much wider audience. At its peak, the Lampoon was second in newsstand sales only to Cosmopolitan. But, natch, Hollywood co-opted the zeitgeist and stole the talent, for Caddyshack, etc. Too much coke was another nail in the coffin, but by that time Kenney had already stepped off the rubber. Only about half a million talking heads were still alive to testify in the film: Matty Simmons, P.J. O’Rourke, Chevy Chase, Christopher Guest, Judd Apatow, Harold Ramis, Bill Murray among them. Anyone who ever read Terry Southern’s Lampoon columns or Shary Flenniken’s “Trots and Bonnie” comic strip instinctively realized the magazine was the leading edge of what was laughingly referred to as American alt culture. And now it’s gone. But the movie, and its accompanying coffee table book, are here to stir the ashes and inspire future skeptics. Get busy.