'Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon': Sundance Review

Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
A lively, very entertaining look at the Lampoon's unlikely empire

It will remind you how much we owe to a few irreverent misfits at Harvard

"They became all of modern comedy," says Judd Apatow of the writers and performers who worked within the National Lampoon empire. Even comedy nerds who can draw the resulting family tree from memory — the spinoff movie careers, TV dynasties and myriad younger comedians influenced by them — should enjoy Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon. Energetic, laugh-stuffed and very colorful (it would be a feat to make a dull film about these people), Douglas Tirola's doc will be a crowd pleaser at fests. Its star power and scope would make a good fit for a small theatrical run, though TV is its most natural home.

The Lampoon, for those who don't know, wasn't just a magazine that once ran one of history's most famous covers ("If you don't buy this magazine, we'll kill this dog"); it also produced a radio program, live theatrical show, the Tolkien-endorsed parody novel Bored of the Rings, and a little movie called Animal House. And it all sprouted from a college magazine whose alums included John Updike and George Plimpton.

See more The Scene at Sundance Film Festival 2015 (Photos)

Tirola digs in with the arrival of two staffers who would turn that local magazine into a phenomenon: Doug Kenney, an always-on workaholic who churned out staggering amounts of material, and his upper-crust partner Henry Beard, who would later pen a string of humor books with titles like French Cats Don't Get Fat: The Secrets of La Cuisine Feline. Their early work on editions that parodied mags like Playboy and Life drew attention beyond Cambridge, Mass., and (we all owe Mademoiselle a debt of gratitude for this) the Lampoon wrangled enough subscribers to justify going national.

In this story, even purely business matters can be entertaining. See, for instance, the sequence on how one sells a vulgar counterculture publication to advertisers. Here and everywhere else, Tirola is lucky to have a staggering trove of cartoons and photos to illustrate interviewees' anecdotes, most of which have been manipulated with appropriate animation.

Of the many contributors introduced in rapid-fire storytelling, two standouts are the late Michael O'Donoghue, a misanthrope known for authoring some of the magazine's most transgressive pieces (he'd later be head writer at Saturday Night Live); and art director Michael Gross, who created the Lampoon's signature style by moving away from psychedelic weirdness toward features that looked exactly like whatever straight-world entity they were sending up.

Stories about the office culture during these days (lots of pot, recurring stories conceived solely to bring pretty girls to the office and get their clothes off) are more than entertaining enough to keep viewers from growing impatient for the famous people to show up. When they do (think: John Belushi, Bill Murray and the rest of the Second City gang), we're treated to ample footage of rehearsals, radio recording sessions, and the live show Lemmings they staged in 1973. It all looks like more fun than you or I will ever have in our lives, and Chevy Chase and Ivan Reitman are on hand to tell some of the stories. (Murray's a no-show, sadly. Probably out crashing some stranger's bar mitzvah.)

The saga gets increasingly complicated, but Tirola keeps things bite-sized: the production and huge success of Animal House, at which point Hollywood steals most of the Lampoon's talent; the prearranged buyout that made Kenney and Beard millionaires; the depression Kenney felt when Caddyshack, a Lampoon film in all but name, didn't live up to his standards. After another round of gifted writers (including Mike Reiss and Al Jean, later of The Simpsons) moved on, the magazine withered and died. Tirola lingers a moment too long in the film's eulogy phase, where a couple of sad stories necessarily intrude, but that doesn't keep the film from being a hell of a ride.

Production company: 4th Row Films
Director: Douglas Tirola
Producers: Susan Bedusa, Douglas Tirola
Executive producers: John Battsek, Molly Thompson
Director of photography: Sean Price Williams
Editors: G. Jesse Martinez, Joseph Krings
Sales: Emily Selinger, Cinetic

No rating, 94 minutes