Lackadaisical documentaries are typically defined by incessant talking heads, B-roll footage of either archival images or newsreel footage, and an unremarkable background soundtrack that remains perfunctory throughout. Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon contains all three of these features in nearly every segment, as the satirical magazine’s history, beginning as the Harvard Lampoon in the late 19th century, is traced to its present iterations in radio, film, and television, with dozens of famous faces and voices leading the doc’s good-natured but lifeless guided tour. Director Douglas Tirola mistakes touch-and-go navel-gazing from those inside the publication offices for comprehension, as if speaking to as many subjects as possible produces an inherently compelling take. Interviewees offer mostly biographical or anecdotal material that, in the film’s first third, is largely comprised of attempts to define the magazine’s popularity. The most memorable explanation, if only because it historicizes the appeal across a lengthy timespan, states the publication located “an attic of culture that had been accumulating from 1945 to 1970…and we just looted it.”
The “we” in that quote, however, is what continually hampers the film, as the mostly dude’s club of writers and performers recounts favorite and notable moments, but with an inwardness and lack of perspective that sends the film into a series of predetermined loops, with each speaker merely reinforcing the genius of the mag’s writers and subsequent performers. That’s the case with Chevy Chase, whose brief segments make arguments for the singularity of John Belushi, while he mimes a joke from their former stage show that had them standing at urinals, with Belushi pretending to hold a much larger member than Chase. The film attempts to address some of the publication’s darker moments too, mostly involving several staff members’ drug addictions, but especially editor Doug Kenney, whose death during a trip to Kauai in 1980 remains something of a mystery. Such vulnerabilities bring Tirola closer to asking harder questions about success and drug abuse, but he veers in other directions before homing in on any hard-fought conclusion.
At one point, it’s stated that National Lampoon was the second most popular magazine on newsstands, behind only Cosmopolitan. As an issue of Cosmo appears on screen, the film inexplicably zooms into the cover, and highlights a single story, asking: “Do black men have bigger orgasms?” In a film where nary a person of color appears, but the soundtrack is consistently filled with artists like King Floyd, Pacific Gas & Electric, and Bobby Lewis, Tirola is happy to appropriate black culture without asking why, in the magazine’s century long history, it lacked diverse editorial perspectives. There are anomalies to this in terms of female talent; Janis Hirsch came on as a writer in the ’70s and Gilda Radner joined Belushi and Bill Murray, among others, in a 1973 stage show that became the basis for Saturday Night Live. But as industry history, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is sorely lacking in perspective beyond the confines of its own barracks, content to simply offer salute after salute to its ragtag bunch of fat, drunk, and stupids.