“So we all know why we came here,” John Belushi starts to say at the first meeting of The Lemmings in the 1970s, “A million of us. We came here to off ourselves.”
One of the first hugely popular — and majorly controversial — National Lampoon-sponsored gags was a show called “The Lemmings.” John Belushi stood in front of a live audience and essentially talked about all the reasons why it makes sense for certain people in certain situations to kill themselves. The character was “manically agreeable,” noted one of the Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead interviewees, and in many ways he’s right: As we all sit and watch this absurd, slightly overweight, comic numbskull make fun of our collective tendency to overreact to things, we can’t help but laugh a little bit.
“The Lemmings” show featured many Lampoon writers and other guest stars, one of which was Chevy Chase. In part of his interview for the documentary, Chase recalls a bit between him and Belushi where they pretended to be two teenage friends standing at a urinal talking. Chase remembers some confusion he had about the audience’s incessant laughter at Belushi, and about a week into the routine, he realized what they were laughing at. As Chase pretended to hold his junk with his thumb and index finger, Belushi was using his whole hand.
This scene, among others, captures the National Lampoon magazine in its essence: It was the Internet before the Internet. Irreverent penis jokes were somehow thrown into a mix of self-deprecation, social commentary, theatricality, and it all seemed wonderfully strange and familiar, funny and appalling. Think about any YouTube comment section, 4chan forum or Reddit thread — what do you see? A bunch of twisted goofball weirdos making overly insightful remarks about things of no consequence. The people behind National Lampoon did it first.
In fact, they did a lot of things first, and they did a lot of things really, really well. In the mid-1970s, some of the early Lampoon writers like Belushi, Chase and Bill Murray entered conversations with a young man named Lorne Michaels about creating a live TV show that would offer new sketches every Saturday. That show was “Saturday Night Live.”
That same group of writers decided also to make a movie about the silliness and awkwardness of teenage romance and sex, a germ of an idea that ballooned into one of the most beloved comedy films of all time: “Animal House.” They also turned out a series of “Vacation” movies that still run constantly during the holidays.
Other writers like Al Jean and Mike Reiss knew they had screenwriting talent and wanted to try scripting for television. They found a job working for a quirky cartoonist named Matt Groening, who’d been running his cartoon about a dysfunctional family on the “Tracy Ullman Show” for several months. Reiss and Jean would become members of the original writing team that created “The Simpsons.”
Director Douglas Tirola does a good job of making these enormously important National Lampoon spin-offs subservient to the magazine that bore them. Tirola takes us in front of such varied talent as Kevin Bacon, Billy Bob Thornton and Meat Loaf to give us a sense of how National Lampoon’s humor infiltrated nearly every part of the entertainment industry. Comedy heavyweight and so-called genius Judd Apatow said it best: the people behind National Lampoon magazine became all of modern comedy.
Is “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead” a well-done, articulate and endearing documentary about one of the greatest magazines ever? Yes it is. Can a documentary ever do such a magazine and its people justice? Of course not. But it’s enough for this film to exist and satisfy viewers. Go and be entertained.