Sundance ’15: Tirola chronicles “National Lampoon”

Director Douglas Tirola tells realscreen how he looked to the structure of Hollywood movies for inspiration for his documentary Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon (pictured).
January 26, 2015

The National Lampoon franchise may have spawned a number of hit movies, theater tours, recordings, radio shows and a couple of TV series, but it began life as a controversial, no-holds barred humor magazine in 1970.

And it is the roots of that periodical and organization that filmmaker Douglas Tirola (Hey Bartender) felt compelled to explore in his new 90-minute documentary Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon (pictured above).

National Lampoon was this great combination of anarchy and entertainment,” said Tirola, who previously worked as a production assistant, producer and a writer for Hollywood studios, before turning his attention, nine years ago,  to documentaries.

“They knew instinctively that they could get away with the parody of some obscure Irish poem and that maybe 10% of their readers are going to understand as much as they want them to, if on the other page we have something about teenagers or a short story called ‘First Blowjob.’”

Tirola said he first became aware of National Lampoon through the 1978 box office hit Animal House. “That’s how I found the magazine,” he tells realscreen. “I was a fan of National Lampoon at the age where it makes a nice long impression.

“I also discovered some of the special projects that they’ve done, including the album That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick. So when I started making documentaries, I thought it would make a good movie.”

Based on the 2010 book by former Lampoon cover artist Rick Meyerowitz – Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Writers and Artists Who Made National Lampoon Insanely Great – Tirola says the documentary was a challenge for him right off the bat: He had to secure the licensing rights to reproduced some of the organization’s intellectual property, or he wouldn’t have been able to make the film.

“I needed their permission because I needed their archive, as it would be unreasonably expensive to license everything,” Tirola explained.

He reached out to the organization and was told that if he could get former owner and original magazine publisher Matty Simmons to sign off on the deal, permission would be granted.

“After a number of meetings, and saying, ‘this is my vision and this is the story I want to tell,’ Simmons called them and said ‘Make the deal.’”

Although the magazine lasted from 1970 through 1991, the numerous projects it spawned – from the 1972 comedy album National Lampoon’s Radio Dinner (and several more albums in successive years), the comedy radio show The National Lampoon Radio Hour (1973-1974), the 1973 theater show National Lampoon’s Lemmings, to 34 movies and two television series.

It has also served as a career break catalyst for many major acting and writing talents that have informed North American comedy since the 1970s: John Belushi, Bill Murray and his brother Brian Doyle Murray, Christopher Guest, Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, Michael O’Donoghue, Harold Ramis, John Hughes, Al Jean (The Simpsons) and many others.

Many of those names are associated with 1975′s inaugural Saturday Night Live cast, and since Lampoon members were working live shows at the Palladium Cabaret across from the Rockefeller Center, home of SNL host network NBC, there’s an intriguing connection.

“I think it gives credence to the idea that Saturday Night Live may not have come from the Lampoon, but maybe part of the approach did,” Tirola suggests. “Because those guys literally crossed the street with bankers boxes from one gig to another.”

Tirola said his chief goal in making Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is creating a work that he hopes people will see and reference repeatedly… especially since he views the purpose that a documentary fulfills as being similar to that of a full-fledged Hollywood production.

“I like to think I bring the experience that one might only expect in a scripted movie, that it’s engaging and entertaining and offers an emotional ride,” says Tirola. “A lot of people think of documentaries as this other form, but to me, it’s a movie, in the way that we have comedies, dramas and all the other genres. The things that a scripted movie try to do is hopefully what I’m bringing to this documentary.

“If I were going to see a movie about The National Lampoon, I would hope to see some things that are funny, which is not always the first priority of a documentary. So hopefully people will find some things in here funny, because that’s part of it. Hopefully they’ll also find it dramatic and engaging, and that we’re not just giving them information.”

  • Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon plays today (January 26) at the Sundance Film Festival at 7 p.m. MST, with subsequent screenings on January 27, 30 and 31.
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