“Even though some people might think it’s overstating it, I like to compare [National Lampoon] to the Algonquin Roundtable or the Beat Generation,” says Douglas Tirola, who makes his case in the new documentary, “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon.” “That was an important part to me [of making this] — this idea of this special time in our life, which for a lot of people happens when they’re young, but not always, where you come together with a bunch of people, unexpectedly, and incredible things happen.”
Whether or not you agree with Tirola about the company, what can’t be disputed is how he managed to give the Lampoon, a comedy powerhouse born out of the halls of Harvard from students for whom neuroscience or law was never in the cards and grew into one of the premier comic brands of the 1970s and ’80s, the weight they deserve while keeping the irreverence that made them so funny. Adapted from the nonfiction tome of the same name by Rick Meyerowitz, “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead” unfolds as if it were one of the Lampoon’s spoof magazine issues that you can’t stop turning the pages of, tracing the organization from a periodical shepherded by madman Doug Kenney (who went on to write “Caddyshack”) and Henry Beard (who it is noted in the film rebelled against his family by attending Harvard) to eventually an empire with radio and film, with different regimes that included a bevy of future Saturday Night Live stars such as John Belushi, Chevy Chase and Gilda Radner well before they were not ready for prime time, PJ O’Rourke and John Hughes, and future “Simpsons” scribes Al Jean and Mike Reiss.
Innovative motion graphics from Cloud Studios make it feel as if the magazine that started it all has come to life, but with the comprehensive array of interviews Tirola gets, from the Lampoon’s primary benefactor Matty Simmons all the way down to fans such as Judd Apatow and John Goodman, he creates a film every bit as lively and subversive as its subject at its height, capturing what made the Lampoon so vital during the great cultural shift from the free love era of the late ’60s and early ’70s to Reaganism in the 1980s. As the film is prepared to be unleashed in theaters, Tirola spoke about the daunting prospect of taking on such a sprawling subject as the Lampoon, whose alumni have scattered into creating the foundation for modern comedy, his keen decision to film subjects in a location of their choosing and making his movies that are events that can’t be missed.
You’ve said this was a dream project, but once it became a reality, was it intimidating to take something on that would involve this many people?
I made a couple other films that are big topics — one specifically about poker [“All In”] and one about bartending [“Hey Bartender”], but with those, you could choose, more or less, how you wanted to hone it. This, I would compare more to adapting a really huge book, like a Tom Wolfe novel. Part of the challenge is honing the story down so that it makes sense in the cinematic structure, but because [National Lampoon] has so many passionate fans who have some knowledge about the subject you know you’re going to have to work in [a lot of different stories], so it was a daunting task to find all these people, talk to all of them, and figure out what of what of their stories you were going to use to ultimately tell this National Lampoon story.
It’s one of these stories that’s the greatest story never told, meaning you think you know it, but then when you hear the story, you’re like, “Wow, I had no idea all those people worked there” or “I had no idea about their relationship to ‘Saturday Night Live’ or that they were much more than a magazine.” So it was important to get all that in. For me, there were certain themes, or as I would say, my own propaganda that you want to have come across in the story. One of the more important ones is this idea of a group of people that came together, not by only great design, but almost by accident — people that most likely would not have been friends in any other aspect of their life, but they’re rubbing up against each other and equally ambitious and, at times, [the same level of] envy and jealousy, which is how all this great work comes to be.
As a fan of your previous films, I know you usually involve history, but you lead with the present. Was it different to make this lively and vibrant while approaching it from the opposite direction?
There’s a great cliché out there that it should take significant effort to make a bad movie as a good one. But I like to think of myself in the audience when I go to make any of these movies, so if I was going to go see a movie about the National Lampoon, I know I would want it to be as vibrant and loud and dangerous as the magazine. I’d want to feel almost like every few minutes of the movie is like flipping through a page of that magazine. I would want it to have some laughter in it, even though documentaries are often not that funny. I like to say, “In most documentaries, you get your two-and-a-half awkward laughs to let you the audience hasn’t fallen asleep.”
But this is a movie where we had to try and construct some laughs or get out of the way of the laughs that were in the magazine and translate those to the screen. So it was an early decision to use the art from the magazine as our core source material. If you think of a movie that takes place in a era that’s already passed, there wasn’t a lot of video of people working at the Lampoon and there were a limited amount of pictures. It was just a different era and none of these people were famous yet. This was just a magazine start-up, so there wasn’t a lot of press around.
With that in mind, you’d usually say, “Okay, we’re going to go to an archive house,” like the NBC News archive, and since we don’t have a video of Doug Kenney and Henry Beard walking around Manhattan, we’ll get some news [footage] of people walking around Manhattan in the early ’70s. [Instead], every time we needed to have imagery to help us tell the story, we were going to go [directly] to the magazine and try and find something. For instance, when Doug and Henry come to pitch the magazine in New York, there’s this great two-page spread in the magazine called, “Afternoon on St. Mark’s Place in the Late 1960s,” with funny names for things. So we’d have our animated Doug and Henry that were in the magazine somewhere else, and put them on there and it became our establishing shot of New York, so to speak.
There are other places where it’s not so exact. When we’re talking about Doug Kenney putting mud on his body and on his face in Martha’s Vineyard when he’s taking acid, there is no video or pictures of that, obviously. But what we did is, we used this bust of Mel Brooks that they had done, made out of chopped liver with these eyes peering out at you, so that allowed us to show more of the magazine, but also give you this point of view and this feeling of the era and the sensibility of the Lampoon and the people that worked there throughout. In terms of bringing the story to the screen, that was a big decision which hopefully people think works.
This may be off-topic, but did being around all these funny people give you a new perspective on comedy?
There’s certain couple times in the movie where you see [people] using a sense of humor, comedy if you want to call it, in a way that maybe civilians wouldn’t. For instance, when Chevy [Chase] is talking about Doug Kenney’s death, he invokes some humor into that. Anne Beatts is talking about his funeral and she says some things that maybe your average citizen would be disturbed by. But in terms of the state of comedy, I hope the existence of the film is somewhat a political statement. There’s obviously some great comedy happening right now and there’s some that people could draw a direct line from the National Lampoon in terms of their sensibility. But when you look at it overall, all the content that we put into the film, the political statement is that this idea of nobody’s off-limits and you can go as far as you want to make your point as long as it’s funny does not exist anymore, and why is that? And can we get something like this back?
You certainly have people speaking candidly to that point and a big factor in that is how you have them in what appear to be natural environments for them, which has the added benefit of giving a real energy to the film. Did you actually let them pick where the interviews would happen?
We worked with them. In documentaries, there’s a lot of appreciation right now for the Al Maysles School of cinema verite [where] things happen in real time and [filmmakers] sit back, starting to [observe] more like a journalist and watching what unfolds. I made the choice early on that we were not going to follow these people in their 2015 lives. That the story starts in the ’60s and ends around 1988, so I did not want anything to be abruptly reminding us of 2015 even though we were interviewing these people [in the present]. Seeing what they were doing now is only going to take you out of the 1970 aura we’re trying to build.
But one of the thoughts was that when we went to interview people, I wanted to interview them in their homes or their favorite place — where they worked, their studio, their desk where they write. Maybe it’s because I come from the scripted world and documentaries aren’t supposed to talk about things like art direction, but my feeling is that somebody’s face tells the brain who [these people] are, so I loved the idea that some of these people, even at their age, still had a space where they worked or were surrounded by books or by music. When we asked to go interview someone, we’d say, “Do you have a place where you’re comfortable?” One person we interviewed at the beach, which I think worked for him and [generally] we were in people’s homes and their workspace. I think it informs who they are and were, and as opposed to [typical interviews where] you have the close-up camera, then the wider shot, most of these are shot completely wide and the idea is that we get a sense of their place.
It isn’t [related] to the Lampoon, but there’s a famous drawing of Beethoven’s head and all this stuff coming out of his head — that’s how I felt about the face. We’re going to see that these men and women have big brains, and we’re going to see all the stuff around them coming out of it. That didn’t always work, but that was the sense of it. It was also a way to maybe disguise their age, because even though everybody here is a little older, I didn’t feel that their energy was old. We were able to bring the performances out of what could have been just interviews of people giving information. They’re animated. They’re excited about it, and that was easier to read at a wider shot in a great location.
From the sound of it, every time this film has played a festival or a special screening, you’ve been able to make it into an event. Why is that important to you?
The last film I produced was a movie called “Actress,” an amazing film about a woman who wakes up five years after her last job as an actress on the show “The Wire,” and [finds herself] in a dying marriage with two kids and she’s not working and she’s someone who wants to work. It’s a great film made by a super-talented filmmaker named Robert Greene, who edited some of my earlier movies, and it evokes a much different experience for the audience. So it’s [been] nice to have this other experience, which [is like when I was] a kid who just loved going to the movies, excited to find out you actually could see two movies in one day and that there wasn’t some law against that. One day [my mom and I] got stuck in Times Square in the rain and she’s like, “Let’s just go to another movie.” That’s when I was like, “Wait! You can go to two movies in one day? That’s allowed?”
As someone who loved movies, [it was important to] be able, as a group, to make a film that, in the theater and hopefully at home as well, plays like a movie that you would think about when you’re a kid — a popcorn movie where you’re in sort of a call-and-response between the audience and the movie. When it plays and I’m lucky enough to be invited to go to a Q & A, I find myself still watching most of the movie. That’s an exciting experience.
“Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon” is now open in New York and will open at the NuArt in Los Angeles on October 2nd where Douglas Tirola will appear for Q & As on opening weekend with former Lampoon writer Chris Miller on Oct. 2nd and 3rd for the 7:30 pm showings. It will expand on October 9th to theaters across the country. A full list of theaters and dates is here. It is also available on demand and on iTunes.