There’s a line at the end of Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead where the publisher is about to lay bare the years of fallow that beset the magazine at its later days. He’s about to get into the slow descent into financial ruin only to say that, no, we’re not going to hear that story.
That kind of truncated, we’ll-worry-about-the-hard-stuff-later mentality does disservice to the full story of National Lampoon. This groundbreaking publication helped shaped American (and thus International) comedy for almost a decade, its writers and performers forming the backbone of the likes of Saturday Night Live. The rise from comedic college newspaper to national publication is told with loads of footage and contemporary interviews, and does a decent enough job at situating for those not in the know just the effect that this group of writers and artists had on making many millions laugh.
In this time where the death of old media is a common siren call, the power and prestige of this print magazine seems almost as archaic as the free reign on drugs and anarchy that underscored much of the work of the Lampooners. Yes, the stories are compelling, and yes, the film does a decent enough job in collecting articulate people to tell their stories, but overall it feels a bit too hagiographic for its own good, as if the Lampoon itself is somehow above being lampooned.
We’re told rather than shown how brilliant these guys were, and it’s hard in the context of this film to really get a sense of just how groundbreaking the work was. Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead gives us a taste of what life was like with the magazine, but shies away from diving deep into what made it all tick, and leaves one with the impression that this is little more than empty nostalgia, free from the bite that made this magazine the cornerstone of comedy for a brief but productive period.