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How ‘National Lampoon’ Shaped the American Comedy Landscape, One Hitler Joke at a Time

The new documentary "Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead" takes an inside look at rise and fall of the famously irreverent humor mag.
September 25, 2015, 12:00pm

'National Lampoon.' Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

The best line in Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, a new documentary detailing the pioneering days of the National Lampoon, is a widely distributed remark about the death of one of the magazine's co-founders, Douglas Kenney, who fell off a cliff in Hawaii in 1980 at the age of 33. Of unknown provenance (here it is attributed to Lampoon writer Chris Miller, but it also could have been Harold Ramis, or maybe even Saturday Night Live writer Michael O'Donoghue), it goes like this: "He probably fell while he was looking for a better place to jump." Short, steely, and acidly funny, that's as good an indicator as any of the nihilistic goofiness that was at the heart of what proved to be one of the great movements in American comedy.

Founded in 1969 by Harvard graduates Kenney, Henry Beard, and Robert Hoffman as a national spinoff to the ancient campus humor magazine Harvard Lampoon (which began in 1876), the first issue of National Lampoon arrived in the spring of 1970, gaining in popularity throughout the first half of the decade and peaking at a national circulation of a million copies in late 1974. (The last issue ran in November '98, but the magazine had been culturally dead since the mid 80s.) The Lampoon's legacy mainly consists now of the movies Animal House and National Lampoon's Vacation; the careers of Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Bill Murray, Ramis, and others associated with the early days of SNL; and a 1973 magazine cover of a dog with a gun to his head next to the words "If You Don't Buy This Magazine, We'll Kill This Dog."

"We analyzed it as the shift from Jewish humor, which is essentially defensive and a shield against the world, to Irish humor, which is a weapon and a sword. Our actual term for it back then was we have gone from 'Fuck me' to 'Fuck you.'"
—P. J. O'Rourke

In its day, the Lampoon was genuinely boundary-pushing, for better and for worse, a killer of sacred cows in an era when there still sacred cows to kill. Their bits include "Canada—the Retarded Giant at your Doorstep"; a radio spot about torturing Ed Sullivan; a True Boys' Life magazine cover with a group of Boy Scouts happily circle-jerking around a campfire; a photo-narrative of an alt-history Hitler lookalike living happily on a tropical island in the Caribbean; a 69-cent stamp for feminine hygiene sprays; Eloise scrawling her name in trademark pink across the mirror of a seedy downtown bathroom; and a child's letter to Heinrich Himmler ("How do you get all those people in your oven? We can hardly get a roast pork in ours").

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"Really good humor is saying the thing which is true which you would do anything to deny is true," says a young P. J. O'Rourke in Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, who joined the magazine in 1971 before becoming editor-in-chief in the late 70s. That feels right, and was certainly a major part of the magazine's philosophical non-agenda. An effective parody tastes authentic, and even at its nastiest the Lampoon was grounded in a sensibility that was as human as it was perverted. It's about finding the shared experiences that make up human connection, and the best of that today— The Onion, Clickhole, Key & Peele, John Oliver—are more polished continuations of the work that the Lampoon was doing 40 years ago.

"National Lampoon came out of a vein of American humor that hadn't been in the ascendant in 50 some years, which was the vicious vein," said O'Rourke, when I spoke to him last week over the phone. "We analyzed it as the shift from Jewish humor, which is essentially defensive and a shield against the world, to Irish humor, which is a weapon and a sword—not that we were all Irish, and none of us were Jewish. Our actual term for it back then was we have gone from 'Fuck me' to 'Fuck you.'"

Although the driving forces behind that middle finger were founders Beard (who left the magazine shortly before he turned 30, taking a $2.8 million buyout in 1975), and Kenney, the head editors during the magazine's most critically and financially successful period, it's Kenney's narrative arc that frames the documentary and lends heft to the titular claims. He was notoriously troubled, and his excesses were as well noted as his brilliancies. He contributed larger swathes of the magazine than any other writer and co-wrote Animal House and Caddyshack. He also loved cocaine and dropped acid, once abruptly fleeing Manhattan and the Lampoon to Martha's Vineyard, where he spent months tripping and writing an unpublished novel called Teenage Commies from Outer Space.

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In the late summer of 1980, Chevy Chase took Kenney to Kauai, Hawaii, in a gesture of mental convalescence, and the most poignant moment of the documentary occurs when Chase describes a practical joke he played on his friend. Here's the setup: Chase goes to Kenney's room (they're both staying on the 15th floor of a Hawaiian hotel) and tells him that he's depressed, he just can't take it anymore. Then Chase goes back to his own room, taking off his boots and placing them by the terrace before mimicking the sound of someone screaming as if falling, or jumping. He quickly hides before a panicked Kenney comes running in. "And for a second he really actually looked."

Eventually Chase had to return to the mainland for work, and for a short period Kenney's longtime partner Kathryn Walker joined him before she also had to leave. They found Kenney's body on August 30, 1980, at the base of a 30-foot cliff called the Hanapepe Lookout. Chase told Rolling Stone that he found in Kenney's hotel room, amidst a large pile of notes for jokes and movie ideas, was a receipt with the line "These last few days were the happiest I've ever ignored" scribbled on the back.

Two months ago P. J. O'Rourke wrote a piece for The Hollywood Reporter titled "How I Killed 'National Lampoon,'" prompted by the release of Vacation, loosely affiliated with the 1983 National Lampoon's Vacation. (How exactly he offed the Lampoon he doesn't really say, except that he happened to be the one left in charge after all the talent left for Saturday Night Live or Hollywood.) I haven't seen Vacation, and I do not want to, ever; Richard Roeper wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times that "it's a vile, odious disaster populated with unlikable, dopey characters bumbling through mean-spirited set pieces that rely heavily on slapstick fight scenes, scatalogical sight gags, and serial vomiting." When the Lampoon was great it was great, and there was an intelligence behind all the cock and cum humor that was outrageous and maybe offensive but also smarter than the outrageous and offensive stuff that makes up every second of everyday life. Sad things can be funny—disgusting things can be funny too—but it's hard to find joke in the dumb, vapid, or sloppily repackaged.

Anyone who claims to understand "how" "comedy" "works" is probably lying, a fool, or both, and while I certainly wouldn't presume to know shit about what makes people laugh I will say this: There is some element of honesty to the stuff that is good and that endures. I doubt anyone at the Lampoon would ever admit to anything remotely as sentimental as that, but there's something indirectly genuine here, as if they had fallen into it while looking for whatever the next most incendiary and debased thing could be.

Cody Wiewandt is a writer living in New York.

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead opens in theaters today.