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Lampoon displays aptitude of alumni

by DAN LYBARGER Special to the Democrat-Gazette | November 13, 2015 at 2:09 a.m.

Despite the fact that readers can no longer find a copy of National Lampoon on a newsstand, the humor magazine, which ran from 1970 to 1998, ended up launching a seemingly endless number of careers for writers like P.J. O'Rourke, John Hughes (the writer behind the Vacation movies, Sixteen Candles, Home Alone), Larry David and Al Jean (one of the brains behind The Simpsons). The rag also gave a boost to a radio show and a touring stage company (The Lemmings) and movies, which introduced the world to Christopher Guest, Kevin Bacon, John Belushi, Meat Loaf (who was Belushi's understudy), Gilda Radner, "Don't Cry Out Loud" singer Melissa Manchester, Chevy Chase, Harold Ramis and other comedy pioneers.

Making a list of all the magazine's alumni is guaranteed to give someone carpal tunnel syndrome, so it's no wonder that Douglas Tirola, who produced Robert Greene's Fake It So Real and Actress, and directed Hey Bartender, A Reason to Believe and All In: The Poker Movie, has documented the Lampoon's brief but indelible legacy with Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon.

The film will be screened at Little Rock's Ron Robinson Theater, 100 River Market Ave., at 7 p.m. Tuesday. Tickets are $5. For more information, call the box office at (501) 320-5715.

When I told Tirola that a friend of mine in her 20s was a fan of the magazine even though she was born after O'Rourke, Michael O'Donoghue and others were long gone, the director was hardly surprised. Speaking from his office in New York, he says, "You have these stories of where when people got the Lampoons, they would re-read them, over and over again the way kids now would watch a South Park episode 20 times. When you think about a lot of magazines, people read it once, and that's it. You kept (National Lampoon) until somebody stole it."

Tirola has been a fan since catching National Lampoon's Animal House in 1978. His devotion led him to make some unusual discoveries. "In college, I was a DJ, and there was a big crate of records that had a sign that said, 'Under no circumstances, play these on air.' I got my hands on That's Not Funny, That's Sick, and I actually did sneak a little of it on air and then ended up taking the record with me."

Enlightened Rogues

No matter what medium bore the "National Lampoon" label, bad taste was sure to follow. One issue had a cover that warned, "If you don't buy this magazine, we'll kill this dog." Another cover featured Stevie Wonder wearing 3-D glasses. At its best, the magazine's humor has lasted because it was more than raunchy. Founders Glen Kenney and Harry Beard hailed from Harvard, and few humor sites today would make up phony Zeppelin tour brochures entirely in German.

"Part of what makes the Lampoon humor elusive today is that great combination of highbrow humor, where it feels like you need a Ph.D. just to understand what they're talking about, and naked breasts," Tirola says. "The way that they deal with sex is a great example. What it's really more about is teenage boys or men who still think they're teenage boys, and their pursuit and failure to get sex. It's all about the pursuit of it and all the awkwardness around it."

Tirola also says that Lampoon contributors might have done so well because they had no idea they'd eventually pursue full-time careers in comedy.

"The Onion's great, but the Lampoon was like that first place where these people said that hey, we could actually make a living doing this. By the time The Onion comes around, it's a career choice. Most of the people at the Lampoon, for the first five to ten years, they're waiting for someone to go tap them on the shoulder and say, 'It's time to go get a real job.'"

He explains, "When John Hughes started, he's like a Wallace Stevens character. He has his job at [ad agency] Leo Burnett in Chicago, and then he's writing for the Lampoon at the same time. Nobody thought that was going to be a full-time job."

A Tragic Note

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead focuses primarily on Kenney, who co-wrote Animal House and Caddyshack before dying in an accident in 1980. Much of the magazine's cerebral spirit died with him, and the documentary features Chase, a close friend, candidly talking about the pain of losing him.

When asked how he got the normally suave actor to talk in such an unguarded manner, Tirola says it helps that Chase was a poker fan and was curious about Tirola's previous documentary All In.

"You can't plan for something like that. What you can do is show whoever you're interviewing that you're really well-researched and you're taking this really seriously and hope they decide to share with you. Because somebody who's been in as many movies and been filmed as many times as Chevy Chase understands what they're giving you, as opposed to someone who's really excited that you're following them around with a camera and suddenly forget that you're following them around with a camera," he says.

"I come from a New York production-based background. I was a [production assistant] on When Harry Met Sally ..., which is a little different than coming from people who end up in the documentary world. I approach an interview as if it were with an actor. We're not just there to get an interview. We're there to get a performance."

Winning Over a New Generation

Even though the magazine was based in New York and later Los Angeles, one of the publication's most fervent admirers is Arkansas' Billy Bob Thornton. The actor-writer-director gives the documentary's opening remarks.

"His line in the film says it best. What he expresses in the film is sort of universal to the Lampoon and to movies and books," Tirola says: "'I felt like I was the only person looking at the world this way until I read this, and it made me feel like I wasn't alone.'"

MovieStyle on 11/13/2015

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