Fortunately, they did not make sex jokes and potty humor respectable, because then they wouldn’t have been fun anymore. However, this crude band of brothers were able to move them out of the frat houses and onto our newsstands and movie screens. War stories are told and the thanks of a grateful nation is expressed throughout Doug Tirola’s Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: the Story of the National Lampoon, which screens during the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.
It all started with two slightly off-center Harvard students. The Harvard Lampoon was considered the nation’s oldest humor magazine, but it was usually more about racking up extracurriculars than being funny. Editors Doug Kenney and Henry Beard were the exceptions. Together with fellow alumnus Robert Hoffman they took the Lampoon national. It took a while to catch-on, partly due to the underground comix look of the early issues. However, their tastelessness and contempt for authority soon found an appreciative audience.
From the vantage point of the internet age, it is hard to imagine the vastness of the Lampoon’s comedy empire at its height. In addition to the magazine, there were books, radio shows, stage productions, records, and of course films. Naturally, Animal House is chronicled in fitting detail. While Van Wilder fans might be upset over the franchise’s snubbing, Tirola and the surviving Lampoon staffers own up to the notorious head-scratcher that is Disco Beaver from Outer Space.
Happily, former editor P.J. O’Rourke gets substantial screen time, but Tirola never plugs the national bestsellers that came after his magazine stint, like Holidays in Hell, which made his reputation and had a considerable influence on the prose you read here every day. Indeed, Tirola scores interviews with just about everyone still living you would hope to hear from, including John Landis, Tim Matheson, and Chevy Chase.
However, there is no getting around his Tony Hendra problem. He can hardly ignore Hendra’s long association with the magazine, but he never acknowledges his personal controversies. The problem is, Jessica Hendra’s memoir How to Cook Your Daughter, in which she accuses her father of sexual abuse, takes its title from a now notorious Lampoon piece Hendra wrote, so the subsequent media frenzy becomes part of the magazine’s extended story, regardless how uncomfortable it makes us. By not addressing it in some fashion, Tirola risks being told he has a Hendra problem by internet know-it-alls.