Quest For Fun: Looking Back At 'National Lampoon' Director Douglas Tirola's new film, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, chronicles the rise and fall of National Lampoon. Tirola tells NPR the magazine's power came from its willingness to go after anyone.
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Quest For Fun: Looking Back At 'National Lampoon'

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Quest For Fun: Looking Back At 'National Lampoon'

Quest For Fun: Looking Back At 'National Lampoon'

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A lot of what and who has made us laugh over the past two generations can be traced back, one way or another, to National Lampoon. From 1970 to 1998, the magazine that began as a spinoff from the Harvard Lampoon became one of the first multi-media content providers, a phrase that its founders would probably cringe to hear. It created books and magazines, radio, films, albums and stage shows, distinguished by deliberate raunchiness and studied outrageousness. Some of its founding talents are still active, but many burned out.

Douglas Tirola has directed a new film about the Lampoon and its influence. It's called "Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead." Douglas Tirola joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

DOUGLAS TIROLA: Scott, thanks for having me.

SIMON: The cover with a dog is one of the first things that National Lampoon did that got a lot of attention. Maybe we should explain that.

TIROLA: Well, the cover with the dog is - it's a dog about to have its picture taken and then its eyes are veering off to the left, where there's a gun held to the dog's head, as if to say - are you going to shoot me? And the title on the cover of the magazine is - "If You Don't Buy This Magazine, We'll Shoot This Dog."

SIMON: Oh, my. Worked, though, didn't it?

TIROLA: Well, I think it worked because there's an honesty to it, which in the '70s especially, when there were so many magazines and so many magazines bought on newsstands, magazines were looking for attention when someone's running to the train or walking down the street. So the covers really had to stick out. And there's an honesty to that cover that's very much at the heart of the Lampoon, which is basically saying, please, buy this magazine, because that's really what it's all about. So they're sort of revealing themselves there.

SIMON: Doug Kenney and Henry Beard, the founders, were Harvard classmates - truly gifted, spoiled brats or both?

TIROLA: I don't know if they were spoiled brats, but they were truly gifted. Henry came from a sort of upper crust family - older father, younger mother, I believe, an only child.

Doug was from Chagrin Falls, Ohio, where his father was the local tennis pro at a country club and then had eventually become a businessman. And they were sort of opposites that attracted. I think there was a commonality in terms of a way of looking at the world and a way of commenting on the world. But Henry was more of a Holden Caulfield type, a little bit more quiet. And Doug was someone who was always in the center of the party.

SIMON: Let's mention some of the signature articles that - well, it's hard to mention some of the signature articles that attracted...


SIMON: ...That attracted attention. I'll try a couple.

One - the Volkswagen ad and then this is a good week to talk about Volkswagen, yes.

TIROLA: It is. The Volkswagen ad - in the early '70s, there was apparently a Volkswagen ad that showed a Volkswagen Beetle bug floating in water. And this was an ad that looked very much like it, but the tag line said - if Teddy Kennedy drove a Volkswagen, he would be president now, referring to Chappaquiddick.

SIMON: Chappaquiddick, where you had a woman, Mary Jo Kopechne, died in the backseat of the vehicle that Teddy Kennedy drove off the bridge.

TIROLA: And if it was a Volkswagen, the ad was saying, because Volkswagens floats, then nobody would have died.

SIMON: What did they get about the times that maybe some other people missed?

TIROLA: There are many things that made the Lampoon special. Obviously, this incredible talent that was there at the same time, but what I think the overriding theme of what made them special is that they would go after anybody. And there was a danger in that, and there was an unpredictability in that. And when you open the Lampoon, on one page they're killing Nixon, and on the next page, they're going after a sacred cow on the left, like Che Guevara - I think made the whole experience more exciting.

SIMON: "Saturday Night Live," the Onion, Funny or Die, the website - do they all owe something to the "National Lampoon Radio Hour?"

TIROLA: Pretty much everything in comedy, at this point, owes something to the Lampoon, whether they realize it or not. I think they just broke down a lot of barriers in a mainstream way - speaking to a national audience. And there's still little residue of that today. I think some of it - people may be focused on the "Animal House" aspect and just the idea of teenage boys and college boys and nudity and sex and things like that, in a way you hadn't seen it before, "Animal House." But I think there's just something more, that they represent freedom. They represent a freedom that maybe we don't even have as much as we wish we did today.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Prison Farm, where Nixon's men and the nation's most desirable criminals are sent away for hard middle management, for as long as they like.

SIMON: As we explained the radio hour led to films - led to stage shows. Did the multi-platform success, to use the current term, also herald the undoing of National Lampoon? And I don't mean just the talents that went to "Saturday Night Live" in Hollywood, but personal difficulties.

TIROLA: What I love about the story of the National Lampoon is, to me, it was one of the last great untold stories about a group of people that unexpectedly came together, and, when they did, something special happened. So I think what happened there is it's as if somebody had gone into this giant high school cafeteria and taken the smartest person from each table - the alternative table, the theater table, the jock table, the student council table. And because of that, eventually, those personalities started to rub up against each other. And I think what always happens with some big success - ambition and envy and jealousy starts to get in the way. You see somebody getting a little bit more popular - a little bit more famous - a little bit more notoriety. And these were people that had big ambitions. And they were not cage-able people, as one of the staff members says in our film.

SIMON: And cocaine didn't help.

TIROLA: You know, numerous people that we interviewed in the movie, from Tim Matheson, who played Otter in "Animal House," Beverly D'Angelo, a number of the writers - all talked about how cocaine was just prevalent and just out there and socially accepted. And people at that time didn't know it was bad for you. Some people actually thought it made you work faster, so for a lot of people, Doug Kenny and John Belushi are really two the first big deaths that people talk about or that were that were recognized.

SIMON: Yeah. You know, I got to say, I had occasion, while watching your film, to read some old Lampoons and certainly enjoyed what I saw in your film, still makes you laugh all these years later.

TIROLA: I think what makes the Lampoon also special is that it has both that lowbrow humor, you know, things that use associate now with their own work in "Animal House" or almost like the Marx Brothers. And then things where you feel like, you know, you need a master's degree to possibly understand, but they didn't shy away from either. And that might be another thing that's a little bit missing. I think you see it in "The Simpsons" and "South Park," to some extent, "Family Guy." And maybe you're able to get away with a little bit more in a cartoon (laughter) than with real people.

But that combination of where you can have, on one page, you know, something with nudity that's completely outrageous and on the other page, you know, a parody of a T.S. Eliot poem.

SIMON: Douglas Tirola, who's director of the new film, "Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead" in theaters, On Demand and on iTunes. Thanks so much for being with us.

TIROLA: Thanks for having me.


KENNY LOGGINS: (Singing) I'm all right. Nobody worry 'bout me. Why you got to give me a fight? Can't you just let it be? I'm all right. Don't nobody worry 'bout me. You've got to give me a fight. Why don't you just let me be? Do what you like.

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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