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The Rise and Fall of the National Lampoon

The spoiler alert of this documentary appears right here in the title itself, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead. And, though the National Lampoon was a satirical magazine, full disclosure reveals that virtually every issue included photos of bare-breasted attractive young women in various situations, often with speech balloons.

For example, one such woman asked another such woman featuring what Donald Trump would now describe as a huge bosom, “Are you Eleanor Roosevelt?” The reply was “Yes.” This incongruity was likely borrowed from the context of a Lenny Bruce fantasy about a forbidden sight: “Eleanor Roosevelt had the prettiest tits I had ever seen or dreamed that I had seen.”

There were several editors at different times, each projecting his own personality. Doug Kenney wrote “My First Blow Job” whereas Henry Beard wrote “Practical Jokes For the Rich.” Tony Hendra wrote “How to Cook Your Daughter.” Michael O’Donoghue wrote “Children’s Letters to the Gestapo.” He was a reader of my own satirical magazine—The Realist, which had begun in 1958—and he invited me to write a monthly column for the Lampoon, “The Naked Emperor.”

The contributors all had outrageous imagination. Sam Gross lived up to his name. He was an accountant but wanted to be a cartoonist, so he moved to New York. I published his first attempts in The Realist, from a miniature Nazi oven to a full-page montage, “Humor of the Handicapped.” It was no surprise that years later he would become a regular artist in the Lampoon. Samples: A character dipping a bloody tampon in her tea—no caption necessary. Also, a character with a wire hanger inserted in his head–“No, lady,” he explains, “I’m not a Martian, I’m just an unsuccessful abortion.”

Another contributor, Anne Beatts, was a dazzling writer. Her coup de grace was a fake Volkswagen ad. The illustration was accompanied by her headline: “If Ted Kennedy Drove a Volkswagen, He’d Be President Today!” Which actually is true. The senator was doomed never to inhabit the White House, because he drunkstonedaccidentally drove off a bridge on Chappaquiddick island off Massachusetts into the water, and managed to swim free, leaving behind his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, who drowned, but not if he drove a Volkswagen Beetle that floated.

Volkswagen filed a $30-million lawsuit for violation of copyright. Although the movie doesn’t disclose the verdict, shrewd Lampoon publisher Matty Simmons put out a press release acknowledging that they were being sued, aware that it would boost sales. He agreed to travel around the country and tear the page-in-question out of every issue, but the issue sold out. There were none left from which to remove the fake ad. He then agreed to admit in the next issue that the ad was a parody, and the lawsuit was withdrawn.

Another controversy occurred when the editors ran an illustration depicting a baby in a blender, with a Satanic hand on the pulse button. The Christian Coalition of America, a right-wing group of religious zealots, began a crusade against the Lampoon, and almost all of its national advertisers jumped the Titanic ship. Thus, when I submitted my account of snorting cocaine with the pope, the editors told me that they loved it but were afraid of an organized letter-writing campaign to their advertisers.

There were internal squabbles at Lampoon headquarters. It was bad enough when Michael O’Donoghue learned that Tony Hendra had slept with his then-girlfriend, and O’Donoghue demanded that Matty Simmons fire Hendra. Of course, he wouldn’t, but instead he gave him the Lampoon radio program reaching 600 stations. The other feud developed concerning O’Donoghue and his new girlfriend, Anne Beatts. They were a romantic couple bound together by a mutual sense of absolute irreverence.

According to the film, Matty Simmons gave Beatts’ desk to his son Michael, and she was furious, complaining, “It had taken me all that many years to get a desk, and suddenly I didn’t have it any more.” O’Donoghue called Matty and threatened that “Anne Beatts must have an office at the radio show. If you don’t do this, I’m gonna quit.” Simmons: “Well, if she doesn’t like it she can quit, and if you don’t like it you can quit.” O’Donoghue: “I quit.” And that was it. The anarchistic pair departed and never returned. Ironically, Michael Simmons was O’Donoghue’s assistant for a couple of years, an interesting job for a teenager, and he had a desk outside his office from which he would do his bidding.

However, Michael Simmons says: “Being the boss’ son has never been the easy ride some may think. Lampoon contributor Anne Beatts claims in the documentary that her boyfriend Michael O’Donoghue quit because Matty ‘gave’ me Anne’s desk in early 1974–an utterly absurd fallacy. She’s been repeating this canard for 40 years. I was living in upstate New York at the time and didn’t have an office at the Lampoon. Matty was the Chairman of the Board–not the Chairman of Desks.”

When Matty originally launched the Lampoon in 1970, his son was 15. Like many kids, Michael worked after school and summers at “Dad’s store.” He was the first “True Facts” editor, among other gigs. As the magazine expanded into show-business areas, so did Michael Simmons’ participation. By 1973, he was the doorman at the Village Gate where National Lampoon’s Lemmings played and for which he handled underground/rock press and radio PR. In 1974, he was company manager for their second stage show, The National Lampoon Show, with John Belushi, Gilda Radner and Bill Murray.

When NBC conceived of doing a Saturday night satire show, they approached the Lampoon, but Matty Simmons turned them down–too busy. Instead, NBC hired Lorne Michaels, who proceeded to snatch away some of Lampoon’s brightest talent. Belushi, Radner and Chevy Chase joined Saturday Night Live, as did Michael O’Donoghue, who became the show’s head writer. And eventually Michael Simmons would become an editor of Lampoon at age 29.

Meanwhile, Doug Kenney was a co-screenwriter with Chris Miller and Harold Ramis of Animal House. It was a big fucking blockbuster hit and Doug enhanced his happiness with cocaine. But when he made Caddyshack with Chevy Chase. It got such awful reviews–a 5-star failure—that he enhanced his bottomless depression with more cocaine than a dozen popes could snort. He was beyond addiction. He would place coke along his arm and sniff it all away, then lead a Lampoon meeting. The folks there urged Chase to take him away for a week in Hawaii.

In 1980, when I was living in San Francisco, I got a call from Kenney. He was on his way to Hawaii and wanted to get together with me. I was the head writer for an HBO special about the presidential campaign, A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the White House, and since I was deep into the final throes of material, Doug and I agreed that we would get together on his way back.

But an extremely unfunny thing happened in Hawaii. Doug fell off a cliff. Chevy thought he was hiding somewhere and decided to leave, unaware that Doug, his best friend, had died at age 33. There were rumors that he had committed suicide. I didn’t believe it. Not only had we planned to meet, but John Landis, the director of Animal House, said Doug also wanted to see him back in Los Angeles when he returned from Hawaii.

Chris Miller, co-screenwriter of Animal House and prolific Lampoon contributor, once proclaimed that Doug wanted to insert his penis in any woman’s ear. He quotes Doug as saying, “Chris, I hope I’ll go to Heaven and stick my dick in the ear of Eleanor Roosevelt,” adding that “Probably right now, Doug is sticking his dick in the ear of Eleanor Roosevelt.”

Rex Weiner—my old friend who was one of the writers for that HBO show–and I attended a memorial wake for Doug on the rooftop of the Magic Castle in Hollywood. There was an all-you-can-eat buffet provided by a Japanese restaurant. Rex and I considered starting a food fight, inspired by that scene in Animal House in honor of Doug—“He would have wanted it that way”–but we decided it would be in terrible taste, and out of respect for all the other mourners, we resisted the temptation.

It was there that I first met another friend, Michael Simmons. He reminisces: “It was a heady, exciting atmosphere for a hippie teenager in the early 1970s—the funniest, edgiest and smartest people I’ve ever known, concentrated under one roof. At the same time I’ve wondered if the Lampoon’s ‘everything’s a target’ philosophy set the stage for the post-irony we’ve endured for the last twenty or so years.

“Not that I’d have it any other way—one can find the absurdity in most endeavors. But when everything’s equally absurd, what’s left to satirize? A world in which Donald Trump is considered a serious presidential candidate is a self-parody, and I’m not sure satire can out-do reality in a case like Trump’s. I was a Lampoon editor from 1984 through 1989. We knew the golden era had passed.”

Nonetheless, the 2015-release timing of Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead succeeds in presenting the war on taboos that contrasts so blatantly with the current reincarnation of political fucking correctness.

 

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Paul Krassner is the editor of The Realist

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