Somebody asked me, what would be a dream project of yours?” director Douglas Tirola recounts. “I immediately had this vision of a book on my shelf at home that I have had since I was a teenager—the 10th-anniversary collection of National Lampoon.” 

That dream project became Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, a documentary about the infamous comedy brand National Lampoon.

But how to tell the story of National Lampoon? The magazine ran for 18 years and had dozens of notable editors and writers. The National Lampoon Lemmings stage show and The National Lampoon Radio Hour set the table for comedy shows like Saturday Night Live. And then there are the movies: Animal House, Vacation, and (unofficially) Caddyshack. Would it be possible to cram all of this into one concise 90-minute movie?

“Most of the story has taken place in the past, which leaves you with a couple of options of how you’re going to tell the story. Re-creation? I didn’t really see casting the John Belushi character,” Tirola explains. “Or, following people in real-time, like maybe four of the old writers get together and reminisce in a deli. That didn’t really work for me. You’re sort of left with the talking heads.”

Douglas Tirola. Images courtesy Magnolia Pictures.

And with Chevy Chase, John Landis, P.J. O’Rourke, and many others as your talking heads, it’s easy to get a leg up on the competition.

“They’re all still energetic and sort of fiery,” Tirola says. “I just felt that was the best way to tell the story.

“However, because we were going to have so much imagery—from the magazines and from different things they had created—we really wanted to think of: What was the best way to do these talking heads interviews?” Tirola continues. “Almost thinking of it less like an interview and more like a performance on a set.”

Tirola’s answer was to shoot the interviews in offices, home libraries, and bookstores to emphasize the high level of intellect needed to produce good satire. The comedy may be crude, but the knowledge necessary to produce that crude humor is sizeable.

“You really see the set and the setting, and it helps inform that character,” Tirola explains.

Tirola’s approach works, and it works much better than most similarly styled documentaries because he stays true to the material. Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is a fun and funny portrait of an anarchic brand that pulled no punches and paved the way for our modern sensibilities. Tirola captures that energy and what it must have been like to be in those rooms.

“There’s a line I love in the movie where Billy Bob Thornton says, ‘The National Lampoon was the first place I learned you can tell the truth through humor,’” Tirola recalls. “If people walk away with that, it would be great.”

A version of the above interview first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 23, No. 10, “These guys have all the fun.”