Just finished watching the movie about the National Lampoon (and especially Doug Kenny) “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead.” It really is savagely funny and simultaneously pitiful, about the genuinely crazy smart people who flowed from the Harvard Lampoon and Second City improv group, creating the explosion of print, radio, recording, stage, television and film comedy that defined the 70’s, and then splintered and died. Its rise and fall were best exemplified in the life and death of Doug Kenny, who was at the center of much of this, and died in a still-unexplained fall from a cliff in Hawaii. Suicide? Accident? Drug murder? As one of his friends said: “he slipped while looking for a better place to jump.”
I remembered much of this history, but never put it all together in one place. And it is both hysterical and tragic. Even at the time, I remember thinking that much of the material in LAMPOON was the funniest stuff I’d seen in my life, much sharper than the other major humor magazine, MAD.
Much, much meaner too. And under the hah-hah seemed to be the assumption that the writers and artists were the smartest, best guys in the room (which was problematic as they were rather…monochromatic, shall we say? And non-whites never appeared in Nat Lamp without attention being drawn to their non-whiteness…)
Watching “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead” I also remembered something else I thought about the difference between Nat Lamp and MAD: Nat Lamp was punching down. Mad seemed to be punching up. There was a humanity in MAD magazine. I never saw them being cruel for its own sake. It seemed to me that if you got hit by a car outside the MAD offices they would rush to get help, concerned with your injuries and comfort. And that if the same thing happened outside NatLamp, they would call 911…but be snapping selfies with your bleeding corpse, and cracking jokes whenever no one was looking.
Ultimately, NatLamp crossed the line for me. No, it wasn’t the infamous “If Teddy Kennedy driven a Volkswagon he’d be president today” ad. It wasn’t the “If you don’t buy this magazine we’ll shoot this dog” cover, which I thought was a stitch. Not even the Guns and Ammo parody article: “Teddy Kennedy: Not Whether but When” article (they did seem to have something about Teddy).
It was the “Forgotten but not Gone: When will Mamie Eisenhower die?” contest in about 1975. That was a real “WTF” moment. This woman wasn’t a public figure any longer. It seemed needless, simple mean-spiritedness.
Hearing specifically about the ego acting-out, the cocaine (there’s a real short-path to a negative rewiring of your brain), the childlike dominance games, and self-destructive behavior behind the scenes made sense: some of these, some of the very smartest among them were brilliant people who believed in nothing but themselves, and ultimately understood that they were nothing. “Is that all there is?” is the inevitable result of living for yourself and reaching the mountaintop.
MAD, frankly, seemed based on a very Jewish sense of reciprocal obligation and the absurdity of human beings doing anything other than loving each other. Very very different. It makes sense that Nat Lamp would attack MAD, while to my memory, MAD never mentioned National Lampoon. For all his madness, William Gaines, publisher and editor in chief of MAD was a mensch. According to people like Kelly Freas Gaines was also the adult in the room, creating a safe place for these nutty big kids to play.
Nat Lamp was a bunch of very funny children who were encouraged to self-destructive behavior, encouraged to burn so that the suits could warm themselves at the fire. And when Doug Kenny, arguably the smartest of all of them ascended to the peak of financial success, Hollywood fame, and began to flirt with notions of suicide (along with his good, good friend Chevy Chase), wondering whether his death was accident, suicide, or drug murder is a pointless exercise: he was on the road to collapse, and the specific mechanism is nothing but a symptom.
“Drunk, Stoned, Brilliant, Dead” is a cautionary tale, in its own way much like “All That Jazz”. I fear for anyone who watches it and gets the wrong message. Like “Wolf of Wall Street”, without context and philosophical perspective, it would be as easy to miss the point, focus on the orgy of sex and drugs and money and miss the devastating hangover that came the morning after.