Marshall McLuhan & the National Lampoon

This is from a review of Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon:

Douglas Tirola’s Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon (2015), which screened yesterday at the Sydney Film Festival, is a thoroughly conventional documentary – it consists solely of archival material interspersed with “talking heads” style interviews of key players from the era – but, as the story of the birth and flourishing of the National Lampoon magazine from the early 1970s through to its virtual death in the 1980s, it’s completely engrossing.

Almost every kid growing up in Anglophone suburbia in the 1970s and 1980s would be familiar with the films of these (once) iconoclastic comedians – Belushi, Chase, Murray and Ramis have become virtually household names.

Read the full review here: .

The following excerpt from the review discusses Marshall McLuhan:

Probably the most intriguing of the archival footage is an interview with Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan (famous for coining the phrases “the medium is the message” and “the global village”).

McLuhan, interviewed in grainy black and white, praises the magazine while at the same time expressing doubts regarding its validity as a “countercultural” artifact. In response to a question regarding the popularity of the magazine, he says that it’s partly because “they’re very witty,” but also (and more significantly) because “they are designed to please – and flatter – a particular audience of fairly well to do nobodies. Who can afford to be nobodies”.

In the context of Vietnam, Watergate, the 1970s – for those interested, the most effective depiction of the 1970s American zeitgeist remains Robert Stone’s novel Dog Soldiers (1974) – perhaps this is an unfair comment by McLuhan.

Animal House has aged well, but owes more to slapstick than satire. © National Lampoon
There clearly is a political position underpinning the early issues of the magazine – against racism, against religious zealotry, against Vietnam – even if this is interspersed with raunchy images and jokes that are at times hilarious and at times merely stupid.

The film is, certainly, great in its documentation of life in the countercultural 70s – but there is perhaps some niggling truth to McLuhan’s point about the magazine in the first place. What was it but a kind of literary masturbatorium for college kids wishing to break away from their well-to-do parents?

In any case, McLuhan’s point touches on two larger issues only hinted at in the film, that endow the film with significance beyond middling biographical interest.

The first is a reminder of the destructive tendencies of the commodification of art – the film clearly maps the story of a radical (and groundbreaking) magazine that increasingly disintegrates with each additional level of corporatisation. In our current age of the reification of every living impulse, this is particularly resonant.

The second, more topical issue is raised by National Lampoon writer-editor Tony Hendra in a contemporary interview in the film:

It is the job of a satirist, okay, to make people in power uncomfortable. Really uncomfortable – to the point where they go, ‘this has to be stopped’.

In the context of the global (Western) support of everything Charlie Hebdo, this is a crucial point to keep in mind. Satire, for it to be effective (and, even, I’d say, justified) must be directed against the powerful.

If it’s directed against a minority, what is it other than a new version of Black Face, a mean, idiotic demonstration and celebration of the powerful bashing the weak? People should bear this in mind when they spout platitudes about “free speech” in their hagiographies of the so-called “satirists” of Charlie Hebdo.

Here is a film segment in which McLuhan responds to a question about why the National Lampoon is so popular:-

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