Doug Kenney is not as famous as Bill Murray or Chevy Chase or John Belushi, but he should be. As the visionary behind the National Lampoon magazine and radio show and the creator of Animal House and Caddyshack, Kenney helped launch their careers, as well as those of many others, laying the groundwork for modern comedy along the way. Director David Wain’s new film, A Futile and Stupid Gesture, looks to give Kenney his proper place in the comedy pantheon, as a legend whose legacy still looms large.
Wain (Wet Hot American Summer) was introduced to Kenney’s story when producer Peter Principato gave him a copy of Josh Karp’s biography of Kenney, A Futile and Stupid Gesture. “I grew up on Animal House and Caddyshack,” says Wain. “They were major, key influences on my life and work, but I didn’t really know Doug’s story. When I learned it, I was completely utterly fascinated.” Wain and Principato teamed up with co-writers Michael Colton and John Aboud to transform Karp’s book into a film that shares Kenney’s story with the world.
The film follows a fictionalized version of Kenney, played by Will Forte, as he struggles to fit in at Harvard. As a preppy-loathing guy who grew up in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, the only place he feels comfortable on campus is at the Harvard Lampoon, the university’s satiric newspaper, and with classmate Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson). When Kenney graduates, he convinces Beard to give up his law school dreams to launch the National Lampoon, a big-time version of the campus rag.
Kenney and Beard brought together a team that, month after month, put out one of the edgiest, drollest, most inappropriate, and laugh-out-loud-funny magazines ever, paving the way for much of modern comedy as we know it, including Saturday Night Live, SCTV, and The Simpsons. The magazine was a hit, and soon started spinning off side projects, including a high school yearbook parody that sold 1.5 million copies, comedy records, and live shows. Kenney then ventured to Hollywood to make Animal House, before leaving the Lampoon to make Caddyshack. His struggles with drugs and depression resulted in his life coming to a tragically early end under somewhat mysterious circumstances involving cocaine, Chevy Chase, and a cliff.
In a shift for Wain, who earned his comedy stripes with sketch groups The State and Stella, the film is essentially a docudrama. To tell Kenney’s story, Wain opted to cast Martin Mull as an older, still-living version of Kenney to act as a sort of one-man Statler and Waldorf, directly addressing the viewer with his sharp-edged narrations. When the movie opens with Kenney’s childhood in Ohio, Mull rolls his eyes: “You really want to start there?” Later, when Chevy Chase (Joel McHale), John Belushi (John Gemberling), Gilda Radner (Jackie Tohn), Christopher Guest (Seth Green), and Bill Murray (Jon Daly) are introduced, Mull turns again to the camera, saying, “So, yeah, these actors don’t look exactly like the real people, but come on, you think I looked like Will Forte when I was 27? You think Will Forte is 27?”
Mull’s character is also used to draw attention to the misogyny and general unpolitical correctness that were so prevalent in the pages of the Lampoon and in the comedy world at the time, cleverly preempting the critique that the Lampoon had only one woman and no people of color on staff. “It was an important element of contextualization that we needed to have in there,” explains Wain. “It was helpful to have that narrative device to give perspective from a modern lens.”
Mull had another role on set, though, because while Wain and the cast and crew may have heard stories about the Lampoon, Mull was actually there. “I knew three-quarters of the people in this film personally,” says Mull. “It felt like a time warp.”
It wasn’t just Mull who felt a bit dazed by finding himself on a set surrounded by well-known actors portraying other well-known actors. “It was bizarre,” says Emmy Rossum, who plays Kenney’s girlfriend, Kathryn Walker, in the film. “Everyone was constantly referring back to old tapes, making sure that they were moving and walking and talking correctly.” The effect of famous actors playing other famous actors (such as Seth Green playing Christopher Guest) was occasionally uncanny, particularly with McHale’s pratfall-filled take on Chevy Chase, his former Community co-worker. “I’m in awe of what Joel did,” says Wain. “He really had his whole presence and way of being in a room that we all know because Chevy Chase is such a massive icon.”
Thanks to years of research into Kenney’s life by Wain and writers Colton and Aboud, interviews with former Lampoon writers, and poring through documentaries like Doug Tirola’s recent documentary Drunk, Stoned, Brilliant, Dead and back issues of the National Lampoon, the film gives viewers a glimpse of what it may have been like to work within the barely contained chaos of a roomful of drug-fueled comedic geniuses. “Having been to the Lampoon offices I dare say it was maybe 10 percent more of an ordinary office than depicted in the film,” says Mull. “It was a pretty bizarre place.”
Drugs, sex, fistfights, and alcoholic binges were all part of life in the Lampoon’s New York offices, and the wild times spilled over into the pages. The result was a magazine that paired dirty comics and pictures of topless women with brilliant pieces of political and literary satire, like “The Love Song of J. Edgar Hoover” or a pseudo-racist pamphlet called Americans United to Beat the Dutch, which tells readers to identify the Dutch by their beer and/or cheese breath. Perhaps the most famous issue was when they pointed a gun at a dog and threatened to shoot it, if you didn’t buy a copy. It was jaw-dropping, incendiary, offensive, and, frequently, a genius cross between The New Yorker, Playboy, and Mad. “When you read the magazines, you get a sense that it wasn’t full of people meeting deadlines,” says Domhnall Gleeson, who plays the National Lampoon co-founder and resident adult, Henry Beard. “It’s hard to make something great and they did it—and they had a good time to do it.”
Their comedy frequently crossed the line, and the film features a montage of the many threats of lawsuits, harangues from the publisher, hate mail, and occasionally more that came into the office after each issue was published. “I was shocked to learn that dynamite was sent to the offices,” says Rossum. “The Lampoon was such a button pusher—it was so offensive to some people that they actually sent a stick of dynamite to the office!”
While Wain’s film is funny, documenting Kenney’s tragically short life is an inherently sad task, and Wain had to balance the humor with the very real drama. “Tackling a person’s life is just super hard,” Wain says. “Especially Doug’s, because it’s filled with humor and whimsy and fun and a boatload of pain and a horribly sad ending.” Kenney was frustrated professionally after Caddyshack failed to reach the success of Animal House; the mountains of cocaine he and Chase were imbibing undoubtedly didn’t help. He died in Hawaii in circumstances summed up in the film by Harold Ramis, as played by Rick Glassman: “He probably fell while he was looking for a place to jump.”
While Kenney’s story ends in tragedy, Wain was making a film about his life—and that life was filled with laughter. “It’s about humor. It’s about comedy. It’s about people who are incredibly funny,” says Wain. Those “incredibly funny” people were not just the ones who made the Lampoon an icon, populated the early days of Saturday Night Live, and went on to films like Animal House and Caddyshack. In A Futile and Stupid Gesture, the cast was as funny as the characters they were portraying. “When you put 20 really, really funny people together, everyone is doing bits—not only on camera, but between takes they are doing different bits. It’s like controlled anarchy,” says Rossum. It was Wain who was responsible for controlling it. “Corralling that energy into one creative force takes a lot of creative skill,” says Gleeson. “Both Doug and Henry did that at the Lampoon and David did it with the film.”
“David is an astounding director that he can take all these disparate human beings with different approaches to being funny and have them all in one room to be funny together is pretty extraordinary,” says Mull.
The crossover between real life and fantasy came to a head at the end of the movie, where the comedy world had gathered for Kenney’s funeral. It’s an ironically solemn affair that leads faux Bill Murray to remark to faux John Belushi, “Every funny person in the world is here. And no one’s laughing.” Wain didn’t want to end the film on a sad note, though, and with a little inspiration from Animal House, Wain stumbled upon a creative solution: a funeral food fight, where the cast cut loose.
“We only shot the food fight once,” says Rossum. “I was very, very committed. I had loaded my bra with coleslaw so I could get right back into it and keep throwing. It was very fun.” It’s a fitting end to a film that proved there is humor everywhere; it just takes the right person to find it.
A Futile and Stupid Gesture is now streaming on Netflix.