A Futile and Stupid Gesture (2018)

When I was a kid, we’d often go to a pharmacy after church. I’d sit in front of the magazine rack while my parents shopped and would read everything I could. Up above where I could reach was a shelf that was blocked off, where I couldn’t see the covers. That’s where the Playboy magazines were. And that’s where National Lampoon resided, too.

I was born too late for the heydey of the magazine*, which would probably be from 1970 to 1976. During that time, American comedy for the foreseeable future until the end of time would be decided. No. This is not hyperbole. This is fact. The voices within the Lampoon magazine, radio show, stage show and films are the backbone of American comedy. The sheer amount of comedic talent in this film portrayed by the sheer amount of comedic talent proves that.

The force that these comedic talents orbited around was Doug Kenney and Henry Beard, who turned their stint at the Harvard Lampoon and nationally published parodies into a regular magazine in 1970.

If all Kenney did was write National Lampoon’s 1964 High School YearbookCaddyshack and Animal House, he’d still be remembered. So why does he deserve a book, much less a movie?

Based on A Futile and Stupid Gesture: How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy Forever, Kenney basically assembled the cast of Saturday Night Live before the show even aired. From John Hughes, Anne Beatts and P.J. O’Rourke to Tony Hendra (Spinal Tap’s manager Ian Faith) and Chris Miller (who co-wrote Animal House) on the writing side to Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Bill Murray and Gilda Radner (and more) on the performance side, you can see how nearly every comedy in the 1980’s had the Lampoon stamp — and stink — all over it.

As for the film, it’s pretty much made for comedy geeks who have the hardback of Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead and have watched the documentary that ensured ad nauseam, that have read and re-read every book on SNL, that can breathlessly tell you of the relevance of 1970’s comedy. Yes, I am looking at the man in the mirror.

If you knew nothing about Kenney, I’m not sure you’ll come out of this film loving him. In my reading of him, I’ve always seen him as this mysterious force that would write and write and write and then disappear, only to come back and prove himself all over again until he fell into a whirlwind of drugs and depression and faded away from this reality. I’ve always found myself more drawn to the pure menace and in your face nature of Michael O’Donoghue, who is portrayed in the film by The State‘s Thomas Lennon. His intro scene, where he goes into a manic rant that sounds life and death and is really only directed to a record club operator is perfect. So if you’re looking for a memoir of his greatest hits, this film is for you (indeed, the movie ending food fight has Beatts and O’Donoghue locked in a romantic embrace, making him near heroic).

This is almost a game to spot the comedian and who they are playing, kind of like The Greatest Story Ever Told, but for comedy. That’s Will Forte and Martin Mull as Kenney (I hoped against hope that I had been Mandala Effected into a world where Kenney survived, but no dice). Domhnall Gleeson (General Hux!) as Henry Beard. Pittsburgh’s own Jon Daly as Bill Murray. John Gemberling (Bevers from Broad City) as Belushi. Ed Helms as a picture perfect Tom Snyder. Natasha Lyonne as Anne Beatts. Even Joel McHale, portraying his old Community castmate Chevy Chase, who comes off as much an enabler as a friend. Tony Hendra is the only person who really gets a hatchet job here, coming off as a joke and girlfriend thief (and his daughter’s allegations of sexual abuse make him a troubling figure to enjoy these days). Paul Scheer even shows up as Paul Schaffer! Seriously, this film is just about a laundry list.

I really liked some of David Wain (The StateWet Hot American Summer) transitions in the film, such as how he uses the Lampoon Foto Funny style to explain Kenney’s divorce and then how he decides to escape to Los Angeles with his girlfriend, Kathryn Walker. There’s also plenty of explanation for why no one really looks like the people they’re playing, an attempted explanation for the Lampoon‘s lack of minorities and a laundry list of the way the movie plays fast and loose with what really happened (“some other things we changed from real life for pacing, dramatic impact, or just cause we felt like it.”).

There are some great in-jokes in the film, such as Martha Smith, who played Babs in Animal House, reprising her role. At the end of the film, it’s said that Babs became a tour guide at Universal Studios. And yep, that’s her leading the tour during the filming of Caddyshack. There’s also an appearance by Mark Metcalf (Doug Niedermeyer from Animal House and the Twisted Sister videos) who asks Kinney and Beard “What do you wanna do with your life?”

A lot of this hit close to home for me, the idea of throwing yourself into your work without worrying about anyone else in your life and thinking you’re a good person because you continually deliver (but don’t at home or to anyone else). It was, frankly, sobering. Despite the efforts of the film, Kenney does not come off as a good guy at all and his main excuse, not having the love of his family, rings hollow even to him at the end as his grieving father says, “They all loved him so much.”

Obviously, this is a movie basically made for me to enjoy. And I did, but it’s difficult for me to recommend it to anyone who doesn’t really care about where comedy comes from. Also, if you are one of those people, please go fuck yourself.

You can see the movie on Netflix right now. You can also watch Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead there, too.

*My parents, to their credit, paid for years of a National Lampoon subscription for me until the magazine became unreadable. I also have a vivid memory of reading the National Lampoon True Facts book while an ex-girlfriend spent two consecutive nights in the ER and trying not to laugh while surrounded by people — like me, to be honest — who had no reason to laugh. That anecdote sums up the National Lampoon pretty well, I think.

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