Doug Kenney was the face of the cultural comedy shift of the 70s and 80s, without 90 percent of people ever knowing whose face that was.
Doug Kenney was the founder of the National Lampoon magazine, formed The National Lampoon Radio Hour, staged National Lampoon’s Lemmings, and wrote only two movies in his life span: National Lampoon’s Animal House and Caddyshack. If you know who Doug Kenney is, he is the man who came in and turned culture and the way we view all things funny on its ear. If you don’t know who Doug Kenney is, and only know his work, well this movie will tell you all you need to know.
A Futile and Stupid Gesture is the latest film in the Netflix cannon and based on the book of the same name written by Josh Karp. It chronicles the life of Doug Kenney (played both by Will Forte and Martin Mull) and takes you on a wild journey through his ups and downs in Harvard, New York, and Hollywood. Additionally, the film boasts a terrifically comedic cast, including Emmy Rossum, Joel McHale, Thomas Lennon, Natasha Lyonne, Ed Helms, Jon Daley, and many more, all playing iconic and comedic landmarks from the 70s and 80s.
David Wain is the director best known for Wet Hot American Summer and Role Models, as well as his work with Stella and The State. He has surely made his own impact on modern comedy, with his dry and (as he refers to it) sardonic sense of humor, which not only makes Doug Kenney a kindred spirit, but also the perfect choice to direct this film.
We spoke recently to David Wain about the film, his kinship with Doug Kenney, and why we’re still talking about Kenney 38 years after his death in 1980.
What was your introduction to Doug Kenney? Were you a big fan of National Lampoon growing up?
Not super consciously. I remember knowing that Doug Kenney was one of the writers of Animal House, and that he was the one who played Stork [in the film]. That was probably my first awareness of his name. And then I remember seeing his name on Caddyshack and these were movies that I watched thousands of times as a kid. I’m not even exaggerating. I ingested them. They became a part of my bloodstream. So the movies were my first thing, and then I went backwards later in life and discovered the ‘Lampoon’ because I think at the height of the Lampoon I was too young to appreciate it. I was born in 1969.
So is the legend of Doug Kenney something that would interest you more later on?
Oh yeah. And of course I’ve been working on this particular project itself for almost 10 years. But I remember visiting the Harvard Lampoon when we were touring with Stella and getting a little introduction into the history of where that all started, which piqued my interest. And then every time I would hear the story of Doug, the more fascinated I was, particularly with the fact that there’s this guy who most people had not heard of, and yet was so dramatically wide-ranging in so many different areas.
Doug Kenney is from Chagrin Falls, Ohio. You are from Shaker Heights. Would you say there is an Ohio sense of humor?
I definitely feel a kinship with Doug and his point of view. As a guy who grew up in Northern East Ohio, and then made his way to the East Coast, with the aspiration to wanting to be that East Coast high society type, but also at the same time holding onto my outsider Midwestern wits and having a somewhat removed sardonic point of view on things. That’s one thing I definitely felt like I shared with Doug.
How did you get involved in the film? Were you familiar with Josh Karp’s book about Doug?
Well, [producers] Peter Principato and Jonathan Stern and the screenwriters Michael Colton and John Aboud came to me with the idea to take the book and make it into a movie. Then I read the book and I said “Oh my God, I agree. Let’s make this movie.” I said at the time “Let’s try to make a movie that’s as outside the box as you can make it, the way Doug Kenney might have been proud of.” Hopefully it’s different and not coloring in the lines, the same way that Doug was with the Lampoon. And that’s what began the long process of mounting this production.
Was it hard to find a studio that was agreeing to do something so different and outside of the box, as opposed to how a traditional biopic is?
Yeah, I give an incredible amount of credit to Ted Sarandos and Netflix who understood the appeal of the subject matter. It’s not often that studios are going to jump at the chance to do a biopic of somebody that most people have never heard of. And Ted himself is a real comedy fan. So Netflix turned out to be the absolute perfect place to make this film. Which by the way, we couldn’t make it for nothing. It’s a period piece and has this giant cast and had millions of locations. It’s quite a big movie.
Obviously the film is very funny, but there are also a lot of emotional sequences throughout the film. How did you, someone who is known for comedy exclusively, go about tackling this new world?
Well, ultimately, I didn’t treat it like a comedy. I mean we tried to make it entertaining and fun for the most part, but at the same time, unlike a lot of what I’ve done in the past, at its core, I think it’s a drama. It’s a drama about comedy and about funny people. But the approach was really to try to express the feeling of what was going on and just get some insight into who this guy was, and know that because of the nature of who he was, it would also be funny and enjoyable.
So did that approach allow you to step outside of your own comfort zone? This is also your first time doing something that was set in reality, so that must’ve been an adjustment as well, I imagine.
Yeah, it was a lot of different and new experiences. I really loved it. I loved how I worked with Jonah, the production designer, on deeply researching all the look and feels the whole time. The amount of research that goes into a true story like that is an amazing activity. And then as a director, it was a constant challenge for me to filter it through “Okay, we still have to tell a story and we still have to give this the shape and flow of a movie.” But without really having the flexibility to say “Actually, what if he ends up really happy at the end but then he lives to be whatever?” We had to work within the context of what story we were telling, actually. It was a different task for me, which I thought was a real treat to do. Something to stretch my muscles in ways that I hadn’t before, working with material that’s about actual real people, some of whom are still living, and following a story that actually happened in real life. It adds a whole new level of responsibility and opportunity as a director. So that was very exciting to me.
One of the hardest things to do in film is breaking the fourth wall, and being able to do it just right. That is something this film masters beautifully. Is there a secret to being able to break the fourth wall?
I don’t know if there’s a secret, but I think that it’s very tricky. I think in any movie, when you break the fourth wall, for me as a director, you have to follow a gut instinct as to whether you’re crossing the line in a way that is cheesy or distracting in the wrong way or just not funny or undercutting the emotion. But if you’re breaking the fourth wall in the right way, you’re actually adding not just humor, but you’re adding a well of perspective to material that can be awesome comedic and otherwise. In my career, I have loved different ways of being self-reflective and breaking the wall, but I think you have to pick and choose the right moments and do it the right way.
You’re known for casting a lot of friends and reoccurring players in a lot of your movies. But this was the first time you worked with Will Forte. So what made you want to cast him as Doug Kenney?
Well, obviously, it’s a very tough role to play, and we needed someone who could credibly come off as a Midwestern sweet guy, who also could be smart, edgy, and sardonic, and also have a certain appeal and charisma, and he also had to be funny. So that’s a lot to ask, and that boils it down to an extremely short list. So Will Forte is one of the few people on Earth that I think could’ve ever handled this role. And I think he rose up to it and gave it this beautiful… He’s one of he few performers that’s truly a comedy machine, if you think about him in MacGruber, but then he’s also a very fine dramatic actor. So not many people could pull this off.
Everyone is really great in the film, but one of the great performances would have to be that of Tom Lennon as Michael O’Donaghue.
It does seem like it was the role he was born to play. He’s so amazing in it. That’s one of the great pleasures. Obviously, Tom and I went through everything as youngsters, when we did The State. And we had our version of our Lampoon experience together, along with Joe Lo Truglio, who’s also in the movie. And so to have all of our whole larger community Matt Walsh, John Gemberling, Jon Daley, all of us taking part in telling the story of the community that came a generation or two before us was quite an honor.
Did you get any support from those who knew Doug Kenney with this movie?
Yeah. To varying degrees, everyone who is still alive who was part of the story talked to some member of our team. For example, I had a great conversation with Lucy Fisher, who is played by Carla Gallo in the film, who gave me some real insight into how truly sweet he was. That was something that didn’t come across to me as much in any other material. How such an open heart and what a beautiful soul he was, despite his obvious issues.
Why do you think we are still talking about Doug Kenney in 2018? What do you think it is about him?
I think part of the premise of the movie is that we’re not talking about him enough. Because he wasn’t an onscreen performer, and obviously because his career ended so early, I think his influence is not really recognized much. But the reason why he is an important figure is because you can really make the argument that it was his spearheading and setting the tone for what they were doing at Lampoon that really brought together that community and that voice at that time, which then in turn lead to a lot of the juice behind Saturday Night Live, which in turn lead to everything else that we consider the family tree of comedy, leading up to 2018.
A Futile and Stupid Gesture is currently streaming on Netflix.