In “A Futile and Stupid Gesture,” director David Wain tells the story of Doug Kenney, one of the co-founders of National Lampoon, the humor magazine that after its debut in 1970 launched a generation or two of writers, comics and actors, led to such films as “National Lampoon’s Animal House” and Kenney’s own project, “Caddyshack,” which arrived a month before his untimely death in 1980.
The Netflix film that arrives on Friday, Jan. 26 has a huge cast of actors playing real-life people, from Will Forte as Kenney to Martin Mull as Modern Doug, the narrator, and a sort of Ghost of Kenney Future, and Domhnall Gleeson as Henry Beard, Kenney’s best friend at the Harvard Lampoon and partner in launching National Lampoon.
Joel McHale plays Chevy Chase, one of Kenney’s best friends in the final years of his life, and Emmy Rossum is Kathryn Walker, Kenney’s girlfriend until his death – a slip or a jump, it remains debatable, though it was ruled accidental – in a fall from cliff in Hawaii.
This week, as those four actors were in Park City, Utah, for a screening of “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” at the Sundance Film Festival, they came to the phone in pairs to talk about making the movie, the legacy left by Kenney and his work, and how much they actually knew about National Lampoon and Kenney before taking on their roles in Wain’s film.
On what they knew of National Lampoon:
“I knew nothing of National Lampoon and I think one of the things I’m happy about for the movie is that more people will know Doug Kenney and the impact he had,” said Gleeson, who at 34 wasn’t even born until after Kenney’s death.
“I had met Doug on several occasions, nothing very extreme,” said Mull, who at 74 is three years older than Kenney would have been had he lived. “But I knew very well (National Lampoon staffers) Michael O’Donoghue, Anne Beatts, P.J. O’Rourke, Tony Hendra, guys like that.”
Rossum said she knew nothing – she’s just 31 – but McHale said it was always a name that meant something to him as 46-year-old was growing up.
“When you heard it it was like hearing IBM or Betty Crocker, one of those things that was always around,” McHale said. “And you knew that it made really great comedy.”
He was too young to watch “Animal House” when it first came out, but “Caddyshack,” which Kenney wrote and produced, was a touchstone for him as it was for Wain and many other comedians and filmmakers of that succeeding generation.
“(Kenney) was like the Alexander Hamilton of comedy,” McHale said. “For the influence that he had he was not nearly as famous as the members of Monty Python or Richard Pryor or Steve Martin.”
On inhabiting a time and place and its people:
“I knew it was being recreated as a movie so I was able to dissociate myself when I left at the end of the day,” said Mull, the only adult to have lived through the early days of National Lampoon in the ’70s. “It was like visiting. It was like going to Disneyland and going to Yesterdayland, and then at the end of the day you go home to Tomorrowland.”
Gleeson said that though the events of “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” happened “before I entered consciousness, it’s one of the great joys of the jobs that we do that we get to see lots of different worlds and live in them for a few minutes at a time.”
Added Mull: “Just listening to that I realize we were both unconscious in the late ’70s. He wasn’t born and I was doing my best to live.”
While Rossum perhaps had it easier — Walker, though an actress, is not as well known as many of those portrayed in the film – McHale had the odd task of taking on the part of Chevy Chase, his cast mate in the sitcom “Community.”
He said he called Chase to tell him, and Chase gave his blessings, happy that the film was going to celebrate the life of his good friend Kenney, and then did a deep dive into all the early work of Chase that he could find online.
“I was kind of able to separate myself from ‘Community’ Chevy and go to the Chevy that was just about to become the biggest star in the world,” McHale said. “I didn’t want to do an impression of him, I wanted to grab the essence of him.”
On Kenney and influence of National Lampoon:
In the portrayal of Kenney in the film it’s clear Wain sees the traumas of his childhood – his older brother’s death, the distance of his parents – fueling both his comedy and the depression that lay beneath it. But Mull and Gleeson both dismissed the idea that pain is always an ingredient in art.
“I am impatient with people who think that all art has to come from pain,” Gleeson said.
“And to agree, I think you can be a great painter with both ears,” Mull added.
Whatever fueled Kenney’s genius, and that of Beard and the others who worked at National Lampoon and its many spin-offs, its legacy kicked down the doors of the polite comedy of the day and ushered in a new generation where anything could go and usually did.
“People were in an uproar about the way they were pushing comedy at the magazine,” Rossum said, mentioning as an example the real incident when an angry reader sent a package of dynamite to the Lampoon offices.
“I think there are certain levels to things,” Mull said. “For instance, Lenny Bruce broke down one level, and it influenced people, and it may have influenced people at National Lampoon who said, ‘OK, we’ll take it to another level.’”
It affected his own career, Mull said, too. “I think what it did was soften up the audience to what I was doing and make what I was doing more acceptable,” he said. “I felt like it kind of unleashed me.”
On an audience for this film:
National Lampoon shut down as a magazine in the late ’90s and to younger audiences it might not ring any bells. Even so, Mull, Gleeson, McHale and Rossum all said it can appeal to viewers of any age, whether they knew the magazine and its writers and various offshoots at the time, or whether they’re coming to it fresh today.
“To touch on ‘Hamilton’ again, it’s like people didn’t know about his story but that doesn’t mean it’s not something they’re not going to be interested in or will touch them,” McHale said. “It’s like ‘The King’s Speech’ or something you don’t know the story of but still enjoy.”
Teased Rossum: “I’m going to go out on a limb here and say this movie is nothing like ‘The King’s Speech.’”
Mull said the story of National Lampoon and its creators aren’t limited to those who were alive when it was founded and flourished.
“I think ‘Moby Dick’ is still a rather good book, and there’s no reason you can’t go back and read it,” he said. “It still has merit.”
To which Gleeson added: “I totally agree, good art is good art.”