Archive for May, 2018

May 2, 2018

#140) Book review: “A Futile and Stupid Gesture: How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy Forever” by Josh Karp

Most people under the age of 50 haven’t heard of Doug Kenney. Until earlier this year, I was one of them. My interest in Kenney wasn’t piqued by the new Netflix film starring Will Forte, but by learning of his rise and fall, from a childhood as an outsider in his own family and in the all-American town of Chagrin Falls, Ohio (where “[F]ew remember Doug Kenney…they remember…Tim Conway instead. He is Chagrin’s favorite son”) to his success at National Lampoon and then Hollywood to his untimely and mysterious death. When I visited the Hanapepe Lookout in Kauai, Hawaii last year I didn’t realize that at that same spot almost four decades earlier, a man who’d had a huge impact on the last half century of comedy either fell or jumped to his death at the age of 33. Learning that Kenney died not in a squalid hotel room or alley but in one of the most beautiful places I’ve had the fortune of seeing fueled my desire to learn more.

Like the exact circumstances surrounding his demise, Doug Kenney was elusive, even to those who knew him best. What is unambiguous is the influence that Kenney’s baby, National Lampoon, had on humor. Josh Karp writes that Kenney and his National Lampoon colleagues “[paved] the way for Saturday Night Live, the Onion, the Simpsons and nearly everything funny that has happened since 1975.” It’s a broad claim – but “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” makes its case convincingly.

As a piece of writing, “Futile” is not perfect. Karp has a tendency to tell more than show, often explaining punchlines after the fact and not making the supporting cast memorable. Kenney’s colleagues at the Lampoon, including Henry Beard, Michael O’Donoghue, Ed Bluestone, Sean Kelley and Ted Mann are all described as one kind or another of misunderstood, creative comic genius who found their voice through the magazine, but without much compelling detail about them, their names start to blend into one another.

Where “Futile” scores is in its getting underneath subjects that haven’t been explored all that much in print but nevertheless have had a big impact on popular culture in the latter decades of the 20th century and the first few decades of this one. If Kenney isn’t a household name among today’s generation, he was associated with many people who are. Though he died less than two years after Kenney, John Belushi’s work has been transcendental. Chevy Chase’s best days may be behind him but he is as recognizable as Clark Griswold, Fletch or Ty Webb today as he was 20 or 30 years ago. Kenney’s work on “Caddyshack” as a producer and co-writer put him in close quarters with star Bill Murray and director/co-writer Harold Ramis; he also crossed paths with Dan Aykroyd. The backlash to the recent all-female “Ghostbusters” remake proves that the three stars of the original are still in the hearts and minds of fans of all ages.

“Futile” is also strong as a study of the relationship between art and commerce; the conflict among readers and advertisers between wanting to feel edgy and dealing with the consequences when edginess becomes offensiveness. Publisher Matty Simmons is the voice of reason – an authority figure with whom his writers have a love-hate relationship. At the outset, he is excited by the dangerous, boundary-pushing humor of the magazine but he soon finds himself putting out fires with angry sponsors and the increasingly influential Christian right while also trying to handle the turnover of staff that results when bruised egos cause one twenty-something writer after another to quit in a huff.

Most poignantly, perhaps, “Futile” shows the effects of personal and cultural changes over time and the inevitable decline that follows sudden success, both generically and in ways specific to the 1970s. “Nixon’s departure would leave an enormous void,” Karp says of the effect Watergate had on the Lampoon. “He’d been a treasure, bringing with him a group of would-be civil servants and hangers-on who were unparalleled in their capacity to be parodied. And now they were gone.” By the mid 1970s, so were co-founder Henry Beard and the brilliant but volatile Michael O’Donoghue, who left to become the first head writer of Saturday Night Live. Kenney continued to drift in and out; Karp describes his relationship with the magazine at this point as “emeritus.” By the late 1970s, the Lampoon staff was “not capable of operating at the same level…[r]ather than appearing out of nowhere, they had been influenced by National Lampoon. They were National Lampoon writers, not individual voices that came to the Lampoon.”

Looking through the lens of hindsight, Karp accepts that the Lampoon’s decline was inevitable. The brand would flourish financially in the 1980s, thanks mainly to a series of successful movies, but the magazine’s days as the bad boy of American humor were long gone, a casualty both of changing times and a staff of erstwhile smart-asses who eventually became part of the establishment they hated. As staff writer and editor P.J. O’Rourke said, “We were standing in the flower garden with our noses pressed up against the window, making faces at the grown-ups eating inside. There would come a time for most of us when it would be time to go into the house, take our places and have faces made at us in return.”

Did Doug Kenney’s inability to grow up kill him? For much of the book, Kenney is portrayed as a manchild, “burdened by a desire to belong and a mistrust of the very same.” He craves success, in particular to please his straight-laced family, but doesn’t seem to know how to handle it (the scene in “Caddyshack” where Cindy Morgan discovers a large, uncashed check in Chevy Chase’s room was inspired by an incident with Kenney). Of Kenney’s move to Hollywood, Karp writes, “Though he was now the financial, commercial and artistic success he had spoken of becoming…when he was penniless and living off handouts, Doug Kenney was unfulfilled…he was a success and at the center of a hip, smart, funny social circle that adored him…yet it meant nothing. Somehow it was ill-gotten and illegitimate.”

Ultimately, Karp concludes that Kenney’s death was an “accident that was no accident.” Kenney “knew himself too well, and as a result knew himself not at all.” While those he left behind can only wonder what he might have accomplished had he lived longer, “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” is a celebration of Doug Kenney’s brief time on earth and its influence that can still be felt.

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