In the 1970s, Doug Kenney was the drum major who marched a new generation of comic iconoclasts to fame and fortune. Diehard Animal House fans might recognize him as Stork, the trenchcoat-wearing Delta brother who hijacks the Faber College marching band and leads them down a dead-end alley. But it was behind the scenes that Kenney made his remarkable impact on the world of comedy. He co-founded National Lampoon, the irreverent, outrageous MAD-Magazine-on-acid monthly that cultivated writers like John Hughes and P.J. O’Rourke, helped launch the careers of performers who blossomed on Saturday Night Live, and co-wrote Animal House and Caddyshack. His comic seeds blossomed everywhere, and then … he was gone, a victim of his own excesses and inner demons.
Will Forte plays Kenney in A Futile and Stupid Gesture, director David Wain’s Netflix movie that will debut next month at Sundance, and in the exclusive trailer, movie fans who might not know Kenney’s story can get a contact high from his manic talent and many comic creations. “You could argue that Doug was the spark plug of [the ’70s comedy revolution],” says Wain (Wet Hot American Summer). “He was a real inventor of something that has had deep and wide lasting value for anybody who enjoys or makes comedy.”
For Wain, Futile and Stupid was the first time he’d ever directed a movie based on real-life people, and along with producers Peter Principato and Jonathan Stern, and screenwriters Michael Colton and John Aboud who adapted Josh Karp’s 2006 book of the same name, he spent nearly a decade researching Kenney’s life, interviewing some of the colleagues who knew him best. “The whole task of the movie was terrifying in that way, in that we’re laying down the story of something that is important to a lot of people,” Wain says. “But what I realized is that we can only just tell our story. Everyone has a different point of view. Memory is so elastic and people have wildly different recollections of even very objective facts. So we just listened to everybody and then we created a story.”
The spine of Futile and Stupid is the relationship between Kenney and his more responsible and aristocratic Harvard classmate Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson), during and after they partnered to take their campus Lampoon publication national. So think The Social Network — but with cocaine, pranks, and food fights. But since Kenney helped conceive two of the era’s defining comedies, the film is also fun for its depiction of the comedy gods who wore togas at the Delta House or golfed at Bushwood. Joel McHale is one highlight, portraying his former Community co-star Chevy Chase at the height of his fame. “I was upfront with Joel: ‘You don’t remind me of Chevy Chase in any way,'” Wain says. “But I just figured if he knows Chevy Chase well and if he feels like he can do this, then I want to see it happen. Then he came on set and he channeled Chevy’s essence in a way that was just amazing. He would walk in the room and just the way he stood and his eyes—that’s the Chevy Chase that I know.”
Martin Mull plays the narrator, a modern-day Kenney who helps Wain “tell the story in as creative and outside-the-box way for today as Doug Kenney did what he did then.” The catch, of course, is that Kenney died in 1980, shortly after Caddyshack opened in theaters to lukewarm box office. Some say he died by suicide by jumping off a cliff in Hawaii. Others maintain he merely slipped while hiking. And Harold Ramis famously said, “Doug probably fell while he was looking for a place to jump.”
Futile and Stupid is serious about its comedy, trading in the snarky, sardonic humor that Kenney made famous. In the end, his life is still a cautionary tale. “So many people at that time were so reckless with their lives and a lot of them just didn’t make it through,” Wain says. “It just makes me feel like there’s a certain randomness to it, and it’s sad to imagine where Doug might have gone if he had survived that particular era.”
A Futile and Stupid Gesture is now streaming on Netflix.