In a pit of despair, one of the defining comic voices of his generation gets a pep talk from a friend. Hey, says the friend, you wrote the biggest comedy movie of all time on your first try! “That was two years ago,” says the morose writer. Soon he would be dead.
The new Netflix movie A Futile and Stupid Gesture is the life story of the comedy legend you’ve never heard of: Doug Kenney co-founded the 1970s humor magazine National Lampoon, many of whose talents later went on to staff Saturday Night Live. Miffed that his boss had turned down NBC’s offer to make a TV show out of National Lampoon, he leapfrogged over TV into the movies, and his maiden effort, written with fellow Lampoon writers Harold Ramis and Chris Miller, was National Lampoon’s Animal House. You know Kenney even if you think you don’t: He’s Stork, the guy who delivers the single, deathless line, “What the hell we s’posed to do, ya moron?” and then leads the marching band into a brick wall in the climactic scene. (Kenney is also at the heart of the astute 2015 National Lampoon documentary Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead.)
Upon its release Animal House was the highest-grossing comedy of all time; in today’s dollars, it earned some $471 million in North America. Anarchic, cynical, raunchy, anti-authoritarian, and youth-focused, it helped define a new era in screen comedy. (The previous highest-grossing comedy had been Smokey and the Bandit.) All three television networks ordered up sitcom versions of it (one of which never made it to air). So Kenney’s follow-up was bound to suffer from sophomore slump, and it did. It was such a disaster that Kenney (probably) committed suicide. That movie was Caddyshack.
Caddyshack was not a flop; it was the 17th-highest grossing movie of 1980, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com, and with its $39 million gross against a budget of $6 million, it was highly profitable. Yet when Kenney died in a fall in Hawaii a few weeks after it opened — “Doug died of Caddyshack,” a friend once said — he would not have guessed that it would go on to become one of the most beloved and quoted comedies of the 1980s. There’s a lesson here: Don’t kill yourself. Unless you were at all involved with Caddyshack II, in which case go ahead.
Futile and Stupid considers Kenney’s life story the way he might have told it: missing no opportunity for a laugh, mining even death and despair for those jokey riffs the pros call “bits.” The script by Michael Colton and John Aboud is full of first-rate zingers. Yet though I’ve been interested in Kenney for many years, I found myself laughing very little. The problem is that Colton and Aboud have written deadpan wit that would be absolutely perfect for a young Chevy Chase or Bill Murray. But they couldn’t find one of those, so they wound up with Will Forte.
Anyone who suffered through Forte’s disastrous 2010 spoof MacGruber, the only previous occasion on which anyone thought to make him the lead of a comedy movie, can tell you that Forte isn’t one of the gifted funnymen of his time. Even if Forte were hugely talented instead of the mediocrity he is, it’s inexplicable why director David Wain would cast a 47-year-old Forte to play Kenney from college years to age 33, when he died.
Yet if Futile and Stupid is a misfire, and particularly disappointing in the gang of Reno-on-a-Tuesday-night-level comics it enlists to play Murray, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, and Rodney Dangerfield (only Joel McHale, playing his longtime Community co-star Chase, is amusing among those taking the roles of the famous performers surrounding Kenney), I couldn’t stop watching. The sad-clown image may be a cliché, but there’s nothing trite about this movie’s handling of Kenney’s story. Wain has the comedy world dead to rights: the incessant competition to come up with the best line, the resulting pressurized atmosphere and need to blow off steam, the way the comedy pros almost never laugh. A Simpsons writer once said of George Meyer, widely deemed the funniest person on staff, “I’d rather make George Meyer laugh than win an Emmy.”
In Comedy World, the whole point is that the rules don’t apply to you: You have to come up with stuff nobody else would say or do. Your livelihood depends on finding new ways to transgress. But if you don’t keep that impulse tightly cordoned off from day-to-day existence, it can kill you: Hence the tennis balls full of cocaine that Kenney and Chase are seen indulging in and roaring through on their Hawaiian getaway to celebrate/mourn the release of Caddyshack. The scenes of the two drug buddies trying to top each other’s antics while they’re squirreled away in a hotel room have something to say about the workings of young-guy camaraderie. It’s hilarious, it’s destructive, it’s addictive, it’s exhausting, it’s brutal, it’s beautiful. Ultimately it’s unsustainable. Someone needs to save such guys from themselves, and usually it’s women, but what if those women are only around in the first place because of the anarchic streak that makes these guys funny, famous, and rich? It’s easy to dismiss the psychological problems of enormously successful people, but A Futile and Stupid Gesture shows an endless need to top yourself can segue into throwing yourself off a cliff.
— Kyle Smith is National Review’s critic-at-large.