'Futile Gesture,' a Serious Bio of Funnyman Kenney Josh Karp's biography A Futile and Stupid Gesture chronicles the life, comedy and untimely death of National Lampoon co-founder Doug Kenney. The title comes from a line Kenney penned for the screenplay of the film Animal House.
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'Futile Gesture,' a Serious Bio of Funnyman Kenney

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'Futile Gesture,' a Serious Bio of Funnyman Kenney

'Futile Gesture,' a Serious Bio of Funnyman Kenney

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In August of 1980, a 33-year-old man named Doug Kenney went for a walk on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. He never returned, his body discovered at the base of a cliff. Thus ended the life of a man who some say transformed the way Americans laugh. Doug Kenney was responsible for this...

(Soundbite of Animal House)

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) We could fight them with conventional weapons. That could take years and cost millions of lives. No, in this case I think we have to go all out. I think this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody's part. We're just the guys to do it.

ADAMS: And this...

(Soundbite of Caddyshack)

Mr. CHEVY CHASE (Actor): (As character) I like you, Betty(ph).

Mr. MICHAEL O'KEEFE (Actor): (As Danny Noonan) That's Danny, sir.

Mr. CHASE: (As character) Danny. I'm going to give you a little advice. There's a force in the universe that makes things happen. And all you have to do is get in touch with it. Stop thinking, let things happen, and be the ball.

ADAM: That first was from Animal House and the second from Caddyshack. Josh Karp is the author of a new book titled A Futile and Stupid Gesture: How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy Forever. He joins us now from our Chicago bureau. Welcome to our program.

Mr. JOSH KARP (Author): Thanks for having me on, Noah.

ADAMS: Let's go back now to the beginning of the National Lampoon magazine. Doug Kenney has been with the Lampoon at Harvard along with many of his cohorts and they decide to take this uptown and make it a professional operation, or sort of a professional operation.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KARP: Yes, sort of professional. Doug Kenney, Henry Beard and a classmate of theirs named Rob Hoffmann had been working at the Harvard Lampoon while they were students. And they'd really been instrumental in resurrecting the Harvard Lampoon as kind of something other than just a circular for rich, preppy graduates making fun of the less-rich, preppy graduates of Harvard.

In contrast to I think what a lot of Harvard people were doing at the time, they decided not to become investment bankers, not become lawyers, not become doctors. They decided to start a humor magazine. And when National Lampoon started in 1970, one of the things that really contributed to their success that they had no control over was the timing - the changes in the United States, the Vietnam War, the middle of the hippie, you know, Summer of Love type of thing.

When they started that magazine, what was cutting-edge humor, what was counter-culture humor, it was the Smothers Brothers, it was Martin and Rowan's Laugh-In. And the two humor, printed humor things at the time were the New Yorker and Mad magazine. And Mad magazine was for kids and the New Yorker was highly literate. And they really melded those two things and then introduced this absolutely no holds barred, make fun of whatever you want, make fun of the hippies, make fun of their parents, make fun of the war, make fun of death, which they made fun of endlessly and made humor out of it.

ADAMS: He grew up in a small town in Ohio. What is it about Doug Kenney that puts him at the very center of this new kind of humor?

Mr. KARP: Why Doug is at the center of the movement - one of the writers who'd worked at National Lampoon sent me an e-mail the other day after having read the book and he had said that he thought Doug had the mind of a cynic and the heart of a nice boy. That was what really set him apart from other people. His humor was very warm and it came at things from all kinds of different angles.

He was in touch with what it was like to be a normal American kid. He was a misfit, but he really, really, I think, wanted to be a normal person. So he wrote in a way that appealed to normal kids. He had a lot of empathy in his writing.

ADAMS: The money that he got from the sale of the National Lampoon - this is what surprised me, I didn't know this - it makes Doug Kenney a rich guy.

Mr. KARP: Yes, indeed it did. Doug was not a businessperson, in any sense of the word. He became very wealthy in 1975, kind of despite himself or despite his lack of business acumen, when Doug, Rob Hoffman and Henry Baird were bought out of the magazine by Matty Simmons, who was the publisher. Doug wound up with about $2.8 million and I think he was about 28 years old.

ADAMS: 1975 is also important because that's the year of the founding of Saturday Night Live. Why isn't Doug Kenney part of that?

Mr. KARP: Well, I think he was always looking for something to really fulfill him creatively and I don't think television seemed to him to be the place he wanted to go.

ADAMS: Could you tell in your research about how he felt about that success of that show?

Mr. KARP: I don't know really how Doug felt about it. I do know that the people at National Lampoon were not super happy about the success of Saturday Night Live. And I think it ultimately drew a lot of attention away from the magazine. They created a world where there could be a Saturday Night Live and then that kind of humor in other venues started really eating away at the readership of the magazine.

ADAMS: Let's talk about his jump into movies, especially Animal House. How did he get started with Animal House? How did that work?

Mr. KARP: Well, in 1975 Matty really wanted Doug to stay at the magazine, and they had a very nice relationship. And he told Doug, hey, we're making a movie. And Doug was excited. He'd always been interested in Hollywood and film. And he got involved and he, Harold Ramis and another writer named Chris Miller - who'd been in a very wild fraternity at Dartmouth and who'd written several stories about it for the magazine - got together and they wrote a gigantic and bizarre script for Animal House that became the most successful film comedy of all time.

(Soundbite of Animal House)

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) My advice to you is to start drinking heavily.

Unidentified Actor #1: (As character) You better listen to him, Flounder. He's in pre-med.

ADAMS: Animal House was a big hit. He's got some credibility there. And Caddyshack comes along, confusing production, lots of people involved. He doesn't really have - doesn't have creative control of that picture.

Mr. KARP: Yeah. I think what happened to him is, you know, he - after Animal House, a lot of people came after him and wanted to give him a lot of money to make movies. But what happened was, Doug wound up learning that Hollywood was a business. Animal House had been an incredibly idyllic shoot. John Landis was a great director. He understood the Lampoon sensibilities and it was a classic coming together of people who really just gelled and had the same purpose.

While Caddyshack wasn't a huge, big-budget picture, he was dealing with real Hollywood business people. And Catherine Walker(ph), who was his girlfriend at the time of his death, who's also an actress, said Doug didn't like adults and he didn't like people who were pretending to be adults.

And I think that is what happened to him on Caddyshack. He wound up really clashing with John Peters, who was one of the producers. Doug, a very non-violent guy, apparently physically assaulted Mike Medavoy, who was the head of Orion Studios. And it was just - it was not a great experience for him and I think he didn't have the control he wanted.

ADAMS: Goes to Hawaii with Chevy Chase. They are involved with, you write, cocaine - lots of cocaine, I should repeat. They go there to stop, but of course they don't, and his body's found at the bottom of a cliff. Is it suicide? No one knows for sure?

Mr. KARP: I really did every bit of research I could on that, and people really, in a lot of ways, are split into two camps. There are the people who say Doug was a troubled soul, you could see it, and absolutely accidental. I think he was too optimistic and positive of a person to have made the affirmative decision to go kill himself.

But a lot of people at National Lampoon, you know, in their kind of gallows humor style after Doug died would say he fell while looking for a place to jump. National Lampoon probably could not have existed without him, and without National Lampoon you would never have had a world where there was Saturday Night Live, The Onion, The Simpsons, or any of the kind of stuff that makes us laugh today.

ADAMS: Josh Karp is the author of A Futile and Stupid Gesture for Chicago Review Press. Thank you for talking with us.

Mr. KARP: Thank you.

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