Doug Kenney is the most important person in comedy you’ve never heard of. A Futile and Stupid Gesture is the movie entire generations of comedy fans needed.
The Netflix movie explores Kenney’s comedy career. After founding the wild and irreverent magazine comedy National Lampoon, he turned the Lampoon brand into a multimedia comedy powerhouse before writing two of the great comedy films of all-time: Animal House and Caddyshack. On the way, he crossed paths with roughly every major comedy star of the era, from Bill Murray and Chevy Chase to Christopher Guest and Gilda Radner.
Kenney defined an entire generation’s sense of humor. His comedy was impertinent and obscene and perfectly suited to the disillusionment of the ‘70s.
The movie cuts between young Kenney (Will Forte) and an older version of him (Martin Mull) as the narrator. Thing is, there is no older Kenney. He died at 33. It’s an odd choice, and the big reveal at the end of the movie falls flat. Anyone watching the movie has either heard of Kenney or probably did a quick Google search about him beforehand.
The story appears to begin at his older brother’s funeral, but the old Kenney tells the producers he doesn’t want to start there. Suddenly we’re whisked away to Kenney’s antics while at Harvard and creating National Lampoon. Later, narrator Kenney acknowledges how little the actors playing famous comedians like Chase and John Belushi resemble them. It’s a nod to Kenney’s irreverent and absurd sense of humor, and lends the movie a bit of novelty to nudge it past an average tragic comedic genius biopic.
Kenney’s impact on humor can still be felt today. His attitude of railing against civil norms for the good of the joke has never faded. Some of Animal House’s jokes now seem crass, and not all of National Lampoon’s satire stand the test of time. But as long as their attitude never dies, Kenney won’t either.