‘A Futile and Stupid Gesture’: A Satire on the Satirist Behind ‘National Lampoon’

Premiering at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, A Futile and Stupid Gesture is an endearing biographical comedy (albeit cliched at times) that serves as an homage to the great Doug Kenney, comedy genius and co-founder of the National Lampoon.

The National Lampoon

Responsible for some of the most successful comedy films of all time such as Animal House, Caddyshack and the Vacation series, The National Lampoon brand has been shaking heads since the 1970s. Known for its low brow ‘anything goes’ type of uncensored comedy, The Lampoon’s style of comedy is known for its parody, satire and surrealist pieces, throwing caution to the wind along with the undergarments (there was often nudity in their magazines) and any sense of public decency.

The National Lampoon was something special in the 70s. Something intelligent yet stupid, but above everything else: offensive. It had no affiliation or goal in mind save for making the audience laugh, which is quite a different approach from mainstream comedies today that tend to joke with intent.

Which brings me to Saturday Night Live

From late night talk show hosts such as Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers to some of the funniest females in comedy such as Tina Fey and Kristen Wiig, Saturday Night Live is renowned for its ability to scout comedic genius. Among its first few seasons, were the infamous ‘not ready for primetime players’ including Chevy Chase, Michael O’Donoghue, John Belushi, Gilda Radner and Bill Murray. All comedy legends in their own regard.

What is surprising is that much of the original SNL cast, particularly all the ones I just mentioned, had all started as employees of The National Lampoon. And if there’s anything A Futile and Stupid Gesture gets across, besides that excessive harassment and cocaine use was rampant among those that worked in the Lampoon, was that many of its players were at the foreground of countercultural comedy.

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Cast, Crew, and Why You Should see this.

The supporting cast did a stellar job performing hilarious impersonations of these comedic 70s icons. It was meta-comedy gold. Oddly enough, much of the cast were influenced at some point in their careers by their respective 70s counterparts that they were portraying. The most stand out of which being Joel McHale portraying a young and very full of himself Chevy Chase (Chevy was Joel’s former coworker in their cult hit TV show: Community). If you’re a fan of comedies from the 70s and 80s you will enjoy the subtle way the movie both pays homage and pokes fun at itself.

At heart of The National Lampoon was the magazine. It’s formation serving as the beginning of when this story begins. Where two Harvard alumnae: The Lampoon’s founders Robert ‘Doug’ Kenney (played by Will Forte of The Last Man on Earth and SNL) and Henry Beard (played by the renowned Domhall Gleason of Star Wars, The Revenant and Ex Machina) decide to ditch plans of attending law school to fulfill their dreams and upset their parents. Forming the most successful comedy magazine of the 1970s. And if Henry Beard was considered The Lampoon’s logically astute yet acerbic founding father, then Doug Kenney was seen more as the Lampoon’s floppy and floundering mother. You know, the kind that liked to overindulge too much in the kitchen sherry.

Fair warning: it can seem awfully misogynistic with a lot of hetero-normative portrayals of the sexuality coming from the Animal House era. Though keep in mind that those were the times they were trying to portray.

Directed by David Wain (known for his directed classic: Wet Hot American Summer), A Futile and Stupid Gesture feels awfully familiar in its comedy delivery and aesthetic similarities (comedy actors in ridiculous wigs portraying much younger characters) to David Wain’s other works. In addition, this movie follows a very familiar story plot you’ve more than heard of before. The unrecognized genius pursuing their dreams against all odds? The underdogs building an empire out of nothing but wit and misplaced charisma? The self-destructive nature that accompanies creativity, especially after success? They even used an older Doug Kenney (played by the hilarious Martin Mull) to narrate, mulling back at the old days: of mistakes made and lessons learned in a neatly packaged narrative device.

It’s a tried and used Hollywood formula, especially for biopics, but in this case, the story acknowledges this within its self-parody. Overall, this is not a film meant to be taken too seriously. There are no great messages or industry-changing approaches to movie-making or impactful themes. It’s just a feature meant to entertain. Albeit, the subject material and comedy jokes can seem tasteless for today’s more sensitive times.

If you like the SNL cast from the Will Forte era or would like to see a more adult-themed comedy Wet Hot American Summer style, A Futile and Stupid Gesture may be for you. If you’re also just a general fan of Will Forte’s comedy style: the sharp one-liner quips and consistent turn of phrase retorts, you will more than likely enjoy this movie.

Though things are sort of amiss for anyone who knows of Doug Kenney’s life story or for anyone that had read the book by Josh Karp, of which the movie is based off. I’ll leave it there, as any more would be spoilers… and I don’t like doing that.

In short, A Futile and Stupid Gesture is one of the funniest movies about nothing, that nobody seems to be watching. I think Doug Kenney describes his own story best:


“These are some of the happiest days I’ve ever ignored.”

 A Futile and Stupid Gesture is now streaming on Netflix.

Christian Angeles
Christian Angeles
Christian Angeles is a screenwriter who likes sharing stories and getting to meet people. He also listens to words on the page via audible and tries to write in ways that make people feel things. All on a laptop. Sometimes from an app on his phone.

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