Sprouting from out of the Harvard Lampoon newsletter edited by Doug Kenney and Henry Beard, the comedy magazine National Lampoon became hugely popular in the ‘70s due to its irreverent take on what was going on in the world. And yet, if you’re under 40, you probably only know National Lampoon from movies like Animal House, Caddyshack, and Vacation, and Kenney’s name would only be one you might spot in the credits.
The new Netflix movie A FUTILE AND STUPID GESTURE, adapted by Michael Colton and John Aboud from Josh Karp’s 2006 book, hopes to rectify that by following the rise to success of National Lampoon and how it ultimately led to Kenney’s downfall, as he died mysteriously at the age of 33. Kenney is played by Will Forte but also by Martin Mull as a fictional “Present Day Doug” telling the story, with Domhnall Gleeson playing Henry Beard and a long list of popular comics in other roles.
That cast includes Thomas Lennon as Michael O’Donoghue, Joel McHale as Chevy Chase, Seth Green as Christopher Guest, and Paul Scheer as Paul Shaffer, and many others who help to create an entertaining movie that harks back to unconventional biopics like American Splendor.
A Futile and Stupid Gesture is directed by David Wain (Wet Hot American Summer), who probably was one of the few comedy directors who could pull off telling such a complex story about how the publishers of the magazine ended up branching out into theater and then movies, while introducing talent like John Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, and Chevy Chase.
The Tracking Board sat down with Wain and two of the film’s producers, Peter Principato and Jonathan Stern, to talk about putting the project together. Principato-Young Entertainment represents talented artists like Kate McKinnon, Judy Greer, Jordan Peele and Tiffany Haddish.
Obviously, there was already a book that Josh Karp wrote about Doug, so did you pick up the rights to it when it came out or how did this come about?
Peter Principato: Well Colton and Aboud, the writers, were at Harvard Lampoon. One of them was an editor, one worked for the Lampoon. They had asked me early on if I knew who Doug Kenney was, and I really don’t remember, other than seeing his name in the credits. I didn’t know him that well, and they gave me the book, and I read the book…
David Wain: As I recall, you devoured it.
Peter: Yes, I did. I devoured the book, and I was embarrassed I didn’t know who Doug was. Being a student of comedy, building a business off of comedy. The reason I got into the business was because of this era of John Belushi and Saturday Night Live, and the reason I wanted to be in the business. I just had that feeling of, not only did I want to try to make the movie, but I had to make the movie. I did option the book at that time, and started the process of pulling everybody together.
At what point did you get involved, David?
David: Sometime after that. I think the two writers and these two guys came to me and said, “Will you direct?” And I was…
Jonathan Stern: He checked his schedule.
David: I checked my schedule and I said, “Yeah, in eight years, I can do it.”
Peter: David was talking about wanting to do a Little Miss Sunshine-type movie or a movie that had a little more pathos to it, so [he was]just the perfect person to bring these communities together. Because the vision as we discussed it, John and I, with Colton and Aboud, was trying to bring today’s comedy community together to pay homage to the comedy community 40 years ago.
David: This was still way back in 2009, basically.
Peter: Yeah, it was early.
David: One of our editors Rob Nassau said the thing that I always remember, which is, he said, “Oh, I read the script, and this is pretty much the Venn diagram of all things David Wain.” I think that’s true, and I jumped at the chance to….
Peter: So we pursued him.
David: When they gave me the book, I went home and I just ripped the pages, and I just devoured that thing. I just couldn’t put it down.
Were you involved when they were developing the first screenplay or were the writers already off writing and working on this before you got involved?
David: No, we were all working together. They did the writing, but we talked a lot before they even wrote the first draft about the approach and the concept.
Peter: We developed it as a pitch first. A very detail-oriented pitch, because we were thinking about taking it to HBO or making it as a smaller Sundance movie, things along those lines. The one piece of advice we got from one of the executives at the time was, “If you bring me the project packaged, this would be incredible and we want to make it.” That’s how we started talking about it, and that’s why the writers, who are also our executive producers, started writing the script.
Jonathan: Which in this case meant a full script as well as cast and director.
David: Ultimately though I have to say, Netflix and specifically Ted Sarandos himself, is such a lover of comedy and really knows his comedy. To roll the dice with us and put up the resources to tell the story, which is not about a guy that most people know, no one else would’ve done it the way they did it.
Peter: He was a very big advocate when he read the script. He was just in love with the world, the era, the time. He’s a fan of comedy, he’s a student of it. It was one of those things of him saying, “We should make this movie.” And we didn’t do it right away. We went off to do the first Wet Hot series first.
Jonathan: Colton and Aboud, in honor of coming to Sundance, sent us the original pitch that they had written out, that we were going around pitching before a developed script. It’s remarkable how much the script and the final movie does reflect that. Not because we were stuck in the mindset of the pitch, but because they had figured it out and researched it and thought about it so fully before starting the script.
David: It’s quite an undertaking in any biopic, to boil down someone’s life and meaning into an hour and a half. It’s quite a task.
How did you end up with Will Forte and Martin Mull playing Doug in real life and in a fictional future?
David: Well, Will came first. For my money there was nobody that has that combination of Midwestern charm, mixed with a sardonic dark edge, mixed with the ability to be incredibly funny and understand the nature of the sketch-improv element to it. As well as having real chops to do a dramatic role, all in one actor. It’s massive what he pulled off. And then Martin Mull came a little bit later on, where we were just trying to find the right match, the right guy.
Peter: We wanted somebody that maybe knew these people, that lived during this time, was kind of there and was a fan.
Jonathan: To have a credible voice.
Peter: He was somebody that his name came up as part of the process. It was one of those things.
David: And his attitude, I think, is just perfect. He feels like a Doug Kenney way of looking at things. I had first met him when he came to meet about doing our movie Wanderlust in 2010, and at that moment, I was like, “Someday I got to work with this guy — he’s so incredible.”
Peter: And he had that thing of not being in this inner circle, but being part of that time period. He was going to the Lemmings shows, he was seeing the shows, he was part of the community.
Jonathan: One of the great joys of making the movie was that all the time between set-ups, Martin would then come sit down next to us on the director’s chairs, and just tell stories. And he never ran out of amazing stories.
Obviously, you had the book to go by, but was there any other people from that era you were able to sit down with to do your own research?
David: Colton and Aboud themselves did tons and tons of first-hand research and talked to tons of people. We did, too. I talked to people that were part of the story and some of the actors did as well. So every resource we could possibly find, we were tireless.
Peter: We also found that doing a movie about this man, about Doug Kenney, that aside from the people that we wanted to reach out to, a lot of people were reaching out to us, just to tell us stories about him. There were his agents, the producers he worked with, people that were part of his circle that just wanted their voices heard. Just being able to talk about who this man was, and it was all fondly. Some of them who were really good friends with him, just talked about him being a sweet sort of innocent character, that would give you the shirt off his back, but just had a very tough family life. And some just talked about the sheer brilliance and genius, and some would talk about the complicated nature of who he was. All of that led to the amount of material, that we sifted through.
Is Henry Beard, Doug’s partner, still alive?
David: Yeah, we spoke to him.
Domhnall Gleason is an interesting choice to play him, because he’s more of a dramatic actor, but he plays more of a straight man in the movie.
Peter: Was that Allison Jones again? Who was that?
Jonathan: Someone in the room, and I think it was Peter when we were brainstorming said, “Well, are there any British actors that we should think of?” Because the Upper East Side of Manhattan, you’re already halfway to being British. And I personally… not just from Ex Machina, but I kept thinking about him in this Black Mirror episode that he was in. That was the beginning of that conversation.
David: But to me, he’s so incredible. He just comes in and gives it such gravitas. He found a perfect balance of humor, and really connecting. Then the two of them … the soul of the movie is the relationship between Will Forte’s character and Domhnall’s. And seeing two actors that came from such completely different paths to getting here, really was cool. And mirrored their own experiences, I think.
Peter: And I think your connection with Domhnall, and the amount of that he wanted to collaborate with you, with who he was or what the character was.
David: Yeah, he had no personal, growing up connection to Lampoon at all. But he saw this as a piece of material that he thought was really fascinating and something different for him. And he wanted to work with different kinds of people. I think that it was really cool, because he took it like … some actors just come in and say, “Tell me where you stand and I’ll say the lines.” And somebody like Domhnall is doing his own research, and asking a thousand questions, and coming up with ideas. And a constant conversation leading up to the shoot, which was such a cool and different way to do it.
Jonathan: And during the shoot.
Peter: The project benefits from that process.
There so many moving pieces to this movie. There’s so many characters you have to at least show briefly, because otherwise people would ask, “Where’s Belushi and where’s Chevy Chase?” I think Joel was a given, because he worked with Chevy for so long.
David: It wasn’t an obvious idea though. I don’t think anyone on our set was like, “Joel McHale.” But I think, the fact that he had interest in playing the role and knew him so well. And is such a good actor and a smart guy, made me feel like… well, maybe he could do it. And who knew he would do it so well?
Peter: We originally wanted to find people that embodied the spirit of these characters, and didn’t necessarily look like them, or maybe just lent themselves to who they were.
David: Like, Nicole Kidman was the first choice for Chevy.
Jonathan: Yes, it was Nicole Kidman.
Peter: And, also Netflix was wanting us to shy away from famous people playing famous people in a way. But when the idea of Joel came up, Joel really reached out and David sat with him. He was everything we wanted the actor to be. Which was he embodied it, then he happened to also look like him and feel like him, and also have this experience. He actually reached out to Chevy himself, too, just to make sure Chevy knew he was going to do this.
David: Then he just so did his homework, and he came in with just the way he stands, the way he moves, the way he walks, the way he just is. It really was a detailed performance.
I really love how you mixed things up, like you said before, getting comedy people from different comedy groups like Matt Walsh from Upright Citizens Brigade and Thomas Lennon from the State.
David: I love to mix our community and people like Matt and Tom Lennon and Joe Truglio, I’ve worked with consistently for 30 years. And people like Domhnall and Emmy Rossum, I didn’t meet until they came to set. I just love the mix of different types of actors.
Do you have any idea what you want to do next? I know you’re doing a TV show with Michael Ian Black sometime in the future.
David: Yeah, The Moon Cruise, also with Jon is one of them, and there’s a few other TV and a few other movie thing just brewing. Nothing to announce.
Do you keep in touch with other members of The State or see them from time to time?
David: All the time, we’re family. We work together in different configurations, throughout the decades we’ve known each other. In between that, we’re just like family. Also tonight, the show that I’m on Another Period has its third season premiere. It’s a great show. It’s on Comedy Central, and it’s political satire.
I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t watch Comedy Central as much as I should, considering how much I enjoy comedy. But I also don’t watch much television.
David: There’s only so much you can watch.
Peter: Do you watch streaming services?
Oh yeah, of course, I mainly watch Netflix…
Jonathan: Conveniently, the show is on Netflix.
Peter: No, but I do ask that question, because I know there’s a lot of people I know in the business too that don’t watch television. And I’m like, “Do you actually watch some of the streaming services.”
Right. I feel like it’s all kind of mixed together at this point.
David: I heard a very interesting podcast the other day. I didn’t know Hulu was doing ER.
Jonathan: What do you mean, they’re bringing it back?
Peter: Yeah, they are.
David: It’s already on, I think.
Jonathan: Is it on already? Oh, I didn’t know.
Peter: Not the new cast.
David: I don’t know, but they’re bringing back ER … they’re reproducing it. Also, I thought it was interesting, as Hulu and Netflix and Amazon are starting to redefine and build their own separate identities from each other, and what they’re each going to start to do in the next era of each of those is interesting.
And you seem to have found a nice home with Netflix.
David: Well, it’s been amazing so far. We did the two miniseries, which are really like two giant double-sized movies. Wet Hot and then doing this. It’s been a really wonderful collaboration.
A Futile and Stupid Gesture premieres on Netflix starting today, Jan. 26.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor