Let Us Now Praise Funny Men

The Gentle Genius of National Lampoon Founder Doug Kenney

    icon Oct 05, 2006
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"What this requires is a really stupid and futile gesture on someone's part."

- Otter in National     Lampoon's Animal House

"Well, what the hail we spoze ta do, yah  mo-ron?"

- Stork (played by Doug  Kenney) in Animal House

When Robert Sam Anson's cover profile of recently deceased National Lampoon founder Doug Kenney hit the newsstands in the autumn of 1981, the general reaction was one of shock and dismay.

Many of Kenney's closest friends and colleagues in the humor trade had opened up only to see their funny and generous friend portrayed as one sick puppy whose tragic childhood and excesses with recreational substances led to an apparent suicide.

It could almost have been a companion piece to Albert Goldman's Elvis or Bob Woodward's book on John Belushi, "Wired".

The doors slammed shut on any possible biography of Kenney. Even long time Lampoon editor Sean Kelley found no interest among Kenney's inner circle. Having been burned by the Esquire piece, they had no interest in the possibility of their loved one being laid out for public dissection and amateur psychoanalysis like Seymour, the sainted dead older brother in J. D. Salinger's Glass Family saga.

Apparently this would likely be the greatest story never told in the annals of American comedy. As Kenney's close friend and co-author on the Animal House screenplay Chris Miller commented in a documentary on the making of the film, "Doug is one of the great unsung heroes of comedy in this century."

Now the story has been told.

"A Futile and Stupid Gesture" by Josh Karp (Chicago Review Press, 416 pages) tells a tale that doesn't gloss over the dark side of Kenney's journey from Chagrin Falls, Ohio to Harvard, New York City and finally Hollywood.

But most significantly it also focuses on the love and laughter that emanated from this totally new mutation on the evolutionary ladder of humor: a bawdy Bodhisattva with a Mensa level IQ.

The average reader is probably unfamiliar with the name Doug Kenney. He and his Lampoon brethren (and it was largely a boy's club with a few significant female authors) are known among the society of professional comedians, but not to the average reader, let alone the average movie and TV viewer. Yet almost everyone can recite lines from the two movies he co-wrote, National Lampoon's Animal House (1978) and Caddyshack (1979).

Karp is a freelance magazine writer based in Chicago, and it was his friendship with author David Standish (whose Hollow Earth book was reviewed last issue) that led him to Standish's friend Chris Miller who provided the modern equivalent of letters of introduction. After the Anson article, it would take someone with the comedy fraternity's Masonic handshake and secret password to get people to open up about their funny and gentle pal.

Men who worked at the magazine have penned most of the books covering the brief brilliance of the early National Lampoon. Some of them have an ax to grind, like publisher Matty Simmons, who never got over being financially outsmarted by the Harvard kids (especially Kenney, who was like an adopted gentile son to him).

Only Dennis Perrin's biography of Lampoon and Saturday Night Live writer Michael O'Donoghue allowed an outsider's perspective. While it acknowledged Kenney's genius and complexity, it could only give his work a glancing look. Karp's book combines a deep reverence for the subject with a detached view of the sadness that sometimes lies underneath outrageous hilarity.

Karp also has a firm grasp of the significance of Kenney and the Lampoon in the growth of what former Lampoon editor and Spinal Tap actor Tony Hendra termed "Boomer Humor" in his memoir "Going Too Far" (1988). 

The meat of the book spans roughly fifteen years from Kenney's rise at the Harvard Lampoon in the late 1960's through the founding and rise of the early National Lampoon and Kenney's relocation to Hollywood, where he penned Animal House and Caddyshack before dying from a fall from a cliff in Hawaii in the late summer of 1980.

One might ask how solemnly should we take the cultural history of a giggle mag that stopped being relevant around the beginning of the Reagan administration, let alone the tale of it's goofy founding fathers?

Well, think of it this way:  If you shake the MAD magazine tree you get the forgettable movie "Up The Academy" and MADTV. But the tentacles of the NatLampCo organization touch onto virtually everything smart and funny that's happened in the last 35 years - from Saturday Night Live and SCTV to the ensemble absurdity of Christopher Guest's films, the right wing punditry of P.J. O'Rourke and newspaper parody The Onion.

And there would have been no National Lampoon if not for the odd couple of Kenney and his partner from Harvard Lampoon, Henry Beard. While Beard would not be interviewed for the book, he's the only major figure who refused to speak to the author.

The heart of this work chronicles the soap opera that was life at the Lampoon offices at 635 Madison Avenue, where blood feuds and interoffice romantic triangles and rhomboids were the order of the day.

This was one of the first groups, like that at the Harvard Lampoon in its better days, where people ate, slept, breathed, smoked, drank, snorted, dropped, meditated, urinated, levitated, fought, and lived humor and comedy, as the kids say, twenty-four seven.

As it would take a poet with an appreciation for Christian mysticism and Zen Buddhism to properly pen a biography of J. D. Salinger, it takes a humor fan and aficionado like Karp to tell the tale of the Mark Twain of the counterculture.

As P.J. O'Rourke, who collaborated with Kenney on their masterful 1964 High School Yearbook parody (which sold a million copies in 1974), pointed out in an essay on Kenney that appeared in a 1985 tribute issue, "Doug wasn't primarily funny. Doug was primarily smart. And there's such a thing as being too intelligent. In order to make sense out of life it's necessary to be oblivious to a lot of things or ignore them or twist them around so they fit with everything else. Doug was unable to do this. He saw and understood everything that happened around him, everything that happened to him and everything that he caused to happen besides."

One review half-jokingly remarked that this book is the story of the nicest guy in the world, referring to the fact that almost everyone in the book comments on Kenney's kindness, compassion, and gentle spirit.

Bill Murray, who met Kenney when he left Second City in Chicago to work on the Lampoon stage show and radio program, credits Kenney with teaching him to be generous. O'Rourke notes, "What I remember about Doug mostly is the kind things he did for people."

Karp mentioned in an email to Review, that one of the actors on Caddyshack had gotten drunk and made an ass of himself one day. "Doug found him the next day, anticipated his discomfort and said, "Whatever you did, just remember that everyone here has done the same many, many times and much worse - me more than anyone."

It was this sense of empathy that goes to the core of what made Kenney more than the run of the mill comedic genius.

Several of the Lampoon writers, such as O'Donoghue, Kelley and O'Rourke, were known for they savageness of their satire and comedy. Kenney could be just as incisive, but his humor was usually tempered with a sense of empathy for his subjects/victims.

When he had the chance to create and play any part he wanted for Animal House, it was the oddball reject nerd Stork he chose to play.

Kenney would ask reporters to refer to him in print as "the handsomest man in comedy" and joked to a friend that he was thinking of changing his name to "Charleton Hepburn". He was like John Lennon, who once told an interviewer that part of him thought he was God almighty and another part thought he was a piece of crap.

Karp lays his story out chronologically, leading off each New Year with a paragraph noting the significant national and international stories of the day. This is helpful for younger readers who may not understand the references of "Mrs. Agnew's Diary".

He touches on the best of the hundreds of funny pieces Kenney penned for the Lampoon, such as "Nancy Reagan's Guide to Dating Do's and Don'ts" "First High Comics", "First Lay Comics" and "Che Guevara's Bolivian Diary" (the latter of which was also parodied in a similar but distinctive style around the same time by Woody Allen in the New Yorker).

In essence, this long awaited biography of the greatest comedic mind of the 20th century is anything but a futile and stupid gesture.

There are limits to biography, and with the main character having long since left the stage, none of us will ever get to know this gentle genius from Chagrin Falls, Ohio. However, if this is as close as we'll get, it's good enough for this reader.

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