A Stupid and Futile Gesture – The Rise and Fall of National Lampoon

A Stupid and Futile Gesture on Netflix is the fascinating story of the meteoric rise and tragic crash of National Lampoon; the magazine that changed American humor and culture forever.  National Lampoon created Animal House, Caddyshack, the Chevy Chase Vacation movies, and of course, one of the best humor magazines ever published. Saturday Night Live was started by people who were lured away from National Lampoon. Lorne Michaels still gets credit for being a creative genius, but all he did was take the actors and writers of The National Lampoon Radio Hour and offer them more money to come to NBC and start Saturday Night Live.

The Dog Killer National Lampoon Cover

The Dog Killer National Lampoon Cover

Will Forte plays Doug Kenney, and Domhnall Gleeson plays Henry Beard, the two co-founders of National Lampoon. Doug and Henry ran the Harvard Lampoon, and did not want the fun to stop when they graduated.  Henry Beard had been accepted to Columbia Law School, but somehow Doug Kenney was able to convince him to forego law school and join Doug’s quest to start National Lampoon. It was a ridiculous idea.  They had no money, no business experience, and had never managed anything other than a college magazine. Every publisher turned them down, except a company whose only “major” publication was Weight Watcher’s Magazine.

Will Forte & Domhnall Gleeson in "A Stupid & Futile Gesture"

Will Forte & Domhnall Gleeson in “A Stupid & Futile Gesture”

A Stupid and Futile Gesture captures the wild 1970’s. National Lampoon Magazine was based in New York City and was able to attract a group of hugely talented, somewhat insane  writers, artists and actors. They were fueled by caffeine, cocaine, alcohol and creative genius.

Doug Kenney & Henry Beard

Doug Kenney & Henry Beard

National Lampoon Magazine spoofed American culture. The magazine started at a perfect time, since to many it appeared that “traditional” America had gone crazy. The Vietnam War was a disaster, there was social and racial unrest, crime rates were rising and drug use was skyrocketing. In the true tradition of comedy, National Lampoon made fun of it all.

National Lampoon's High School Yearbook Parody- its best selling issue ever.

National Lampoon’s High School Yearbook Parody- its best selling issue ever.

Nothing was sacred to National Lampoon. Perhaps its most famous cover was the one where a nice but worried looking dog has a gun held to its head. In bold letters, the cover says, “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog.”

National Lampoon had nudity, dirty jokes, political satire and very dark humor. In one issue there was an advertisement that was a spoof of the Save The Children Foundation.  The advertisement was for Lieutenant William Calley’s Kill The Children Foundation. Of course, Lieutenant Calley was the man whose unit murdered 22 unarmed South Vietnamese civilians in the My Lai Massacre.

National Lampoon's Nixon cover

National Lampoon’s Nixon cover

Doug Kenney and Henry Beard were ready for anything, except the tremendous success of National Lampoon. As National Lampoon grew, so did the hours and the pressure. They went from being a couple of guys having fun at a college magazine, to being men who had to run a major national publication, a radio show and various movie ventures. Doug tried to cope by using more and more drugs. Henry just wanted out.

The publication company was contractually obligated to offer Doug and Henry a payout based on the magazine’s profits. The profits were by then so large that the bonuses would be a major cash drain on the company, to the point of actually threatening the survival of National Lampoon. Doug and Henry insisted on taking the payout in a lump sum, instead of spreading it out over a number of years like the publication company wanted.

What happened next is accurately portrayed in A Stupid and Futile Gesture, although many viewers will probably assume it was an exaggeration for the movie. Henry Beard took his payout check and immediacy cleaned out his desk.  He then stood in the main room of the magazine and said to the writers and artists, “Goodbye and F*** You.”. Henry Beard then left National Lampoon and never came back.

Doug Kenney stayed on and tried to run everything himself. Neither Doug nor Henry every shared a penny of their bonuses with any of the writers, artists, actors or anyone else who had helped create National Lampoon.

People continue to copy National Lampoon

People continue to copy National Lampoon

Doug Kenney could not run it all alone. Even when Henry had been there, Doug had never been very steady, sometimes disappearing for months at a time. Eventually he just had to get away and he took off to Hawaii.  What happened next is still a mystery. Did he get clean of drugs in Hawaii, or did he fall further into drug dependence? All we know for sure is that he went out for a hike one day, went off a tall cliff and died. To this day, people argue about whether he committed suicide or simply fell.

Henry Beard is often asked whether Doug jumped from the cliff or fell.  Henry always give the same dark humorous answer. Henry says, “Doug probably fell off the cliff while looking for a place to jump.” Some people might find that a sick joke, but it is exactly the type of humor Doug Kenney would have laughed at.

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