A Futile and Stupid Gesture is now on Netflix, so you could watch it this weekend, or maybe you’ve already seen it. Based on the book by Josh Karp, A Futile and Stupid Gesture stars Will Forte as National Lampoon creator Doug Kenney.
With his Harvard Lampoon friend Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson), Kenney created the National Lampoon magazine, their film Animal House and on his own, Caddyshack. Mike Colton and John Aboud adapted the book and spoke with me by phone about their take on the Doug Kenney story.
WLE: Was the book meta about the structure of telling the National Lampoon story like the movie is?
Mike Colton: No, not at all actually. It’s a very straightforward kind of cinematic account of National Lampoon and Doug’s story, but it’s chronological. There’s no meta thing. That’s something we added in discussion with David Wain when we met him to write the script in 2009. For two reasons. One is that we wanted to tell the story in an untraditional biopic way, the way, say, Doug Kenney might have done it himself. We talked about biopic movies that we like like American Splendor and 24 Hour Party People, how they broke the fourth wall and had narrators talking to the screen. We wanted to do something innovative like that.
John Aboud: Secondly, we wanted to use these meta elements to put some perspective onto those times of the early ‘70s. We wanted the 2017 perspective to be in this movie. A lot of that material that they created was incredibly innovative and edgy at the time, but contemporary audiences might find it just shocking or offensive. We wanted to acknowledge that from our perspective today.
MC: Pretty early on. Early on we knew modern Doug would talk to the camera. And then at the end we started writing, we would find interesting places for him to comment. When we were introducing the different writers of the National Lampoon, like John said, it was 2009 we were actually writing but from that perspective you do have to comment on the fact that almost all of them were white men. How do we comment on that? We can’t have the characters in the scene comment on it but we had this great device of modern Doug who’s able to give some perspective.
JA: Another fun thing about modern Doug is it was kind of in keeping thematically with a lot of Doug Kenney’s work in his own time. He was obsessed with his childhood, with the 1950s, with his college days. He got the nickname “The Man who Invented Nostalgia.” So we thought it was really nice that modern Doug was being nostalgic about this period in Doug’s life.
JA: The real breakthrough for the magazine was The Nostalgia Issue. In the movie, the art directors played by us get fired and then Michael Gross, the new art director comes on and completely changes the look for the magazine. So starting with the Nostalgia Issue, Doug really was able to zero in on the great theme of his life which was looking back and simultaneously longing for and undermining the simpler America, this simple America that never really existed, like we say in the movie.
MC: Animal House people forget, it came out in 1978 but it’s set in the early ‘60s. It was about looking back on his own youth and making fun of this idealization we have when we look back, that history that wasn’t even there.
JA: Because Doug knew that that was never true. He knew that this idealized America was actually full of sadness, pain, conformity and he brought that out to great effect.
WLE: Was it fairly natural to find humor in even the dark times of Doug Kenney?
JA: Natural in terms of being true to the character, but certainly a challenge to write. That was the excitement of writing Doug and Henry was seeing how these guys who prized being funny above all else dealt with heavy emotions and seriousness.
MC: So many of these people, either in the book or who we talked to, said Doug was the funniest guy in a room, the smartest guy they’ve ever met. So that was a challenge to give him dialogue that reflected that even when he was going through horrible times. That, to us, felt like the spirit of this movie. There’s always a funny joke to be had. That’s what the food fight at the funeral literally is.
WLE: Since you’re being meta, is even the drug spiral kind of a spoof of the biopic drug spiral?
JA: We tried to play that fairly straight. A lot of the details about wearing the Still the Best helmet, locking himself in his office, those all came from research from the book.
MC: The drug stuff, of course there are so many biopics where that becomes the key thing that brings someone down. It would’ve been easy to spoof but it actually happened and we wanted to keep that part emotional. There was actually more cocaine in the movie that we shot and it started to feel like a biopic cliche so we actually pulled back on that a bit.
JA: We also didn’t want to glamorize drug use. To a lot of people in the early ‘70s before the tragedies started to happen, they were having a great time. They didn’t think there were any downsides. We know better now. We didn’t want to portray it as a cool glamorous thing.
JA: It was interesting. Everyone has their favorite moments. That was definitely a negotiation between the producers because everyone cherishes certain aspects. We all had to kind of come to terms on what are the moments that are going to best serve this movie. There are any number of scenes that we could’ve chosen that people would’ve loved to have restaged or seen. We had to select the ones that would advance the narrative of Doug.
MC: Also, for Caddyshack, the point of that sequence is to show that Doug and the production were spinning out of control because of cocaine and also they were just unprepared for the production. We chose where Harold is shooting the scene with Chevy and he does 48 takes. We chose the scene with Rodney Dangerfield because there’s so much hilarious stuff in the book about how Rodney had never acted before and literally did not know what to do when you said action. He did not know what to do when he was done with his lines. So we just wanted to give a taste of the sort of chaos of that production. With Animal House, most of the stuff we showed in slow motion with voiceover was just about talking about how important that movie was to comedy history and how iconic it was.
JA: And we chose iconic visuals like Niedermeyer shooting the seltzer bottle out of Flounder’s hand, Bluto spying on the sorority, the band. Everyone agreed right away that we had to have the band marching into the blind alley.
MC: Because Doug is doing that.
WLE: Did you do any additional research beyond the book?
MC: Yeah, we spoke to a bunch of people who knew Doug. Mostly that was after the movie was greenlit by Netflix and we knew it was actually happening, but it helped a lot to fine tune the script. We spoke to Henry Beard and that was key because we had all assumed from the book that after Henry left the magazine that he and Doug never spoke again. There just was no evidence that they got together, but Henry told us, “No, we would get together when Doug came to New York.” That’s why we added that scene late in the movie where they get a drink together. We spoke to Brian McConnachie who Neil Casey plays, who’s not nearly as strange as we have portrayed him in the movie. We didn’t speak to Anne Beatts but Natasha Lyonne had lunch with her. There were a few other people. Some people, totally understandably, did not want to speak to us just because it’s still painful. They knew Doug, they knew Belushi, they knew Gilda, and Michael O’Donoghue also died early. A lot of people just don’t want to relive that so we totally understand that.
WLE: What were some great things you had to leave out of the movie?
MC: We shot a lot more with the radio hour crew: Belushi, Gilda, Chevy, Harold, Chris Guest and Bill Murray. A lot more of their sketches and also a lot more Lemmings which was the live show they did. You catch a glimpse of it during Doug’s breakdown. We shot a lot more of both those and it was great and I wish people would see it, but ultimately we realized it wasn’t working in the movie. It took you off from Doug’s story and we had to keep shaping it about Doug and Henry and follow Doug as the spine of this movie. Unfortunately Netflix doesn’t really do DVDs but if they did it would be a great extra.
WLE: Were they doing historic bits from those shows or new stuff in the style of those shows?
JA: Historic bits. We restaged full Radio Hour sketches with our actors. We restaged three or four different musical numbers from Lemmings.
MC: We had a whole song that Chris Guest sings. We had a whole song that Tony Hendra sings, but ultimately it just didn’t quite fit.
WLE: What did National Lampoon mean to you as comedy writers?
JA: National Lampoon to me was an incredible education on how if you’re going to parody something, it should look just like the thing that you’re parodying. They were so smart about how they did that and how disciplined they were about doing really silly crazy or dirty things that looked beautiful. That’s something I think everyone can learn from.
MC: Before we were screenwriters, we actually started our own online magazine which was inspired by National Lampoon. We’ve always been fans. We didn’t know each other until later but we found we both had the same book in high school, publishes in 1991, which was a best of National Lampoon which is where we both first heard of Doug Kenney, Henry Beard and Michael O’Donoghue. It stuck with us.
WLE: What are you working on next?
MC: We have a new script we’re finishing up that is also set in the ‘70s but it’s the 1870s. Also based on a nonfiction book about the world’s first spectator sport, which was competitive walking, which was a true thing in the 1870s. Thousands of people would gather at the original Madison Square Garden to watch people walk for six days. It was like an endurance test. It was crazy and sort of where all modern sports trace back to.
JA: Everything we know about professional sports today was there from the very beginning with the very first professional sport. The first gambling scandal, the first doping scandal, the first endorsement deal. It’s really kind of eye-opening how these things that seem very modern and contemporary have been with us since the dawn of sports.
MC: We also have a project set up at Fox which also is in the 1970s. We have a director attached who was in The State. I guess that’s our wheelhouse: movies in the ‘70s directed by members of The State. Ken Marino is attached to direct and it’s about a married pair of mimes in the ‘70s. It’s loosely inspired by Shields and Yarnell who were a married pair of mimes who had their own variety show in the ‘70s and then split up.
JA: The pressures of being the hottest mimes on Earth.
WLE: Is there dialogue in that movie?
MC: Yes, there are some mime sequences but there’s plenty of dialogue.
WLE: And walking was a sport before running?
JA: Yes, believe it or not.
MC: Because it was more about the endurance and lasting. It started out as going 24 hours and then 48 hours. If you want to know more, the name of the book we optioned is Pedestrianism which was the name of the sport. The first trading card started here. The first cocaine scandal started here. The first gambling scandal, the first black athlete to cross over to white audiences before Jackie Robinson was this guy Frank Hart who was a competitive walker.
WLE: Not sleeping is probably harder than walking, right?
JA: Exactly, exactly. It’s like you’ve read the book.
MC: People could sleep. What they would do is there were tents in the middle of Madison Square Garden where walkers could go and rest, but any time you’re resting or sleeping is time you’re not walking. So people would sleep three or four hours a day so they could get back on the track. By the end, they are just zombies walking around.
WLE: Did you write an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Twits?
MC: We did write an adaptation. That was many years ago and it’s one of these projects that’s still kicking around. We occasionally hear they’ve brought on another writer. I hope they make it eventually.
JA: It moved studios a few times.
MC: We wrote it when it was at Disney and then I think it went to Universal. We write these crazy stories but we also do a lot of animated kids movies. We just did a draft of a movie for Fox Animation called Mr. Men which is based on the Mr. Man and Little Miss books. There’s a whole series, like Mr. Tickle, Little Miss Princess, Mr. Happy, Little Miss Bossy. They’re for young kids.
WLE: You also wrote The Comebacks. I assume it was vastly rewritten but was your goal to do the ultimate sports movie parody?
MC: Yeah, that was one of the first projects we ever wrote when we moved to Los Angeles. It was meant to be Scary Movie for the sports genre. We wrote the first draft and it was rewritten many time.s
JA: It was really fun to work on.