A film about the creation of National Lampoon probably isn't where you'd expect to find a feminist actor like Emmy Rossum or seasoned thespian like Domhnall Gleeson, and yet, both actors are very much at home in the true story of A Futile And Stupid Gesture (casting: Allison Jones), the National Lampoon founder Doug Kenney biopic currently on Netflix. When most people think of National Lampoon, images of drunken debauchery, frat bro humor, and jokes about "naked tits" come to mind pretty readily thanks to films like Animal House (costume design: Deborah Nadoolman) and Van Wilder (production design: Rachel Kamerman).
The film — which will undoubtedly show up in your Netflix recommendations if you've ever watched David Wain's most famous work, Wet Hot American Summer (film editing: Meg Reticker) or its subsequent series spinoffs — takes a look at the man behind the franchise that is National Lampoon. While the brand's co-founder Kenney isn't quite as known as the comedians he helped launch, including Bill Murray and Chevy Chase, he actually influenced a generation of comedy that would become the basis for so much of what see in that world today. And yes, Kenney's humor and National Lampoon didn't exactly shy away from being offensive, but the film is quick to acknowledge those shortcomings, pointing out the shortage of female voices and people of color involved in this formative origin story.
The film takes us from Kenney's final years at Harvard to the moment he and Henry Beard (Gleeson) strike out on their own to create National Lampoon Magazine, to all the subsequent radio shows and movies that would launch the careers of people like Gilda Radner, John Belushi, and Chase. All the while, Kenney's endeavors threatened to — and often succeeded in — offending certain parties. Gleeson is well aware that while the real-life Kenney (played by Will Forte) was, as he puts it, "a very generous, a very good man, a very kind man," his brand of humor was very much "of its time" — the '70s to be exact.
"It was definitely part of the appeal of the magazine ... that it was breaking down, or being bold or naughty at the time ... but I like that the film acknowledges that this didn’t happen in a perfect world," he offers, when we speak ahead of the film's premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. "Everything was not dealt with perfectly ... you have a secretary named Mary Marshmallow because of her [chest] … stuff like that would certainly not fly today. But I like that at least it’s acknowledged [that it's problematic]."
But while the film definitely doesn't shy away from showing the kinds of off-color humor that made National Lampoon famous (at one point, we watch as the publisher of National Lampoon reads complaints from every marginalized group in America, except for the American Nazi party, which sent a letter of support), the Wain-directed film does actually seem more interested in showing the life of the actual man behind the outrageous jokes than in glorifying the problematic elements of the '70s comedy world.
"One of the things that the movie has going for it is that amount of comedy and the amount of heart in it are both huge," says Gleeson. "And you don’t feel the bill for the comedy being paid while they’re showing off the heart, and you don’t feel it the other way either. They mix together really well with each other."
Rossum (who plays Kenney's second wife and acclaimed actor Kathryn Walker) would likely understand if women were skeptical about spending an hour and forty-five minutes learning about the man who once published a magazine cover featuring an old, male college professor spanking a female student's nude bottom while bending her over his knee and another with Minnie Mouse flashing her breasts with flower pasties on them. But Rossum says she found historical value in Kenney's story.
"I didn’t know anything about the magazine except in the way, that as a feminist woman, you would know about National Lampoon, as like, 'Oh, that’s a naked boobs and jokes mag,'" she says. "But I love David [Wain] and I loved learning in the script, and then in my further research, about the man who shepherded this kind of comedy that we still do today — who was responsible for finding all these people who went on to be the superstars of comedy."
Rossum says she appreciates the way the film shows the history of the craft — something she credits for the sort of comedy she gets to do on her acclaimed Showtime series, Shameless — even if many of the jokes that made the brand what it is often involved naked breasts for the sake of ogling, as well as rampant objectification.
"I think it’s important to address it, but I also think there’s something about this kind of comedy, and film and art in general, that can change and pressure society to pay attention by how kind of 'out there' it is," she says. "I think the magazine was responsible for pushing a lot of boundaries in some ways, and while I don’t agree with every sketch they did personally, I wanted to be part of the film. And I think that Doug Kenney’s sensibility is a part of Animal House and Caddyshack, and all those things are part of the narrative of history of comedy. So I can overlook the few things that bug me in that way."
And while I can't say that I laughed at those few things that undoubtedly bugged Rossum when I screened the film at Sundance, the movie certainly does get at the heart of the man behind it. He wasn't perfect (he cheated on his first wife and allowed his drug and alcohol habits to negatively affect his personal and professional endeavors, as the film depicts) and he didn't always do the right thing (he fails to bring his business partner, Henry, along for all of his business decisions throughout the film), but he was a man who was revered by so many members of that classic cast of '70s comedians. And it's not just because they thought he was funny — as they film proves, it's because of who he was and what he did for them, their careers, and the art of joke-telling.