A Futile and Stupid Gesture (casting: Allison Jones), Netflix's new original comedy, captures the rise of Doug Kenney, co-founder of National Lampoon. The satire magazine caused uproar in the '70s and eventually led to the production of comedic classics Animal House (costume design: Deborah Nadoolman) and Caddyshack (make up artist: Elizabeth Lambert). A Futile and Stupid Gesture isn't your regular historical biopic, though. There are many meta elements — a narrator that speaks directly to the camera, for example — and a few exaggerated occurrences — this is comedy, after all. One such exaggeration is the food fight at Doug Kenney's funeral in A Futile and Stupid Gesture, though that did almost happen in real life.
Kenney died abruptly at age 33 when he fell off a cliff in Hawaii in 1980, leaving behind a crew of grieving friends, including John Belushi, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, and National Lampoon co-founder Henry Beard. His death was ruled an accident, and Murray looks back on his friend's funeral in sadness. "I remember turning around and looking at all the faces," he told ESPN in 2004. "Every funny person in the world was there. And no one laughed."
Many of Kenney's close friends have questioned the lack of comedy at his funeral and memorials. He was, after all, known for his love of inappropriate comedy. Paul Krassner, a writer and friend of Kenney's, wrote about his surreal experience attending a wake for Kenney. "Rex [Weiner] and I considered starting a food fight, inspired by that scene in Animal House in honor of Doug — 'He would have wanted it that way,'" he wrote for Counter Punch. "But we decided it would be in terrible taste, and out of respect for all the other mourners, we resisted the temptation."
There doesn't appear to be records of an actual food fight happening at Kenney's funeral, but A Futile and Stupid Gesture brings one to life anyways. Maybe it's an homage to what friends of Kenney think he would have liked to see, or maybe it's perpetuating a sort of urban legend about the comedian. "The guys told me yesterday it did happen, but I thought it hadn't, so I don't know," Domhnall Gleeson, who plays Henry Beard in the film, tells Bustle after the film's Sundance premiere. The scene, be it fact or fiction, is a nod to Animal House, which included, among other things, a massive food fight. It's a way to incorporate Kenney's lighthearted legacy during the film's saddest moment. "What that moment tells me, it's that even when someone is gone, they live on in the things that they've done," Gleeson says. "To me, that's what that moment is. It's him living on in the people there through all the great things that he did."
Emmy Rossum, who plays Kenney's girlfriend and actor Kathryn Walker, agrees with Gleeson. "It's about honoring a person who has passed in a way that they would want to be honored," she says. "And this was a man who loved absurdist comedy and inappropriate behavior, so the idea of a food fight at a funeral was just that." Rossum also admitted that, despite the somber setting, the scene was about as fun as you'd want a food fight to be. "I had an enormous amount of fun shooting the scene as well. I mean, I've never had as much egg salad in my hair." The actor was so in the zone, she even stuffed her bra with coleslaw so that she'd have extra reserves to throw at her cast mates. "It was a special and bizarre day," she says.
For a movie about Doug Kenney, "special and bizarre" sounds just about right.
Additional reporting by Kelsea Stahler.