Throughout the course of human events, certain turning points forever change the cultural landscape. Art had Warhol, jazz had Davis, rock had The Beatles and comedy had National Lampoon magazine. It is, in fact, so very possible to trace the roots of much seminal modern comedy back to the brainchild of Harvard students turned utterly brilliant satirist-comedians, Douglas Kenney and Henry Beard, that it's about a great a debt as can be owed.
Murrays, Belushis, Chases, Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons, Ghost Busters; Ivan Reitman, Harold Ramis, John Hughes, Caddyshack, Animal House—the list could and does go on and on—all began with the magazine and its outlying projects.
Director David Wain (The State, Wet Hot American Summer), arguably one of the funniest people in comedy today, understands this probably better than most and tells the eye-opening tale in the new Netflix original film, A Stupid and Futile Gesture. A sort of hybrid comedy-drama, Gesture examines the founding, rise and ultimate fall of the comedic empire, delving into its print product, its stage shows, radio programming and beyond. Wain somehow encapsulates the era in a completely accessible way, forming a subtle biopic of Kenney (SNL alum Will Forte) along the way and proving that the very funny and too-smart-for-their-own-good, are often haunted and tragic, hiding from their demons behind a thin wall of jokes.
National Lampoon is obviously a name known to many, perhaps depressingly so by this point (thanks for nothing, Van Wilder), but to learn how many comedy titans started formidable careers there—and even how Saturday Night Live owes much, if not all, of its iconic status to poaching Kenney's staff—is both fascinating and heartbreaking.
Forte makes a perfectly fine Kenney, though the legendary Martin Mull as the could-have-been narrative device steals much of his thunder. Star Wars' Domhnall Gleeson may be the most surprising performance, however, slowly gaining traction as Henry Beard, a wonderfully hysterical straight-guy counterpoint to Kenney's absurdities and a charming example of how deadpan sells satire so much better than off-the-wall does.
Other famous faces show up as well, from Joel McHale's not-quite-right Chevy Chase and Natasha Lyonne's boundary-breaking Anne Beatts to Thomas Lennon's pitch-perfect asshole performance as the explosively dark and outrageous writer Michael O'Donoghue.
The takeaway, though, may be in A Stupid and Futile Gesture's willingness to never take itself too seriously, even as it calls out drug abuse, toxic work environments and the inherent pressures of extreme popularity. Still, it's a riveting watch for comedy fans who fall anywhere on the spectrum and a loving portrayal of the men and women who forever changed the game.
+Very funny; reveres comedy history right
-We still don't like Chevy Chase
A Stupid and Futile Gesture
Directed by Wain
With Forte, Gleason, McHale, Lyonne and Lennon
Netflix, TV-MA, 111 min.