David Wain has never made a movie like this before.
“It was truly a totally different thing for me,” the director of comedies like Wet Hot American Summer, Role Models, and Wanderlust tells The Daily Beast. His newest film, A Futile and Stupid Gesture, is not only a biopic, it’s also quite dramatic at times. It just so happens that the film’s characters are some of the funniest people who ever lived.
A Futile and Stupid Gesture, based on the 2006 book of the same name by author Josh Karp, tells the little-known story of Doug Kenney—played with a perfect balance of humor and depth by Saturday Night Live alum Will Forte—who grew up in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, and went on to first join the Harvard Lampoon and then found the National Lampoon before co-writing two of the most successful comedy films of all-time: Animal House and Caddyshack.
At just 33 years old, Kenney died in what was classified as an accident but was most likely a suicide when he fell off a cliff on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Harold Ramis, who co-wrote those films with Kenney and directed Caddyshack, once joked that his friend “probably fell while he was looking for a place to jump.”
This morbid sense of humor permeates Wain’s film, which upends typical biopic conventions by, among other things, including comedian Martin Mull as an older version of Kenney looking back on his life from a contemporary point of view. Wain also had the unenviable task of casting actors to play comedy icons who have since died like John Belushi (John Gemberling) and Gilda Radner (Jackie Tohn) along with those who are still with us like Bill Murray (Jon Daly) and Paul Shaffer (Paul Scheer).
“We knew there’s a trap of actors playing famous faces that you recognize. Or famous people playing more famous people,” Wain says. “There’s a lot of ways that that can get really weird or seem cheap.”
The fascinating results include some truly inspired choices like Seth Green as Christopher Guest and some bizarrely meta performances such as Joel McHale playing his former Community co-star and sparring partner Chevy Chase.
At the center of it all was Wain, who discovered through the 10-year process of getting the film to both Sundance and Netflix this month, that he had more in common with the troubled Kenney than he ever could have imagined while watching his Betamax copy of Animal House as a kid.
Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
What made you want to direct this film?
I had heard [Doug Kenney’s] name and remembered his name from watching the credits of Caddyshack and Animal House a thousand times when I was a kid. But I really didn’t know the story of who he was and how influential he was. When I saw that there’s this guy who we’ve never heard of who’s such an architect of almost the way our brains function in comedy and in the world, I was like, “Wow, this is a story I want to tell.” And then when I saw that his life itself was just so interesting and there was so much drama in the formation of the Lampoon and all of the people at that time and how it interacted and intersected with so many people I did know more about, it just seemed like, as a friend of mine said, the perfect Venn diagram of everything David Wain is interested in.
You mentioned the two films that Kenney was most famous for, but what was your relationship to the National Lampoon growing up?
I have to admit I was more of a MAD magazine guy. And then I always thought of the Lampoon as the graduate school version of a humor magazine that I was too stupid to read. But I did get to know the Lampoon more in later years.
Did you go back and look at old issues when you were working on the film?
Of course. The amount of research we did on this movie from soup to nuts was massive. And it was led by [screenwriters] Michael Colton and John Aboud who had boxes and boxes of material and interviews and books. We also did a lot of first-person interviews with any of the surviving characters we could find.
Yeah, I mean, this is really a different kind of project for you in terms of depicting all these real events and real people. What challenges did that present?
It was truly a totally different thing for me, you’re exactly right. I had never done anything that had any relationship to anything in real life, much less a biopic. So it was a whole other set of responsibilities. Everything had to, in some way, honor the real-life spirit of the story we were trying to tell, while at the same time trying to make an entertaining movie. And it’s also the first time that I’ve done something that had more dramatic weight to it. It was definitely stepping into a new area and I found that challenge exhilarating.
There are also some formal inventions in the film—breaking the fourth wall, having the older Doug almost commenting on the filmmaking within the movie. Was that all in the script or was that something that developed as the project developed?
I got involved in the project nearly 10 years ago, before the first draft was written. Basically, Colton and Aboud and [producers] Peter Principato and Jon Stern had been working on this thing, based on the book, and I encouraged the team to tell the story in an as outside-the-box way as Doug Kenney might have if he had been telling his own story. I wanted to make sure that we weren’t doing a boilerplate biopic and that we weren’t also doing something that itself felt like it was a movie from the ’70s or ’80s. I wanted it to be a movie for today, that was using the tools of storytelling as they’ve evolved in our own unique way.
I’m curious, since you have been working on it for so long, if in the process you saw any parallels between yourself and Doug Kenney. In the movie, we see him working with college friends to try and translate early comedy success to the larger professional world, which is something you experienced at NYU with your sketch comedy show The State. Were you thinking about that at all while working on the film?
Every day. The parallels were super clear and obvious. I think that’s part of why I was asked to come to direct the movie. I knew that I could draw on the experience of The State and everything I’ve done, the challenges and the rewards, of working with close friends in a way that was more than just a business partnership. It’s personal and it’s about something that matters. Frankly, when we were doing The State, transitioning from college to the professional world I wasn’t really familiar with the Lampoon story, but I’m amazed at how similar it was in so many ways. And then to also be working with members of The State in this movie, it really came full circle—Tom Lennon, Joe Lo Truglio, et cetera. It is exactly, in a way, what we were trying to do, have our generation of comedy chronicling and paying homage to that generation of comedy.
And that extends as well to the larger cast who have the challenge of playing these extremely recognizable comedy stars like Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, John Belushi, and others. What was the process like of casting those roles specifically?
We definitely thought about it a lot because we knew there’s a trap of actors playing famous faces that you recognize. Or famous people playing more famous people. There’s a lot of ways that that can get really weird or seem cheap. And we thought about going wildly against type like Hamilton or something. But we ultimately decided that we just wanted to get the very best actors that we could who could channel the essence of these people. Instead of going with any overriding concept, we just looked for the inspired idea. Like, oh, Tom Lennon should play Michael O’Donohue. Jon Daly should play Bill Murray. Letting the magic of those particular performers take it from there.
There’s definitely a meta element to Joel McHale playing Chevy Chase because they worked together on Community. Do you think he brought any special insight to Chevy Chase, having had that experience with him?
How could you not? He worked with him for so long. What was interesting was that he had the amazing task, which he succeeded beautifully at, of channeling the Chevy Chase from then, not the one that he worked with on Community.
They are very different.
They are very different. But also, it is the same person. I do think that knowing someone intimately like that inspired a particularly on point performance from Joel.
So, I also want to ask about Will Forte, who’s at the center of the movie does really hit that sweet spot between comedy and drama that you needed for the role of Doug Kenney. How did he end up being part of this project?
He really just was, as I think you’re saying—there are very, very few people on earth that can strike that tone and frankly, I was truly prepared to not go forward with shooting the movie if we could not get the right person. What I think makes Will so uniquely great for this, among many things, is that he also is obviously a major voice and creator in the comedy world today, beyond just being an actor. He was on Saturday Night Live and so on, and yet he’s this deeply gifted dramatic actor at the same time. He was able to bring so much of himself to this part in a way that it’s hard to imagine anyone else doing.
Yeah, in the way Joel McHale is playing a young Chevy Chase, it’s interesting to watch Will Forte interact with a young Lorne Michaels. That must have been surreal.
Right, exactly. I can only imagine. Everyone in America has a relationship to Saturday Night Live in the era that they first came of age and the people involved. And of course, people like Will, who had a long history of being a part of it. There’s a lot of that, all the time, folding backwards. And there were people like Martin Mull [who plays the older Doug] who knew a lot of these people personally. And there were people like Rick Overton, who’s in our film, who was very much involved in that scene in some ways. It was fun to mix it all together.
Lorne Michaels doesn’t come away looking great in this movie. Do you think there is truth to the theory that he stole the idea for SNL from the National Lampoon?
I of course wasn’t there, and I didn’t speak to Lorne, myself, either, but my sense is that no, Saturday Night Live certainly has its own history and its own evolution. But I can understand, very clearly, why Doug Kenney felt like that. Lorne raided Doug’s talent pool. And used a lot of Lampoon writers, took them away from the Lampoon and brought them to SNL. That’s exactly what he did. And, at the same time, in a bigger sense, SNL around that time kind of became the voice of counter-cultural comedy and took that away from the Lampoon. So I could see how incredibly crushing it was. And there are a few very crucial—what we called while making the movie “gun-shot moments”—where Doug got shot in the gut that inspired him to push to the next level. That was such an interesting one where SNL took over that and so he had to leapfrog SNL by making a movie. And not only did he make a movie but he made an all-time enduring classic that at the time was the highest-grossing comedy of all time.
Yeah, I think this movie will make a lot of people see Animal House in a different way. For a lot of people, it seemed like maybe an extension of John Belushi on SNL, but now we know it was really a response to SNL, or trying to one-up Lorne Michaels.
Not only that. The other thing that I realized, or what I hope this movie does is make people watch Animal House for the first time. Because it’s actually quite an old movie now and many, many, many of us—not me—were born after it came out. I do think that Animal House holds up as a really amazing film and the attitude of it feels quite pungent.
We talked about how this is a more dramatic film for you, but Animal House is more similar to some of your earlier work, just in terms of its tone and dedication to purely silly comedy. Was that movie an inspiration for you when you were starting out doing this stuff?
Oh my god, I mean, I couldn’t underscore that more. It’s a Rosetta Stone for me. There were different things that struck me to the core growing up. Animal House was, interestingly, one of the first tapes we had on our Betamax but we taped a Steve Martin special over the first hour of it. So I’ve seen everything after the first hour of Animal House probably 400 times. The first hour of Animal House I’ve probably only seen five times. For me, the tentpoles of my whole sense of the world growing up were Animal House, Caddyshack, and then Steve Martin and Woody Allen.
This film really affirms the power of purely silly comedy, especially in the final scene, which has always been a major part of your work. Has that diminished at all as you’ve gotten older or do you view it any differently?
I will say, all of Doug Kenney’s work was based on class satire and had more of a political bent than mine has, but certainly the meat of it, I agree with you. I just hope to always be challenging myself in any new direction as I go along. I feel like if I did exactly the same style forever, it would seem like I’m imitating my earlier self. I don’t want or intend to go in a straight line from comedy to drama or anything like that.
This is your second project after the Wet Hot American Summer series working with Netflix. How has that changed your approach or thoughts about the industry, working with Netflix opposed to working through more traditional distribution avenues for film?
Well, obviously, regardless of myself, the whole landscape has changed so much in recent years. The idea that a place like Netflix, which at the moment is producing so much content and seems to have a model that says, here are people, we like them and their ideas, so from that point forward, we’re going to hands-off and let them create their thing and then give it to their audience—that’s amazing. Who wouldn’t want that? I love that way of approaching it where you’re not going through layers and layers of executives whose job it is to second-guess the person above them. I just like the business model of a place like Netflix where they’re selling the product to the people who want to see it, as opposed to trying to serve advertisers. As a filmmaker who has made a movie, part of me always wishes that we’d have a theatrical release. But I also know that by being on Netflix, it will be seen by millions more people than ever would go see it in the theater.
Finally, anything in the works for the future of the expanded Wet Hot American Summer universe?
We have some ideas brewing as to the WHU, but I’m not prepared to announce them quite yet.