David Wain is no stranger to disrupting an unsuspecting comedy mainstream. Before solidifying himself as a household name as the writer-director behind cult classics (Wet Hot American Summer, The Ten) and commercial hits (Role Models) alike, Wain and his pioneering sketch comedy troupe The State staged a comedic coup at MTV back in the early ‘90s when they were still just fresh-faced 20-year-olds shooting DIY sketches around NYU.
The State, which included Michael Showalter, Ken Marino, Thomas Lennon, and Kerri Kenney, had no business being on mainstream television — their brand of alt-comedy absurdity was dark, subversive, and antagonistically surreal — but thank the comedy gods that it was, even if their show lasted only for a brief 26 episodes. It challenged the status quo of what sketch comedy could be. Wain and his college buddies were unapologetic and uncompromising in their vision, and they’d go on to influence a generation of label-defying comedic voices.
So it’s fitting that Wain is at the helm of A Futile and Stupid Gesture, the new Netflix original movie chronicling the wild rise, fall, and enduring legacy of National Lampoon and its founder Doug Kenney. Gesture follows Kenney (played by a beautifully wigged Will Forte) as he took his brand of silly yet searing satire from his Harvard dorm to the gates of Hollywood, flicking off conservative culture, reinvigorating a staid comedic landscape, and introducing the world to a singular crop of comedic performers (John Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner) along the way. National Lampoon’s punk spirit and aggressive originality paved the way for Wain and his comedic coterie, and Gesture feels like a love letter to his forefathers.
Before its premiere at Sundance this week, I hopped on the phone with Wain to discuss A Futile and Stupid Gesture, how National Lampoon influenced The State, and how he’s remained true to his niche comedic sensibilities after nearly three decades in the industry.
A Futile and Stupid Gesture is both your first biopic and proper period piece. Is that what attracted you to this project?
This film felt like a real collection of so many things that I’m already very interested in. Not only was it an opportunity to do so many things that I love to do, but also to step forward and do things I never had a chance to do, particularly telling a story about real people that actually existed and chronicling their lives. Then, of course, having the opportunity to tell the story of the creative community that gave birth to the creative community that I’m a part of. It was an amazingly appealing area to dive into. Plus being able to work with this cast we assembled and this team of producers and writers. It was just a very cool, nearly 10 years in-the-making process.
Stylistically, Gesture has the Wain fingerprint all over it. There’s the unconventional rhythms of Childrens Hospital as well as the more traditional comedy beats of Role Models. But there’s also an undercurrent of sincere drama that packs an emotional punch, which felt like a new direction for you. Can you talk about your approach for how you wanted to tell this story?
You almost crystallized for me why I did it: the story of National Lampoon naturally provides the space to take some creative risks. A lot of those choices just came from the gut – trying to come up with ways that felt organic to the story and not too gimmicky, but at the same time lent a certain fun and flair in trying to come up with touches that actually serve the story. But yes, also building off things that I’ve done previously and taking those in new directions. Doing things like Childrens Hospital was an amazing testing ground for trying different techniques in a relatively low-stakes way. We really wanted to challenge ourselves to not just say, “Oh here’s this little incident that happened with the Lampoon guys and here’s a scene about it.” I wanted it to feel like a movie of today, not a movie that’s from the ‘70s or ‘80s. I also tried to make it feel like the magazine came to life in some way. So if there’s any feeling of that, then we’ve succeeded.
You are no stranger to working with ensembles but Gesture takes things to a whole new level with how frighteningly similar some of the actors resemble the characters they’re portraying. Seth Green as Christopher Guest, Rick Glassman as Harold Ramis, and Jackie Tohn as Gilda Radner really stand out. How did you assemble these players?
We had a great casting director, Allison Jones, helping us. We also talked a lot about the pitfalls of portraying people who the audience knows their faces and how they look and sound and how that can get a little gimmicky or corny. We didn’t stop looking until we found or identified people that we knew would be brilliantly perfect in each role. Like, Tom Lennon can channel Michael O’Donoghue perfectly. That makes sense. Each of them in their own way had their own reason why they — beyond perhaps some physical resemblance — connected to their character. Also the chance to mix in, as I like to do, those people that are very much outside our community like Domhnall Gleeson, who bring a different kind of weight to their characters. I love this cast a lot. I think the group gelled in ways beyond what I would have ever expected.
People like Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, and Ivan Reitman are still very much active in pop culture and are portrayed in the film. Did they have any input or was this more of you creating a monument to them and hoping they laugh at it?
More of the latter. We tried to reach out to everyone who’s actually portrayed in the movie and get their blessing and make sure that they knew that we were doing it. We certainly didn’t want anyone to feel like we’re doing something they would be unhappy about. I don’t think anyone comes off horribly. But it wasn’t like we had an on-set consultant for Chevy Chase or something like that. I don’t know Chevy personally, but obviously Joel [McHale] does so he was really able to channel something new in that performance comedically. But we did interview everyone we could possibly get in touch with that was part of the story or around these events at that time, and that helped us immeasurably.
Every generation has their own bubble of anti-establishment comedy. Mad magazine in the ‘50s, R. Crumb in the ‘60s, and then Lampoon in the ‘70s. Lampoon’s influence is still being felt in ways today that the others aren’t. Why do you think the comedic sensibility of National Lampoon has been able to endure as long as it has?
It’s all an evolution. Mad magazine in its time was pretty transgressive, and I think that everyone will have different interpretations of which thing of that time was speaking against the norm in a comedic way. In my perception it was National Lampoon that gave way to Saturday Night Live, then Saturday Night Live took us through the ‘70s, then I think they handed it to Letterman in the ‘80s. You can never quite pinpoint how those things will evolve. But these guys believed in something. The title A Futile and Stupid Gesture is so apt because they believed in something grand and important but at the same time was meaningless and stupid. I couldn’t think of a better way to sum up how I feel either. My approach to doing my work as a comedic filmmaker or writer is that everything’s so important to me – like, I believe deeply in what we’re doing, and I believe in the importance of comedy and what it means and the intricacies of a joke. Yet at the same time, what I’m trying to create is something so purposely stupid and silly. I think that that duality is what defines it and makes comedy exciting for me.
The State’s story so clearly parallels National Lampoon’s. How much do you see yourself in Doug Kenney?
A lot. It was very clear that it felt like that same thing. There were so many moments in our movie and their story that reminded me of The State’s story. It was such a parallel experience of being college buddies that took their comedy vision into the professional world in the early 20s of our lives. There’s a scene in the film where we have Doug and Henry [Beard, played by Domnhall Gleeson] sitting at their new desks after getting distribution for the magazine and being like “Okay, here we are in this weird office now, so let’s come up with something funny now that we’re being paid to do it.” I mean, I couldn’t have related to that scene more, because that’s exactly what happened when we started our show at MTV at 21 years old, just goofing around and being just like they were. We were super confident and ballsy for no great reason. But we quickly realized that we had to write something. The crazy thing, as we all know about comedy, is no matter how experienced you are or how many times you’ve done it before, you’re still starting from scratch with every single joke. There’s no template. It’s always that fear of “Okay, What’s the next thing?” I related to that fear.
What would you say is National Lampoon’s greatest influence on your work, whether it’s a particular joke or a broader philosophy?
The whole ethos of the Lampoon — which was expressed again in Animal House and Caddyshack — was the slobs versus the snobs. It’s one of the driving forces of The State. That was our thing. I think we’re this band of rebels that doesn’t care what “the man” says, and we’re gonna do it our own way. We’re gonna do our own thing, and it’s gonna kill, and we’re the best. I think that was a feeling that we got directly and indirectly from Doug Kenney, the more that I learned about Doug Kenney. And that’s just one of the thousand examples. The whole structure of Role Models takes a lot from what was set forth in Animal House, and we carried it onward.
I think people will be surprised by the amount of drama that arrives late in this movie. Doug Kenney wanted his silliness taken seriously, and a lot of that tension arises from the pressure he put on himself to succeed, break barriers, and not “sell out.” I was wondering what your secret was for staying hungry and staying true to yourself after nearly 30 years of making comedy?
I will concede probably a fair helping of luck. But I think that working with my close friends that I met when I was 18 years old had been a big part of that formula – surrounding yourself with people who are not sycophants and know you from way back when and are not afraid to tell you that something isn’t funny. I believe that’s a really important element of it. I’ve seen a lot of people in comedy, particularly because it’s what I pay attention to, where they become very successful and then you get the sense that there’s not as many people around them saying no. That’s when they lose their way. I also don’t want to be the smartest one in the room. I want to always be learning from people around me. I try to always keep my eyes on that prize of doing something that matters to me and I believe in, instead of taking the job for the money or for the clout. I’ve given up probably on a fair amount of income and fame and fortune over the years, but it’s made me a lot happier, and hopefully the work achieves a similar longevity.
Photo by John P. Fleenor/Netflix.
Erik Abriss is a writer living in Los Angeles.