I met Doug Kenney, the subject of Netflix’s new biopic A Futile and Stupid Gesture, when I interviewed him for a New York radio station right before the launch of the National Lampoon. I would love to be able to provide some examples from the interview of the spiraling flights of wit Doug was known for (“Doug was like a musician, always riffing. His music/comedy was a rapid stream of keen and funny observations about what surrounded him, like a movable Algonquin Round Table wherever he went,” as his friend and Caddyshack co-producer Michael Shamberg said) or his thoughts on starting the magazine, but unfortunately I didn’t take a duplicate of the program with me. I didn’t even copy it onto a cassette. What can I say? This was the summer between high school and college and I was preoccupied with what lay ahead. Also, I was an unpaid intern, so I thought there would be plenty of similar opportunities when my real career started (wrong). And it never occurred to me the radio station wouldn’t keep a copy.
The radio station, WBAI (or “listener-supported WBAI” as it always had to be referred to) in New York, was disorganized at the best of times, so when, older and wiser, I tried to get hold of the program tape in subsequent years, my numerous requests disappeared into the void. When I worked there, BAI was a sort of hippie NPR “freeform radio” whose DJs leant more toward Lord Buckley, the Firesign Theatre, and Frank Zappa than The Turtles. As someone immersed in the counterculture, Doug was happy to be interviewed for BAI. Another factor was that no one else was taking much notice of this new magazine, with recent Harvard grads Doug and his co-founder Henry Beard big names to satire nerds but nobody else. It’s hard to overstate how relatively obscure they were.
My awareness of the two began at age 11 when I stumbled across my mother’s copy of Alligator, the Harvard Lampoon’s James Bond parody by Beard and Kenney’s predecessors, Christopher Cerf and Michael Frith. After that I kept an eye out for Harvard Lampoon product and over the next four years devoured their parodies of Playboy, Life, and Time, all supervised by Beard and Doug, as well as a parody front page of The New York Times wrapped around the real NYT, which fooled many, despite a story headlined “Walrus In Central Park Zoo Speaks” (“all the more shocking after years of silence,” was its keeper’s comment). So I knew any magazine these people created was going to be good.
What I do remember from the interview was how enthusiastic Doug was about the new venture and how lacking in attitude he was. This was in 1970, when women – let alone girls just out of high school – in journalism were still something of a rarity and condescension was widespread. However, he took the interview entirely seriously, with no assumption it was a pretext I’d invented to flirt with him (unlike some interviewees for subsequent programs). Like many 17-year-olds, I had an invisible scanner constantly checking for flickers of sexual/romantic interest, like those giant radio telescopes on remote mountaintops listening for crackles of communication from distant galaxies. Of course, when I did pick up a transmission, my usual response was “No, I must be making it up,” but even so I am certain that there was not the least bit of physical chemistry. Instead, there was something rarer – a genuine affinity, a mutual sense that here was someone on the same wavelength. We didn’t become bffs, but we did become friend-ly.
What I didn’t know then was that Doug himself, though already 22, was still in the adolescent mode of becoming, trying on different personas (preppie/hippie/industry player). As a result, he often felt more comfortable around younger people than with focused hard chargers his own age or older. During early editorial conferences at publisher Matty Simmons’s home, Doug would leave the meetings for a couple of hours to talk to Simmons’s teenage son, Michael, leading the younger Simmons to say, “I think Doug related to 15-year-olds more easily than he related to adults.” Doug especially related to younger people who felt out of place, as he often did himself. As novelist Emily Prager, a former girlfriend, observed, “Doug had an aura of being lost and bewildered most of the time. He seemed terribly unsure of himself considering the amount of success that he’d had,” so he welcomed the chance to play the older and wiser role.
During my freshman year I was not very happy in college, finding myself in an environment that restricted rather than expanded my horizons and crammed me into a room built for one with a roommate I had nothing in common with. I must have complained about this to Doug, because I got a typed letter from him (now buried deep in storage) that concluded with the advice, “Tell your roommate to shape up or you’ll tear down her Snoopy posters.” I was open-mouthed at this intuitive leap – how did he know she had Snoopy posters? I hadn’t mentioned them. He also added a little caricature of himself: all glasses, unruly hair, striped shirt, and a smile.
Another thing I didn’t know at the time was that Doug and I had something in common, which might have accounted for a tendency to make snarky observations from the sidelines rather than plunge into action with a gung-ho attitude. My mother had died the year before, so I knew the truth of the phrase “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.” I could not understand how my contemporaries, convinced that if they put in the effort they would achieve their goals, could step out onto the stage of life with such blithe assurance, oblivious to the banana peel that lay in wait. Doug had also suffered a big loss in early life when his older brother died, and this left him similarly unable to take refuge in comfortable illusions. Instead he adopted a perpetual ironic take on the gap between how we would like the world to be and how it really is. As P.J. O’Rourke wrote in 1985, “In order to make sense out of life, it’s necessary to be oblivious to a lot of things or twist them around so they fit with everything else. Doug was unable to do this…this made his life uncomfortable at best and sometimes an agony.”
By today’s relationship metrics, I would say mine with Doug was that of Facebook friends who occasionally met in real life. If I was in New York during those first couple of years of the National Lampoon’s existence, I would stop by the office to say hello. When Doug came up to Cambridge to be fêted by the Harvard Lampoon, I was invited to the party as I was living nearby. (Harvard Lampoon parties were not, at least in those days, the sort of debutante ball-with-added-food fight depicted in A Futile and Stupid Gesture. People wore regular party clothes and did regular party things.)
I did think of asking Doug for a summer job but did not feel sufficiently emotionally robust to survive in the Lampoon office, filled as it was with ambitious, competitive, sharp-tongued guys. I could also tell I would constantly be hit on – not because I was so alluring, but because it was the kind of place where women, especially very young women, were trophies in the never-ending battle for male dominance. Nor would anyone imagine these women might have creative ambitions of their own worth nurturing. Still, as the magazine’s profile rose and then expanded exponentially into theater, radio, and ultimately movies, I began to think it might have been worth taking my lumps.
After Doug became less involved in the magazine and I moved to another country, we lost touch. I was living in San Francisco working with Les Nickelettes, a women’s theater company whose shows were sort of a combination of a traditional British panto and Pussy Riot, when Animal House came out and thought of contacting him the next time I was in LA, but in light of the movie’s huge success I got cold feet, figuring he’d be far too grand to talk to the likes of me.
Little did I realize that the opposite was true. Even though Doug embraced the Hollywood highlife (not to his benefit), he did not turn into a standard Industry asshole and in fact was happy to see old friends and generous with his help. Doug “presented to the world a man who was concerned about profit participation, deals, grosses and so on,” his close friend Chevy Chase said, “but underneath he wasn’t really like that at all.”
Then in 1980 Doug died and and it was too late. When I wrote That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick, my book on the ‘70s Lampoon, its antecedents and offshoots, I spoke to many of Doug’s friends and colleagues. It was truly the blind men describing the elephant; some thought he was overrated and unreliable, some thought he was a genius and loved him dearly. As for me, I wish I’d been bolder and reconnected, so I could thank him for helping to instill self-belief in a young person. Given how riddled he was by self-doubt despite his obvious gifts and their recognition by the world, he’d have appreciated the irony.
Ellin Stein has written for The New York Times, The Times of London, and many other publications. She is the author of That’s Not Funny That’s Sick: The National Lampoon and the Comedy Insurgents Who Captured the Mainstream and tweets at @ellinst.