Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The super-funny guy who fell off a cliff

I'm currently reading a great book called "A Futile and Stupid Gesture: How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy Forever " by a fellow named Josh Karp. The reason I think this is a great book is because even though I'm already very familiar with the subject, I'm still enjoying reading it.

For those of you who don't know, Doug Kenney was a guy who almost single-handedly created a new kind of humor. He was one of the founders of and driving force behind National Lampoon magazine, which was launched by him and Henry Beard, after graduating from Harvard and reviving the Harvard Lampoon while there. Although now a lame brand name that gets slapped on boorish, inane comedies, National Lampoon magazine was at it's peak from 1970-1975 one of the funniest things ever created. It was also subversive at a time when comedy, save for Lenny Bruce, generally wasn't. I mean, people called "Laugh-In" subversive, but come on. It was just flowers, Artie Johnson and bad one-liners.

It was a great magazine (look for some of the older anthologies, as well as the classic "1964 Yearbook Parody" at used book stores), and it was not only creatively successful, but it made Kenney rich. He and the other two founders had a five-year buy-out clause in their contracts, and their publisher wanted the rights when the mag hit it big. Thus, he had to pay them $7.8 millions dollars or so. In 1975 this was serious money, and Kenney instantly became insanely wealthy.

Kenny's brand of smart, dark humor literally created the climate that allowed for "Saturday Night Live" to exist and flourish. In fact, most of the original "Not Ready for Prime Time Players" were previously performers on National Lampoon's radio show, performing material written by Kenney and other notables such as the equally-deserving-of-import Michael O' Donaghue (who went on to be SNL's first head writer. He wrote the classic "NBC cancels Star Trek" sketch, among many others). The ironic voice he gave birth to still influences people to this day, and it's not an overtstatement to say with certainty that every writer who has ever toiled on "The Simpsons" and shows of that ilk, not to mention "The Onion", revere Kenney and his work.

Kenney was also one of the creators / writers of "National Lampoon's Animal House." You may recognize him as the character of "Stork", who led the parade's marching band into a dead-end alley and uttered the immortal line "Well, what the hell are we supposed to do, ya mo-ron?"

Kenney (left) as "Stork" in "Animal House." Co-writer Chris Miller,
who also played "Hardbar", is pictured at right.

He was also the co-writer of "Caddyshack", which was certainly a more ramshackle affair, and he knew it. He was also heavily into cocaine at this time. He went to Hawaii with Chevy Chase in August of 1980 to dry out, and stayed there to hang out some more when Chevy left. A couple of days later he was reported missing. Eventually his body was found at the bottom of a cliff, broken and sunburned. It is unclear if he fell accidentally (the edge of the cliff was eroded and had a warning sign posted on it) or, despondent with the way his life was going, leapt to his death.

They found several notes / jokes / ideas in his hotel room. One of them read: "These are the happiest days I've ever ignored."

Some Lampoon colleagues were fond of saying that "he fell while looking for a place to jump." When my young 8th grade self heard the news of his death, I was pretty unhappy. A good friend's father had a bunch of old National Lampoon mags and we used to read them all the time. I was pretty obssessed with that strange, small world of comedy at that point (SNL, SCTV, Steve Martin, National Lampoon) and how everybody seemed to know each other and work together. Esquire magazine did a cover story on him shortly after his death that painted him as somewhat of a madman and pissed a lot of people off, so I'm glad this book has come along. It's an interesting and detailed portrait of a man who shaped an entire industry, all before the age of 33. Check it out.

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