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A Futile and Stupid Gesture: How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy Forever Paperback – April 1, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Screenwriter Kenney (Animal House; Caddyshack), co-founder of National Lampoon, was one of the gifted gagsters who ignited the 1970s revolution in American humor. Journalist Karp (Playboy; Premiere) delivers an iridescent, polychromatic portrait of the humorist, framed within an amusing anecdotal history of National Lampoon. To chart the magazine's rise and fall, Karp conducted 150 interviews, mapping every avenue of business decisions, feuds, romances, cocaine use and bizarre pranks. It all began at Harvard, where wild wit Kenney and misanthropic Henry Beard became "symbiotic creative forces," revitalizing the Harvard Lampoon. When they teamed with publisher Matty Simmons, National Lampoon was born in 1970, filling the "gigantic void" between the New Yorker and Mad. Success led to heightened hilarity as the brand expanded with posters, products, theatrical productions and recordings. The 1973 National Lampoon Radio Hour cast resurfaced in 1975 on Saturday Night Live, but the anarchic Animal House in 1978 catapulted Kenney to Hollywood—as Karp writes, "He had transformed himself from nerd to preppy to hippie and now to unassuming millionaire artiste." 16-page b&w photo insert not seen by PW. (Sept. 1)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

When Doug Kenney, Henry Beard, and a handful of other Harvard Lampoonalums launched National Lampoon, one of their dreams was to create a long-lived American humor magazine to match Britain's venerable Punch. But for a few ill-advised business and creative decisions, they might have succeeded. Instead NL first transformed early-1970s anti-authoritarianism into lively, intelligent humor, then devolved into a formulaic, low-brow, mildly reactionary rag with a predilection for T&A and body--function jokes. Kenney shepherded NL through its first years, writing first-rate satire, before stumbling through a series of personal crises ended by a mysterious, perhaps suicidal, fall to his death in Hawaii in 1980. Both Karp's well-researched analysis of why NL succeeded, shuddered, and ultimately crashed and his biography of Kenney are compelling, and the latter is also mysterious. Early success in the magazine world and later in Hollywood (Kenney had a hand in Animal House and Caddyshack) only seemed to make Kenney more miserable. Karp's account of Kenney's death is as moving as the excerpts from excellent NL articles are hilarious. Jack Helbig
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Chicago Review Press (April 1, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1556527624
  • ISBN-13: 978-1556527623
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #278,598 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful By R. W. Rasband VINE VOICE on October 10, 2006
Format: Hardcover
The title "A Futile and Stupid Gesture" is, of course a quote from "National Lampoon's Animal House", one of the most beloved, successful, and influential films of the past 30 years. Doug Kenney helped write that movie and played the role of "Stork", as well as writing the almost-as-adored "Caddyshack", along with being one of the first and most powerful editors of the legendary magazine "National Lampoon". Josh Karp's book is both a biography of Kenney and a history of the whole "Lampoon" scene, which because of the sway of the quasi-spinoff "Saturday Night Live", becomes a social history of American comedy during the 1970's. And that decade was to comedy like the 1960's was to rock--a time which transformed show business and culture not just in the U.S. but in the whole Western world. The irony is that, as a woman who worked with the almost all-male writers of that scene said of them, "they were the most miserable bunch of guys I've ever known."

Karp's book is astoundingly thorough. He has interviewed pretty much everyone involved with the epic story and read encyclopedic amounts of social history so he can present the whole Lampoon cultural revolution in its widest context. Kenney was like the Forrest Gump of comedy in that he met almost everyone during that time, so you get sharply etched portraits of the SNL gang, Michael O' Donoghue, Harold Ramis, P.J. O'Rourke, Tony Hendra, Anne Beatts, and a whole constellation of stars that came into contact with the Hollywood-Lampoon axis. Karp is a smooth, novelistic storyteller so the book is as fun to read as the old magazine itself. And there are large chunks of the Lampoon excerpted, so you get a rich taste of what the publication was like at its best.
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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Dean Monti on August 14, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Ever since Esquire published their cover story on Doug Kenney, "Life and Death of a Comic Genius," many years ago, I've been hoping for a book like this to appear. Mention the name Doug Kenney to your co-workers and see what sort of reaction you get until you start talking about National Lampoon and Animal House.

As a comic novelist who was deeply inspired by the take-no-prisoners attitude of the Lampoon, I feel indebted to Kenney (as many other writers and comedians should) and hope this book brings wider attention to his comic genius and important contributions to the history of modern comedy.

Josh Karp does a wonderful job of weaving the interesting life of a magazine, with the interesting and tragic life of Kenney. This could have easily been an on-the-fly trash bio, but Karp approaches his subjects with intelligence and obviously did a lot of homework, interviewing key people related to Kenney and the Lampoon.

I have some misgiving about the cover. I understand the choice, given that Rick Meyerowitz was a key artist in the development of National Lampoon, but it makes the book seem just a bit slighter than what it is, which is a really thoughtful, intelligent biography. That said, I hope I'm wrong and the book get all the attention it deserves.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Theseus on March 18, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I'm incredibly happy that I read this book, but I found it a ragged read.

Karp's research appears to be fabulously comprehensive. Cobbling together all these recollections and many years of social and cultural history into a unified whole must have been quite a job. The result is a book that never quite decides if it is biography of Kenney or of the magazine.

Karp is at his weakest when moves away from reportage he enters into analysis of Kenney. He lacks the insight and the prose of a sophisticated biographer and for every insightful chunk of prose, there is a clunky deposit of pop psychology.

Still, the book is an utter success at creating much of the present-at-the-creation of the magazine and its many children (radio projects, theatre projects, films, tv...)
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Trevor Seigler on February 8, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Say the name "Doug Kenney", and you're likely to draw blank stares and numerous "who"s from the average comedy fan. But say "Animal House", "Caddyshack" or "National Lampoon", and they'll likely know what you're talking about. That's the time to tell them why the first name is so important.

Doug Kenney was a shadow figure in the history of comedy, a magazine writer and co-founder of the Lampoon's national version who managed to write some great articles, the scripts for two legendary comedy classics, and numerous other artifacts of his time all before his death in 1980, of an apparent suicide or accidential fall from a cliff in Hawaii. The fact that he died so young and so unheralded outside the insular world of comedy is a shame, especially considering what a legacy he left.

In Josh Karp's book, Kenney is even a minor character in his own life story, as whole portions of the book focus on the hangers-on at the Lampoon (various writers and other talents whose lights shined more brightly than that of Kenney or his co-founder, Henry Beard). But this is not a fault of the biographer: Kenney's own story is inevitably tied to the magazine and entertainment empire he helped found, and which owes him more than the current crop of "direct to DVD" releases and smarmy Paris Hilton cash-ins currently under the banner of "The National Lampoon".

Kenney's gift and his curse was his talent, one which produced masterpieces like "Animal House" and Nancy Reagan's "dating tips" but also let him down when it came to writing his "great American novel" of TACOS (Teenage Commies From Outer Space).
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