'A Futile and Stupid Gesture' Producers on How 'National Lampoon' Paved the Way in Comedy

Jonathan Stern and Peter Principato - Getty - H 2018
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Peter Principato and Jonathan Stern discuss their latest film, which recently debuted at Sundance and starts streaming on Netflix on Jan. 26.

With the arrival of A Futile and Stupid Gesture on Netflix on Friday, audiences will get a deep dive into the life of National Lampoon co-creator and Caddyshack and Animal House screenwriter Doug Kenney. 

For the film's producer Peter Principato, Kenney was not a name with which he was familiar prior to his involvement in the project. After receiving the book of the same name — on which the film is based — nearly a decade ago, Principato tells The Hollywood Reporter, "I was completely inspired and in awe and embarrassed that I didn’t know who Doug Kenney was, and felt an overwhelming sense and desire at that moment to saying not only do I want to make this movie, I have to make this movie."

The film is a comedic look at Kenney's triumphs and trials, starting with the creation of humor magazine National Lampoon with friend and co-creator Henry Beard, which then led him to write Animal House (1978) and Caddyshack (1980), the former of which was the most profitable comedy of all time until Ghostbusters surpassed it in 1984. A Futile and Stupid Gesture stars Will Forte as Kenney, Domhnall Gleeson as Beard, Emmy Rossum, Matt Walsh, Seth Green, Natasha Lyonne, Thomas Lennon, ?Martin Mull and Joel McHale, to name a few.

Kenney's work was at the epicenter of 1970's comedy counterculture, tackling politics with humor and making such a thing mainstream by paving the way for projects such as Saturday Night Live. Jonathan Stern, who produced the film and also teamed with Principato on Netflix's 2015 and 2017 revivals of Wet Hot American Summer, says in the wake of the Vietnam War and Nixon's presidency, "there was a lot to resist and fight about." 

"Historically, until that point comedy was not so easily used as a tool for expressing social and political views and doing it in a way that was very convincing," Stern says, adding, "watching The Daily Show and late night shows, they're all very political. John Oliver and Samantha Bee, these are full political comedy shows in some cases. We almost take that for granted. Someone paved the way that it's OK to mix comedy and politics."

Principato agrees, adding, "If you do a Venn diagram of anything [Kenney and frequent collaborators such as Harold Ramis] touched or inspired, you're coming your way down to Judd Apatow movies, even the Zucker Brothers' movies. Animal House opened the doors and the minds for all that."

Of course, casting a film about Kenney meant also casting roles for his social circle — including the likes of Ramis, Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner and others  — something that Principato says was shockingly easy. "It was actually a joy and truly a burden of [having] so many choices in a way, because when people heard about the movie we were making and the world we were making it about, very luckily we had a lot of people that wanted to participate in that," he says. "It wasn't about trying to find look-alikes or people that were the embodiment of physically what these characters were, we really wanted to just find people that embodied the spirit of these characters."

The film also provides a behind the scenes look at the making of both Animal House and Caddyshack (the latter of which, although poorly received at the time, would go on to be considered a cult classic, something to which the film gives a sly wink of a reference). Comedy fans seem to be split on which of these films is the better one, but for Principato and Stern the choice is unanimous.

"Everyone has films that they've seen a hundred times, and [Animal House] is it for me," Stern says. Principato adds, "That's a bit of a Sophie's choice, but if the gun is pointed to my head, it's Animal House."