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David Wain explores the impact of National Lampoon in ‘A Futile and Stupid Gesture’ biopic

The director of the new Netflix film reveals how he was influenced by National Lampoon as an aspiring comedian.

"A Futile and Stupid Gesture," directed by David Wain, center, premieres on Netflix Jan. 26. Photo Credit: John P. Fleenor / Netflix

So much of today’s comedy world can be tied back to the comedy magazine National Lampoon.

The publication, and its later stage, radio shows and movies, helped launch the careers of icons such as John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner and Bill Murray, just to name a few.

A new biopic, “A Futile and Stupid Gesture,” explores the magazine’s beginnings, focusing on one of its enigmatic founders: Doug Kenney (Will Forte).

amNewYork spoke with director David Wain, also a regular on Comedy Central’s “Another Period,” about the film.

How were you influenced by National Lampoon?

In my career and my life, I was not directly influenced by the National Lampoon magazine that much because I wasn’t super familiar with it, to be honest. I was more of Mad magazine kid. I was a little young for the heyday of the Lampoon magazine. But I was hit square in the jaw by “Animal House” and “Caddyshack,” which were essentially my bibles growing up as a young comedy fan and aspiring comedian. And so those movies and the related movies around it were my text for how to look at the world.

You got a chance to recreate scenes from those movies here. What was going through your mind when filming those?

It was a truly surreal, hard-to-describe experience to work with the team of costume designers and set designers and actors and props to put together these images that were so burned in my subconscious from years ago, and then recreate them and then make it a part of our storytelling was — it was a joy and a blast and really spooky.

How did you arrive at Will Forte for Doug?

Well, for the lead character of Doug Kenney we knew that it wasn’t a guy most people in the audience know or know how he looks so much. But we knew that it was a very challenging part though, because it’s his story and he’s this complicated guy who wasn’t so free with expressing his emotions but was one of the funniest people on Earth, and then also had a lot of darkness, too. So it’s really a drama about comedy. So we needed to find an actor who could be incredibly and credibly funny. And then also could really handle the dramatic parts just as well. That goes down to basically only Will Forte.

There are a lot of familiar famous faces. Who was the most challenging to cast?

I mean they really all were until we found the person and then it was super easy. But I mean sometimes it was just thinking about it, like Michael O’Donoghue. Who could possibly sort of capture that maniac energy. And then we’re like, “Oh, Thomas Lennon, of course.” And Chevy Chase also was a very difficult one. I had no clue who would do it until in walked Joel McHale, who obviously knows Chevy from working on “Community.” And suddenly his brilliant performance turned that into a real triumph.

What do you want people to get out of watching this film?

Well, I think it’s a few things. One: that there’s this guy whose name you probably never heard who was a true central architect of the comedic sensibility that still is reigning today in many ways, or at least has evolved into other things. But without Doug and his influence and that group of people, the whole comedic landscape of TV and movies in 2018, I think, would be quite different. That’s number one. And number two is just a look at what that time was like in the National Lampoon and the people. Some of whom you know and others you don’t. But ultimately, more than anything actually, I hope that they just enjoy a good story about two friends and their journey and this one guy and his journey and all the characters around them. I truly don’t think you need to care intellectually about comedy or history or whatever to just find this to be an entertaining, enjoyable story.

You said you’re a big Mad magazine fan. Have you given any thought about going into the magazine biopic field?

I would love to see a whole movie about so many of these other little sub-stories that you get a little taste of in our movie. There are so many stories. Obviously the early history of “Saturday Night Live” itself is its own move that could be made. And each of these characters — Michael O’Donoghue should have a bio pic starring Tom Lennon, for sure. And certainly the story of Mad magazine is another great, fascinating, you know . . . I have actually had seen a script at some point that they were going to do that.

‘A Futile and Stupid Gesture’ premieres on Netflix on Friday.

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