Few publications have left as big of an impact on the comedy landscape as National Lampoon.
A spinoff of the storied Harvard Lampoon, the famed magazine became a cult hit in the late ’70s for its subversive and often shocking style of humor. While National Lampoon helped launch the careers of stars like Bill Murray and spawned numerous books, films and other productions over the decades, many longtime comedy fans still have a special place in their hearts for the beloved magazine, which met its demise in 1998.
The wild beginnings and eventual fall of the publication are now on full display in the Netflix movie “A Futile and Stupid Gesture,” a new biopic about Harvard alum and National Lampoon co-founder Doug Kenney. Based on the book of the same name, the film stars Will Forte as the eccentric late writer, who tragically died in 1980 at the age of 33.
Thomas Lennon, who plays fan-favorite Lampoon contributor Michael O’Donoghue in the flick, tells Metro that the magazine became popular because it provided readers with humorous material they could pass along to their pals, similar to how today’s comedy fans share clips with each other on social media.
“It was the analog version of forwarding a funny video to your friend,” Lennon says. “That’s the way they caught fire.”
The former “Reno 911!” star is travelling to Cambridge on Saturday to present a free screening of “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” at the Brattle Theatre. Lennon will be joined by screenwriters John Aboud and Michael Colton, as well as producer and Netflix’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos. The streaming service executive is also set to be honored by the Harvard Lampoon while he’s in town.
Lennon praises Sarandos for being a true “fan boy” of comedy who was willing to take a chance on the quirky film.
“His name looms very large in show business these days,” Lennon says. “He is one of the most down to earth, genuinely funny comedy fans that you could meet.”
“The traditional studios probably would not have made a movie like this in this era,” he adds. “It doesn’t feature superheroes. It’s not a $200 million venture. It’s a funny, sad biopic about a fascinating figure.”
The actor admits that “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” is definitely filled with “a lot of weirdness,” particularly when it comes to the various casting choices, such as Joel McHale playing Chevy Chase. Although the production had “a lot of weird layers to it,” somehow, everything came together.
“It was insane,” Lennon says. “I’ve met Chevy and I’ve met Joel, and of course you watch the film and it’s really, I think, the most sublime performance in the entire film.”
As for Lennon’s character, he takes on the role of O’Donoghue, who’s best known for being the first head writer of “Saturday Night Live.” The late scribe had a penchant for smashing things and making people angry, but was able to connect with readers through his very dark style of jokes.
“His sense of humor would be, ‘Let’s also piss off the absolute maximum number of people’,” Lennon says.
Although he was one of the few Lampoon writers who didn’t come from Harvard, O’Donoghue fit right in with the magazine’s provocateur nature. While Lennon admits that many of the decades-old articles aren’t as funny when you look back on them now, the actor believes the comedy landscape lost a part of its soul when the Lampoon stopped publishing.
“Woke would not be the word to describe those old articles,” he says. “That said, it’s sad to lose something that was getting people a little bit riled up.”