Friday, November 07, 2008

A Futile and Stupid Gesture by Josh Karp

I'm from the second or third generation of kids -- I'll be honest, boys -- who imprinted on National Lampoon as the epitome of humor when I was young. The magazine itself started when I was only one year old, in 1970, and it's best years are variously considered to have continued through 1975, or some later date in the '70s, but not much beyond that. By the time I knew it existed and started reading it, National Lampoon was a thinner, less "dangerous" magazine than it had started off as.

Of course, "danger" is often highly overrated -- particularly by adolescent boys.

A Futile and Stupid Gesture is a paired biography, of the National Lampoon itself and of Doug Kenney, one of its founding writer/editors. Karp starts off with Kenney, obviously -- he was born first -- and spends the first fifty pages of Stupid Gesture running through his early life and his years at Harvard, professionally but a bit mechanically. Karp clearly isn't interested in the usual stuff of biography -- interviewing the neighbors and school chums, digging out obscure facts and making connections to his subject's personal life -- and Futile and Stupid ambles along until Kenney gets to Harvard, joins the Harvard Lampoon, and meets Henry Beard. (Beard and Kinney were the two editorial founders of the NatLamp, and its early creative dynamos. Before that, at Harvard, they edited a famous parody of Playboy as well as co-writing Bored of the Rings.)

Karp is clearly a huge fan of the Lampoon style of comedy -- he refers to a good dozen of the early writers for the magazine as "geniuses" -- and the book wanders away from Kenney as soon as the National Lampoon is founded. Part of that is inevitable; if Karp is going to tell the story of the magazine, he has to give us thumbnail sketches of all of the important people who worked there, which takes space and time. He's clearly interviewed nearly everyone still alive and willing to talk about those days -- he has a lot of quotes from this person about that person, and a lot of detail on the various office feuds. What he doesn't have is a strong sense of what the story is, other than "NatLamp was really, really great, and then it gradually slid downhill."

The bulk of the book is organized in chapters by year -- one each for 1970 through 1980 -- which Karp lurches into, each time, with an amateurish "you are there"-style listing of important events that happened that year. Kenney's personal life gets complicated, as does that of many Lampoon regulars, and Karp reports the facts quickly and then gets back to listing the contents of the magazine issues (and talking about other media, like the radio and stage shows, once they get started). Karp tells us who was feuding, and over what, but he never gets into anyone's head -- we don't really know Doug Kenney by the time A Futile and Stupid Gesture is done, let alone any of the others. He's interviewed all of these people, and found out what happened, but he doesn't seem to have pressed them about why it happened, or what any of them really felt at the time.

Nearly all of the surviving Lampooners spoke to Karp -- the major exception is Beard, who apparently has never spoken to any reporter about that part of his life at all. If Karp had been more detailed in his interviews with the others, then Henry Beard would be the unknowable black hole around which the book revolved -- and there's some evidence that Karp was trying to structure it that way -- but so many of the NatLamp names are random and inscrutable in their actions -- from Kenney to Tony Hendra to Mike O'Donoghue -- that Beard only seems more grounded and focused on work than his drunken, druggy co-workers.

So A Futile and Stupid Gesture skims over the '70s and over what really was a revolution in comedy. Karp does think that the NatLamp crowd were geniuses, and that they changed comedy forever (that's his subtitle, after all), but he's less clear on how they did that. Sure, he runs through the theater and radio shows, and through them introduces as side characters Belushi, Chase, Murray, and others that will go on (under head writer O'Donoghue) to Saturday Night Live and thus bring a very similar comedy sensibility to a broader audience...but what was the difference between that NatLamp comedy and what came before? What else was going on in the comedy world at that time? Karp is silent on the broader issues; he's got too much to handle already with the large cast of the NatLamp, constantly fracturing and collapsing and re-forming.

Stupid Gesture is well worth reading as an oral history of NatLamp. But don't expect anything like a conventional biography of Doug Kenney -- and, in particular, don't expect any new answers to the question of his puzzling death. (There may never be any real answers there, of course.) But, this is a book entitled A Futile and Stupid Gesture, after all -- how useful and positive can you expect it to be?

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