If I told you a new National Lampoon movie was headed for release, you'd be forgiven for greeting me with a shrug, if not outright disdain. The brand hasn't exactly been booming in the past decade or two – you'd have to reach back 16 long years to find the last half-decent film, National Lampoon's Van Wilder starring a Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place-era Ryan Reynolds. And even then, it's a stretch to call that frats-and-farts effort "good," or passingly familiar to Lampoon's anarchic origins.
But A Futile and Stupid Gesture, which starts streaming on Netflix Jan. 26, is the best National Lampoon movie to arrive since Christmas Vacation, perhaps Animal House – although it's not technically a Lampoon production.
Directed by absurdism expert David Wain (Wet Hot American Summer, the criminally overlooked They Came Together) and starring beloved Saturday Night Live weirdo Will Forte, the film is not produced under the musty Lampoon banner, but rather chronicles the origins of the comedy organization – from its thrifty, dangerous magazine days when it was a staple of the seventies counterculture to its early success in Hollywood.
In its outré casting (Joel McHale as Chevy Chase!), its unorthodox structure (it's narrated by a seventysomething version of a character who actually died at 33) and its fast-and-loose relationship with the truth (there's a mid-film sequence in which Wain lists every fact his film fudges), A Futile and Stupid Gesture embodies the original incendiary spirit of National Lampoon, far removed from its current and depressing incarnation.
For veteran comic actor and writer Martin Mull, Futile's distinct whiff of Lampoon's early and heady days is exactly why he signed on to co-star in the project. In the film, Mull plays the aforementioned elder version of National Lampoon magazine co-founder Doug Kenney, whose younger self is played by Forte. (It's less confusing than it sounds, and far funnier.)
"I was actually living in New York at the time the magazine was originally going, and a lot of the people involved back then were very good friends, some still are," Mull, 74, says over the phone from Park City, Utah, where A Futile and Stupid Gesture is premiering at the Sundance Film Festival. "I was closest with Michael O'Donaghue, but I also knew Tony Hendra, P.J. O'Rourke, even Doug a bit. And I was just as derelict as the rest of them."
For 34-year-old Domhnall Gleeson, who plays Kenney's co-conspirator Henry Beard, the Lampoon's glory days were far before his time – but that only meant it afforded him an excuse to dive deep into comedy history.
"National Lampoon wasn't a thing when I was growing up, or much across the pond," says the Irish actor, also in Park City for the premiere. "But one of the joys of working on this was realizing just how many people I like in modern comedy were influenced by those guys. Normally research is a drag, but this was something else."
Half the fun of Wain's film is not only watching Kenney and Beard get their merry band of misfits together, like some sort of drug-fuelled Dirty Dozen, or to watch Mull-as-Kenney riff on all the things the movie is getting wrong – for instance, the magazine's other co-founder, Robert Hoffman, is nowhere to be seen – but also to watch as an endless parade of today's best comic performers trot out their impressions of those who came before. There's McHale's note-perfect take on his former Community co-star and on-set rival Chase, Natasha Lyonne as Anne Beatts, Jon Daly as Bill Murray, and Thomas Lennon as the legendarily rebellious O'Donaghue, who would later become integral to SNL's creation.
"It was frightening to see Tom, who not only transformed his manner but also his look to the Michael I knew back in the day," says Mull. "It was nothing short of an apparition. It was a little disconcerting, to be honest."
What also might be disconcerting, or at least surprising to audiences who only associate National Lampoon with films titled Dorm Daze and Barely Legal, is just how brash and eager-to-offend the magazine was in the seventies. There was a cover of Boy Scouts pleasuring each other, a child's letter to Heinrich Himmler, and O'Donaghue's infamous contribution, "The Vietnamese Baby Book," which catalogues the myriad injuries suffered by an infant caught in the middle of the war.
"All of this stuff occurred prior to the identity politics we have now, which seems to preclude being able to do humour about just about anything," says Mull. "The Lampoon had such freedom at that time, freedom that's rapidly disappearing."
While that point leaves aside everything from South Park to Howard Stern to Sausage Party to Sarah Silverman, A Futile and Stupid Gesture certainly evokes a specific time and place when the comedy landscape was so fresh and raw that nothing seemed off-limits. "I wonder if people can laugh at it today because it's historical, not laugh at it as if it's contemporary," adds Mull.
Whatever the contemporary reaction to Lampoon's past, it will certainly overshadow the brand's current output. Last July, production company PalmStar Media acquired all of National Lampoon's assets – including the print, audio and movie content spanning almost five decades – for about $12-million (U.S.), pledging fresh projects. Yet a recent visit to NationalLampoon.com reveals the brand's familiar logo, a standard contact form, and nothing else. As far as punchlines go, it could use a Doug Kenney-esque polish.
A Futile and Stupid Gesture begins streaming Jan. 26 on Netflix.