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Remembering The Late Doug Kenney, ‘National Lampoon’ Cofounder And Possibly The Funniest Man Who Ever Lived
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National Lampoon

Today would have been the 75th birthday of the late Doug Kenney, who was possibly the funniest American satirist of all time, most remembered as the original editor and co-founder of National Lampoon magazine and co-writer on Animal House and for doing the same zany duty plus producing the film Caddyshack, two films which remain for many people, some of the funniest comedy films of all time.

Unabashed, hysterical, unpredictable, crass, effervescent, ragtag, and many more adjectives, Doug Kenney was all of that and more, and all with equal comedic and anti-comedic aplomb. He and fellow cohorts Henry Beard and Robert Hoffman decimated the conventions of the genre of comedy in the mid to late 1960s, first as alumni at Harvard, where their parodies of staunch and stuffed publications such as Time and other mainstream magazines and the best-selling pitch perfect turned on its ear take off on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, entitled, Bored of the Rings, took the satire that Mad Magazine unleashed on Kenney’s generation only ten years earlier and almost instantly usurped it as premier satire. Then, they followed that up by creating their own magazine, called National Lampoon, and unleashed it on an unsuspecting public in April of 1970, taking every comedic convention that came before it and running over it with a tank with razor-sharp blades on its treads.

National Lampoon in its most earliest stages could be safe to say wasn’t for the squeamish, conventional, or one easily ruffled by any controversy in the air. The Lampoon polluted that air in the best way, literally siding with no one. Every single stereotype was drawn and quartered; every race, color, and creed was treated equally and with a reckless, breathless, and risky abandon that didn’t care if it offended readers, advertisers, or companies, something the magazine could do all at once sometimes, as in the infamous yet hysterically funny because it’s so ridiculous March 1973 issue, which featured Adolph Hitler on its cover. Touting how the former Fuhrer didn’t kill himself in his bunker during the eleventh hour of World War II, but instead slipped away to a paradise on a secluded island where he became one of the locals, becoming a kinder, gentler dictator, even serenely walking on the beach making swastikas in the sand, one either wanted to burn the magazine or make out a blank check to get a lifetime subscription based on one’s reaction to pieces like that and many, many others.

That example was meant to show the extremities of the magazine and the overall tone, which truly was hilariously savage. One of the most remembered images from the National Lampoon magazine, which was also named one of the ten greatest covers of all time in the entire history of the magazine, is the January 1973 Death Issue, in which a dog has a gun put to his head, with the tagline “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We Will Shoot This Dog,” made even more memorable by the fact of the dog’s eyes looking directly at the holder of the gun. The issue remains one of the most collectable in the Lampoon canon; ratty, ripped copies of the issue still garner attention, with some fetching as high as $200 on eBay.

Like Monty Python, which also broke every convention and was never afraid to also roast any collectively accepted tenet of human beings or situations, National Lampoon became revered just as it was reviled. The line was purposely blurred, the more offended one was the better. Each subsequent issue in the early days of the magazine pushed envelopes further and further; the basic attitude and tenet of the National Lampoon masthead and all those involved during those early ragged yet powerful and influential years, were simply and crudely put this way: If you like it, fuck you, and if you don’t like it, fuck you.

And nobody seemed to reflect this imagery better than Doug Kenney. Although Lampoon writers like the late Michael O’Donoghue, who later became famous as one of the head writers of the original Saturday Night Live, had a gleefully savage wit and style that celebrated life in all its macabre and cynical farce, Doug Kenney was the comedic compass in a way that guided everyone else. And as great and hysterical as pieces by other writers at Lampoon were, Kenney, as original editor-in-organic-charge and general mirthmaker, had that good fortune and the rarity of that one in a million twinkle in his eye and a lust for life that almost borderlined on debauch at times and which everyone in his orbit gladly went along with.

His infectious spirit endeared everyone around him and he used that charismatic adoration to create some of the magazine’s most earliest masterpieces, like penning the earliest “Editorial Pages,” a sample of which includes Kenney speaking of a massive gathering that was to happen in late 1970. In it, he said that millions of young people, hippies, radicals, and the like, were to congregate in the Grand Canyon to hear all the bands of the time ala Woodstock, culminating with a grand reunion of The Beatles, who had just broken up months earlier. He wrote of how the whole thing was spearheaded by then-President Richard Nixon’s government and how near the end of the gathering there was to be a wonderful air show provided by the U.S. Airforce for the millions who attended, in which there would be four planes, three “streaming birds that will inscribe a peace sign in the heavens to an appreciatively oh-wowing audience.” The fourth plane, Kenney sums up in the editorial, will “drop the bomb.”

Another editorial spoke of Kenney, as editor in chief at Lampoon, addressing the situation of “setting straight wild-eyed individuals who publicly accused the Lampoon of harboring chauvinist pigs, sexist dogs, female-exploiting jackals and other unfashionable quadrupeds in its editorial kennels.” After giving statistics filled with jargon and fifty-cent words and offering the women employees the promise of being paid finally in “real money” or equivalent in “produce” and other ridiculously hilarious offers, he finally sums up at the end of the editorial that an “equitable compromise was finally hammered out and the ladies should be pleased that the male editors finally came up with a happy solution: “You’re fired.”

It was satire like this that at first glance could make Kenney and his comedic brethren seem just like the chauvinist pigs they were “accused of being,” but it was just another stock in trade of the aforementioned everyone gets roasted equally, and thus because of it, that everyone in a way is offended “equally.”

And it didn’t let up there. Kenney’s articles in Lampoon were all masterpieces too, like discovering Leonard Da Vinci’s “Sketchbook,” complete with bizarre yet quintessential Da Vinci-styled sketches of things like “Una Volante Pizza”; pictures of his newfound “mysterioso vegetaria” drawn in the style of Da Vinci as a pot leaf; a “water pistola” and even renderings of the famous Coca-Cola script lettering. Then there was his parody of “Siddharta,” where the spiritual journey of the famed Buddha ends with his realization that he can’t walk on water as he drowns to the bottom. There was also an Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton Gift Catalog for the insanely rich, with a cover slogan bearing “the taste is in your mouth” and full of items to buy for spoiled and entitled diva millionaires and millionairesses: a pendant with a real human embryo in it that offers delight until it “runs out of air.” Or a puzzle made out of chopping up some of the most renowned paintings of the world such as Monet’s “Water Lilies” or Picasso’s “Guernica” or “The World’s Most Expensive Notepad,” which consists of an actual Gutenberg Bible gutted and replaced with the notepad, in which each day of the month is printed on a “specially bleached square of a 5,000-year-old papyrus which was once a part of the best selling Book of the Dead.”

Kenney was possibly the very first person to coin the term “Spoilers,” which was the title of an article that ran in April 1971, in which he mischievously albeit gleefully revealed the endings to well-known films, books, and the like, exclaiming how by doing so, it saves the individual “time and money!” (a key example being a reveal that “Rosebud” was Charles Foster Kane’s sled in Citizen Kane). These hilarious inanities and many others all showcase Doug Kenney’s wonderful penchant for at once making you laugh and also sit in bewilderment and wonderment at just how friggin’ clever the guy was and always was; unlike many of his peers at Lampoon, Kenney never faltered, there was never a bum piece in the batch.

And Kenney didn’t just strictly tether himself to comedic print, he was also extremely noticeable in the early one-page sketches “Foto Funnies,” in which his gangly look, with long stringy hair parted right down the middle or in a ponytail, coupled sometimes with granny-style glasses or beard growth and a knack for creating rubbery, funny faces and contortions which made him seem like a human cartoon, made him not only a print celebrity at the magazine, but also a flesh and blood one, in a way the magazines very first star. Early issues even had a “destitute” Kenney, sitting in a junkyard and looking like an overaged waif, pictured like a poster boy in a fake ad asking people to please “subscribe to the National Lampoon” because poor Doug Kenney has never tasted “caviar,” that he was almost 20 before he had his first ride in a Lincoln Continental, and how a two-year subscription to the magazine would help him be able to read, write, and play polo and if one subscribes lifetime, he could help out his “less fortunate friends in the south of France.” The ad was put over the top by the tagline, “Little Doug Kenney Will Go To Bed Hungry Tonight.” The ad was so popular the magazine even offered the picture of Doug as a poster for sale in some of its earliest issues, a poster that is beyond scarce to find in today’s 21st century.

But all this merriment and overwhelming success had a price. Kenney would periodically take unannounced sabbaticals, something that happened so often the magazine wound up parodying it. On these breaks, he would sometimes live in a hut on Martha’s Vineyard, one of his many girlfriends in tow and narcotics galore, and try to write books or other projects. During this interim, other people began to take comedic control of the Lampoon magazine and while it remained funny thanks to people like future Spinal Tap manager Tony Hendra and future political pundit P.J O’Rourke and others, the tone and loose anything-can-happen and usually did attitude that was purely Kenney was missing.

By the time he came back and started writing articles again for the magazine, he left soon after, utilizing a buyout clause that he, Beard, and Hoffman took advantage of and netted them millions. By the mid 1970s, Kenney was already putting his sights on doing what he almost singlehandedly did for the magazine and translating it to the big screen in Hollywood. Along with fellow Lampoon alumni Chris Miller and Harold Ramis, Kenney developed and fleshed out the magazine’s 1978 smash hit Animal House, based on the early 1960s High School Yearbook Parody, originally published in 1974, which already included names, situations, and characters that would be soon known to the comedic cinema world in one of the greatest grossing (puns intended) films of all time. Starring John Belushi and a motley crew of actors, all who give 100 percent gusto no matter how Lampoon-ish the film gets, Kenney makes an appearance as the memorable Stork, who had the memorable line “Well what the Hell we suppose’ ta do, ya moron?” and who also leads the parade askew with his baton, clad in sunglasses and trench coat like the rest of the Deltas.

Animal House made Kenney a millionaire many times over a second time, only this time, there was something amiss about the man and his life. Reportedly getting deeper and deeper into drugs and the cocaine lifestyle that was almost mandatory in the hedonistic late 1970s, Kenney, with his already natural propensity and proclivity for living on life’s edge, started to exhibit strange behaviors, sometimes withdrawing or becoming sullen to friends and loved ones.

By 1980, Kenney and Ramis had teamed up again, this time with Brian Doyle Murray, another Lampoon alumni and with Ramis also directing, created Caddyshack, which starred Rodney Dangerfield and yet other Lampoon veterans in Doyle Murray’s brother Bill and Chevy Chase. The film opened in the Summer of 1980, amidst tales of a film shoot that was plagued with Tony Montana levels of cocaine, reportedly spearheaded by Kenney. You can see him in the film in the background of the party sequence chopping a line of coke on the table for a date. As producer of Caddyshack, he oddly wound up not having much to do, with Ramis and the others taking up the slack, but Kenney still contributed some of the film’s most classic moments.

But the erratic behavior didn’t subside. At a press conference for Caddyshack, Kenney stumbled into it drunk and immediately started belittling the film and the press, continuing on in a black cloud of tension before being escorted out of the conference by his parents, who had come to see their son and his film. Caddyshack opened to minor success in 1980, though Kenney and Ramis thought the studio mangled and recut their original vision. It left Kenney more disillusioned than ever. He took a trip to Hawaii during that Summer of 1980 while Caddyshack was still playing in the theaters. Chevy Chase and Kenney’s fiancee Kathryn Walker (an actress who would later co-star in Neighbors with Belushi and Ackroyd) had both come to see Kenney in Hawaii on different occasions. Both left soon after, having to go to their respective jobs, leaving Kenney alone on the island once again.

On August 24th, 1980, Kenney was reported missing. At first it had seemed like it was Kenney pulling one of his sabbaticals again, but when police found his Jeep on the top of a 35-foot cliff called the Hanapepe Lookout, red flags began to be raised. Two days later, on August 27, police found Kenney dead at the bottom of the cliff. He was only 33 years old. No one knows to this day whether he jumped or slipped; items found in Kenney’s hotel room by Chevy Chase spoke of a soap note on a bathroom mirror that said simply “I Love You” and notes scribbled on paper, the most notable being Kenney writing that “the last few days are the happiest I’ve ever ignored” seemed to point to suicide. In typical Lampoon fashion, it’s said that either Harold Ramis or Chris Miller said that “Doug slipped while he was looking for a place to jump.” A few years later, in a tribute issue to Kenney containing most of his greatest pieces for Lampoon, the magazine simply ran as a tribute to their fallen leader and pioneer a cartoon of the Hanapepe Lookout cliff in Hawaii, with a wooden sign that said “Doug Kenney Slipped Here,” echoing Ramis’s or Miller’s comedic, but strangely sincere statement.

The legacy of Doug Kenney lives on. Chris Miller, co-writer of Animal House, paid homage to his late friend when he named the Michael Keaton character in the 1996 film Multiplicity Doug Kinney and a recommended biography by Josh Karp entitled A Futile and Stupid Gesture (which is a line from Animal House) was also made into a very not recommended film which starred Will Forte as Kenney.

There’s many ways to still absorb the wonderful insanity and irreverent burned-at-the-stake comedy that came from the DNA of Doug Kenney. A watch of Animal House or Caddyshack, a look at about 40 issues of the 1970 – 1975 edition of National Lampoon burns his presence strong and hysterically. Finding original copies will be costly; the aforementioned eBay is a great place to start and there have also been CD-Rom versions and PDFs made of National Lampoon issues as well. However one chooses to do it, this is clear, it came from possibly the funniest man who ever lived. Although I’ll bet if Doug Kenney were alive today for his 75th birthday and he was told that, he would think we were all fucking nuts and he’d also say he’d like to meet the morons who screwed up the National Lampoon brand and franchise. Talk about someone owing someone an apology.

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