Don’t let them kill the Kenney in you

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In his death, Douglas Kenney left us a tragicomic lesson to never allow the craving for the drug of external or parental approval build itself into a lethal carcinogenic addiction in your mind.

Kenney’s inner battle tells of the pressure he apparently put on himself to please others. | poster screengrab

Have you heard of National Lampoon? If you haven’t, you probably haven’t heard of Douglas C. Kenney, either. And if you haven’t, then I suggest you catch the film, A Futile and Stupid Gesture, which was premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 24 this year and, two days later, released on Netflix. The biopic is about an American phenomenon from the ’70s I have found to be fairly unknown to most Indians — the rise and fall of a man and his satirical magazine that grew to become a nationwide sensation.

The film, starring Will Forte as a young Kenney, employs a trope not usually seen in biopics, presenting a future Kenney as the narrator (played by Martin Mull), had he lived to this day. It also constantly breaks the fourth wall, in Kenney’s own irreverent way, even to ridicule inaccuracies in its own story and portrayals.

 

 

National Lampoon’s Glorious (But Not Really) History

This magazine, founded by Kenney and his fellow Harvard alumni Henry Beard and Robert Hoffman, was a spin-off from the Harvard Lampoon and spawned a successful radio series, a live theatre production and even a film series, becoming a comedic movement in its own right. It created stars of the people associated with it, including Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, Harold Ramis, John Belushi, and Michael O’Donoghue, all of whom, save for Ramis, went on to become the original cast members of SNL, a show that continues to dominate American airwaves and comedy.

Beard (who was originally set on attending law school before co-founding the magazine) and Hoffman (who returned to Harvard to attend business school) cashed out on Lampoon’s success after five years of its conception and moved on with their lives. Everybody associated with the magazine seemed to have gotten what they wanted.

Except Kenney.

Doug Kenney was a small-town kid from a place in Ohio called Chagrin Falls, a place aptly named for what he felt consistently in the last few years of his short life. He wore this badge of chagrin proudly though, mentioning it on a number of occasions when introducing himself to people. It seemed to be his personal punchline; a device he used a lot in conversation (prompting people to almost always ask him the fundamental question, “Is this a bit?”).

 

 

As portrayed in the film, Kenney, a gifted comedic writer, was deeply unhappy and troubled in his personal life. In the wake of all the success and fame he so rightfully deserved, his demons and vices caught up with him. He would disappear from Lampoon for prolonged periods of time, struggled to maintain romantic relationships and voice his feelings, and eventually fell in lust with Bolivian marching powder (oddly enough, not the cause of his untimely death), apparently introduced to him and enabled by friend and frequent colleague Chevy Chase.

 

  Bolivian Marching Powder (uncountable noun)

urban slang

Cocaine. As in "All might come clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder. Your brain at this moment is composed of brigades of tiny Bolivian soldiers. They are tired and muddy from their long march through the night. There are holes in their boots and they are hungry. They need to be fed. They need the Bolivian Marching Powder." ~ Jay McInerney, Bright Lights, Big City (1984)

A significant chunk of Kenney’s life shows him being dependent on seeking his parents’ approval, something he continues to do all his life (probably due to their family losing Daniel, Kenney’s older brother and the one destined to do great things). His parents are appalled by the fact that they have paid for him to major in English at Harvard, berating him for not having a post-Harvard plan and for writing “his little joke books all his life”, and — the cherry on top of the criticism cake — his father scoffing at his success since it comes from “publishing a dirty magazine” and stating outright that there is “nothing to be proud of in his success”.

In spite of this obvious disregard for his success, Kenney kept in constant touch with them, bought them a palatial house with a pool and a tennis court. When his parents referred to his comedy as crude, Kenney bought them a Cadillac.

The final nail in Kenney’s metaphorical coffin was the aftermath of his final film Caddyshack, which was critically panned (becoming a cult classic in later years). At a press conference for the film, Kenney collapsed after a drunken tirade; a clear indication of his depression. This, combined with his excessive cocaine use and evident suicidal ideation, prompted Chase to take him to Hawaii for a few days to relax.

Unfortunately, this was the trip that called in Kenney’s real coffin. On August 27, 1980, Kenney fell off the Hanapepe Lookout, a cliff where he had supposedly gone hiking, and his body was discovered a few days later. While police ruled the death as accidental, quite a few suspect it was intentional, given the glaring sign of warning in front of the lookout.

Kenney’s lesson

It would seem strange to an Indian audience, and even to me before I’d seen the biopic, why I’m waxing eloquent about and eulogising a man who has had no relevance to Indian culture or comedy. That’s where we would be wrong.

Kenney’s life is an example for a number of young Indians today, ones who dream of a career in creativity, who work tirelessly and struggle to make this happen, who spend possibly their entire lives trying to please their parents and cause unnecessary harm to themselves in the process. Many ignore their obviously creative urges in life and take up education leading to lucrative careers like engineering, medicine, business or law. As Will Forte, playing the role of Kenney, says it in the film: “The world doesn’t need more lawyers or insurance executives or doctors”.

 

 

But where does this lead fields that require creativity? Where does it lead people whose creativity can influence generations to come? The parents and guardians of our subcontinent, which boasts some of the greatest thinkers, artists and creators, continue to send out the message that careers that “guarantee” a steady income are the ones that guarantee true happiness and satisfaction.

Let us take the engineering + MBA trajectory for instance. I’ve met countless individuals who went into engineering or medicine. When I would ask them why they chose this path, the root of their answers would lie in “because my parents wanted me to do it” or “because it seemed like the right thing to do at the time”. Some are quick to realise that they may have made a mistake and change course. Some continue to slave and slave until they finally end up with the lives they never wanted in the first place. Some, sadly, turn to self-harm, fall into a deep depression or even take the regrettable decision of ending their lives.

I think our tendency to beat ourselves up over our career choices rarely stems from us. It stems from our desperate need to make our parents proud and earn their approval, like Domhnall Gleeson as Henry Beard says, “something your parents can show off on their credenza”.

 

 

The truth? It’s not worth your mental health. It’s not worth your sanity. Kenney was unlucky not to realise that. Ultimately, his constant need to seek approval from his parents (and ultimately the world) made the comedy community lose someone who would've made more great films and written more ground-breaking articles and books. Maybe Teenage Commies in Outer Space would have seen the light of day. Maybe Doug Kenney would’ve played his own older self in A Futile and Stupid Gesture.

There’s a Kenney somewhere deep down in most of us. Let’s channel his remarkable talent and creativity. Let’s not make one of our friends say that we “possibly died while looking for a place to jump”, like Harold Ramis did of his friend. Let us be our own source of pride and approval.

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