Futile and Stupid: How Comedy Changed For the Worse in the 1980s

I have been sitting on this post for years. It was certainly percolating prior to Harold Ramis’s death, and then his death (four years ago this February 24) kicked the sentiments that undergird it into high gear, what with all the extravagant, immoderate, preposterous praise for his work we had to swim in for days afterward. I held my tongue at the time — no point in being mean while the man’s body hadn’t even cooled. I waited a few months and then posted this, which still doesn’t get at the meat of the issue, but it let off some steam anyway.

But now I’ve just seen Netflix’s new bio-pic A Futile and Stupid Gesture: How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy Forever, as well as the 2015 documentary Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of National Lampoonand now it’s time to open the floodgates.

In retrospect, it seems plain to me that National Lampoon was a sort of font of everything bad, a kind of volcano of sewage. Much of what is bankrupt and hollow today not just in comedy but in American culture can be laid at its feet. Its creators were monsters made of the worst possible elements:  privileged and elitist on the one hand — and boorish, sophomoric and brainless, on the other. I went to a bachelor party at the Yale Club one time . We got shitfaced and my friend, the well heeled groom and a club member of course, either pissed on the pool table, or was about to (I forget which, because I was smashed). That’s what the Lampoon is.  The poor fuckers who have to clean that pool table, or timidly beg you not to pee on it, aren’t on anyone’s mind at the party. “We’re just having fun! Here’s a fifty, Diego. I’m afraid I can’t do anything to help your dignity, and I’m not about to relinquish my power over you, but I’m satisfied that the gesture of the fifty makes everything okay, even if that, too, is insulting. But you can see why I just had to piss on the pool table, right, amigo? I just have so much joi de vivre, buddy!” This is the ethic of the young George W. Bush. Which is not surprising, for it is the CULTURE of the young George W. Bush.

That’s pretty much my takeaway from A Futile and Stupid Gesture. It may be a cinematic first: a biographical picture about a worthless person, which depicts him as a worthless person, admits that he’s a worthless person, and demonstrates his legacy as a worthless person, which is that no one associated with the project seems to possess any awareness that there’s something drastically, horribly wrong about being worthless. It’s like watching an entire generation of comedians engage in a circle jerk.

There is only one rebuttal I can foresee, an exceedingly feeble one, and allow me to pre-empt you in articulating it: “Yo, dude. That’s pretty harsh. Lighten up! I mean, there was some pretty cool stuff in the Lampoon.”

Was there? There was knee-jerk transgressive stuff in the Lampoon, but most of it never did anything for me. The 1979 issue pictured at the top of this post was the only one I ever bought, and granted it was during the P.J. O’Rourke/ John Hughes years, one couldn’t help being exposed to the magazine throughout the ’70s or becoming familiar with its most notorious content in later years.  I was a kid during the halcyon time and therefore much more of a MAD Magazine man. More tellingly, however, I remain a MAD Magazine man.  The Lampoon’s tagline “The Humor Magazine for Adults” was always a joke. In actually, it was always the Humor Magazine for Adolescent Boys and Those Who Remain Adolescent Boys. Its only agenda was to say naughty things, very much in the spirit of a class clown, or the guys who who write graffiti in bathroom stalls. The disruption and the defacement are the ends in themselves.

You could say that it has something in common then with punk, which emerged at the same time, but for this crucial difference: punk largely expressed the despair of an underclass howling in pain at their empty lives, whereas National Lampoon was the nihilistic articulation of the ennui of overlords. A bunch of rich kids are bored, so they fuck things up. Marshall McLuhan put it amazingly well: “…[the Lampoon] was designed to please and flatter a particular audience of fairly well to do nobodies. Who can afford to be nobodies.”  Their movies often claim to take an outsider perspective, as does this hagiography of Lampoon founder Doug Kenney, but I mean really, you’re the worst sort of dupe if you swallow that pose. Hello, anyone? It all starts at fucking HARVARD? A Futile and Stupid Gesture would have us believe that Kenney has an outsider perspective because he’s from Ohio instead of the Northeast, and is only a privileged upper middle class kid attending Harvard instead of a privileged super-rich kid attending Harvard? Kenney, a member of the Signet Society, President of the Spee Club, and Editor of the century-old Harvard Lampoon is a “renegade”? Because he parties? Fuck you, I wasn’t born yesterday.

Here’s an unfashionable thought that probably occurs to few people when watching Animal House: Hey, someone’s missing from this party: the kids who couldn’t afford college! It must be nice to have money to burn like that, you “outsiders”! Then there is all the racism and sexual objectification in the magazine and the record albums and the live show and the films that are fobbed off on us as “ironic satire.” It’s interesting that the ones who define it as such and will brook no denial are the rich, white dudes who literally own and run the media that’s disseminating this material. They are aware that they are an elite, they even joke about the fact that they’re an elite, but they do nothing to change it, in fact they openly laugh in our faces about it. It’s kind of like driving around in a limo going, “Ha ha! I have a limo, you don’t! Isn’t life crazy?!”  But all the while there’s this pose of counter-culturalism. The tone is one of anti-authoritarianism, but they themselves are in the powerful class. They are essentially Prince Hal partying with Falstaff. They are young, rich, white dudes rebelling against their fathers, the old, rich, white dudes. They are (self-proclaimed) left-wing assholes, who think that makes them somehow superior to all the right-wing assholes. (Or, in the case of P.J. O’Rourke, a right-wing asshole, who think he’s superior to left-wing assholes).

Kenney left the Lampoon in 1977 to co-write Animal House and Caddyshack with Ramis. Then in 1980, he either fell or jumped off a cliff in Hawaii. Sad, but true. No one knows what he might have gone on to accomplish, but I see no evidence there would have been any comedic Citizen Kane. At this stage we pass the torch to Ramis.

“This thing behind me — what’s it called, again? No, not Chevy Chase.”

So, I found the hyperbolic memorializing of Ramis fairly unbearable. I’m sure he was a very nice man. But the accolades they were laying on when he died about his brilliance or whatever were utter nonsense. He was associated with films that broke box office records, but that’s evidence of nothing. Feeding people to lions was very popular with the Roman audience in its own day.

Sure, I laugh at films that have Ramis’s name on them. I was an adolescent when his early hits (Animal House, Meatballs,  Caddyshack, Stripes) came out — the perfect age to love them, and love them I did. I saw them all numerous times, and they contained my favorite stars, and they tweak authority. But I don’t happen to be an adolescent NOW. I’ll continue to have fond memories of watching the films with my high school buddies. But pretending that they are “brilliant” or “seminal” or whatever the fuck people were saying when he passed away??? Have you seen ANY movies? How many movies have you seen in your life to be making claims such as these? Ten, or something? Hence, again, this list. 

Ramis had never directed a film prior to Caddyshack, he learned on the job, and it shows. He points a camera, but I see no evidence that he has an agenda beyond screwing around.  Ramis’ contribution to film comedy was to set the bar for excellence much lower, thus making life much easier for those who came later. He pioneered the very slow moving slapstick that most modern comedies give us — one flaccid gag or smirking one liner about every seven minutes. It must be a nice luxury to learn on the job at the head of a multi-million dollar movie. Hey, he worked his way up, right? From his humble origins in Grosse Pointe, to being a joke editor at Playboy, to working with comedians who were out of his class on the National Lampoon Radio Hour, to being the worst cast member of SCTV?

It’s tempting to blame the improv culture that came out of Second City, but that’s only a partial truth. Improv is identical to jazz. It’s only as good as the musicians who play it. Some people, like Martin Short or Christopher Guest are dazzling at it, and can blow you away. Most performers do not, to put it mildly. Improv privileges truth in acting over the writer’s art. Wit or brilliant lines or situations or predicaments are rare and completely accidental in this aesthetic. But of course, writing does happen in improv, it just happens on the fly. It is automatic writing. And Ramis’s orientation as a writer, as we have seen, was jokes for Playboy.  His idea of jokes are: “Tits!” and “Wouldja look at the package on that guy?”. If you like it, fine. But let’s not elevate it with qualifiers like “seminal”, ’cause that pigeon don’t fly.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that I’m scornful of him or the myriad bad SNL movies and bro comedies that followed in his wake. I dislike this stuff for the selfsame reason I’m always ranting about Abbott and Costello movies. Actually, Abbott and Costello are a perfect analogue, just a few decades earlier. There’s an indifference to form that makes the work disposable, yet people can’t stop praising it, even though they couldn’t possibly say what’s superlative about it. (The answer is, nothing. They’re just moving with the herd, like wildebeests.) The immoderate praise for Groundhog Day confounds me. A critic friend called it the greatest comedy of the past 30 years or some bullshit. Are you kidding me? It’s an enjoyable, even original movie with a nice message. But a classic? You’re joking, right? Surely you’re joking?

Ramis also directed National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983), and I’ll use that as a pivot point to rant now about John Hughes, who wrote it.

Poor Macauley Culkin was “Home Alone” — in his family’s fuckin’ mansion

I’m sorry, I fuckin’ hate John Hughes. I re-watched Vacation recently, mostly out of curiosity. I’d seen portions of it on tv before.  My earlier verdict that it was irredeemably stupid remains unaltered. There are some great side-rewards, like seeing a teenage Jane Krakowski…and Eugene Levy as a devious car salesman…and the great Imogene Coca in one of her last roles. But mostly it’s just watching a coked-up Chevy Chase make a lot of faces rather than give a performance, and typical Hughes race and class bias shit. First they get off the “wrong” exit on the freeway and emerge in a high crime neighborhood full of intrinsically “hilarious” poor black people for the Griswolds to fear (Gee, there was a scene like that in Animal House, too. I wonder what that’s about. Anything but racism, right? From the uproarious all-white people who started out at Harvard and worked their way up?). Then they stop off at Beverly D’Angelo’s Poor White Trash cousin’s house where it’s “hilarious” that Randy Quaid is out of a job and wears cheap shoes and likes Hamburger Helper. The only thing its missing is “Long Duck Dong” but don’t worry — Hughes will get to that in his next movie.

John Hughes started about a decade later than Kenney and his sensibility is by now NOT counter-cultural in the slightest (apart from the eternal rebellion of the 11th grader or something). So he doesn’t even have that going as a virtue. He is just a straight-up superficial materialist. And though it seems like that subject matter ought to be fodder for a satire of some sort, it isn’t. His characters (Molly Ringwald or Matthew Broderick in Ferris Bueller, or the people in Home Alone) are simply entitled upper middle class  white people, and that’s just a given. That’s simply the default. That’s the perspective. As an assumption, in the background, that’s what matters. People need their stuff. What a perfect comic voice for the Reagan ’80s. The First World foibles of rich people wallowing in their gilded shit, not as satire, but as the proper order of things. With ever new crops of young white people to have parties and mess up dad’s house. If anything is being lampooned here, I’m at a loss to know what it is. It just is what it is.

Bet He Loves “Caddyshack”
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4 comments

  1. Great post, Trav! I’m glad the greatest living American cultural commentator has finally exposed what a sham The National Lampoon, Harold Ramis John Hughes, and Doug Kenney were and how they have collectivel almost destroyed both American comedy and American culture. Thanks for being on the leading edge of the counter-revolution that will flush such shit into its natural home in the sewers of hell. I stand ready to contribute all that I can to this noble effort

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  2. Great post, Trav…watching those John Hughes movies as a teenager in the ‘80s, I remember being bothered that they all took place in wealthy Chicago suburbs (I lived outside of Chicago in a small town) with rich people. The teen girl in “Uncle Buck” was a horrible entitled bitch and only John Candy makes it watchable. Even as a white suburban kid, I saw nothing in the Hughes movies I could associate with. They might as well have been science fiction !

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  3. Good point, well made. I, too, never understood the humour in degrading the people who clean up after thoughtless jerks. My wife and I were watching Jacques Tati’s “Mon Oncle” on TCM last night, delighted by the gentleness and cleverness of his humour, that grows out of a clear love of the unique foibles of every human being, rather than a sarcastic takedown of those who aren’t “part of the gang” or a total obliviousness to those less privileged.

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