My most recent discovery came courtesy of the Booth Library
. I was walking by the new book section on the third floor when one of the biographies caught my attention -- "A Futile and Stupid Gesture" by Josh Karp.
I recognized the title as a line from the film "Animal House
" and knew the book had to be about Doug Kenney.
If I asked if you knew who Doug Kenney was, chances are you'd say no. If I told you Kenney played Stork in "Animal House," you might smile and recite Stork's only words in the film, "What are we supposed to do, ya moron?" Memorable as the line is, it hardly warrants a biography, or even a newspaper article, for the guy that delivered it.
But there was so much more to Doug Kenney than his portrayal of the reticent, if not emotionally challenged, Stork.
Kenney was regarded by his friends as a comic genius. In a different era, he might have sat at the storied Algonquin Round Table with the likes of Robert Benchley
, Dorothy Parker
and Harpo Marx.
While he did not enjoy celebrity, he should be acknowledged as one of the most profound creative forces in American comedy and satire in the late 20th century. Furthermore, he has a connection to Newtown that is as surprising as it is improbable.
Doug Kenney was educated in the 1960s at Harvard University
, where much of his time was devoted to reviving and editing the famed Harvard Lampoon with classmate Henry Beard
. Their success with the Lampoon brought Kenney and Beard in touch with publisher Matty Simmons
, and the trio founded National Lampoon magazine
, which in short order, became a success.
Soon afterward, the Lampoon produced comedy albums and live stage shows that served several purposes: They brought money to the Lampoon, they created an audience that was hungry for a "Saturday Night Live"-type television program, they helped create a National Lampoon brand of entertainment that has, for better or worse, survived the actual magazine, and they cultivated many of the writers and performers who would become the most celebrated comics of our generation, most notably through "Saturday Night Live."
This culminated in 1978, with the film "National Lampoon's Animal House." In addition to playing Stork in the movie, Kenney was a coauthor (along with Harold Ramis
and Chris Miller
) and, through the umbrella of the Lampoon, part of the producing team.
When it was released, "Animal House" was a phenomenon. While it is not a film suited to everyone's tastes, I would argue that it is a brilliant satire that captured a moment in time when the culture of youth was about to change dramatically.
The film contrasts the innocence and perhaps insincere gentility of one generation of American youth with the robust and perhaps self-destructive exuberance of another. It is the tension between the generations, the layers of satire, the attention to detail and the virtuosity of the performances that make "Animal House" a classic and, with few challengers, the best of this brand of entertainment.
By the accounts of the artists involved, Kenney's gifts as a satirist were seminal in the success of the landmark film.
By the time Kenney was 33 years old, he had achieved wealth and a measure of professional success that enabled him to make Hollywood movies on his own terms. The last film he worked on was "Caddyshack," not as brilliant as "Animal House" but financially and critically acclaimed in its own right.
Despite his success, there was no small measure of turbulence in his personal life. This culminated, sadly, with Kenney's sudden death in 1980. He was vacationing in Hawaii and disappeared. The police discovered his car by a cliff in Hanapepe and shortly thereafter discovered his dead body over the cliff.
While suicide, accident and foul play were all plausible, the police investigation determined his death was an accident and gave Aug. 29 as the official date.
The sad portion of the story that began in Hawaii concludes in Newtown. In 1975, Kenney had purchased a Connecticut house
and a Florida condo for his parents. The Connecticut house was on Boggs Hill Road in Newtown.
When he died, his parents made the arrangements for his funeral and burial, which, I was stunned to discover toward the end of the Karp's engaging biography, occurred Sept. 8, 1980, in Newtown.
The Newtown Bee reported the Honan Funeral Home held the wake and a funeral Mass was held at St. Rose Church
. Mention is made of the pall bearers, who included Chevy Chase
, Harold Ramis and Brian Doyle Murray.
Karp's biography elaborates on the magnitude of the event, quoting a mourner who described the funeral as "a happening." There were at least 400 people at the funeral -- family, Harvard friends, National Lampoon colleagues, and the Hollywood crowd.
They included Joni Mitchell
, Bill Murray
, Michael O'Keefe
, Michael O'Donoghue
, P.J. O'Rourke
, Henry Beard, Matty Simmons and Kathryn Walker.
Karp writes movingly, "The wake was a tense affair. Doug had been the first of their generation to die and was the linchpin for several groups in attendance."
At the mass, "Bill Murray presented flowers to the Kenneys and was one of the few who knew the catechism by heart."
Chevy Chase eulogized Kenney at the cemetery and Karp notes he "tried to be funny, but spoke through tears." Peter Ivers
, another friend, "played 'Beautiful Dreamer' on his harmonica. Falling to his knees, he screamed."Douglas Clark Francis Kenney
was buried at the Village Cemetery in Newtown. The site is marked with a modest stone that lists his name and years of life. His grave overlooks the Rams Pasture and rests about 50 yards from Mary Hawley
's. His parents, now deceased, rest next to their son.
Kenney's death appears to have generated little interest in Newtown. The Bee
published a six-paragraph obituary. I spoke with a number of people who lived here at the time and none had any recollection of the funeral.
Perhaps Doug's friends hadn't reached icon status yet. I can't imagine that Bill Murray reciting the catechism at St. Rose Church would fail to generate excitement today, but we are a different society now. So much of our desires, and in turn the news we consume, is driven by the cult of celebrity.
Even so, it is interesting to reflect upon the group of writers and popular artists who came to Newtown 27 years ago to say goodbye to their dear friend.
I don't remember when I first became aware of Kenney, but I do remember reading National Lampoon magazine was a rite of passage. Once I discovered National Lampoon, I never looked at a Mad magazine
That in itself was a significant change in my life, if for no other reason than it made me eligible to go out with girls. But it also sharpened a appreciation for satire, parody and dramatic irony, which remains with me more than 30 years later.
Shortly after I started reading the Lampoon, "Saturday Night Live" debuted and became the entertainment standard of our generation. The show was born of several parents, but so many of the performers and writers of the glorious first seasons emerged from the workings of Kenney and the Lampoon.
I look forward to the day when I watch "Animal House" with my children, a day that most assuredly is many years away. When the film is over and we're done wiping away tears of laughter, I'll ask them if they liked the character Stork.
And then I'll tell them the actor's name is Douglas Clark Francis Kenney, that he co-wrote the script of the movie and that he is buried in Newtown. I'll take them to the Village Cemetery and show them where. We will say a prayer and thank him for sharing his gift of laughter with us and bid him rest in peace.