National Lampoon co-founder Doug Kenney and New Wave Theatre’s Peter Ivers: Exclusive excerpts from In Heaven, Everything Is Fine

By on September 21, 2015

This week we’ll be featuring a series of posts in our Night Flight tribute to the National Lampoon, called “the national source for smart, raw, taboo-smashing satire, and the national home for brilliant misfits to convert their twisted insights into bankable skills” by our friend Josh Frank in his excellent book In Heaven Everything Is Fine: The Unsolved Life of Peter Ivers and The Lost History of New Wave Theatre.

On Friday, September 25th, Douglas Tirola’s new documentary Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story Of The National Lampoon will be released by Magnolia Pictures in limited theaters around the country, and Josh has graciously allowed us to excerpt several short sequences from his excellent book (written with Charlie Buckholtz and published in 2008) about the enduring longtime friendship between Doug Kenney, one of the two co-founders of the National Lampoon, and Peter Ivers, host of “New Wave Theatre.”

Before we get to those excerpts, let’s first mention that Drunk Stoned chronicles the how two former Harvard students — Doug Kenney and old-money upper-classman from Dallas named Henry Beard (who graduated from Harvard a year earlier than Kenney, in 1967), along with another Harvard Lampoon co-hort, Robert K. Hoffman, a classmate who provided them with savvy business advice — co-founded the National Lampoon, which published its first issue in April of 1970.

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Kenney and Beard had first worked together on the Harvard Lampoon, the university’s humor magazine, which published on a quarterly-basis, most of the time, but its larger purpose was to be a social club, replete with black-tie dinners every week. Both of them had been kicked out of the Reserve Officer Training Corps, and they were still hanging around in Cambridge, Mass., trying to figure out what to do next.  In 1969, Kenney and Beard would end up co-writin g a popular J.R.R. Tolkien parody “Bored of the Rings” that sold 750,000 copies, becoming a cult classic. It remains in print to this day, igniting the spark that fanned the flames into what became the National Lampoon.

The new magazine magazine’s headquarters, by the way, was a 1909 castle, complete with turreted tower and leaded-glass windows.

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The documentary film — detailing the Lampoon‘s story the 1970s to the 1990s — features candid interviews with members of its key staff, and is illustrated with hundreds of outrageous images from the mag itself, along with never–before-seen interview footage from the magazine’s prime era, revealing how the magazine pushed the limits of taste and acceptability, parodying everything from politics, religion, entertainment and the whole of American lifestyle before it went on to be associated with successful radio shows, comedy record albums, live stage revues and comedy movies.

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Doug Kenney and Robert Hoffman, circa 1970

Quite a lot of the success of National Lampoon has to be given to Doug Kenney — born and raised in Ohio — who very quickly had established himself as a comedic force, acting as the Lampoon‘s Editor-in-Chief (1970-72), Senior Editor (1973-74) and Editor (1975-76). Kenney apparently was amazingly able to mimic anyone, or anything, and had such clever skills at improvisation that he would often entertain friends by challenging them to guess — while reading aloud from one of the books he’d pull off their own bookshelves — where the book ended and his improvising began. He’s described in Josh Frank’s book as being a masterful storyteller, being able to do multiple character voices at once, and, as Josh writes, Kenney “could win over the crowd at a Spee Club dinner as easily as he could win them over at an off-campus party hosted and predominated by local black hipsters.”

Bill Murray once said about Kenney: “He would laugh really, really hard and really, really loud.”

That’s Kenney’s photo on the cover of Josh Frank’s book, in the upper right corner, flashing a smile and a peace sign.

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Josh writes that Kenney had struck up a friendship with Peter Ivers while they were both at Harvard, and describes an awkward scene when Kenney returned after the summer to begin his sophomore year to find that that a girl he’d been dating, Kim Brody, described as his “erstwhile girlfriend,” had fallen in love for Peter, but that “neither was about to let it get in the way of the friendship they had struck up the year before. It was not their brief history that kept the connection between them intact as much as a palpable sense of future potential, an intuition on both their parts of having found that rarest thing: a kindred spirit.”

Josh interviewed several of their mutual friends and Harvard classmates for the book, each one carefully doing their best to explain what it was about the two of them, Peter Ivers and Doug Kenney, that was so unique.

Josh Frank: Depending on the angle and the moment one caught a look at them, Peter and Doug could seem either an odd couple—an attraction of opposites—or a well-matched, set. Kim Brody was attracted to the same things in both of them: the boyish free spirits housing minds that were subtle and searching, continuously surprising, awesomely vast and vastly, awesomely offbeat. Chris Hart, who was friends with both, saw them as rarities and geniuses whose backgrounds, intellects, and jet-fueled imaginations rendered them perennial outsiders. They were both sentimental, empathic, and openhearted, though they could also be cutting, and did not suffer ignorance, intolerance, or any form of authority gladly. When [Tim] Mayer was around (he had become close friends with Kenney as well, and the three of them together were referred to in their circles as “the three musketeers”), they didn’t suffer it at all.

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Josh Frank: “By the summer of ’71, everything seemed in place. Under the steady editorial hand of Henry Beard and the bottomless output of Doug’s twisted genius (his contributions regularly comprised a third of the magazine’s content), a cadre of bona fide misfits had somehow managed to find each other and form a functioning staff. Subscriptions were up, ad revenues were steadily rising, and all indicators pointed to National Lampoon on the verge of becoming both a cultural phenomenon and an extremely lucrative commercial success.”

Over the next several years, the Lampoon would feature the work of such influential talents as writers Michael O’Donoghue (“Saturday Night Live”‘s darkly acerbic, often irreverent first head writer), Anne Beats, P.J. O’Rourke and Tony Hendra, and cartoonists Charles Rodrigues, Gahan Wilson and Sam Gross, among others. It was Patrick James “P. J.” O’Rourke, in fact, who would eventually become editor-in-chief of the magazine, and he received a writing credit for National Lampoon‘s “Lemmings” which helped launch the careers of John Belushi and Chevy Chase. It was comedian Ed Bluestone, however, who came into the Lampoon offices in 1972 with the line, “If you don’t buy this magazine, we’ll kill this dog.” The cover photo for the January 1973 is one of the magazine’s most famous.

Sadly, no matter how successful or wealthy Douglas Kenney became, he had a deeply-rooted fear that he was going to be exposed as a talentless fraud, a concern which he carried with him for the rest of his life (therapists now call this the impostor phenomenon, or the impostor syndrome). He didn’t always get along with his Lampoon colleagues, apparently, and vocalled objected when art director Michael Gross was brought in to overhaul the magazine’s unkempt design, as he felt the new look was too “establishment” for his taste. After seeing what Gross could do, he changed his mind. In the end, Kenney probably benefited more than anyone from Gross’s talent for imitating virtually any graphic style.

Kenney and Beard worked seven-day, 90-hour weeks. In one recent interview, Beard describes it as “one continuous almost-missed deadline.” Kenney was the heart of the enterprise. “The first couple of years, he carried the entire thing,” says Beard. Kenney edited, wrote features, produced a regular column called “Mrs. Agnew’s Diary.” He even made up the letters page. He’d also gotten married to Alex Garcia-Mata, a woman he had known in college, but now marriage wasn’t working, and the long hours and late nights were taking their toll.

By the middle of the summer of 1971, only a year or so after the publication of the first National Lampoon issue, he was in full crack-up mode, totally depressed over his failing marriage, and breaking down under too much pressure to be funny all the time.

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On the Fourth of July, in 1971, without telling anyone beforehand, Kenney cabbed it to Kennedy airport, bought a ticket and winged his way west to L.A. Carrying just a knapsack, he showed up unexpectedly at the home of his best friend in the world — Peter Ivers — who was now living with his girlfriend Lucy, at their home in Laurel Canyon, up in the Hollywood Hills. “Hi, Mom and Dad!” he called as he walked through the door. “I’m home!”

Josh writes that Peter and Lucy took care of him like he was a small child over the next two months. Peter planned their adventures by day, and the three of them would do everything together, including trips to Disneyland. Apparently Kenney’s favorite thing to do was fighting mock cap-gun battles. in the hills around Peter and Lucy’s home. At night, Lucy tucked him in bed and read him stories. The one he liked best, Josh writes, was Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

Meanwhile, Peter Ivers had his own career to worry about. He’d majored in classical languages at Harvard, but his real passion was music. He’d begun playing the harmonica (usually called a harp), with the Boston-based Street Choir, and had even embarked on a solo career in 1969, when the Epic Records company released his debut album, Knight of the Blue Communion. He had only just arrived California for the first time in the spring of ’71, just a few months before Doug Kenney came out for his extended visit and much-needed rest and consolation.

Epic Records had rejected Ivers’s second album as too esoteric, but his college classmate at Harvard, Tim Hunter (he graduated in 1968), who had moved back to Los Angeles, was on a fellowship to the newly-begun American Film Institute and had invited him out to score his film. Soon, Peter Ivers was doing scores for other young directors. At first he was living at the Tropicana, a motel frequented by rock n’ rollers (including Tom Waits), and he had music-themed business cards made up that said “Peter Ivers: Music for Cash.” It wasn’t long, however, before he was rubbing shoulders with people like Van Dyke Parks, and Linda Perry, a rising and well-connected young independent producer, and Ivers, always the charmer, had quickly charmed his way in to see Lenny Waronker, a top music producer at Warner Bros. Records.

Both Waronker and Warner Bros.’s Mo Ostin were impressed with Ivers’s mix of primitive blues, his talent on the harp, and his own unique musical style, and they gave him an extraordinary advance of $100,000 to record an album’s worth of tracks. Lucy, his girlfriend, had come out twice to visit (she lived in New Jersey at the time, taking care of her mother after her father had died) and they had moved into their little house in Laurel Canyon, and now, here was Doug Kenney, too, spending the last half of the summer of ’71 with the two of them.

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Josh Frank:“Peter wrote music and played songs for everyone on the piano. Doug took notes for the ‘serious’ satiric novel he planned to write (TACOS: Teenage Commies from Outer Space), which would establish him as a literary humorist on par with Salinger and Waugh—or at least assuage some of the encroaching shame he felt for captaining what sometimes seemed little more than a dirty comic book: masturbation fodder for teenage boys. It didn’t help that actual teenage boys wrote from time to time thanking the editors effusively for various perverse images that had inspired them to repeated self-pleasure.”

When autumn came around, Kenney was done disappearing (he’d finally sent postcards from L.A., letting his wife where he was, and also letting the Lampoon staff, who were worried about his sudden disappearance and then no word from him for months, that he was coming back). He returned, got divorced, and began working at the Lampoon again for a few months, only to take off again for Martha’s Vineyard for the winter. Apparently, he wasn’t done disappearing just yet. He lived in a tent, took LSD, and, as Josh writes, “make another tentative stab at embracing what was not only his stated ambition, but seemed increasingly to be his destiny: massive cultural impact coupled with unfathomable financial success.” He worked for awhile on TACOS, said to be, or what he intended to be, “the comedic statement of the age, Tom Sawyer and Naked Lunch rolled into one.”

Kenney, came back to the Lampoon‘s offices and he watched Beard reading the half-finished manuscript of his novel-in-progress TACOS, but he could tell that Beard didn’t think it wasn’t very good. The story goes that after Beard had read it, Kenney said, “It sucks, doesn’t it?” Beard nodded, and Kenney flung the unfinished work into the wastebasket. Beard tells a different story: “What he was trying to do was capture this global inanity of the American experience,” he says. “What it turned into was the high school yearbook parody. It was just a question of finding the right format.”

That ‘high school yearbook parody’ — officially, The National Lampoon 1964 High School Yearbook Parody — would be one of their biggest successes to date. Kenney and co-collaborator P.J. O’Rourke satirized the experiences that millions of Americans had gone through with their satirical look back at the fictitious Class of C. Estes Kefauver Memorial High School yearbook, which featured the kind of things you’d get scrawled in your school yearbook every June until you graduated.  It even contained a full-page “In Memorium” to a fictitious senior who died, named Howard Lewis Havermeyer. The photo is a head shot of a young man with crew cut, wearing a tux in his senior photo. The person in the picture is Doug Kenney.

It was the first publication to poke fun at looking back fondly at high school in a kind of nostalgic way, and a parody of those feelings, that hadn’t been done before.  Later, Kenney would tell people that he and art director Michael Gross “invented” nostalgia. It sold three million copies, more copies than any stand-alone book parody before or since, raking in millions for the Lampoon.

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Josh Frank: “Along with a relatively recent addition to the Lampoon squad, newbie P.J. O’Rourke, [Kenney] wrote and edited a full-length parody of that most time-honored American form: The National Lampoon 1964 High School Yearbook Parody. Filled with nostalgia, bitterness, sexual perversity and scatological rage, pitch-perfect renditions of every familiar high-school type and photo spreads capturing the period and personas in obsessive detail—with the Yearbook Parody, Doug found the voice that had eluded him on the Vineyard.”

The money was finally starting to roll in as it went on to become the biggest selling special edition of any magazine ever published. Soon there would be a weekly radio show “National Lampoon Radio Hour” – Bill Murray, broke at the time, could often be seen hanging out at the National Lampoon offices, hoping no one would notice him while he waited for his brother Brian Doyle-Murray to finish work on the “National Lampoon Radio Hour” in a recording studio upstairs — and a record album (Radio Dinner), and Bill and his brother, along with John Belushi, Harold Ramis, and Gilda Radner, among others, would find success with the off-Broadway show (“National Lampoon’s Lemmings”), performing at the New Palladium, at 51st Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues in New York City, near Rockefeller Center.

The show also featured another breakout star-in-the-making, named Chevy Chase, who became great friends with Doug Kenney too.

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“National Lampoon’s Lemmings” — a spoof of the Thanatos-celebrating rock festival, “Woodshuck: Three Days of Peace, Music & Death” — was an off-shoot of National Lampoon and became New York’s biggest hit music for the 1972-73 season, appearing at New York’s Village Gate, before going on the road to other venues. The Lemmings cast, pictured here, left to right, including (among others): Garry Goodrow, Peter Elbling, Chevy Chase, Chris Guest, John Belushi, Mary-Jennifer Mitchell, Alice Playten

Just a few months before The National Lampoon 1964 High School Yearbook Parody was even published, however, Kenny was already deciding he was ready to move on to the next thing. He was going to cash in his chips and get out of the Lampoon business when he, Beard and their other co-founder exercised the option, in 1974, which was a deal they’d set up (no doubt with Hoffman’s good advice leading the way) which allowed them to walk away after five years with the Lampoon’s publisher, 21st Century Communications, forced to buy out their shares after five years.

The three co-founders split $7.5 million, each of them becoming millionaires overnight, Kenney getting just under $3 million for his share.

Beard left the Lampoon just as soon as the contract was settled, and he would go on to write dozens of humor books, many of them best-sellers, including The Official Exceptions to the Rules of Golf and Golfing: A Duffer’s Dictionary, Miss Piggy’s Guide to Life and (with Christopher Cerf) The Official Politically Correct Dictionary and Handbook. His last book, Encyclopedia Paranoiaca, again co-written by Beard and Cerf, was published in 2012.

Hoffmann, meanwhile, had actually left the Lampoon in 1971 to finish his master’s degree in business administration from Harvard before returning to Dallas, Texas, the city where he was born, where he soon became deeply involved in civic affairs. He went on to become a leading Dallas business owner and philanthropist and a major collector of contemporary art. He died in 2006, age 59, of leukemia.

Kenney stayed on with the Lampoon, off and on, until 1977, but the Lampoon‘s heyday ended too soon; it remains a brand-name to this day, and at one point the magazine was owned by Animal House star Tim Matheson, who along with his business partner Dan Grodnik tried to rescue the franchise from financial turmoil in 1989. They couldn’t pull it off and sold National Lampoon in 1991 to J2 Communications. Under their purview, National Lampoon published its final issue in November 1998, but for an entire generation, it ended when Kenney left. It carried on for years, but was ultimately eclipsed by “Saturday Night Live,” which had gobbled up several key Lampooners, and then it was replaced by Spy Magazine, Airplane!, TV’s “The Simpsons,”, The Onion and even “Family Guy,” each turning on different pieces of the Lampoon’s sensibility.

Kenney was now ready to do something else, but he seemed to be taking his time about it. He was now something that most of his neighbors in his Greenwich Village apartment building — his happened to be packed with books and empty orange crates — were not: he was a 27-year old millionaire.

He didn’t look like one, and there weren’t any indications he was rich, either, unless you happened to look out the window of that building and down at the cars parked along the street. That’s because one of the first things he did when he had the means to do so was walk into a Porsche dealership in midtown Manhattan — with his shoulder-length blond hair and wire-rim glasses, wearing torn jeans, basketball shoes and his old high school jacket — and buy a red 911 Targa. He paid cash. He also bought, and did, a lot of cocaine.

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Doug Kenney appearing with Jeff Goldblum in the 1977 comedy-drama Between the Lines, directed by Joan Micklin Silver

Josh Frank: After striking gold with the 1964 High School Yearbook Parody one year and becoming a millionaire with the Lampoon payout the next, he had become restless and somewhat aimless, angling for a new challenge. Technically still employed by the Lampoon, his contributions dwindled and finally sputtered out. For over a year he foundered around New York, hanging out with the SNL crowd he himself had helped collect through his magazine, the radio and stage show, driving around in the new Porsche he’d paid for in cash, dropping extravagant tips at exclusive restaurants. He tried his hand at acting, hired a painter to have his portrait made. He bought his parents two houses and two cars.

Fortunately for Doug, the Lampoon itself was in more or less the same boat. Since its founding, the magazine had made its name as the national source for smart, raw, taboo-smashing satire, and the national home for brilliant misfits to convert their twisted insights into bankable skills. Its weapon was its talent, and by 1975 it had amassed a stable of the country’s most formidable literary-comic minds. Early attempts at expanding the brand into comic performance had been largely – in some cases wildly – successful. They had also brought a new crop of comic actors under the Lampoon banner, raucous talents who channeled the magazine’s chaotic, edgy ethos into over-the-top performances for radio and stage.”

Rivaling the writers for mad eccentricity and in some cases outright menace, these included little-knowns with names like Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Christopher Guest, Gilda Radner, Brian Doyle-Murray and his brother Bill, Joe Flaherty, and Harold Ramis.”

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Josh Frank: ….In 1975, the Lampoon’s publisher made a historic misstep. Presented with the opportunity to create a Lampoon-based TV show for NBC, he demurred. Soon after, the network premiered ‘Saturday Night Live,’ raiding the Lampoon’s talent pool and eclipsing its reputation ninety minutes flat. Michael O’Donoghue, the only Lampoon editor considered a genius on par with Doug, became the show’s head writer. Chase, Belushi, Radner, and eventually Bill Murray all signed on as well. With Doug casting around for a new project, and the magazine deflated and reeling, desperate to rehabilitate its good bad name, both arrived at the same conclusion: the movies.”

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Left to right: Hoover (Jamie Widdoes), Hardbar (Chris Miller), Flounder (Stephen Furst), Pinto (Tom Hulce), D Day (Bruce McGill), Stork (Doug Kenney). Miller and Kenny were two of the three screenwriters. It was Kenney who grabbed the baton in the parade scene and leads the parade up a blind alley. The house behind them was on the grounds of the University of Oregon in Eugene. It was torn down shortly after the picture was completed.

National Lampoon Radio Hour”‘s Harold Ramis had thought it would be a great idea to do a film version of the their popular high school yearbook parody, and Kenney’s and Ramis’s first idea was to do something called “Laser Orgy Girls,” based on the idea of Charles Manson in high school, but the sex-and-drug-laden script was a bit too racy and raunchy to be set in high school, so it was soon decided to shift the focus to college and fraternity life, particularly a frat house rivalry, and so they brought in their National Lampoon colleague Chris Miller (who had been a member of Dartmouth’s Alpha Delta Phi fraternity, lending personal first-hand experience), and they began writing the screenplay that would ultimately become National Lampoon’s Animal House.

John Landis, co-producer Ivan Reitman and John Belushi and The Deltas, had just finished directing Kentucky Fried Movie when he was hired to direct his first studio picture. The movie featured an ensemble cast that featured a newcomer Tom Hulce as Larry Kroeger (nicknamed Pinto by Belushi’s character Bluto), which was the name of the lead character in National Lampoon’s High School Yearbook.

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Kenney could have had a much bigger part in the film, but he allowed himself to be cast in a small part of the fraternity weirdo, Stork, who had just one spoken line in the film: “What are we supposed to do, ya moron?”

Animal House premiered on July 28, 1978. Shot for $2.8 million, it took in more than $140 million at the box office,  and would go on to become the second highest-grossing film of 1978 upon its release, just behind Grease. Among many of the actors who appeared in the film, it helped to launch John Belushi’s career — he was already becoming a star on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” TV series — in the movies, but suddenly everyone in Hollywood wanted a piece of Doug Kenney too.

“Guys like Doug Kenney were the first rock stars of comedy,” film critic Richard Roeper once said. “The whole National Lampoon sensibility and approach to comedy was so different from the previous generation’s — the Bob Hopes and Dick Van Dykes and Buddy Hacketts. These new guys had a completely different approach. They were writing for their generation, they were writing about sex and drugs, and they didn’t care if their parents didn’t get it. They were like the early Beatles of comedy. Everything changed after ‘Animal House.’ “

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Left to right: Screenwriter Doug Kenney, producers Matty Simmons and Ivan Reitman and screenwriter Chris Miller.

Josh Frank:“Doug had moved out to Hollywood shortly after National Lampoon’s Animal House debuted as the number one movie in America. It held the spot for three months, became the highest grossing film comedy of all time, and put John Belushi on the cover of Newsweek.

It also touched off a revolution in Hollywood, achieving for comedy something akin to what the independent film movement had pulled off for drama (explain?) a decade ago: the ascendance of a smart, edgy, deceptively radical point of view that was entertaining enough to be commercially viable. With its theme of smart-ass misfits triumphing over the establishment straights, the movie seemed intended as a kind of manifesto, a call to arms for disgruntled eccentrics everywhere to say exactly what was on their minds. This message struck a resounding cord across late-70’s America. The result was not only a commercial sensation but a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy for its creators. Kenny, Ramis, Miller, Belushi, Landis—they were the smart-ass misfits they created and portrayed.”

As Doug told an interviewer for Time Magazine shortly after the film’s release: “The Harvard Lampoon was my ‘Animal House.’ With millions of young Americans laughing their asses off and shelling out hard cash, the establishment straights in Hollywood had no choice but hand over the keys to the budget vault and throw open the studio gates.”

“They were literally waiting for us at the door when we came out of the ‘Animal House’ screening,” Harold Ramis once said. “One of [producer] Jon Peters’ guys snagged us and said, ‘Jon would really like to talk to you.’ He just happened to be the first one to stop us.”

Kenney told Peters that he next wanted to make, in Ramis’ words, “a Buddhist acid fantasy that was a parody of New Age spirituality.” Ramis pitched a social comedy about the American Nazi Party marching in Skokie, Ill.

Peters hooked them up with Mike Medavoy of Orion Pictures, who shot down those ideas. Then Kenney said he and a friend, actor and writer Brian Doyle-Murray, had been thinking about doing a farce based on Doyle-Murray’s experiences as a golf caddy at Indian Hill Club in Winnetka, Illinois. This one Medavoy liked, and a deal was struck in which Ramis would direct, Doyle-Murray would act and Kenney would produce. Chevy Chase was signed to star. Meanwhile, Kenney’s production company was now signed to 20th Century Fox to develop a number of scripts. It was Peter Ivers’s girlfriend Lucy who made the deal at Fox. To celebrate, Kenney went out and ordered some business stationery. On the bottom, in small print, it read: “See you in court.”

Caddyshack started shooting in October 1979 in the little town of Davie, Florida, a suburb of Fort Lauderdale, where — when the cast and crew were done for the day — everyone partied together, doing lots and lots of cocaine, first by the gram, then by the ounce. Rumors began to drift back to the L.A. that the filmmakers were over-indulging in the off-hours and they braced themselves, not knowing what to expect.

There’s an interesting story in Josh Frank’s book that takes place at the Rolling Hills Golf & Tennis Club in Davie, Florida, where much of the film’s golfing was lensed (along with the nearby Boca Raton Hotel & Country Club). A friend of Doug Kenney’s from his Harvard Lampoon days, Mark Stumpf, had come out to visit his friend on the Caddyshack set, where he found many of the movie’s cast, including Kenney, in a cocaine and alcohol self-medicated haze.

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Josh Frank:“Aside from Ted Knight (who), the entire cast spent their nights and days consuming substances in an unbroken stream, although whereas Doug was using them to just make it through for everyone else it was the recreation of choice. When it was time for a scene, Doug would watch the actors, and between nodding off somehow manage to punch up their lines and improvise new ones, and at times entire monologues and scenes—all in the pitch-perfect voice and deadpan absurdity that had made him the country’s most successful comic writer.

It was almost as if humor, for Doug, was something unconscious: even with his brain addled to a flickering signal, saturated with drugs like a dripping sponge, what came out when he spoke were cutting hysterical comic gems, for doug this was the easy part of life, it was everything else that was the problem.”

Josh adds that Kenney’s friend, screenwriter Tim Mayer, was looking for his friend Peter Ivers, who was supposed to be at the Caddyshack shooting location too, and he was walking all over the course and had been walking for some time and was about to give up on finding Peter when he “heard some human sounds that seemed to be coming from the next hill.”

Josh Frank:“Atop the green, he found a group of people he recognized as the film crew—techies and assistants and grips. They seemed to be moving in rough concert with one another, bending and sitting and striking strange poses. He got closer, and finally found the source of all the strangeness. It was the only explanation, and of course made perfect sense. He was an idiot for not realizing it sooner. He found Peter. Specifically, he found Peter leading the crew of Caddyshack in a vigorous session of yoga on the 18th Hole of the Rolling Hills Golf Club.”

It was probably during the post-production editing of Caddyshack that things began to go south for Kenney. He, Ramis and Doyle-Murray had returned to Los Angeles to edit all the antic footage down to the 99-minutes that comprise the finished movie. The days were long, and Kenney’s partying continued.

Josh writes how Caddyshack, despite doing well at the box office, was a disappointment to Kenney, who felt that meddling producers of the film — he’d actually tried to get into a fistfight and shoving matches with both Medavoy and Peters over Caddyshack‘s promotion, grabbing Peters in a headlock at one point — had stolen his film away from him, adding their own ideas.  He hated the new scenes that were created without his input, including many starring a mechanical gopher that he had not written and stridently opposed.

In July 1980, a day after the film premiered in New York, Warner Brothers Pictures scheduled a press conference at Rodney Dangerfield’s club in New York. Chevy Chase, Harold Ramis and Brian Doyle-Murray were there to promote the film, but Kenney — according to Caddyshack‘s director, Harold Ramis — showed up at the press conference (held at 9:30 in the morning, an ungodly when celebrities like Chase, Murray, Rodney Dangerfield and Ted Knight weren’t typically up). He was drunk, stoned, coked up, and sleepless. He hadn’t slept the night before. He sat in the back of the room, with his parents.

The publicist opened by asking the audience, “Wasn’t it great?,” and then added, ” And who thought it sucked?,” and that’s when Kenney burst into raucous applause and shouted out loud that he thought the movie sucked, and the audience (and publicist and actors on the dais) didn’t know what to think, sitting in silence, while the publicist tried to assure everyone that the joker in the back was just kidding. Meanwhile, Kenney’s mother hugged him, his father put his arm around his son’s shoulder, and they nervously escorted him from the room.

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Josh Frank: “Unlike at the Lampoon, where he worked in solitude and always had final say, here he could only sit back and watch as his creation was ground up and gnashed through machinations he had no power to stop. That after Caddyshack’s release he continued to be hailed as a genius and courted by studios only deepened Doug’s cynicism, convincing him that Hollywood was a place filled with idiots and sycophants. Despair drove him to seek further comfort in the beckoning arms of cocaine, which he kept a large open bowl of perched on the mantle of his lonely bachelor pad.”

After the press conference, Kenney’s cocaine use dramatically escalated, and finally it was Chevy Chase who suggested that the two of them head to to the west coast and then over to Hawaii for what he called “three weeks of recovery.” They were both in a mood to get out of town, with Kenney upset over Caddyshack‘s lukewarm reception and Chase depressed over his separation from his then-wife. Both adrift despite their apparent good fortune in life, they were able to sympathize with each other’s situation in a way others might have found difficult to do wholeheartedly.

Chase and Kenney spent a couple of weeks at Vic Braden’s tennis camp in California first, and then and then each took a room at the Hyatt Regency in Maui. They swam. They played tennis. They hung out. They flirted with girls. After about three weeks in Hawaii, Kenney’s fiancee and girlfriend of five years, actress Kathryn Walker, came to visit. She was returning from a three-month shoot in Newfoundland, and the reunion didn’t quite go as she’d hoped, although the three of them spent time together in Kauai, playing tennis, basking in the sun, and she soon thought Kenney was definitely feeling better.

Then,  Chase flew back to L.A. on August 13th, and four days later, Walker also flew back — she had to meet deliverymen at the house she and Kenney were sharing, as furniture they’d ordered was due to arrive on a specific date and someone needed to be there — but Kenney decided to stay until the end of the month.

Then, on August 31, tragic news came from Hawaii that Doug Kenney’s body had been discovered in a gorge at the bottom of a 40 ft. cliff, below a crumbling precipice called the Hanapepe Lookout, overlooking Hanapepe Valley. His Jeep abandoned by the side of the road, and he certainly would have seen the sign there that warned of the nearby cliff edge. Did he ignore the warning, or did he seek out the cliff’s dangerous edge.  The pathologist who did the autopsy said it was likely Kenney had died on impact because his ribs were broken and his skull fractured.

Kauai’s police captain classified his death as accidental and officially closed their investigation, although there was immediate speculation that he’d taken his own life by jumping off the cliff. One clue was that he’d written the words “I love you” with a bar of soap on the bathroom mirror of the hotel room where he’d been staying, apparently left behind for someone to see. There were also a few sheets of paper were found covered with various scribblings, including the line: “These are some of the happiest days I’ve ever ignored.”

The following October, in 1981, Esquire would publish a cover story — written by Kenney’s childhood friend Robert Sam Anson — would strongly implied that Kenney had committed suicide by jumping off the cliff in Hawaii, although the late Harold Ramis has said,“Doug probably fell while he was looking for a place to jump.”

Chevy Chase, and others, have their own theories. No one really knows for certain.

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Doug Kenney, just 33, didn’t live long enough to see that Caddyshack — what he considered to be a “failure” — would end up taking in almost $40 million at the box office, or hear its lines of dialogue become part of the American lexicon. He wouldn’t live long enough to see how his comedy — as it said on the cover of Esquire, in big bold letters, as “Comic Genius,” or how he “shaped the humor of an entire generation.” And yet, he had a lot of success during his life that must have given him some clue as to how influential he was to popular culture. He was certainly not an imposter; in fact, he was the original funny man that so many try to pretend they are today, but they pale in comparison to Kenney’s unique voice. He was the real deal.

Kenney’s graveside services at the Village Cemetery in Newton, Connecticut on September 8, 1980 — near where Kenney had purchased a home for his parents — was attended by some of the biggest contemporary names in comedy, a mix of the Hollywood crowd, former Lampoon colleagues, Harvard friends and family. Joni Mitchell was there too, as was Michael O’Donoghue, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis and many others that had worked with him and laughed with him, many of them asking themselves and each other if there was something more they could have done.

Chevy Chase and Tim Mayer both gave the eulogies and read some of Kenney’s writings. The local paper, the Newton Bee, published a six-paragraph obituary.

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David Lynch (left) and Peter Ivers on “New Wave Theatre” , March 12, 1980

Peter Ivers, who was probably closer to him than anyone. He’d recently become host of a new cable access TV show called “New Wave Theatre” and he’d not spent as much time with Kenney lately as had Chevy Chase, who had just given the first eulogy. He was now listening to the end of Mayer’s eulogy:

Josh Frank:“Peter (as he recorded later that day in a notebook he titled ‘death notes’) focused on his thoughts: ‘Joyous in heart, and high feelings send him on his way. Sympathy sorrow and  your own shock hold him back. Death isn’t gloomy, only sorrow of living. Death enlightening.’ As Tim concluded, Peter took his suit jacket off and wrapped it around his waist like a little boy. The ropes suspending Doug’s coffin began lowering it into the ground.

A sudden sound filled the air, and a few people looked up, startled — was that a note, a chord? It was music. Peter stood over the scar of the turned-up earth as his best friend was lowered into it and eulogized him in the language he knew best. He sent Doug Kenney into heaven with an angry blues version of a song called ‘Beautiful Dreamer.’ Without saying a word, he expressed what everyone on the hilltop by the duck pond was feeling. They stood silent, listening and crying.

Peter blew a last snarling chord, hurling his harp into the grave, and fell to his knees and screamed.”

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Doug Kenney did this same trick, putting his hand inside his mouth, when he appeared on “New Wave Theatre”, June 17, 1980, just months before he died

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.