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David Wain has one of the best resumes in comedy: He co-created and co-starred on the MTV sketch comedy showThe State, co-wrote the film Wet Hot American Summer, directed the Paul Rudd comedy Role Models, and wrote and directed the criminally underrated Wanderlust, also starring Rudd and Jennifer Aniston.
"A lot of my experience in the past has been: Here, make this funny, let’s find the humor everywhere," Wain told Newsweek in a recent phone conversation.
His latest project, A Futile and Stupid Gesture, is different. The film is a fictionalized version of the life of Doug Kenney, who profoundly influenced humor in the ‘80s, first as co-founder of the magazine National Lampoon, then with his contributions to the classic comedies Animal House and Caddyshack. "Here,” says Wain, “the story is about humor and about comedy, but at its heart it’s a drama."
A Futile and Stupid Gesture will begin streaming on Netflix on January 26th. We spoke with Wain just before Christmas, not long after the release of the film’s first trailer, which hints at the intriguing fourth-wall-breaking conceit of the film. In it, Martin Mull plays an older Kenney—a wholly invented narrator since the real man died in 1980 at just 33. The rest of the stellar cast includes Will Forte as the younger Kenney, Domnhall Gleeson is Lampoon co-creator Henry Beard, Joel McHale as Chevy Chase (co-stars on Community), and Seth Green as Christopher Guest.
What follows is that conversation, edited and condensed for clarity.
What attracted you to Kenney’s story?
One of the film's editors, when he read the script, said, "This is a venn diagram of everything David Wain would be interested in." It's basically true. It's about comedy, it's about the '70s, it’s a story about storytelling, and it's a story about the camaraderie between these two guys [Kenney and Beard]. Most importantly, it’s the origin story of the comedic sensibility that was the source of what I do. I came up doing sketch comedy at NYU, and everything ultimately is sourced from this guy whose name I didn't even know before.
What are the challenges in making a film about some of our most beloved comedians—John Belushi, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase and Gilda Radner, among others.
Making a biopic about famous people, many of whom are still with us, is filled with pitfalls. I think to have told the story in the most conventional way might have been one of those pitfalls. I was interested in telling Doug’s story in an out of the box way, as Doug might have approached telling his own story.
Will Forte and Domhnall Gleeson as Doug Kenney and Henry Beard in "A Futile and Stupid Gesture." John P. Fleenor / Netflix
Kenney’s comedy was revolutionary a generation ago, but not any more. How do you make it relevant for younger viewers who didn’t live through it?
You’re trying to present and document the times accurately, while also understanding that some of the humor doesn’t translate through the decades. The cultural time was certainly different. The humor of [the film] has to come from not just repeating the jokes that [these people] made, but also showing the humanity of the situations in the story. There was a complexity to that. Then you translate that to the actors—wildly different types of actors, some from the improv sketch world, some with experience in more structured, scripted material—to make sure we’re telling a cohesive story. It was an interesting and wonderful directorial challenge.
Was there sensitivity about jokes of the past that might seem in bad taste now?
That was part of the reason for this storytelling device, of modern Doug looking back—it bakes the perspective of today into the film, allowing us to contextualize exactly what you’re talking about. There is definitely a different sensibility now. Some of Kenney’s stuff, with Lampoon or elsewhere, holds up, some of it doesn’t. We try to, hopefully without apologizing for it, say this is what [comedy] was then.
Modern Doug, as you’ll see, tells his own life story and helps you connect the dots. But he’s far more than just the narrator. He’s a participant.
Did you consult with any of the people represented in the film? Did they have any input into what the film should look like?
We talked to everybody possible who knew Doug. I don’t know that we said, “What should this movie be?” But we said, “Tell us about Doug and your experience.”
Josh Karp did the first set of research, in the great book that this whole thing starts from. [Writers Michael] Colton and [John] Aboud spoke with a lot of people for the screenplay. I did another layer of research and interviews, and so did some of the cast. It was eye opening. Everybody had a different perspective on everything—you get completely different answers to what we thought were objective questions.
Now that the trailer’s out, what should fans know?
I wouldn’t have brought it up, but people are saying “likely best picture contender” and also Nobel Prize and Pulitzer. My feeling is, I’m flattered, but we’ll just have to see what happens.
English People’s Teeth Are an “International Disgrace” and a “National Health Disaster”, UK Dentists Say
Austin Powers jokes aside, dental hygiene is reportedly a very big problem in the UK. In a recent letter to The Daily Telegraph, British dentists warned that their nation’s oral health was on its way to becoming an international disgrace, calling it a “national health disaster.”
The root of the problem does not seem to be simply individual poor oral hygiene. National health service issues also appear to play a major role. The letter states that unreasonable targets and unnecessary red tape regulations have made it increasingly difficult for many dentists to provide the public with the care they need.Related: Bad Teeth? Don't Blame Your Genes, Blame Yourself
In the UK, health services are provided through an agency known as the National Health Service (NHS). This organization uses national taxes to cover the cost of healthcare for everyone in the UK, regardless of who they are and how much they earn. The system has struggled to keep up with the massive supply and demand, The Guardian reported. As a result, some individuals may fall through the cracks and not receive the care and treatment they require.
Charities have come to help out with dental care in the UK. Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Last year, The Guardian reported that twice as many children in England received hospital treatment for tooth decay as those who needed to be treated for broken arms. Although high sugar diets likely do not help the problem, lack of proper intervention allows the decay to progress dangerously. Nearly four out of five children in England between one and two years old had not seen an NHS dentist in the past year, The Guardian reported.Related: Mystery Tooth Fossil Baffles Archeologists And Could Mean First Humans Lived In Europe Not Africa
This is not the first time that UK dentists have spoken out about the state of the system they currently work in. In 2016, dentists penned another letter to The Daily Telegraph likening UK dental health to that of a developing country.
Reportedly, the dental healthcare in the UK is so bad that they are enlisting help from international organizations. For example, last year Dentaid, a charity that normally helps to care for people’s teeth in the developing countries, set up clinics in the UK specifically addressed to help low-income families, homeless people, and migrants who were especially in need of dental care, The Independent reported.
The clinics have helped a number of people who have struggled to get an appointment with an NHS dentist. However, these charities can only do so much. Dentists are now insisting that a bigger solution is needed to address the national dental problem.
Psychiatric research is full of complex problems and the appeal of new technologies to untangle them is high. A new study in Translational Psychiatry aimed to do just that: By growing cerebral organoids, or mini brains, derived from the cells of a group of patients with schizophrenia, Michal Stachowiak’s group from the University at Buffalo claimed to be one step closer to understanding the cause of this chronic and severe mental disorder.
Schizophrenia is typically understood as an illness that starts in the brain at a very early stage of development. Stachowiak’s researchers sought to test this older hypothesis using the latest technology—growing miniature organs that mimic the real brain at the earliest stages of fetal development.
The team used skin cells from one group of adult patients diagnosed with schizophrenia as well as a group of adults who were cognitively unimpaired, and, in a process that involves bathing the cells in nutrients and spinning them through a machine that prevents gravity from flattening them, developed organoids from both groups.
After growing the mini brains, Stachowiak ’s group compared the 'schizophrenic organoids' to the controls. The schizophrenic group, they discovered, showed architectural differences in the part of the brain known as the cortex: immature cells that would one day turn into the nerve cells known as neurons were spreading out in too many directions, with too much distance between them.
“Essentially there are hundreds if not thousands of defects in the genome [the genetic material of an organism] that lead to common diseases,” Stachowiak told Newsweek.
Stachowiak’s idea was to zero in on the changes or aberrations that this genetic pathway creates. And, he claims, problems in a genomic pathway known as INFS could lead to some of the physiological changes that are responsible for some of the symptoms of schizophrenia.
A figure from Stachowiak's paper comparing images of the organoids from the control group to the experimental group. Courtesy of University at Buffalo
“I think for the first time we have a proper experimental tool to try to see if we can either correct or prevent some of these events,” Stachowiak said.
But Madeline Lancaster, a neuroscientist at Cambridge University who was one of the first to work on organoids as a research tool nearly eight years ago, took issue with the ones used in Stachowiak’s experiments.
Lancaster told Newsweek that trying to find some of the roots of schizophrenia using cerebral organoids was "an interesting premise,” but that the execution was lacking.
“It’s difficult with a really new field like this,” Lancaster said, admitting that her standards were “probably higher” than those of most researchers.
But, she added, the organoids that Stachowiak ’s group developed as part of this experiment were not well formed enough to make meaningful conclusions.
The organoids Stachowiak grew, Lancaster claims, were allowed to develop randomly in a way that introduces too much heterogeneity. The small size of the study is another issue: The study looks at three control organoids and four developed from the cells of people with schizophrenia.
Schizophrenia is a complicated diagnosis, one that is itself the subject of controversy. Organoids may be a fruitful way down the line of exploring some of these hypotheses, but the technology is still evolving. Studying the developmental factors that can contribute to schizophrenia is a live area of research, one that other neuroscientists are actively pursuing. But, as is the case with any innovation, an understanding of how best to use this new technology needs to be agreed on first.