King of Comedy

By Kate Meyers Illustrations by James Bennett
June 27, 2010

It's early afternoon in the spring of 1975. A young man with shoulder-length blond hair and wire-rim glasses walks into a Porsche dealership in Mid-town Manhattan. He's wearing torn jeans, basketball shoes and his old high school jacket, and he's staring at a red 911 Targa.

"I think I want that car," he says. The salesman ignores him. "No, really, I'll take it," he says. "And I'll pay cash."

The man is 27-year-old Doug Kenney, and the magazine he had co-founded, National Lampoon, is a runaway success. He has just sold his stake in it for millions. Three years later, the movie he would co-write, "National Lampoon's Animal House," would become the biggest grossing comedy in history and spawn a whole new cinematic genre. Kenney was golden in Hollywood. His second movie would be "Caddyshack." Today, almost a quarter of a century later, it remains a cult classic whose punch lines have become part of the very fabric of the game.

A month after "Caddyshack" opened, to lukewarm reviews, Kenney's body was found at the bottom of the Hanapepe Lookout in Hawaii. He was 32 years old.

The making of 'Caddyshack'

The appeal of "Caddyshack" lies in its magnificent cast of characters, and the way they clash with each other at the fictional Bushwood Country Club, a place that's riddled with the usual petty disputes and social conventions that can be found at any archetypal golf club. These guys are golf course stereotypes elevated to comic absurdity. Who can forget Carl Spackler, the deranged assistant greenkeeper who wages an explosive jihad against a gopher and fantasizes about lady members -- and about golf glory? ("Cinderella story, outta nowhere, a former greenskeeper now about to become the Masters champion.") Or the club's best player, supercool Zen playboy Ty Webb, who is constantly spouting meaningless psychobabble? ("Be the ball.") Or the ultimate crass loudmouth (and loud dresser) Al Czervik, whose huge golf bag contains a built-in sound system, mini-TV, phone and beer tap? ("Hey everybody, we're all gonna get laid!")

"Caddyshack" -- a direct precursor of today's teen "gross-out" movies -- will never be mistaken for a work of cinematic greatness. But it was groundbreaking in its own way, and it's still much better than any other golf movie before or since (most of which make the mistake of taking the game seriously).

"Guys like Doug Kenney were the first rock stars of comedy," says film critic Richard Roeper. "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.' "

"Animal House" -- the raucous tale of a disenfranchised college fraternity that memorably features the late John Belushi imitating a zit -- was shot for $2.8 million. It took in more than $140 million at the box office, and suddenly everyone in Hollywood wanted a piece of this new breed of funny guy.

"They were literally waiting for us at the door when we came out of the 'Animal House' screening," recalls the movie's co-writer, Harold Ramis, who went on to direct nine films, starting with "Caddyshack." "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 film based on Doyle-Murray's caddieing experiences. This one Medavoy liked, and a deal was struck in which Ramis would direct, Doyle-Murray would act and Kenney would produce. To celebrate, Kenney went out and ordered some business stationery. On the bottom, in small print, it read: "See you in court."

Doyle-Murray has appeared in dozens of films and TV shows, but in his heart he's first and foremost a golfer. We're sitting at a table outside Penmar Golf Course, a municipal layout in Venice, Calif., where he takes part in Tuesday and Thursday skins games whenever he can. He's talking excitedly about his new Scotty Cameron putter. From the time he was 11 until he left for college, Doyle-Murray caddied at Indian Hill Club in Winnetka, Ill., and his father, Frank, once caddied for U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur champ Chick Evans (himself a former caddie). So by the time Doyle-Murray met Kenney, he had a bagful of caddie tales.

"Doug's dad had been a tennis pro," he says, "and Doug had worked stringing rackets in a pro shop. So we had a lot of talks about being service personnel -- and how people abuse you. I remember I once barked at a waiter or waitress, and Doug gave me a lecture on my behavior. And he was right."

The pair began compiling their ideas in New York, wandering into coffee shops and bars and jotting down ideas on napkins. They rented a place in a run-down Manhattan hotel, and Ramis came in to help put all their material together. A script -- and those characters -- began to take shape. Doyle-Murray would play Lou Loomis, the caddiemaster who likes a bet on the side. The Havercamps, the doddery old couple who can barely hit the ball out of their shadow ("That's a peach, hon"), were based on a couple Doyle-Murray had known at Indian Hill. Lacey Underall, Judge Smails' zesty blond niece (played by Cindy Morgan), was patterned after a wealthy, unattainable beauty who was a guest at Kenney's club one summer. And the infamous Baby Ruth swimming pool scene -- a spoof of the movie "Jaws," where instead of a shark there's a candy bar that's mistaken for something else -- actually took place at Doyle-Murray's high school. Ramis still wishes they had marketed a plastic "Caddyshack" pool toy that looked like a Baby Ruth. But it was Danny Noonan, the smart, upwardly mobile kid, who was closest to Kenney's heart.

As work on the script progressed, Kenney started to play a little golf himself. He began carrying around a putter. "I took him out a couple of times to Paramus, and to Westchester and to Hillcrest in L.A.," says Doyle-Murray. "He had a jerky, armsy swing." Though Kenney had been a very good tennis player, he couldn't quite figure out how to apply the tennis rotation to golf. Dressed in a bucket hat, khaki shorts and a faded polo shirt that was always untucked, Kenney kept score conscientiously (unlike his alter ego, Ty Webb), despite recording mostly 7s, 8s and 9s. "He was a little too slow for my taste," says Doyle-Murray. "He spent too much time thinking over his shots. But he loved all the accouterments of the game -- the ball marker, the repair tools, the spike tightener."

As casting began to fall into place, the movie needed a star -- or stars. Kenney recruited his friend Chevy Chase to play Ty Webb. Don Rickles was the original pick for the Al Czervik role, but Rodney Dangerfield was doing such a great job as a guest host on "The Tonight Show" that he changed their minds. A young Mickey Rourke almost got the role as Danny Noonan, the likable kid who wants to win Judge Smails' caddie scholarship so he can go to college, but the more All-American Michael O'Keefe won out. As for Spackler, the rustic greenkeeper, Kenney knew exactly who he wanted: Bill Murray.

Murray is one of six brothers (including Doyle-Murray, who added his grandmother's surname to his own when he discovered there was already an actor named Brian Murray). He is sitting in a rented Cadillac near the "Caddyshack" theme restaurant that he and his brothers opened three years ago in St. Augustine, Fla. It's late in the evening, and Murray has completed his duties at the Murray Brothers' annual charity event. He leans his head on the steering wheel, runs his fingers through his hair and starts doing Kenney's hand mannerisms, recalling his constant movement and his slightly forward-leaning walk. "He would laugh really, really hard and really, really loud," Murray says.

"It brought people in -- made them feel comfortable." He stares ahead, then recalls the first time he met Doug Kenney. Murray was broke at the time, and hanging out at the National Lampoon offices, hoping no one would notice him while he waited for Brian to finish work on the "National Lampoon Radio Hour" in a recording studio upstairs.

"There was one guy who kept walking by and talking to me, and he was there after everybody left," says Murray. "When I saw his office, I realized he must be pretty important. Finally he said, 'Do you want to go get something to eat?' So we got in a cab and went down to Greenwich Village for burgers. It was such a big deal to me, and he was so cool. Doug had money then, and he always paid. I think I learned to be generous from Doug."

Kenney's generosity was on display when Murray showed up on the set of "Caddyshack" and asked if another brother, John, could get a few days' work as an extra. Kenney's solution: "[Screw] it, let's make him a production assistant." Kenney had earlier interviewed the oldest Murray brother, Ed, about his caddieing days, so he flew Ed down, too, for a small part, meaning that four Murray brothers had a hand in the movie.

When filming finally got underway at Rolling Hills Golf & Tennis Club in Davie, Fla., and at nearby Boca Raton Hotel & Country Club, it quickly turned into an orgy of late-night partying. Even by Hollywood standards, the 11-week shoot was a wild scene where, according to a biography of Jon Peters, "debauchery reigned every night."

Alcohol, pot and cocaine were around for the taking. Bunkers of it. Nights bled into mornings. Doyle-Murray remembers Kenney for never missing a call. And Chase remembers him as being the last one to bed at night, and then falling asleep on the grass during the day. He recalls Kenney snoozing behind a wall while Chase was filming the improvised rub-down scene with the Lacey Underall character.

At times, filming was chaotic. The script was just a starting point, with wild improvisation the order of the day, and some of the young stars trying to outdo each other. Much of Carl Spackler's role was made up on the spot by Murray, and Al Czervik was originally supposed to have only a minor role, but no one could stop Dangerfield once he got going. The plot dissolved into a series of routines.

Kenney worked tirelessly to keep the cast and crew happy, riding around in a golf cart as a sort of self-appointed social director. The Murray brothers remember Kenney as a producer who could tweak little things in a scene without leaving fingerprints. But he was not taking care of himself. "I think he was so frustrated," says Lucy Fisher, a college friend who was running Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope studios in Los Angeles at the time. "He had gone from being the center of things, and then suddenly he was more or less a hired hand on somebody else's movie. He hated that he was working with Jon Peters. He felt that he had somehow gotten into this vulgar world, that he had made a wrong turn somewhere and he didn't know how it had happened to him. He didn't have enough to do, and he was on a downward spiral."

After the shoot, Kenney, Ramis and Doyle-Murray 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.

"Some people can do drugs and be integrated," says Emily Prager, a former girlfriend of Kenney's who wrote for Lampoon and is now a novelist and columnist in New York City. "But Doug was the type of person who became dis-integrated."

Ramis didn't start to worry about his friend until close to the end of the editing process. "He was very good at concealing his pain," says Ramis, sitting on a leather couch on the second floor of his Ocean Pictures office in Highland Park, Ill. He shows off the door sign from "National Lampoon Radio Hour," which Kenney had once stolen and presented to him as a gift. "He was more likely to mock sadness. He preferred to be charming above all else. Doug was such a gracious guy -- he had this incisive, killer humor. You knew he could destroy you if he wanted to. Part of his grace was in not destroying you. But there was a day when he physically fought with Jon Peters and Mike Medavoy -- there were shoving matches. Doug felt they weren't promoting the movie correctly."

"I remember him having Jon Peters in a headlock," says Doyle-Murray. "It wasn't like Doug."

Things deteriorated. At a press conference the day after the movie's first screening, Kenney showed up drunk and proceeded to tell the assembled gathering, which included his parents, to "f--- off." Then he passed out. The reviews ranged from bad (The New York Times' Vincent Canby wrote that the movie had some comic moments but was "immediately forgettable") to worse ("The writers have saddled themselves with a bland hero and a perfunctory drama that will be of interest only to the actors' agents," wrote David Ansen in Newsweek).

The movie culminates with the golf course exploding into flames. The explosion was reported at the nearby Fort Lauderdale airport by an incoming pilot, who suspected a plane had crashed. It also seemed sadly prophetic for Doug Kenney, considering where he was headed.

Who was Doug Kenney?

Doug Kenney grew up in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, the middle child in a middle-class home. His charismatic brother Daniel was seven years older -- and smarter, more handsome and more beloved. Daniel died of kidney disease when Doug was still in high school, leaving a void that would never be filled. Beyond the grief, Kenney felt he'd always be the family's also-ran, the one who never quite measured up.


original taglines, 'Some People Just Don't Belong,' was

tailor-made for him.

Kenney saw himself as a bit of a misfit -- one of Caddyshack's original taglines, "Some People Just Don't Belong," was tailor-made for him. But he had kindness, intelligence and charm, and he learned how to be popular by making people laugh. As a student at Harvard, things seemed to come easily. He was president of his fraternity, a member of the Signet Society and editor of the Harvard Lampoon, the world's oldest humor magazine.

At the Lampoon, Kenney spent long hours in the magazine's headquarters, a 1909 castle complete with turreted tower and leaded-glass windows. It was there that he met an old-money upperclassman named Henry Beard. The creative sparks flew immediately. "With him, two and two made 30," says Beard, who today has dozens of books to his name (including The Official Exceptions to the Rules of Golf and Golfing: A Duffer's Dictionary).

The pair's first stand-alone collaboration was a parody of Life Magazine -- it lost about $200,000 and plunged the Lampoon into debt. But Matty Simmons, of Twenty-First Century Communications, was convinced of their talent. He published their next effort, a spoof of Time Magazine, and this one made $250,000.

After their respective graduations (Henry '67, Doug '68), having both been kicked out of the Reserve Officer Training Corps, they ended up hanging out in Cambridge, Mass., trying to figure out what to do next. What followed was a wicked parody of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of The Rings called Bored of the Rings -- it sold 750,000 copies and was recently republished in the U.K.

The parodies were a perfect outlet for Kenney's amazing ability to mimic. If a musician has perfect pitch, Kenney had perfect ear. "I was subletting an apartment once," says Ramis, "and Doug came over and pulled out a book and started reading from it. At some point he would stop reading and start improvising in the style of the book. He did this as a showoff exercise. He'd defy me to guess where the book ended and the improv began, but I couldn't. He could do it with virtually any book on the shelf."

Kenney and Beard joined forces with Simmons and a business guy, Harvard buddy Rob Hoffman, to create a new magazine. "We had this dreamy idea of doing a magazine, but I don't think we really had a clue what was involved," says Beard. Nevertheless, Simmons agreed to bankroll them, and National Lampoon debuted in April 1970, with Kenney as editor.

They would spark a comedic revolution. National Lampoon became an industry, spawning a record ("Radio Dinner"), a weekly radio show ("National Lampoon Radio Hour") and an off-Broadway stage show ("National Lampoon's Lemmings"). They recruited and nurtured an incredible roster of talent, from writers like Michael O'Donoghue and P.J. O'Rourke to performers like John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Christopher Guest, Joe Flaherty, Richard Belzer, and Ramis, Chase and the Murray brothers. (In 1975, Lorne Michaels hired O'Donoghue to be the head writer on a new show he was doing for NBC, and the rest is ... still coming to us live from New York on Saturday night.)

Kenney and Beard worked seven-day, 90-hour weeks. 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.

It was here that Kenney's subversive streak revealed itself in its full glory. "Newspapers and magazines at the time were so stuffy and rigid," says Prager. "His mission in life was to expose the hypocrisy of American life." (Ramis recalls that much later, when Kenney was working on "Animal House," Universal Studios gave him an office in its Manhattan building on Park Avenue near 57th Street. It was a formal suite, with antique furniture and hunting prints, and Kenney loved to draw little rats on the pictures with a ballpoint pen.)

"Doug was terribly handsome, with blue eyes and blond hair," says Simmons. "He looked like the All-American boy -- but he was anything but. Every idea he had was anti-establishment. Once, I was on a trip and he talked my son into letting him and his girlfriend at the time sleep in our Park Avenue apartment. I get back and there's a little chocolate on our bed with a note that says, 'Thanks. I've always wanted to do this.' He was a little devil, but he made me laugh."

In July 1971, 15 months after the magazine's first issue and less than a year after his marriage to Alex Garcia-Mata, a woman he had known in college, Kenney ran away. The marriage wasn't working, and the long hours and late nights were taking their toll. Accompanied by a small knapsack, one pair of socks, underwear and a credit card, he fled to California and bunked with Harvard friends Peter Ivers and Lucy Fisher. Several months later, Fisher told Kenney he had to let his wife and Simmons know where he was. She even addressed the postcards. A week later, Simmons and a bewildered staff received a five-word postcard: "Next time, try a Yalie."

"He always apologized for his disappearances," says Simmons, who would buy out Kenney and Beard in 1975 for $7.5 million. "He'd say, 'You know, I just got so tired.' He'd leave and come back sheepishly and stand there like a little boy or a puppy. I had trouble getting mad at him."

Kenney returned, got divorced, and carried on working at the Lampoon. Then he ran away again -- this disappearance resulting in a months-long stay in a tent on Martha's Vineyard. When he returned, he handed Beard a half-finished manuscript for a book called, "Teenage Commies from Outer Space." The story goes that after Beard had read it, Kenney said, "It sucks, doesn't it?" Beard nodded, and Kenney dropped it in the wastebasket. But 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."

"National Lampoon 1964 High School Yearbook Parody" is a comic masterpiece. In the fictitious Class of C. Estes Kefauver Memorial High School yearbook, Kenney and co-collaborator P.J. O'Rourke created an entire high school on paper, perfectly mimicking the photos, the language and the naiveté of the time. It sold three million copies.

"Animal House" swiftly followed -- Kenney originally partnered with Ramis to write "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 to be set in high school, so they brought in Lampoon's resident collegiate expert, Chris Miller, and set the thing in a college frat house instead.

Though "Animal House" was a total collaboration, some scenes are classic Kenney, such as when the sweet-faced Larry Kroger smokes his first joint ("I won't go schizo, will I?") with his super-cool English professor, played by Donald Sutherland. (Sutherland refused a percentage of the profits of the movie in favor of a $25,000 flat fee, a decision that cost him millions.) The part Kenney chose to play himself was Stork, the weirdo nerd.

Kenney had made it. He was a big shot, a countercultural icon. He was a millionaire several times over, and he boasted that "Caddyshack" would be an even bigger hit than "Animal House." But, it was clear that all was not well -- the disappearances, the failed marriage, the spiraling drug and alcohol abuse, and underpinning it all was the kind of unhealthy dark side that is the ever-present flip side to so many great comic minds.

Kenney liked to joke about death. His friends remember a running gag in which they'd walk around a corner and find him splayed out, body lifeless on the sidewalk, glasses askew. Or he'd pretend he'd been shot. One of his favorite epigrams was, "You have to roll with the bullets."

The most famous cover of National Lampoon features a gun pointing at a cute dog with the cover line: "If You Don't Buy This Magazine, We'll Kill This Dog." At the top of the page it also says: "Death ... The Adventures of Deadman ... Playdead Magazine ... Last-Aid Kit ... Suicide Letters to Santa."

"I remember this one time we were driving in Los Angeles," says Ramis. "We were about to get into an accident. Instead of slowing down, Doug sped up. Anyone else would have slowed down. Amazingly, nothing happened."

The National Lampoon high school yearbook parody contains a full-page "In Memorium" to a senior who died. The fictitious student's name is Howard Lewis Havermeyer. The photo is a head shot of a striking young man in a tux with piercing eyes and a crew cut. The person in the picture is Doug Kenney.

This is the end, beautiful friend

The Hanapepe Lookout is a breathtaking spot on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. From the volcanic cliff edge there are terrific views of a lush, tropical valley that proved to be an excellent setting for the filming of parts of "Jurassic Park."

It was to Kauai that Kenney had fled in the summer of 1980. After the "Caddyshack" press conference debacle, someone -- no one now remembers who -- had pulled Chase aside and suggested he take his friend away for a rest.

They spent a couple of weeks at Vic Braden's tennis camp in California, and then each took a room at the Hyatt Regency in Maui. They swam. They played tennis. They hung out. They flirted with girls.

"We were lovers, but not in a homosexual sense," says Chase from his home outside New York City, where a large photo of Kenney hangs on the office wall. "We were making a real attempt at drying out -- but we didn't completely succeed."

After about three weeks in Hawaii, Kenney's fiancee and girlfriend of five years, actress Kathryn Walker, came to visit. Chase left soon after. Walker was returning from a three-month shoot in Newfoundland, and the reunion had its ups and downs. She stayed for a short time and then headed back to Los Angeles. "He was a pretty delicate mechanism," she says, haltingly. "He was very damaged by the amount of drugs he had done. We hadn't had such a good time."

Kenney made some calls during his time alone there. One was to Brian Doyle-Murray. "He apologized that "Caddyshack" wasn't the big hit he thought it was going to be," Doyle-Murray says. "I said, 'It is a hit in my book. Everybody who sees it enjoys it immensely.' And he said, 'Ahh, but I thought I was going to make you wealthy.' He felt that he'd failed."

Kenney called Walker, sounding cheerful, and promised to be home for a party he was to host on Labor Day. He called Chase, too, and asked him to come back to Hawaii. But before Chase could leave Los Angeles, he got a call that his friend was missing.

Kenney's body was found on Aug. 31. Three days earlier, on a fine Polynesian afternoon, the man from Chagrin Falls had parked his rented Jeep along the road by the Hanapepe Lookout, walked past the sign that warned of the nearby cliff edge, and plunged 40 feet to his death. The pathologist who did the autopsy said it was likely Kenney died on impact because his ribs were broken and his skull fractured. The death was ruled an accident.

Chase and Walker went to retrieve the body, and they visited the site, too. Ramis went later, as did Fisher. Theories abounded. Kenney may have fallen -- it was a slippery overlook and a place where it was easy to mistake a crumbling precipice for solid ground. He may have gotten involved with drug dealers who pushed him over. He may have gone there with suicidal thoughts, decided against it and fallen anyway. Or he may have decided he'd just had enough of whatever pain he was feeling, and wanted to run away for good. "We'll never know," says Ramis.

"My image of him is the astronaut hanging by a cord in outer space," says Fisher. "He was hanging by a little cord. I think he was out of it, and he had less and less keeping him tied." Fisher says she feels guilty "to this minute of this day."

In Kenney's hotel room, 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 words "I love you" were written in soap on the bathroom mirror. Perhaps strangest of all, Kenney's shoes were on the cliff edge, directly above where his body was found.

"When I saw his hotel room, there were certain hints that he was thinking about me," says Chase. "When we were at the Hyatt Regency together, I had pulled this joke on Doug. I was on the balcony. He was in the other room. I took off my cowboy boots and left them on the edge of the balcony, then made this sound like I was falling, only I hid behind the curtain. So he goes out to see my cowboy boots, and it looks like I had jumped out of my boots.

"So I wondered if he had left one last, incredibly strange joke. But I still don't think so. There was too much about life that he loved."

Doug Kenney never got to experience the residual waves of affection for "Caddy-shack." He didn't live to see his $8 million "failure" take in almost $40 million at the box office, or hear its lines of dialogue become part of the American lexicon.

Harold Ramis has an old home movie of Kenney making a graceful bow to the audience -- his friends. More than two decades later, they're all still heartbroken by the loss of this sweet, brilliant man.

There was no happily ever after. There were just hundreds of people at a funeral in Connecticut. Bill Murray is still haunted by the service. "I remember turning around and looking at all the faces," he says. "Every funny person in the world was there. And no one laughed."

Maybe Doug Kenney didn't jump. Maybe he didn't fall. Maybe in that one bright, shining moment, he flew.