Scott: One of advantages of fraternities, beyond raging keggers and lifelong friendships, is that they feed into a frat connection after college. Just as family connections can get pledges into a fraternity, the extended brotherhood can offer a seat at the company table when they get out. That’s the patriarchy. That’s power. But Animal House goes one step further by associating the snooty Omega House with the military, represented most by Douglas C. Neidermeyer, an ROTC cadet who hazes the pledges with the uptight rigor of a warden in a women-in-prison movie. (He’s later killed by his own men in Vietnam.)
When the Deltas have to go before a hearing over whether they should have their charter revoked, it’s a kangaroo court, run by Neidermeyer and the Omegas, with an assist by Dean Wormer. Frankly, Bluto and company have a pretty weak case for keeping their charter, but the kangaroo court makes its revocation seem like a terrible injustice, because they can’t make their case at all. Certain fraternities always have more power and prestige than others on campus, but there’s something to the military angle here. The comedy isn’t just slobs-vs.-snobs, but an attempt to rebuff authority more generally—and in a time period, 1962, that anticipates the Vietnam conflict to come.
Nathan: Using the Academic-Military-Frat-Industrial Complex as the bad guy affords Animal House an opportunity to be an anti-Vietnam movie, even though it takes place before Vietnam. In that respect, it’s a lot like M*A*S*H, which used the Korean War to comment on the Vietnam War. The Deltas are the slobs in this slobs-vs.-snobs formation, but one of the things that struck me re-watching Animal House is how much privilege the Deltas actually have. Bluto is the film’s breakout character and most iconic image, but the characters we’re supposed to identify and root for are Otter and Boon, both of whom seem well on their way to upper-middle-class lives of leisure. Boon and Otter’s rebellion is more attitudinal than political. True, in his big speech, Otto argues that condemning Delta House is akin to condemning the American way of life, but that’s pretty much just him being a smart-ass, though Animal House also seems to conceive of being a smart-ass as a political act on some level.
Noel: I’m with you, Nathan. Every time I watch Animal House, I’m always surprised how clean-cut the Deltas look. Aside from Bluto, D-Day, and Flounder, the rest of the main Delta characters are handsome and well-dressed, not at all like the nerds in the post-Animal House slobs-vs.-snobs comedy Revenge Of The Nerds. (Although even with Revenge Of The Nerds, I always remember American Splendor creator Harvey Pekar complaining to his Nerds-loving friend Toby that the heroes of that movie are actually rich college kids, not underdogs in any real-world sense.)
To me, the main message delivered by Animal House comes in that closing “Where are they now?” wrap-up. It isn’t just a funny joke that Bluto becomes a senator. His post-collegiate success, like his frat-mates’, is a signal that nothing that happened to any of them in college really mattered. Grades didn’t matter. Social status didn’t matter. Real power rests in the hands of the ones who realize that their privilege persists whether or not their fraternity survives double-secret probation.
Is that a positive message? Not so much. But it certainly feels true.
Keith: I like Animal House, but I’ve never loved Animal House, in part for just this reason: The Deltas’ rebellion, if that’s the right word, has no real stakes or consequences. Making the Omegas, with their military associations, into the enemy lets the film portray the Deltas as taking a stand against something, but it never feels like a particularly principled stand. Am I being a bucket of cold water at the party? Sorry. Toga! Toga! Toga!
Nathan: That’s true. Animal House’s cynicism sometimes veers into outright nihilism. The Deltas stand against corrupt authority, but they aren’t in favor of anything beyond serving their own needs at all times, no matter the consequences, and treating women and minorities as tools for their pleasure and gratification, who can be discarded when they no longer suit a purpose. The Deltas behave like assholes and misogynists throughout Animal House, and the film doesn’t call them on it. There’s an emptiness and an ugliness to Animal House, giving it a sour aftertaste that even John Belushi’s sweetness cannot entirely dispel.
Keith: Of all the Deltas, Belushi is the one I’d most want as a friend, even if it meant doing a lot more household clean-up after he visits.
Nathan: The Kennedy years have been romanticized in the public imagination as a dewy, halcyon golden age of innocence and optimism. Animal House takes place smack-dab in the middle of the Camelot epoch, and depicts a very different version of the era, one in which clean-cut innocence has been replaced by a raunchy embrace of the appetites that have historically defined the college experience: sex, beer, weed, power, and wanton, meaningless destruction. Animal House is the raging id underneath Camelot’s carefully wrought ego. But while the film undercuts and lampoons the cheap nostalgia that pervades its era, it also exploits its enormous power, most notably in a wall-to-wall soundtrack of classic-rock hits. It’s worth noting that John F. Kennedy, that shining icon of the early 1960s, appears in the film primarily as a giant, creepy disembodied head on a parade float. It isn’t exactly the most reverent or distinguished representation of the president.
Matt: “Reverent” and Animal House are like oil and water. The Kennedy connection is interesting; the film is set in fall 1962, a little over a year before JFK’s assassination. The timing does suggest a sort of idyllic innocence to the period that was shattered just a few months later. When the Deltas are expelled, Dean Wormer claims he’s notified the draft board that they’re now all eligible for military service, but that’s one of the few indications of trouble beyond the safe confines of Faber College. Mostly, the frat guys exist in a safe, consequence-free bubble of partying and carousing, and there’s very little sense that any of their bad behavior could ever come back to haunt them.
Noel: The nostalgia in Animal House has a sour aftertaste to me, perhaps because the past is being recalled by National Lampoon writers who are more interested in mocking everything than in looking back with any kind of gee-golly affection. It’s not like the movie views the nascent counterculture in and around Faber with any more respect than it does the conformist mania of Dean Wormer and the Omegas. The proto-hippie professor played by Donald Sutherland is a cynic, a hack, and a lech. The bohemian gals from the nearby women’s college are made to look buffoonish, with their “Existential Dance Forms Workshop” flyers and their classmate who dies in a “kiln explosion.” Even the Deltas are pretty much dolts, devoid of any particular cause or ideal.
Keith: Though in some ways, that feels true to the spirit of National Lampoon’s magazine output, which seemed to have affection for virtually nothing, while remaining rooted in the point of view of a particular generation. The past here feels like just another shared reference point, and like all references, it’s subject to mockery. (And in fact, some of the film’s narrative has its roots in Lampoon articles.) For all the film’s high spirits, I find its cynicism kind of exhausting, even though I respect it. There’s nothing polite about it; growing up in the Kennedy era is just another source for mean-spirited humor, nothing more or less. Animal House was followed by other movies bearing the Lampoon name, but I’m not sure any of the others captured its spirit.
Scott: Keith and Noel, you make good points about the film’s a pox-on-both-your-houses style of political lampoonery, which sends up Sutherland’s hippie on one end, and Dean Wormer and the Omegas’ rigid conformity/militarism on the other. And yet this conflict is palpable within the film itself, between wanting to enclose Faber College in a bubble of toga parties and pranks, and wanting to comment on the destabilized world that’s encroaching on its boundaries. I guess the bubble doesn’t truly burst until the end credits, when those silly postscripts reveal incidents like Neidermeyer being shot by his own troops in Vietnam.
Keith: I feel like talking about this movie has made me sound a bit like an Omega House snob, too uptight to appreciate the outrageous antics of the liberated Delta slobs. Sigh. Sorry. This won’t change things, but I’d like to talk about some of the film’s attitudes toward women and minorities. When we finished watching it in The Dissolve screening room a couple of weeks ago, Scott said, “There are gags in that movie you would not see today.” That list probably starts with the cartoon devil trying to get one of the protagonists to rape his passed-out date, who is later revealed to be 13 years old. And it definitely includes the scene in which a group of black nightclub-goers menace a table of white college kids, because apparently black people are just naturally threatening. And it almost certainly includes one of the movie’s first gags, in which the movie’s dorky freshman heroes get shuffled off to sit next to three minority characters and a guy in a wheelchair. I get that there’s an extra layer to those moments. The nightclub gag is also about the cluelessness of privileged white kids. But the film has a lack of empathy that I find disturbing. It’s very much a film told from the perspective of its privileged, white, male characters, and it treats everyone else as unknowable outsiders. It feels like the work of Omegas who only think they’re Deltas.
Scott: Completely agree with you, Keith, on the lack of empathy for outsiders from a movie that’s supposed to be championing outsiders. Part of it is just a reflection of a time when John Hughes could wedge a character like Long Duk Dong into Sixteen Candles for comic relief, or Revenge Of The Nerds, an Animal House descendant in letter and spirit, could fashion a special floppy javelin to suit the style of a gay, limp-wristed nerd. As much as I want to debate myself on Animal House’s attitudes, if only to keep from seeming like a PC scold from a more enlightened time, the attitudes you mention really sour the experience and undermine the irreverent, underdog spirit the film tries to achieve.
Nathan: Yeah, to continue in this churlish mode, one could even argue that the real underdogs are not the white frat guys, but rather the working-class black musicians who entertain rich, drunk, white college kids to pay the bills, and the Jewish, bespectacled, folk-music-loving girls from the women’s college, whom the guys treat with such brutal disregard. I found the whole visit to the women’s college deeply off-putting, both because of the barely concealed sexism and because there are so few jokes in it. The sequence where the Delta tries to use the death of his girlfriend to get laid was offensive to me not because of the creepy emotions at play, but because it’s so draggy, badly paced, and unfunny—and it’s far from the only scene of which that could be said. If anything, the movie’s ambiguously (and unambiguously) racist and sexist scenes call attention to themselves in a way that makes them impossible to ignore.
Noel: I guess I was less bothered by all of the movie’s decidedly un-PC moments (including characters urging each other to be cool, and not be “a fruit”) because it struck me as true to its times—not just 1962, but 1978. I think the joke is on the Deltas that they assume Otis Day “loves us,” and that they strike out with women as often as they do. They don’t really have it together, no matter how self-satisfied they are, and I think the movie recognizes this. They’re just cool relative to Dean Wormer, who can’t sexually satisfy his wife, and to the Omegas, who engage in homoerotic hazing rituals and eschew straight sex in favor of handjobs. (By the way, anyone else think about the NFL hazing scandal while watching the Omegas “consecrate the bonds of obedience” by paddling the shit out of Kevin Bacon?)
Noel: By my estimate, it took less than a decade for the Animal House-style raunchy campus comedy to go from seeming boldly cheeky to painfully clichéd, and the transformation has been so complete that these days, it’s all but impossible to tell a story about “a crusty ol’ dean” and “the worst fraternity on campus” without doing a Simpsons-style send-up. (“Your bra-bomb better work, Nerdlinger!”) That’s probably because the Animal House attitude quickly filtered into non-campus comedies too, like Caddyshack and Stripes—both of which featured a lot of the same behind-the-scenes personnel as Animal House. By the mid-1980s, the SNL/National Lampoon sensibility had become so pervasive that it lost its edge, since it’s hard for a movie to seem subversive when pretty much every other big-screen comedy looks and sounds just like it. Plus, the movies that came afterward lacked a Belushi: that genuinely anarchic presence who doesn’t fit into any easily labeled box.
It’s been fun, though, to see how the people who grew up on Animal House have tried to translate its vibe into the world of today. I mentioned The Simpsons; there was also a funny Bob’s Burgers episode recently where the gag was that the “snob” fraternity was completely unaware of the “slob” fraternity, and couldn’t understand why these people kept vandalizing their house and sabotaging their events. This past summer, Monsters University essentially remade Revenge Of The Nerds with CGI furballs and more of a family-friendly heart. And actor Greta Gerwig has been involved with two clever riffs on the 1980s campus comedy: Whit Stillman’s wonderfully loopy Damsels In Distress, where again the joke is that the beer-swilling frat boys need guidance and protection from the hateful brainiacs; and the never-released Art House, where the beleaguered campus organization isn’t a fraternity, but a collective of art students living in a crumbling eyesore that the university wants to tear down. All of these movies and TV episodes redefine what it means to feel like an outsider—and why that matters.
Nathan: Noel, you’re right about Animal House’s descendants lacking a Belushi, but I think what hurts them even more is the lack of a Harold Ramis. Animal House has become so associated with food fights, toga parties, and debauchery, it’s easy to overlook that it’s a product of a publication that emerged from The Harvard Lampoon, and it doesn’t get any snootier or snobbier than that. Accordingly, that cerebral, lefty intellectual bent informs the film as much as, if not more than, Belushi’s antics. I don’t think it’s too much of an overstatement to argue that Animal House is furtively a pretty smart, subversive film, one that delights in absurdity and misdirection. In perhaps my favorite running gag in the film, the gang responds to every crisis by dramatically announcing plans to do something completely unrelated to the problem at hand, or the film in general. Animal House is a very smart dumb movie. Its imitators (Van Wilder, cough, cough) just managed the dumb part.
Another thing that struck me upon this viewing was how ingratiatingly sweet and tender Belushi’s performance is. That’s another overlooked part of the film’s charm: For a rampaging id who goes around creating destruction, Bluto is a fucking sweetheart, a hell of a nice guy, the kind of Good Samaritan who will selflessly crush beer cans against his skull for the sake of making a depressed friend smile. Who the hell wouldn’t want to hang out with a guy like that?
Matt: I feel like the legacy of Animal House goes beyond the movies that stole its formula and the TV shows that referenced its iconic setpieces, and extends to its impact on the lives of almost anyone who attended college in America after 1978. If Animal House wasn’t an accurate representation of university life when it was made, it became one after the fact. While some of its humor (and especially its attitudes) are dated, the stuff about the college experience still seems pretty fresh. I’m not sure whether that’s a credit to the authenticity of the screenplay, or to the undergraduates who watched it and appropriated its rituals. Either way, it’s the film that inspired a thousand toga parties.
Scott: Two personal thoughts on Animal House’s legacy: 1) I never watched Animal House as a teenager, but my adolescent viewing was so heavily influenced by its descendants—Real Genius on the high end; Revenge Of The Nerds, Fraternity Vacation, and other such fusions of frat-guy antics and T&A on the low end—that returning to it was like viewing the Rosetta Stone of panty raids. It made me both appreciate the creation of types like Bluto and Dean Wormer, and lament how the distance between Animal House and other National Lampoon movies isn’t as immense as I thought. 2) I’ll forever be grateful to Animal House and its imitators for “Homer Goes To College,” one of my favorite Simpsons episodes, penned by Conan O’Brien, who was plainly a student of a subgenre. More legacy there, too.
Keith: When I saw Midnight Express for the first time a few years ago, it was like watching a prophecy of the decade to come. Though released in 1978, its style influenced so much that followed in the 1980s that it’s hard not to think of all the movies that borrowed from it, with its gauzy look, synth score, and moody atmosphere. What Midnight Express is to thrillers, Animal House is to comedies. I’m sure there were other antecedents, but would the 1980s have been filled with so many I-wear-my-sunglasses-indoors party dudes if not for this movie? Would Bruce Willis have happened at all?
Matt: I’ve never thought of Bruce Willis as a descendant of the Animal House school before. Vince Vaughn, on the other hand, should have to pay this movie’s creators royalties.
Matt: We’ve spent a lot of this Forum being critical—not unfairly, and that’s sort of our thing anyway—so I thought we should probably wrap things up by acknowledging the parts of the film that do hold up and do work well, namely the comedy. Do you guys have a favorite scene? Or a line you quote in day-to-day life? Have you ever imitated Belushi with a mouthful of mashed potatoes? (Please, someone say yes.) Personally, my hardest laughs happen during the running sight gag about Omega Greg Marmalard and his makeout-spot trysts. One of the better uses of a rubber glove in movie history, I would say.
Keith: Anything involving that poor horse. It’s an awful, cruel string of gags that take it from show pony to being measured for an undignified amputation, and every one of them is funny.
Noel: Oh, I still find a lot of Animal House very funny. Sure, it moves like a Studebaker, and a lot of the gross-out gags have grown tired from overuse over the years, but the comedy still works well, both when it’s over the top (“A… pledge… pin!”) and when it’s more casually witty. (“We’re willing to trade looks for a certain… morally casual attitude.”) And as we’ve pointed out multiple times here: man, John Belushi. I’ve read that he modeled his performance after Harpo Marx, and I believe it. Nathan already talked about the sweet little “cheer up” dance he does for Flounder, but I can’t believe we’ve made it this far without mentioning his third-wall-breaking eyebrow-waggle while he’s playing peeping tom at the sorority house, or the bad-little-boy “sorry” he offers after he busts up Stephen Bishop’s guitar. It’s also kind of charming that Bluto has such a crush on Mandy. I almost feel at times like he’s off in another, crazier movie.
Nathan: Totally. If you removed the sound and changed the color to black and white on Belushi’s scenes, nothing would be missed, though he does some of the finest yelling around. As Keith mentioned earlier, Animal House feels like the film version of an issue of National Lampoon, in that it features a broad cross-section of humor, from cerebral satire to broad physical comedy to naughty sexual humor. In that respect, Belushi’s scenes are like a photo essay so expressive that no captions are necessary, and that’s definitely my favorite section of the movie, though I also liked the many acts of misdirection, where we’re led to believe we’re headed strongly in one direction, then veer off in another one entirely.
Don’t miss yesterday’s Keynote essay on Animal House as an achievement of underachievement. And tomorrow, Nathan Rabin concludes our Movie Of The Week discussion with a look at the forgotten National Lampoon films that slipped between pop-culture staples like Animal House and Vacation. Then Movie Of The Week goes on holiday hiatus, but we’ll be back on January 7 with the Coen brothers’ Fargo.