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10 Reasons Animal House is a Comedy Classic2

By Dan Berry

10 Reasons National Lampoon’s Animal House is a Comedy Classic

I’ve seen National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) so many times I can quote it verbatim. Give me the chance, and I’ll discuss it the way art historians discuss the collective works of Michelangelo or Monet. But my passion for the movie aside, it cannot be denied that National Lampoon’s Animal House has become a pop culture monument. But what is it, specifically, that established Animal House as one of the faces on the Mt. Rushmore of resoundingly funny movies? Is it he unapologetic way it represents the unsuccessful coming of age of men, much like the comedy series Man-Teen? Is it the opportunity it gives its viewers to vicariously live the most hedonistic college experience imaginable? Is it the togas?

Man-Teen – A Celebration Of Life

1. The 3Bs – Booze, Bud & Boobs

The 3Bs is a three-step plan to comedic success. Simply put, give guys what they want. Is it lowbrow? At times, sure. But even then, it causes cats to crack a smile. Why? Because it satisfies some basic human (male) needs – nurishment, comeraderie and reproduction. And Animal House—a timeless cinematic testament to the exuberant excesses of the collegiate experience—is loaded with all 3 of the Three Bs. In fact, it’s even got a fourth…

2. Belushi – The 4th B

Already a star, as one of the original Saturday Night Live “Not Ready for Primetime Players,” John Belushi made the jump to the big screen, and garnered his status as a legend, portraying 7th-year class-skipper/binge-drinker John “Bluto” Blutarsky in Animal House. Every single bit of dialogue spoken by Bluto in the film became an instant classic, with kids and adults today still quoting the character. Belushi’s extraordinary gift as a physical comedian ensured that even when he wasn’t speaking, he was stealing the scene and helping the movie to achieve the title of a true comedy classic.

READ: The 15 Biggest Dudes of All Time – #13 John Belushi

3. The Deltas & Omegas Really Hated Each Other

Director John Landis brought the actors who played the Deltas up to the set five days early in order to bond. While staying at the Rodeway Inn, they moved an old piano from the lobby into Bruce McGill’s room, which became known as “party central.” Actor James Widdoes remembers, “It was like freshman orientation. There was a lot of getting to know each other and calling each other by our character names.” This tactic encouraged the actors playing the Deltas to separate themselves from the actors playing the Omegas, helping generate authentic animosity between them on camera. (Belushi and his wife, Judy, had a house in the suburbs in order to keep him away from alcohol and drugs.)

Although the cast members were warned against mixing with the college students, one night, some girls invited several of the cast members to a fraternity party. They were greeted with open hostility. As they were leaving, Widdoes threw a cup of beer at a group of drunk football players and a fight “like a scene from the movie” broke out. Tim Matheson, Bruce McGill, Peter Riegert, and Widdoes narrowly escaped, with McGill suffering a black eye and Widdoes getting several teeth knocked out.

4. ‘Food fight!’

Animal House is considered to be the movie that launched the gross-out genre, although it was predated by several films now also included in the genre. It was a great box office success despite its limited production costs and thus started an industry trend, inspiring countless other comedies such as Porky’s, Police Academy, American Pie, and Old School, among others. Keeping track of the comedies that have tried to replicate Animal House is like cataloguing the many ways Charlie Sheen is winning.

Still, Animal House included a subversive bodily humor and political references that got lost in the subsequent innocuous derivatives. On the left-wing and counterculture side, it included references to topical political matters like the Kent State shootings, President Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Richard Nixon, the Vietnam war, the civil rights movement and JFK (the homecoming parade that ends the film actually occurs on November 21, 1963, the day before the John F. Kennedy assassination). Legendary precursors of this counterculture subversive humor in film were two non “college movies,” MASH, a 1970 satirical dark comedy, and another Landis project, Kentucky Fried Movie, a 1977 formless comedy consisting of a series of sketches.

READ: 10 Most-Watched Television Finales of All Time – #1 M.A.S.H.

5. Racism & Richard Pryor

“Do you mind if we dance with your dates?”

During the shooting on Animal House, black extras were bused in from Portland for the segment at the Dexter Lake Club. More seriously, the segment alarmed studio executives, who perceived it as racist and warned that “black people in America are going to rip the seats out of theaters if you leave that scene in the movie.” In the end, it took the approval of famed comedian and social critic, Richard Pryor, to retain the riotous segment in the film.

6. The Deathmobile

When the Deltas wrecked Flounder’s brother’s 1966 Lincoln Continental, their initial plan was to dump it and file a fraudulent insurance claim. And while this was a sound idea coming from any “pre-law” student, when Dean Wormer gave the boys the boot, they were forced to agree with Bluto…

“Bluto’s right. Psychotic, but absolutely right. We gotta take these bastards. Now, we could do it with conventional weapons, but that could take years and cost millions of lives. No, I think we have to go all out. I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part.”

…And in so doing, the Deltas transformed the 1966 Lincoln Continental into “The Deathmobile”—the funniest and most infamous parade float in film history. “Ramming speed!”

7. The Soundtrack & Score

The soundtrack is a magical mix of rock & roll and rhythm & blues, with the original score created by film composer Elmer Bernstein, who had been a Landis family friend since John Landis was a child. Bernstein was easily persuaded to score the film but was not sure what to make of it. Landis asked him to score it as though it were serious. Bernstein said that his work on this film opened yet another door in his diverse career, scoring comedies.

The soundtrack to Animal House is so timeless that when the 20th Anniversary Edition was released, it included a separate CD of just the music. Among the classic songs featured in this classic comedy: “Shout,” “Louie, Louie,” “Twistin’ the Night Away,” “Hey Paula,” “Money (That’s What I Want),” and “Shama Lama Ding Dong.”

8. ‘Toga! Toga!’

“It’s not gonna be an orgy! It’s a toga party.”

If you went to college after 1978, you’ve been to a toga party. Animal House is the reason why. That scene – with the drinking, dancing, debauchery and, of course, the guitar smashing – is an eternal cinematic testament to the exuberant excesses of the collegiate experience, as well as one of the main reasons the movie stands as a comedy classic.

9. National Lampoon

Animal House was the first film produced by National Lampoon, the most popular humor magazine on college campuses in the mid-1970s. The periodical specialized in humor, satirized politics and popular culture. Many of the magazine’s writers were recent college graduates, hence their appeal to students all over the country.

Doug Kenney was a Lampoon writer and the magazine’s first editor-in-chief. He graduated from Harvard University in 1969 and had a college experience closer to the Omegas in the film (he had been president of the university’s elite Spee Club). He began work on what would eventually be Animal House. However, Kenney felt that fellow Lampoon writer Chris Miller was the magazine’s expert on the college experience. Miller submitted a chapter from his then-abandoned memoirs entitled “The Night of the Seven Fires,” about pledging experiences from his fraternity days in Alpha Delta at Dartmouth College. The antics of his fellow fraternities became the inspiration for the Delta Tau Chis of Animal House and many characters in the film (and their nicknames) were based on Miller’s fraternity brothers. Miller’s college nickname was “Pinto” in recognition of dark spots he had on a certain private part of his anatomy.

Filmmaker Ivan Reitman, who had put together The National Lampoon Show in New York City featuring several future Saturday Night Live and SCTV cast members, including John Belushi and Harold Ramis. When most of them moved to that show except for Ramis, Reitman approached him with an idea to make a film together using some skits from the Lampoon Show. And so it came to be that three of the greatest comedy writers ever – Kenney, Miller and Ramis – began brainstorming ideas. Is it any shock then that the final product went on to become a comedy classic? I think not. They saw the film’s 1962 setting as “the last innocent year… of America.” They agreed that Belushi should star in it, and Ramis wrote the part of Bluto specifically for the comedian, having met him at Chicago’s The Second City.

10. “Thank you, sir! May I have another?”

Of the young lead actors in Animal House, only John Belushi was an established star; but several of the other “unknown” actors would go on to have stellar careers in Hollywood. Tom Hulce (“Pinto”) would go on to play Mozart in Academy Award sensation Amadeus. Karen Allen (“Katy”) starred opposite Harrison Ford in two of the four Indiana Jones movies, including the original. Tim Matheson (“Otter”) has been featured in countless films and television shows, and is also a successful director. Bruce McGill (“D-Day”) has worked with every great director from Ridley Scott to Oliver Stone to Ron Howard to Robert Redford to Michael Mann. And then, of course, there’s the then-19-year-old Kevin Bacon (“Chip Diller”) who uttered the above quote in his underwear while getting savagely spanked as part of his very first acting role. Animal House features one of the strongest groups of young actors ever assembled.

Man-Teen – A Celebration Of Life

Man-Teen – A Celebration Of Life

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Dan Berry began writing and performing stand-up comedy while drinking heavily and skipping class at New York University. An inexplicably instant success, he has appeared in clubs and on college campuses nationwide, and is frequently featured on radio and television. Aside from creating the humor site “Jotter of a Rotter” and the internationally acclaimed website “The Prison Kite” (jotterofarotter[dot]com and theprisonkite[dot]com), Dan has also lent his warped writing skills to a pair of failed pilots for FX and NBC, as well as to several current network shows that are somehow proving successful in spite of his crazed contributions.

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Must Reads 4/20/2014