Many people of my generation wax rhapsodic about their experience seeing “Star Wars” for the first time in the summer of 1977 on a big screen. I’m not going to deny how amazing that was. But for me, as a 33-degree comedy nerd, “National Lampoon’s Animal House” was my holy grail back when I was an impressionable pre-teenager. Let me explain the difference: “Star Wars” was PG-rated, so you could easily buy a ticket as an 8-year old and get in. “Animal House” was R-rated, which meant that you could only see it if you could sneak in, or be accompanied by an irresponsible adult. Please remember this was a time before HBO and other “uncensored” movie channels were a common phenomenon for most households.
The first time I was aware of “Animal House” was when I saw a full-page ad for it in the Washington Post, during the summer of 1978 when I was visiting my Dad. At that time, the movie was in limited-release, showing in only a handful of theaters, likely to build word-of-mouth before it was released to multiple theaters. When I saw the ad, the movie was only playing in one theater (the Jennifer Theater), but had a full-page ad. I mean, it had to be a big movie, right? The ad blew my mind. The poster was a mishmash of multiple outrageous things going on in one image. I took that movie page home with me to Tidewater, Virginia and studied that image religiously, like it was Picasso’s “Guernica.” This was an outrageous, off-limits (due to its R-rating) film that promised all kinds of illicit pleasures. I became a VERY obsessed 8-year old.
As I entered fourth grade, I ran into classmates who claimed to have seen the film, who told me in explicit detail about all of the wonders they witnessed. When I finally saw “Animal House,” in a heavily-edited TV version broadcast on the NBC network circa 1981, I thought my classmates were full of s–t. I enjoyed the film a lot, but very little of what they described was there. Then, in the fall of 1981, my Dad came to visit us and got use of a house that a friend of his owned, but was not occupying at the time. The house had one of those exotic mechanical devices called a VCR … and because I was a movie-fanatic, I made a beeline for the tape shelf. I made a LOT of discoveries on that shelf, which I kept to myself, but signaled to my older brother to take a walk with me away from the house to have a “talk.” I told him that this tape collection had a copy of “Animal House” and discussed whether or not this was the “uncut” version. He advised me to keep it cool and that we would check it out later. Well, lo and behold, it WAS the uncut version and finally realized that my classmates were NOT full of s–t. (I also discovered a tape called “Deep Throat,” but that’s a discussion for another day).
For a brief period, “Animal House” was considered the most outrageous, most scandalous mainstream American comedy film. And … was also the most financially successful. How successful? During its production, director John Landis was told he needed a “name” in order to secure a $2 million budget. Landis talked to Donald Sutherland about taking a part as “Dave” the professor for either a flat fee of $35,000 or the SAG minimum and 10 percent of the gross. Sutherland opted for the $35,000. “Animal House” grossed $141 million (when $141 million was a lot of money), which means Sutherland would have made $14 million had he taken the 2nd deal. Heavy sigh …
Like most blockbuster films, audiences interpreted the film to reflect their personal beliefs. Progressives saw the Deltas as a group of non-conformists fighting against a Nixonian-dean and rival group of Conservative blue-noses (the Omegas). Conservatives adopted the Deltas as their heroes, because they saw the Deltas as fighting against political correctness (also true). The real deal is somewhere in between because “Animal House” … like other great comedy films … is an incoherent text. Seriously, all the best film comedies, whether they be “Duck Soup,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “M*A*S*H,” “Putney Swope,” “Blazing Saddles,” “Female Trouble,” “Eating Raoul,” “Repo Man,” “There’s Something About Mary,” “South Park,” etc. are all problematic texts … because there’s something inherently funny about laughing about things we’re not supposed to laugh about. That’s what makes them funny. Comedy is not … and should never be … politically correct. Great comedy should always make you feel ashamed … ideally, MORE than a little ashamed.
As for how “Animal House” holds up nowadays, it’s still very solid. It’s not as “outrageous” as it once was, but it’s still very sharp and holds up much better for me than the original “Star Wars” does.