“National Lampoon’s Animal House” (1978) dir. John Landis / scr. Harold Ramis, Doug Kenney, and Chris Miller

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.

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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.

John Landis interview from the “Kevin Pollak Chat Show”

This is a legendary, nearly 3-hour interview with film director John Landis from the Kevin Pollak Chat Show that is one of the best and most candid interviews I’ve ever seen with a director.  Landis directed some of the funniest movies ever made (“Kentucky Fried Movie,” “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” “The Blues Brothers,” “An American Werewolf in London,” “Trading Places,” “Coming to America”), some terrific documentaries (“Slasher” and “Mr. Warmth”), and arguably, the most famous music video of all time (“Michael Jackson’s Thriller”).  Landis has so many great, oftentimes extremely funny, tales of a career that spans almost 50 years … one that started when he was a teenager.   It’s a career that includes directing the likes of Michael Jackson, Eddie Murphy, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Don Rickles, and many others too numerous to mention.  I don’t know if everything he’s sharing is the truth, but even if 20% of what he says is true, he’s lived a more exciting life than pretty much anyone reading this right now.  The man is a great storyteller and this interview seems way shorter than it actually is.  If you’re a comedy or film nerd, you must watch this.

“Son of the Invisible Man” from “Amazon Women on the Moon” (1987)

Video

Back in the 1970s, prior to the success of TV shows like “Saturday Night Live,” there were movies that featured various comedy sketches instead of a feature-length plot. These movies tended to have a lot of raunchy, satirical, countercultural humor and were extremely popular as cult and midnight movies. The most popular of which were “The Groove Tube” (1974) and “Kentucky Fried Movie” (1977).

In the mid-1980s, “Kentucky Fried Movie” director John Landis tried to replicate one of those classic sketch comedy films with “Amazon Women on the Moon.” The concept was that you were watching a really low-rent UHF station late at night and saw a wide variety of cheesy programming. Like “The Groove Tube” and “Kentucky Fried Movie” (as well as a typical episode of “Saturday Night Live”), many of the sketches were hit or miss in “Amazon Women on the Moon.”

However, “Son of the Invisible Man” (starring Ed Begley, Jr.) was always my favorite sketch. The concept is beyond stupid, but hilarious. I won’t reveal what happens in this 3-minute clip, but I laugh harder each time I see it. Due to some brief (but non-offensive) nudity, it’s not safe for work. But I promise you, this is really really funny stuff.