National Lampoon’s 1978 college comedy bred an era of excess, sometimes disguised as conservatism
August 15, 2023 at 6:00 a.m. EDT
“Food fight!” “Toga! Toga! Toga!” “Double secret probation.” “Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son.”
“National Lampoon’s Animal House” was released to theaters on July 28, 1978. Made on a budget of chewing gum and pocket lint — all right, $3 million — it featured a mostly unknown cast and one bankable movie star (Donald Sutherland) in a minor role. Directed by fledgling filmmaker John Landis, whose previous release, “The Kentucky Fried Movie,” was a collection of skits, the first motion picture from the bad boys of National Lampoon magazine was expected to sink without a trace. Instead, “Animal House” blew up — more than blew up, it grossed nearly $142 million at the box office, made the Lampoon brand a commercial powerhouse, hammered out a bawdy new template for youth comedies, turned John Belushi into an A-list star and repopularized fraternities and frat behavior after years in the cultural doghouse.
It arguably did even more. Although “Animal House” was a professedly anarchic comedy that identified with the freaks, the misfits and anyone wanting to fight for their right to party, the movie ironically helped crystallize a new strain of cultural and political conservatism that started on campuses and ran all the way up to the National Mall and Wall Street.
In other words, “Animal House” is where the 1960s finally and decisively turned into the 1980s — the 1970s being understood as a transition period highlighted by double-knit and “Kung Fu Fighting.” With “Animal House,” we crossed the line from Hippies to Yuppies, from “all you need is love” to “greed is good.” It seems crazy to say it, but the film’s Deltas — a fraternity of proud, self-defined losers — became role models for a generation obsessed with winning. You could argue we’re still living with the fallout.
How do I know all this? I was there at ground zero: a preview screening of “Animal House” at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. in July 1978. There, before my eyes, an audience of listless summer-session Ivy League students was jolted into trading the bromides of their older siblings’ counterculture for what seemed like a new freedom: to say what you wanted, offend whomever you wanted, grab the rewards you felt were yours.
One of the screenwriters of “Animal House” accompanied the film to Hanover: National Lampoon writer Chris Miller, a Dartmouth alumnus who had based Delta House on his own fraternity, Alpha Delta, which had a notorious reputation then (it split from the national organization in 1969) and still does. (The college derecognized AD in 2015 for branding the flesh of new members.) The screening took place in the Nugget, the little movie theater on South Main Street, and the joint was packed with students drawn by the knowledge of Miller’s college connection and the presence in the movie of “Saturday Night Live” supernova Belushi in his first major screen role.
That night, you could feel the collective mood swing like a compass needle toward a new north. The audience howled at bits that seemed iconic on first encounter: the horse in the Dean’s office, Belushi’s impression of a zit. They sang along to “Shout,” as performed in the movie by Otis Day and the Knights. There’s a famous scene where Belushi’s character, fraternity wild man John “Bluto” Blutarsky, upon hearing a twerpy folk singer serenade a group of young women, calmly takes the guy’s acoustic guitar and smashes it to pieces. The students at the screening roared in approval and, more interestingly, relief. By 1978, the progressive liberalism that had sustained the counterculture from before the civil rights era to the fall of Richard M. Nixon had started to feel like oppressive doctrine. Still, if you were young and in college, you had to subscribe to it, didn’t you?
“Animal House” said, no, man, you didn’t. You didn’t have to mean it at all. The movie fed into and articulated a growing frustration with an overbearing political correctness, the fear that you couldn’t say what you wanted to without stepping on someone’s toes. Which, of course, made a lot of people want to step on someone’s — anyone’s — toes. The left, some felt, had been guilting us for years that we should always be better than ourselves, that we should join forces to help those less fortunate. But what was wrong with us? And, really, who cared about them?
And so, the mood following the screening was ecstatic to the point of a near-riot, spilling out of the theater onto the street. Still burned onto my retinas is the image of screenwriter Miller being carried down Fraternity Row on the shoulders of a mob of cheering students, their faces flushed with happiness. What were they celebrating? Nothing less than the permission to indulge their privileges without guilt or responsibility. I’m not saying that “Animal House” led directly to the election of Ronald Reagan two years later. But I am saying the movie empowered a generation of 20-somethings to aspire to a new hedonism — call it, at best, enlightened selfishness — that spilled over into the political sphere.
You know who really loved “Animal House”? The students in my class who had already started the Dartmouth Review — one of the first major neoconservative college newspapers in the country — who went on to write speeches for Reagan and the first George Bush, and who included among their number such future figures as pundit-filmmaker-conspiracy theorist Dinesh D’Souza. The way the Review crowd saw it, they were the Deltas, reviled by the world yet stubbornly true to the principles of personal interest; it was the liberals who were the cruel, powerful Omegas to be resisted. One of them, Peter Robinson, in his 2004 memoir “How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life,” describes seeing the movie “at least half a dozen times” in Hanover and admits, “Bluto seemed natural. Bluto was our man. We wanted to be just like him ourselves.” Of course they did. In a time of lockstep superego, Bluto was unchecked id.
Forty-five years later, the wheel has turned once more, as it always does and will do again. The students who embraced the film’s shredding of taboos are now aging parents and grandparents castigated by their progeny for making sexist jokes or using the wrong pronouns. “Animal House” has scenes that still get a laugh and others that have curdled badly with time. Freshman pledge Pinto (Tom Hulce) debating whether to date-rape a drunken 13-year-old girl? The scene in the roadhouse bar, the White Deltas surrounded by big, scary Black men? What once played as liberating bad-taste comedy now just seems in bad taste, clueless or (even worse) intentional. It’s hard to accept that the entertainments that defined your youth have aged right alongside you.
Am I part of that generation that has the movie committed to memory through cultural exposure alone? You bet. I can’t drive past the Massachusetts Turnpike exit for the town of Otis without mentally adding “my man.” However you look at it, “Animal House” served as the flame around which the generation that came to power in the go-go ’80s learned to dance. The weekend before that Hanover screening, the frat parties at Dartmouth had all featured the usual kegs and a general sense of drift. A weekend later, everyone — I mean everyone — was wearing a toga, the new uniform for a stance of ironic, entitled and profoundly relieved decadence.
Ty Burr is the author of the movie recommendation newsletter Ty Burr’s Watch List at tyburrswatchlist.substack.com.
POST AUTHOR: Ty Burr