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The Delta Variant

John Landis’s 1978 comedy classic ‘Animal House’ is a time capsule from an era when humor and campus politics were very different.

· 9 min read
John Belushi as John “Bluto” Blutarsky in Animal House (John Landis, 1978)
John Belushi as John “Bluto” Blutarsky in Animal House (John Landis, 1978)

Measuring social change by particular expressions of popular culture is an imperfect science. A hit novel, song, or TV show may tell us something about the values of the underlying society that generated it. Alternatively, it may simply be a single illustration selected to support a pre-existing hypothesis, easily countered by illustrations that demonstrate the opposite. Sometimes a fad is just a fad. Still, if you’re looking for a cultural product that highlights several generations’ worth of historical evolution—in morality, sex, race, class, and even the ever-fraught issue of campus politics—the funniest example created since the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor may be the 1978 comedy National Lampoon’s Animal House. Grab a brew—don’t cost nuthin’.

Produced on a modest budget with mostly little-known actors, Animal House was a huge success upon its release and inspired youth crazes for food fights, toga parties, and the R&B standard “Shout!” The misadventures of Faber College’s riotous Delta Tau Chi fraternity also set new cinematic standards of lowbrow humor that were subsequently sought and surpassed by the homecoming parade of derivative movies that followed its example: Stripes, Meatballs, Caddyshack, Police Academy, and Porky’s, all the way down to later pictures like the American Pie and Teen Movie franchises, along with the subgenre of stoner buddy flicks including Pineapple Express, Superbad, Get Him to the Greek, Knocked Up, et al. 

Animal House has also been held as a cautionary tale of Hollywood excesses in the late 1970s and early ’80s, given the early deaths of its co-writer Doug Kenney in 1980 and star John Belushi in 1982, and the 1982 involuntary manslaughter charge against its director John Landis for fatal safety violations on his set for Twilight Zone: The Movie (Landis was acquitted, but his status in the industry has never really recovered). On its own, though, Animal House still stands as an index to how the eras in which it was set and in which it was made compare to the era in which we live today. 

It begins with the Baby Boom. Though latterly known as a trademark of goofy film series like National Lampoon’s Vacation, in its original print format, National Lampoon was—like Rolling Stone, Creem, and High Times—the counterculture’s journal of record. The magazine first disgraced American newsstands in 1969 as a mass-marketed version of the satirical Ivy League publication Harvard Lampoon, just as the youth demographic had grown into America’s largest consumers of music, fashion, and drugs. Back issues of NatLamp from its mid-’70s heyday seem surprisingly literate now, interspersing crass cartoons and illustrated parodies with longform articles closer to the New Yorker than Mad—closer, maybe, to P.G. Wodehouse than Animal House. But it consistently scored by targeting Boomer enemies like Richard Nixon and spoofing Boomer icons like Bob Dylan, in addition to regularly featuring nudity and pot jokes: “Dear Reader, The next dozen or so pages have been put together expressly for those of you who are stoned at the present moment. Stoned? Yes. Stoned.” 

By the middle of the decade, the periodical retailed its own brand of T-shirts, calendars, and picture books, and had spun off comedy records, an off-Broadway revue (Lemmings), and a syndicated radio show (National Lampoon’s Radio Hour), performed by a virtual farm team for what would become mainstream American comedy, among them Michael O’Donoghue, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Christopher Guest, and Chevy Chase. National Lampoon’s Animal House drew on earlier material like Kenney’s 1964 High School Yearbook parody and his “First Lay Comics.” It was the natural next step into film production, financed by Universal Pictures and built on the rising visibility of Belushi, who was then appearing weekly on Saturday Night Live.

Set in 1962, its loose plot—a series of sketches pitting the devil-may-care Deltas against school administration and their priggish classmates from nearby Omega house—reflected the eclectic content of the magazine, and its core market of Me Generation undergrads. Animal House soon won boffo box office and critical acclaim. “It’s like an end run around Hollywood’s traditional notions of comedy,” mused Roger Ebert. “It’s anarchic, messy, and filled with energy.” Fans still quote their favorite lines today. But what relevance does a 1978 movie about 1962 college students have in 2024? The answers are as clear as the lyrics to “Louie, Louie.” 

As much as anything, Animal House represents a high-water mark of post-Vietnam, post-Watergate triumphalism, produced when Jimmy Carter was in the White House and the 1960s protest ethos appeared to have been vindicated across society. Though its story takes place in the Camelot years, there is little of the period-piece nostalgia that marked contemporary material like Grease or Happy Days. Instead, the film plays on how Faber College’s reprobates get the last laugh on its Nixonite leadership, both within the narrative and, via an epilogue of where-are-they-now punch lines, beyond it: uptight Dean Wormer (John Vernon); repressed Omega head Gregg Marmalard (James Daughton), hired into Nixon’s White House and raped in prison by 1974; and psychotic ROTC officer Doug Niedermeyer (Mark Metcalf), to be killed in Vietnam by his own troops. They are outdone by variations on Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden, and Doug Kenney himself: Otter (Tim Matheson), a future Beverly Hills gynecologist; Pinto (Tom Hulce), who becomes editor of National Lampoon; Hoover (James Widdoes), later a public defender; and Bluto (Belushi), whose destiny as a US Senator is Animal House’s freeze-framed final image before the credits roll. 

Yet though the Deltas are portrayed as lovable losers up against a heartless establishment (setting the models for the protagonists of countless later comedies), they’re also all members of a college fraternity. A uniquely North American system, fraternities and sororities are amalgams of student residence and elitist social club, combined under pseudo-ancient “Greek” traditions like loyalty codes and secret oaths. Today, the cliché frat boy is an entitled white kid whose family wealth and connections let him get away with low grades and punishing hazing rituals, the very definition of an out-of-touch caste that’s since been shaken from its complacency by a poorer, less educated populist wave. 

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Animal House’s screenplay was authored by three former students of prestigious institutions: Harvard’s Kenney, Dartmouth’s Chris Miller (of the Alpha Delta Phi house), and Washington University’s Harold Ramis (Zeta Beta Tau). The only hint that the Delta fraternity aren’t wholly the children of upper-class advantage is Bluto’s impulsive destruction of a sensitive folk singer’s guitar at a toga party (“Sorry,” he shrugs). Otherwise, for all their irreverence, there’s not much to distinguish Otter, Pinto, Boone, Flounder, and the Stork from Omegas Gregg, Doug, Chip, and the other Hitler Youth—all of whom are on an equally rarefied plane of privilege that few in the audience then, and fewer now, can honestly identity with. Besides John “Bluto” Blutarsky (Faber, ’62), the world’s most famous frat boy is George W. Bush (Yale, ’68).

This exclusive standing is confronted in Animal House’s classic road trip scene, in which the boys take their dates to an all-black nightclub where their favorite live entertainment, Otis Day and the Knights, are the house band. “We are gonna die,” Otter predicts when they walk in. The gag of clueless caucasians encountering real-life subjects of the “primitive cultures major” one of them says she’s studying is almost unthinkable over 40 years on. In one legend, no less an expert in inflammatory racial humor than Richard Pryor insisted the sequence remain in the movie, over the concerns of nervous studio executives. Who’s really being mocked in this scene? Fawn Leibowitz’s delicate sorority sisters? The suddenly unhip frat brothers (“Where do you guys go to school?” Flounder asks by way of making conversation)? Or the badass “Negroes,” who’ll never belong on campus anywhere? Here is another complex—and perhaps prescient—message of the film, insofar as the black-white divide is one social convention the unconventional Deltas can’t subvert. Watch for a visual echo of the bit in the climactic futile and stupid gesture wreaked by Bluto and his friends, when symbolic dark- and light-skinned shaking hands on a parade float are ripped apart: so much for Love, Equality, and Brotherhood. 

From a modern perspective, the most problematic Animal House laughs come at the expense of women. With the exception of Boone’s independent girlfriend Katy (Karen Allen), all the film’s females are there to be pursued, ogled, seduced, disrobed, and, most notoriously, molested. Bluto sneaks views of Babs (Martha Smith) and Mandy (Mary Louise Weller) from under the bleachers and through a sorority window, and ladies’ man Otter puts the moves on both Dean Wormer’s frustrated wife (Verna Bloom) and Shelly Dubinsky (Lisa Baur), roommate of the late Ms. Leibowitz. Pinto’s libidinous conscience is sorely tested by the sight of his passed-out toga companion, who in a more lucid encounter admits that she’s all of 13 years old (actress Sarah Holcomb was in fact 19). As the Deltas sabotage the homecoming, a semi-clad Playboy bunny crashes into the room of an adolescent boy, who looks heavenward and exults, “Thank you, God!” He might have been speaking for the filmmakers, and much of the audience. 

The issue here, as Otter would argue, is not whether the characters broke a few rules, or took a few liberties with their female party guests. They did. And popular tastes in humor have always shifted from one era to the next. But what was simply funny in 1978 might be considered a little rapey now: where sex is suggested, it’s not consensual, and when it’s consensual, it’s either illicit or illegal. The leering was hardly unique to Animal House—Dean Martin and Benny Hill were exploiting attractive young women for comic effect long before, and National Lampoon magazine itself sometimes occupied a gray zone between satire and prurience. Nevertheless, the movie’s objectification of co-eds and underage checkout clerks undermines its claim to be a universal paean to rebels and misfits. Plenty of cinema has been built around the male gaze. Animal House just put the gaze through beer goggles. 

All this suggests that the biggest difference between the fictional groves of academia at Faber College and the real post-secondary environment of today is political. The Deltas stand for sex, drugs, and stupidity, but nothing more controversial, whereas campuses nowadays have acquired reputations as either front lines in the battle for social justice or radical leftist indoctrination factories (depending on your point of view). Toga parties and food fights are the least of their administrators’ disciplinary issues. The clash at the center of Animal House between a rowdy, fun-loving fraternity and a stuffy, self-important one would hardly be noticed among the bitter wars over language, gender, race, and religion that universities and colleges are lately known for, within and especially outside the scholastic community. 

In some ways, the first casualty of this shift was National Lampoon magazine, which reached its peak circulation just before Animal House came out and subsequently struggled to retain readership and investors before closing for good in 1998. One of its last publishers was actor Tim Matheson himself, riding on his association with the movie. Though its legacy extends to Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons, The Onion, and other satiric heavyweights, the smart, Swiftian sensibility that defined its early issues gradually devolved into the sophomoric style of its blockbuster tie-in. 

Editor Tony Hendra, who went on to play band manager Ian Faith in This Is Spinal Tap, recalled in 2002 that new teams of managers and contributors “found their template in Animal House [and] turned the Lampoon into a monthly catalogue of teen automotive and masturbatory fantasies.” But he also admitted that this incarnation “contained the gestalt for much of what would come to pass in comedy over the next two decades ... the idea that comedy is, above all, the preserve of young males.” (Admittedly I still snicker over the 1990 NatLamp feature “Frommer’s Dollarwise Guide to Hell,” advising sightseers about various attractions in the Inferno, including restaurants like The Shit and Piss at 3781 South Stalin Street: “Who says English food can’t be tasty. Hearty pub fare served in a warm, friendly atmosphere.” Hilarious.)

What the hell we s’posed to do? Like biker gangs, rock music, and international communism, National Lampoon’s Animal House is an example of how things that once stood as a challenge to bourgeois restraints can eventually seem to reinforce them, after their initial provocation is absorbed—and elaborated on—by the culture from which they emerge. Yesterday’s libertine is tomorrow’s prude, or predator. To its original viewers, the film is still great entertainment, but not all its scenes will amuse newcomers. Apart from the memento mori embodied in the fates of Doug Kenney, John Belushi, and John Landis, the debauched story of Animal House charts a procession of trends from the past 60-plus years and comes to a sobering conclusion. Don’t know much about history, but I do know that, over time, even Deltas can become Omegas. 

George Case

George Case is a Canadian author of numerous books on social history and pop culture, including ‘Takin' Care of Business: A History of Working People's Rock 'n' Roll’ (Oxford University Press, 2021)

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