The Finally Screenings: Man, Did I Hate Animal House

In The Finally Screenings, Alden Ford is watching comedy classics that, because he grew up in a cave in Alaska, he’s never seen before. These are his takes on movies everyone else has seen before.

One of the exciting things about being able to write this feature is that I get the chance to see a classic comedy gem so hilarious, so perfect, so essential that I marvel that I spent the better part of three decades without absorbing its teachings. The opportunity to see a great classic comedy now is like a free ticket on the zeitgeist time machine, where I’m able to ingest the story and humor, the writing and directing as a member of the film’s ideal demographic, not as a clueless kid who laughs at anything. Stumbling upon a majestic piece of comedy so perfect – a film I didn’t know I needed – is an enticing prospect.

Animal House is not that fucking film.

What a sloppy, unfunny, nonsensical, racist, homophobic, misogynistic piece of shit this movie is. Before you post that irate comment, though, let me just explain.

I can respect, to their reasonable extents, the arguments in favor of this movie. I’ll address them below. But as a whole, Animal House no longer holds up as a solid piece of comedy. It doesn’t come even remotely close to holding up. The fact is that Animal House is, now, a bad movie. It is, now, offensive in the wrong ways, dated in the wrong ways, and has been replaced by comedies that tell its story better, funnier and more compassionately. The things that recommended it in 1978 fall short now, and at best it can be lauded for basically inventing the teen sex comedy genre.

For starters, let’s talk about partying. I went to college. I was a nerdy, naïve kid, I made a lot of slightly less nerdy, naïve friends, and we attended and threw a lot of small liberal-arts college parties that would probably make any hard-partying state-university fraternity guy cackle with derisive glee. But I can say this with total confidence: every single party I attended in college was miles better than anything in Animal House. This is a movie which prides itself on the debauchery of its parties, but it measures its level of success only by its amount of drinking, filth and chaos, which are 100% ubiquitous in even the crappiest college parties. Any shock value or resonance in showing a guy peeing in a bush or crushing a beer can against his head is reduced to the same level of familiarity as, say, falling asleep at a library cubicle. Sure, everyone who has been to college knows what it looks like, but as a joke, it doesn’t work.

By you know what does work? Characters. Relationships. Writing. And Animal House doesn’t have those either.

I’m the first to admit that the Kenobi-Vader light saber duel is nearly ridiculous in its simplicity by the standards of modern action choreography, but it’s part of a machine that still functions on the strengths of its stakes and characters. And there are plenty of morally dubious characters to root for in the comedy world, too. Peter Venkman, for one. But we root for them because there are real, believable characters underneath, and the jokes are there. Animal House, not so. Even Pinto, the most relatable character by far, has a devil/angel moral dilemma about date-raping a passed-out girl who later turns out to be 13. Otter and Boon try to be nice, and Flounder is naïve, but naïvety doesn’t equal relatability, and niceness doesn’t trump flagrant misogyny. The only female character with any semblance of a personality is Boon’s girlfriend, whose big moment is cheating on him with Donald Sutherland, seemingly only to counterbalance (or maybe justify) all the womanizing perpetrated by the male characters.

I think there is some argument to be made that, because Animal House takes place in 1962, much of the racism and misogyny is meant to be some sort of wink-nudge from the enlightened perspective of 1978. But from 2010, 1978 doesn’t seem all that enlightened, and it’s legitimately difficult to tell what the jokes are supposed to be about, or if they’re even supposed to be jokes. When four white guys leave their four white dates in a club full of presumably murderous (and presumably obviously murderous) black people, what statement is that making? Is that a joke about 1962, or is it a sad, unintentional comment on 1978? Either way, it’s not funny.

I’m not being a prude. Jokes about race or racism, jokes about women’s rights or lack thereof, can be hilarious. But they need to tap into some kind of truth that resonates with who is hearing them, and just as importantly, who is telling them. It’s not a moral judgment. The jokes just aren’t there. What kind of joke is a horse having a heart attack or having to do push-ups near a pile of poop? What kind of joke is “I’m a zit?” What kind of joke is “primitive cultures” followed by an extended closeup of Otis Day, or “the negroes took our dates?” These jokes totally flop, and they’d flop for anyone who’s never seen this movie until 2010.

There are a few things that do work. Fucking the dean’s wife is a pretty intense stunt. It’s not hilarious, but it’s one of the few moments I thought, now here’s something that still plays as crazy. I don’t know anyone at my college who pulled that off – except, presumably, the dean – so my hat goes off to Animal House for that. I also genuinely love how many bottles and glasses fly through the air and shatter against the wall in nearly every single scene. My college experience was pretty good, I think, but my house wasn’t covered in 3 inches of broken glass. Also, “ramming speed!” is a funny line.

I haven’t said much about Belushi because even his stuff doesn’t work for me. I will say that it’s because he doesn’t have much to work with, and I think he does about as well as he can. But, in a film so devoid of punch and flavor, Belushi’s enigmatic mugging and the old-soul twinkle in his eye just make the film around him even worse. And, knowing what would happen only 4 years later, watching a long take of John Belushi chugging a fifth of Jack is genuinely depressing.

I think the biggest problem with Animal House is that the whole film has the stench of a bunch of writers who thought they were getting away with something. I don’t imagine it was common to see characters smoking pot, having sex or even drinking much in movies, especially in the film’s 1962 setting. I imagine keggers and horse pranks and peeping toms were pretty shocking to see on film in a world before the movies Animal House inspired, and probably put to celluloid what a generation of rowdy baby-boomers had talked and reminisced about but never seen on film before. And that’s fine, for them. But making a joke for shock value, once its topicality is removed, is no longer shocking and doesn’t have any value.

I can’t take myself back into 1978 to see this movie without everything that has happened to the world, and the world of comedy, since – and where women’s rights and race relations are concerned, I don’t really want to. 32 years from now, 2010 might look like a primitive, offensive, comedic wasteland for film, and the best shock humor and social satire of today may seem as dated, irrelevant and sad as Animal House does to me now. And as much as it may hurt my pride to hear that in 2042, I hope I have the perspective and decency to know that’s a good thing.

I also hope to live in a moon condo.

Alden Ford is an actor, writer and comedian living in Brooklyn. He performs regularly in NYC with his sketch/improv group Sidecar.

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