ONCE UPON A TIME, not too many years ago, the Harvard Lampoon had a bunch of writers who were really funny. Unlike the vast majority of their predecessors and successors in the dim reaches of that silly building on Mt. Auburn St., they were given to more than the occasional inspired burst of humor breaking through a floundering mass of sophomoric attempts at cleverness. And these folks had the good luck to be really funny during the late '60s, a period that called for an unusually strong and radically different sense of humor. Some of the writers probably had trust funds--certainly one of them majored in Economics--because they knew a buck when they smelled one, and when they all graduated they somehow got the rights to the Lampoon name and went to New York to start a humor magazine.
Every smirking teenager who has grown up enough to be bored by Mad magazine knows the rest of the story. Those funny Harvard boys, among them Douglas Kenney and Michael O'Donohue have parlayed their National Lampoon into an established success. Their magazine has prospered largely because it was willing to be unconventional; the staff was willing to trample over almost all boundaries of taste, just as they had at college, in the pursuit of laughs. Outrageous sexism, casual racism, sickness and, at first, the rare ability to keep their perspective combined to make the first few years of National Lampoon truly funny, frequently gross. They knew their market and pandered to it shamelessly, rolling in mounds of dollars pried from the blue-jeaned pockets of all the smartass kids in America who were alienated by the bullshit of the society around them.
It's been seven or eight years since that hardy band of former 'Poonies and their associates brought out their satiric vehicle, and it has served them quite well. Today they have fancy offices on Madison Avenue, plush brown carpet and lots of smoked glass (a/k/a/ executive hip) and like good businessmen they've diversified--going into records, off-Broadway shows, T-shirts, radio hours and whatnot. A few of their kids even helped start the once-hysterical Saturday Night Live. And while success has been good to them, it has also made them a little stale. The magazine is nowhere near as funny as it once was--unless, of course, it's just that its readers are older. The things that were funny when you were 15 frequently seem a little stupid when you're 20. The Ivy League jokesters, it seemed, needed a new challenge, and true to the traditions of American enterprise, they decided to pull together all their collegiate humor and stuck it in a movie.
Once again, they've hit the jackpot: Their new creation, Animal House, will greatly amuse all but the easily offended. It is easily the funniest movie of the year. Much of it merits praise, even lavish praise. But it is interesting to note how much they've stuck to their original gags, how they've maintained the edge of offensiveness tempered by outrageousness and good humor. And insipidly enough, Animal House is also quite the Ivy League film. For Animal House is the ultimate Dartmouth movie--or, at least the ultimate rendering of the characteristically snotty Harvard image of Dartmouth (which seems to be somewhat justified)--animalistic, incredibly horny, crude beer-swillers run amok in the tundra. Former devotees of the magazine will recognize the scenario of the film from a sporadic series of Dartmouth frat stories that ran around 1972 or 1973. So what we have here is the Ivy League joke carried out on a fiendishly broad level. Boy, those 'Poonies sure know how to get their licks in.
THE-RICHES-TO-MORE-RICHES story of these former Harvard yuk-hustlers forms only a sidelight, albeit an interesting one, to the success of Animal House. To put it simply, it is a truly funny film. It concerns the manic antics of a renegade frat at an uptight small college in 1962, and all Lampoon targets get theirs--sex, immature (but funny) pranks, assholes, preppies, and callow youth. The story line, if there is one, revolves around the frantic partying and rowdiness of the frat, Delta, and the efforts of a ruthless college dean (of Faber College, whose motto is "Knowledge is Good") and a "respectable"--frat stuffed full of putz preppies to close Delta down for good. Needless to say, much mayhem ensues, and the audience is pretty much guaranteed a good time.
John Belushi makes this film. The rotund, slightly sinister and sleazy-looking fellow from "Saturday Night Live" makes his film debut in auspicious fashion. He doesn't actually say much, though. He doesn't have to. The man can do more with his eyebrow than most mortal comedians can do with their whole bodies. Unlike most TV comedians, who dominate the small screen but little else, Belushi easily makes the transition on to film. His character, Bluto, is the frat's resident gross-out and chief hell-raiser. He saves his best leers for the appropriate times: stuffing his fat face prior to a cafeteria food fight, or precariously balanced on a ladder peering into a room of half-naked sorority girls.
From toga parties to road trips to the first fumbling attempts at sex, Animal House covers all the bases of collegiate lunacy. A few of the scenes miss, usually when, as in the magazine, sheer tastelessness outweighs the humor. One such scene has a bunch of Deltas and their dates stopping in at what turns out to be an all-black bar. All in fun, supposedly, but there really is nothing funny about perpetuating the stereotypes that lead to racism, even casual racism. And at times the noticeable tendency of the writers to repeat old gags becomes annoying--even some of the names are lifted directly from the Lampoon's 1964 yearbook parody of a few years abck--but most of these complaints are of the nit-picking nature. No doubt about it, this movie is quite funny, and definitely destined to bring even more cash into the National Lampoon coffers.
ALTHOUGH BELUSHI walks away with the film, several strong performances add to the general insanity and make the difference between a mildly amusing comedy and a gut-wrenching howler. Donald Sutherland makes one of his infrequent appearances, putting just the right gleam of depraved obsession into his all-too-brief characterization of the dope-smoking, corduroy-clad English professor. The scene in which he and three students conspiratorially share a joint in his darkened cottage is one of the most effective in the film, thanks largely to Sutherland's knowing grins and his wolfish, slightly stoned expression. Karen Allen charms as Katy, the girlfriend of one of the Deltas who thinks the whole gang is incredibly childish, if funny. And Tom Hulce and Stephen Furst as, respectively, the nerdy and corpulent freshmen pledges who first gawk at, then engage in, the wildness of the frat effectively portray the change from immature awkwardness to full-fledged idiocy.
Animal House contains every college stereotype you can think of, from the frigid WASP princess who takes her rubber gloves along on jaunts to lover's lane to the self-styled Casanovas, who try endlessly to perfect their pick up routines. All of them take their lumps at least once, with almost everyone getting it or dishing it out in the screamingly funny, bangup ending.
Animal House has some sick, sexist jokes, no plot to speak of, and a largely unknown cast. But despite (or perhaps because of) these obstacles, it succeeds in a big way. To talk more about it would only serve to ruin some scenes for the prospective viewer, and they are worth seeing. But when you do go to see Animal House, and you should, just think for a minute where some of your hard-earned $3.75 is going. Isn't it reassuring to know that it's going right into the corporate pockets of some nice Harvard boys who found out how to make a living being "funny"? Now that's putting your college education to work for you.