Reporting Jason Iannone
In honor of the new book Fat, Drunk, and Stupid: The Inside Story Behind the Making of Animal House,we here at Man Cave Daily are taking time to discuss why Animal House worked so well, and why none of its successors have even come close. Grab a cold one or two or ten, and let’s reminisce.
What did you do 35 years ago, provided you were alive back then? Did you create anything that is still being praised, enjoyed and written about to this day? Most likely not, unless you killed a guy or something. Something like that tends to stick in the public’s craw a tad.
Even if you made a movie, and some people liked it, chances are it’s not exactly a topical point of discussion in 2012. Lord knows how many films were released in 1978 but, of that number, maybe ten are still a thing today. One of them is Animal House, the story of a bunch of drunken fratboy jackasses who probably never should’ve been accepted to college in the first place. That story gets told over and over again, and yet only Animal House has endured.
35 years later, John Belushi peeing into bushes, and punching mashed potatoes out of his own mouth to help start a food fight, continues to titillate movie snobs and drunken failures alike. But for what reason? Why would the Library Of Congress deem something like that “culturally significant,” and worthy of preserving until the day we hurtle screaming into the sun?
Well, if that were all this film was about, then it would’ve died a quick death. But there are other factors that help keep this film timeless and iconic. Much of this film is lost on those who look at it as a mere raucous how-to-party guide. To those who just stick a poster of Belushi wearing his “College” shirt, and just leave it at that, we ask this: do you think any wild and crazy fratboy movie released this year will have a whole book written about them in 2047? Will people even be watching that move in 2047? Or will they be watching Animal House instead?
Simply put, Animal House is the one and only crazy-frat movie worth anything more than a giggle or two. Every film since has been varying shades of utter pointlessness. Why? Well:
It Was A Satire…Of YOU, Broski
Let’s face it; frat life is objectively stupid. For the most part, it’s little more than an excuse to party, get sloshed, and act like utter jerks to anyone who isn’t a “brother.” The responsible ones hold a bottle drive every so often to soothe their consciences. They just won’t tell you the bottle went up the ass of a wannabe pledge the night before.
You can cover the basics of frat life on your own really: have some beers with your buddies, organize a charity event on your own, act like a juvenile moron pretty much every hour of the day. You don’t actually need to pay some guy money to party in their house simply because it’s bigger and a bunch of random guys now call you “Mincemeat.”
And the makers of Animal House knew this; after all, they went to college and witnessed, firsthand, the head-shaking pointlessness of Greek life. So when they went to make a movie about it, they went all out to portray the frat brothers as absolute failures. Belushi’s Bluto, the clear star of this thing, didn’t just have a 1.2 GPA over seven years of college; it was literally a 0.0. And the only reason it was THAT high is because colleges haven’t figured out a way to hand out negative test scores just yet.
Had he finagled a 1.2, it would imply that Bluto was a hard worker, who was truly trying, but just couldn’t wrap his head around all them fancy facts. But 0.0? Well, that just shows that Bluto barely ever goes to class, and is lucky to have not been expelled within the first year. That thing at the end, where it’s revealed he grows up to become a Senator, is clearly a rib on Washington being run by complete nimrods, and not a revelation that he was some secret genius all along who was merely sowing some wild oats first.
This goes for most everybody else in the house. These aren’t misunderstood underachievers: these are moronic losers who are only allowed to stick around because the comically evil dean doesn’t want to deal with the paperwork behind revoking a House Charter.
Yes, the members of Delta Tau Chi are the protagonists, but they are also a reflection in your mirror, a way for the movie’s producers to look at the wild frat boys hanging around campuses nationwide and tell them, “You look like THIS. Isn’t that sad?” Many of these frat boys missed the point naturally, and the characters are now seen as inspiration for both today’s college wildman, and the bevy of filmmakers who made their own Animal House, only this time celebrating the debauchery, rather than mocking it.
Let’s put it this way: you cannot watch Animal House on Hulu, due to copyright reasons. You can, however, go there and watch several short CLIPS from the movie. Yeah…don’t. It could not be more possible to miss the point of the movie if you do. TOGA TOGA TOGA, on its own, is a bunch of bros having fun while wearing king-size bedsheets. It’s kinda funny for sure, but “kinda funny” doesn’t make your film an all-time classic. Luckily, the Animal House guys knew this.
The Heroes Were Losers…And That’s A Good Thing
OK, so we’ve established that Bluto and the gang are losers who should not be emulated and idolized (even though they absolutely have been). At the same time however, the filmmakers did the right thing by casting them as the good guys in the movie. Their lifestyle is laughable, but they’re not bad guys at the end of the day. Slobs who throw toga parties, and who think the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor, don’t make for very effective movie villains. No, they are very much underdogs, fighting against an explicitly corrupt system.
Dean Wormer, on the other hand, is very much a bad guy, and not just because his name sounds evil and thus forces him to follow suit. No, he’s a completely corrupt authority figure, who is fine with Greek Life and the money it brings in, so long as it projects a good image while doing so. Omega Theta Pi, the “snooty” frat, is his preferred Greek house, because they could easily be photographed for a brochure on the beauty of campus life. The guys who snuck a horse into their wild-and-crazy booze fest? Not so much.
But put aside the evil Dean for a moment: no movie makes the stuffy head of a school their main protagonist, though Ferris Bueller’s Day Off could absolutely be interpreted that way (the poor principal was just trying to do his job, and some smug truant kept one-upping him every step of the way). The Deltas were easy to cast as the heroes, because they were very easy to root for: fat, drunk, and stupid may not be a good way to go in life, but it makes movie-goers want to see you succeed.
The reason that movies like Van Wilder, Going Greek, or Dorm Daze either don’t work, or only work in the short-term, is because the main characters aren’t sympathetic in any way, nor are they true underdogs. For the most part, they’re Hollywood Gorgeous and don’t appear to be affected by their liver-destroying lifestyles in any way. Granted, Hollywood Gorgeous is a thing in virtually every movie but, when you make a college frat-bro flick, and the originator has made hundreds of millions on ugly fat people doing ugly fat things, maybe you don’t need to cast the blond Adonis after all.
And not only are they beautiful, some of them are actually smart! Van Wilder, after seven years of doing nothing, manages to complete a semester’s worth of school in less than a week, because that happens everywhere. This, after spending the entire movie as the ultimate Awesome Dude, who loves everyone and is loved back by everyone. He doesn’t care about schoolwork because life is about so much more than books, bro. But he totally can do the work, once he finally sits down to concentrate.
Who wants to root for a good-looking, popular, and successful hunk who ends the movie by becoming even MORE popular and successful, all while picking up a Hollywood Gorgeous girl in the process? Not too many people, evidently. The movie was a technical success at the time, making $38 million on a $5 million budget, but that’s not truly a lot, and the movie is all but neglected today. The other movies mentioned didn’t even get the chance to be kind-of successful for a short time; they were all but dead-on-arrival. Meanwhile, the 35-year-old movie with ugly people in it keeps raking in the dough. Amazing, that.
It Was Silly, But Not TOO Silly
But enough talk of the movie’s point: what of the movie itself? After all, plenty of movies have great points, but they execute them so poorly you wish they had just filmed somebody farting for 90 minutes and called it a day. Maybe with a bit of ass-picking for variety’s sake.
Animal House does not do that. Yes, there’s potty humor and silliness abound, but not exclusively so. Actually, when you sit down and watch for real, you’ll realize the movie’s actually quite witty and clever, and not just funny. If it was just “funny,” it would be in the same realm as, say, Old School: OK performance at the box office and, if you’re bored enough and it’s on TV, you might watch it for a bit, but that’s really about it. Future generations will probably not care much about Will Ferrell portraying a middle-aged frat guy, if the movie even exists by that point.
And speaking of Old School, that movie’s plot is another area where Animal House succeeds, while all its copycats fail. House’s plot was, well, simple. It was realistic. Wild party house gets threatened with a shut down, due to poor grades and unacceptable behavior. BAM, done. Now that the premise is out of the way, time to write a classic movie, with classic dialogue and yes, classic jokes
Pretty much every writer of a frat movie since has been driven to up the ante. Not in the sense of attempting to write a better movie, mind you. No, that takes effort. Instead, they focus almost exclusively on set-ups that are just thinly-veiled excuses to deliver lazy jokes and kinda-funny lines for the trailer. Middle-aged guys start their own fraternity? Great; make sure they’re streaking! Guy joins a frat, but his girlfriend hates frats? How will they ever coexist? A girl mistakes one guy for her date, and the two guys just happen to be brothers? That’s so silly! An average Joe hates living next door to a wild frat? It’s like worlds colliding, bro! Three frat boys dress up as ugly women to infiltrate a sorority? Oh, the fake-lesbian scene just writes itself, dudeski!
And yes, these are all real plots of real movies: feel free to figure out which ones, if you feel like shaking your head in resigned sadness for an afternoon. It makes us wish that one company would just make a series of gross-out college movies, with no plot whatsoever, and leave it at that. Call it Frat. Every September, we can all look forward to the latest installment of Frat, and giggle at 90 minutes of pretty people getting drunk, having sex, and making crude jokes about sausages and soggy cookies. No drama, no conflict, no crazy angles. Just scene after scene of hilarious debauchery. Hey, works for porn.
These Movies Are All The F^#(!#* Same
As snobby as this sounds, it’s sadly true. Animal House worked, but the fact is, there really isn’t a whole lot to innovate with this kind of film. Wild and crazy guys in a house, drinking and doing disgusting crap all day, doesn’t lend itself to a whole lot of flexibility, unless you just play “Scenes from a Hat” with every wacky premise imaginable, and film the results. We’re looking at you, Every-Fratty-Movie-Made-Since.
What’s worse is, virtually every character in these things are the same. The wacky drunken louse. The stuck-up hot girl who loosens up by the end. The evil rich fratboys who ultimately get their comeuppance. The one smart guy in the frat, who the others use as good PR whenever necessary. The manipulative dean. The wacky foreigner. The jerk who’s actually a really nice guy. An animal. Mix and match, stir together, bake for an hour at 400 degrees, add a forced premise to tie the jokes together, sprinkle liberally with overplayed songs from ten years ago, and serve immediately to a tepid reaction.
So what, then, could future frat films do to avoid being inevitably forgotten like all the rest? Can anything top Animal House? Sure, anything’s possible. But it won’t happen the way these movies are being made. Be like the originator, but in a different way. Don’t just focus on wacky drunkenness because John Belushi was hilarious. Keep the story simple. Write witty dialogue. Don’t be afraid to mock your hero’s flaws. Tone down the gross-out humor and chaotic craziness; that way, when it DOES happen, it stands out more.
In short, make a real movie, one that sticks to your ribs like a fine piece of gourmet steak. We do not need another over-inflated SNL sketch immediately passing through our bladder, like so many Quadruple BK Stackers with extra bacon sauce before it. If you do that, then maybe your frat-boy comedy can hope to approach Animal House, the original and still the best.
Just don’t forget the booze. Steak movie or BK Stacker movie, doesn’t matter; someone’s getting smashed.
Speaking of fat, drunk, and stupid, Jason previously offered burnouts like David Hasselhoff and Chyna some life advice with 5 Celebrity Burnouts Who Need A Regular Job. –>