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The first party animals

How 'Animal House' liberated bad taste, launching an art form oft copied, rarely matched.

June 19, 2003|James Verini | Special to The Times

For anybody under 50, these names are the names of modern-day mythology: Otter, Bluto, Flounder, Neidermeyer, Dean Wormer.

The lines, mostly yelled, echo in our heads like commands from uncouth ancestors: "Food fight!" "Road trip!" "Double Secret Probation!" The parties have become the stuff of educational tradition: Try to find a fraternity house anywhere in America that hasn't had a toga party sometime in the last year.

Yes, the smell of beer and horse manure wafting from "Animal House" is still redolent, 25 years after its release.

This was readily apparent Tuesday night at the Directors Guild Theater, where, as a part of the IFP/Los Angeles Film Festival, the college comedy that launched a thousand imitators and untold numbers of campus disciplinary hearings (and Kevin Bacon) was screened to a theater full of nostalgic young and not-so-young adults. They clapped, old-sitcom-style, with the entrance of each character. They spoke along with the pivotal lines as though reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. And afterward they sat rapt as a panel that included the director, John Landis, and four of the cast members, discussed the making of the film.

Barely recognizable, middle-aged, pudgy Landis and the actors -- they included Stephen Furst, better known as Flounder; Bruce McGill, or D-Day; John Vernon, who played Dean Wormer; and James Widdoes, frat president Hoover -- talked about it as though trading stories from their long ago youths.

"We went to every college in the Northeast -- none of them would let us film on their campuses," Landis recalled. Not that nostalgia was their expressed aim. "Remember," Landis said, "this was a deliberate response to the sentimentality of movies like 'American Graffiti.' "

Still, one couldn't help feeling, listening to them reminisce, that the spirit of irreverence and liberating bad taste that "Animal House" perfected has been copied but somehow lost in films like the "Porky's" series, "American Pie" and "Old School."

"I see why people make the comparison," said Harold Ramis in a phone interview, referring to the contemporary crop of teen and "gross-out" comedies. Ramis co-wrote "Animal House" with Douglas Kenney and Chris Miller. "But -- and this will sound slightly pompous -- we were writing about a real time in our lives, the 1960s. We thought our work had real social significance."

Watching "Animal House" today, many critics would probably agree. The film, which Universal Studios Home Video will release on DVD in August, is full of touches that, with the benefit of a quarter-century of hindsight, clearly play with the social strife of the time. The military, race relations, the academic culture wars -- they were the targets of such countercultural organs as National Lampoon magazine, from which Kenney and Miller came. And they were the targets of "Animal House" as well.

When it was released in 1978, however, this was not widely recognized in the halls of thought. "This film was not rapturously received by the critics," as Landis pointed out, quite happily, to the festival crowd.

But audiences recognized it immediately. Not only was the film an unexpected and wild commercial success (produced for around $3 million, it has made around $145 million to date in U.S. box-office sales) but it took on -- and retains -- a reverent aura accorded only a few comedies in American culture. It is not too much to say that "Animal House" stands up not only among its contemporaries -- "Monty Python," the early seasons of "Saturday Night Live" -- but also belongs in the pantheon of modern American humor, with the Marx brothers, S.J. Perelman and Ernie Kovacks.

Much of this has to do with the film's pedigree, which is more illustrious than many at the time of the film's release, or even now, realized. Kenney, who died in 1980, was one of the legendary editors of the Harvard Lampoon, the college humor magazine whose talent pool has since given us the glory years of "The Simpsons," "SNL," David Letterman's show (when it was funny) and Conan O'Brien. He was one of the founders of National Lampoon magazine, which in its day was the destination of nearly every young talented humor writer in America and which bore such clout that Richard Nixon was heard to refer to it scornfully.

Ramis and John Belushi, who plays John "Bluto" Blutarsky, came out of Chicago's Second City Theater, the improvisational institution that has given us everything from Mike Nichols to Mike Myers. Belushi's mythology does not require explaining. Ramis went on to write or co-write "Stripes," "Caddyshack," "Ghostbusters" and "Groundhog Day," among others.

Landis, meanwhile, would go on to direct "Trading Places" and "The Blues Brothers." Indeed, contrary to the image many people in 1978 had of it as a bit of mindless juvenilia, "Animal House" was stacked with erudite comedic talent and ideas and steeped in history.

None of this was lost on Ramis or Landis.

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