July 29, 2002
-- In the fall of 1978, 10,000 bed sheets and roughly that many people gathered at the University of Wisconsin in an effort to have the largest toga party ever. It's unlikely they'd have come up with that plan without a movie that just about every college kid had seen that summer: National Lampoon's Animal House
The film was more than just a blueprint for the perfect toga party. Animal House
had a serious anarchic streak, Molly Peterson of member station KQED reports for Morning Edition
, as part of NPR's Present at the Creation
The movie opens with two freshmen entering the world of fraternity pledging at the Omegas' sedate, stodgy cocktail party, where a perma-grinning resident tickles out Pat Boone songs on the ivories. But Larry Kroger (played by Tom Hulce) and Kent Dorfman (Stephen Furst) are welcomed next door by a drunken Bluto Blutarsky (John Belushi), who shouts "Grab a brew -- it don't cost nothin'" over the rock 'n' roll blaring from inside the rundown party shack functioning as the Delta House. By the end, the Deltas (and their new recruits) have snuck a horse into the dean's office, taken a few liberties with their female party guests and destroyed the homecoming parade with their "Deathmobile" disguised as a float.
was the first movie produced by the National Lampoon
, the most popular humor magazine on college campuses in the mid-1970s. The Lampoon
's humor was the epitome of sick, and black: its most famous magazine cover showed a cuddly puppy, a gun pointed at its head, with a caption: "If you don't buy this magazine, we'll kill this dog." Lampoon
writers took on topics others considered unmentionable. A real advertisement for the Volkswagen bug in the 1970s touted its ability to float in water. A parody ad created by the Lampoon
not long after Chappaquiddick featured the tagline: "If Ted Kennedy had driven a Volkswagen, he'd be President today."
One reason for the Lampoon
's renegade popularity among college kids was that its writers had only recently left campus themselves. Animal House
co-writer Doug Kenney graduated from Harvard in 1969. His collegiate career was one the squeaky clean, future-captains-of-industry Omegas from Animal House
could have envied. He was elected president of the elite Spee Club, for one thing. But he had the makings of a Delta man too: he was revered for, among other things, being able to fit his entire fist in his mouth. And he was very, very funny.
Kenney edited and wrote for the Harvard Lampoon
-- a campus joke machine founded in 1876 which today makes its home in a castle. It wasn't until the mid-60s that staffers there figured out how to really cash in on their humor tradition, by putting out parodies of nationally distributed magazines like Mademoiselle
. And tasting that success, Kenney and two other Harvard grads founded the National Lampoon
, with Kenney as the publication's first editor-in-chief.
In New York, the Harvard writers met Matty Simmons, a magazine publisher who helped develop the Diners' Club card. On Simmons' watch the Lampoon
grew beyond its pages. The fledgling media empire developed a Broadway show (for which Lampoon editor Tony Hendra hired a young John Belushi), distributed their Radio Hour to hundreds of stations nationwide, and published Doug Kenney's High School Yearbook, in which Animal House
's Larry Kroger and future Omega sweetheart Mandy Pepperidge make their debut.
Doug Kenney's view was that movie co-writer Chris Miller was actually the resident expert on college
at the Lampoon
. Miller had gone to Dartmouth College in the early 1960s. He went into advertising upon graduation but preferred the slacker lifestyle working at the Lampoon
afforded him. Miller wrote mostly adolescent, and sometimes futuristic stories -- one presaged Back to the Future
. Once, under deadline pressure, he dusted off a chapter from his abandoned memoirs and turned it in. That story was "The Night of the Seven Fires," in which Miller recounted his college fraternity days. Those Alpha Delta Phis served as inspiration for the Delta Tau Chi brothers of Animal House
's Faber College.
Over a lunch lubricated with Bloody Marys, Kenney and Miller met with the third co-writer of Animal House
, Harold Ramis. Formerly of Second City in Chicago, and more recently a writer for various Lampoon
productions, Ramis was himself a fraternity boy at Washington University in St. Louis. Ramis had been working on a screenplay of his own, called "Freshman Year," when Simmons asked him to work on the movie with the others. Hapless freshman Larry Kroger -- orginally a Kenney creation -- is assigned the pledge name Pinto. That was Miller's own moniker, and it's just one of many places in the movie where the writers' creative views have merged.
They came up with story outline, featuring plenty of projectile vomiting. Even so, Animal House
producer Matty Simmons found someone in Hollywood to seriously discuss a movie in which one of the protagonists pretends to be a zit. He had two things with him: a 100-plus page "treatment" for a movie, and the Lampoon's selling power. Both were hefty, in their different ways. Simmons met with Ned Tanen at Universal Studios, who had been spurred on by Sean Daniel and Thom Mount, slightly hipper and younger execs. Tanen hated the idea; he gave the Animal House
team $3 million to make it anyway.
Such a small budget meant the highest paid actor was John Belushi, then a star of NBC's Saturday Night Live
. Putting Belushi in the movie was easy: the writers had pretty much developed the movie with him in mind. Finding a location for shooting was hard. Director John Landis says one reason University of Oregon officials let them film there -- the horse that's snuck into the dean's office is really
snuck into the dean's office -- is perhaps they hadn't read the script.
proves -- to some of its creators anyway -- that the best way to get things done is to sneak it by the grown-ups. Its theme of rebellion against growing up and giving in resonates with everyone who's ever wanted to make that one last stupid gesture for the sake of nothing else but their right to make it.
In some ways, you can blame the originators of mainstream big-screen sick and gross-ness for movies like Porky's
, and all seven Police Academy
movies, and all those dumb teen comedies inflicted on us in the 1980s. (Before he died, Kenney wrote Caddyshack
, directed by co-writer Ramis.) But in Animal House
there are references to Jackie Kennedy, to Kent State, to President Truman's decision to drop the bomb, to Richard Nixon, to Vietnam and to the civil rights movement. Something else was always there -- political, rebellious and young -- and, Animal House
's creators would say, that something was just as important as the vomit jokes.
See movie clips, behind-the-scenes interviews and photos at Universal Studios' official National Lampoon's Animal House Web site
Visit the ACME Animal House
Web site for photos, sound clips, cast information, shooting locations and trivia.
was spawned by writers for National Lampoon
. Mark's Very Large National Lampoon Site
chronicles the humor magazine's early days.
Read biographies of Animal House
co-writers Harold Ramis
, Doug Kenney
and Chris Miller
was added to the Library of Congress' National Film Registry
in 2001 and is on the American Film Institute's list of the "100 Funniest American Movies Of All Time