In the week that I write this, there have been two stories in the news about college fraternities.
The first—the more depressing and less surprising—concerns the Greek system at Dartmouth College, which has come under fire following disturbing revelations regarding the hazing of pledges. Google the specific allegations for yourself, if you dare; they’re far too vile to go into here.
Read the last Popdose on Gen-X icon Kate Moss.
As heinous as these actions are, they can be explained by the human tendency toward escalation. Minus any mediating outside authority, in a closed system of tradition, ritual actions will inexorably scale up with succeeding iterations. Say that a freshman pledge has to drink raw eggs as part of his initiation. Four years later, when that same kid finds himself acting as Rush Chairman, is he going to say, “You know what? Let’s just have the freshmen each shotgun a single beer and call it a night”? No chance. Rather, he’s going to push things are far as he dares—and the next class will push things farther still, until some poor bastard’s in the back of an ambulance getting a pint of horse semen pumped out of his stomach.
The Dartmouth houses, perhaps not coincidentally, served as the basis for the fictional fraternities of Animal House, the classic 1978 movie comedy. The story of the film’s making is told in Fat, Drunk, and Stupid: The Inside Story Behind The Making of Animal House, the new memoir by Matty Simmons, founding publisher of the National Lampoon and co-producer of the movie. Simmons reveals that Chris Miller—who wrote the Lampoon stories that inspired Animal House and co-wrote the screenplay—was not just a Dartmouth alum—he had, in fact, been the original Pinto.
Animal House is widely credited with (or, depending on who you talk to, reviled for) starting the wave of gross-out comedies that continues unabated to this day. Watching the movie now, in the light of what has followed, you can see that the principle of escalation at work. Animal House will never be mistaken for warm-and-fuzzy nostalgia. That shot of the flying beer keg, tearing through the parade-float of JFK’s head, makes that plain. (As Simmons tells the story, that sequence gave even him pause.)
However, for all its shock tactics, the film is essentially celebratory. And while more recent films in the gross-out genre—the Hangover and American Pie movies, for instance—are predicated on contempt for the characters, Animal House has a palpable affection for its gallery of rascals.
The movie creates that affection by drawing the audience into the story’s us-and-them dynamic, and that dynamic plays into the film’s creation as well. Fat, Drunk, and Stupid reads like a one-man oral history. Simmons tells the story of the Lampoon’s founding—and its growth into a multimedia empire encompassing magazine and book publishing, several stage productions, a syndicated radio program and comedy albums—in a chatty, discursive style. From the start, the Lampoon was defined by an oppositional mentality, formulated to offend the squares. The staff constituted a rough-and-tumble community unto itself, rife with internecine feuds and teasing.
When Animal House went before the cameras, the cast and director John Landis, of one accord, maintained that adversarial stance. The actors playing the brothers of Delta House socialized exclusively among themselves, spending their off-hours in Bruce (D-Day) McGill’s hotel room. One night before shooting started, a handful of them even crashed a fraternity party at the University of Oregon at Eugene, where the film was shot—and ended up in the middle of a brawl. That sense of cohesion, of camaraderie, bled through to the finished film—indeed it made the film possible.
Fat, Drunk, and Stupid is not a rigorously argued book. It doesn’t have to be. The experience of reading Simmons is rather like listening to your favorite uncle regaling you with stories of his college days while he’s polishing off his third gin and tonic at your barbecue. This is not a scholarly reference, or a definitive history. It is a reminiscence of a brotherhood from the perspective of one of the brothers. And remember, I did say he was your favorite uncle.
Which brings me, by roundabout ways, to the other story I heard this week—an interview with author Stefan Bradley, regarding his new book about the historically African-American fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha. The fraternity spearheaded the campaign for a monument to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the Washington Mall. King had been an Alpha brother during his years at Morehouse, and Alpha Phi Alpha ultimately raised over $100 million for the monument, which was dedicated last summer.
Making a movie is a small accomplishment compared to that. But it is that spirit of brotherhood that makes possible many accomplishments, great and small. Even when that accomplishment is only a futile and stupid gesture.
Jack Feerick is critic-at-large for Popdose. He would not mind at all if you dance with his date.