|Old Bull Lee
A Voice From the Reality-based Community
Notes from a Study of Things Themselves
Animal House came out in 1978. Its action takes place in 1962.
Young people nowadays don't appreciate it. Is it dated, as some contend?
Leonard Maltin, in his Movie and Video Guide, gives it two stars out of a possible four. He puts the movie down, saying its humor depends largely on Belushi's mugging.
Millions disagree. Belushi's funny all right, but he's only one part of this classic.
Here are some memorable non-Belushi moments.
Mr. Jennings (facing a class of bored students): OK.
Don't write this down, but I find Milton probably as boring as you find Milton. Mrs. Milton found Milton boring, too.
He is a little bit long-winded. He doesn't translate well into our generation and his jokes are terrible.
But that does not relieve you from your responsibility for this material. I'm waiting for reports from some of you.
[Students rush for the door. Jennings raises his voice.]
I'm not joking.
[Yells at the exiting students.]
This is my job!
Katy: Is this really what you want to do with the rest of your life?
Boone: What do you mean?
Katy: Hanging around with a bunch of animals, getting drunk every weekend.
Boone: Ooooh. After I graduate, I'll get drunk every night.
Otter: Mine's bigger than that.
Mrs. Wormer: I beg your pardon.
Otter: My cucumber. Vegetables are really sensuous, don't you think?
Mrs. Wormer: No. Vegetables are sensual. People are sensuous.
Otter: Sensual. That's what I meant. By the way, my name is Eric Stratton. People call me Otter.
Mrs. Wormer: My name is Marian. People call me Mrs. Wormer.
Otter: Oh. We have a Dean Wormer at Faber.
Mrs. Wormer: What a coincidence. I have a husband named Dean Wormer at Faber. You still want to show me your cucumber?
NPR has recently broadcast a piece about an anthropologist, Robert Lynch, who's studied humor professionally and applies his knowledge as a stand-up comic.
"It was interesting to me to try to deconstruct a joke and find out what it is that was making people laugh," says Lynch, about why he decided to study humor. He's currently finishing his doctoral degree at Rutgers University.
Laughter turns out to be very interesting from a scientific perspective. People in all cultures laugh; the instinct for humor seems built-in, like the potential for language or the ability to see.
In all likelihood, this means our ability to laugh came about through evolution; a sense of humor must have given our ancestors a functional advantage. Lynch wants to understand what that advantage is: He wants to know why humor evolved.
"People's implicit beliefs, unconscious beliefs and preferences, matched what they found funny," Lynch says.
A joke, in other words, is like a little brain scan: When we laugh, we reveal what's inside us.
Lynch thinks evolution may have hardwired a sense of humor into our species because laughter serves as a signal. When you and I laugh at the same joke, we signal to each other that we share the same values, the same beliefs. This may be why people all over the world want friends and romantic partners who share their sense of humor.
What values and beliefs would we expect to find in a person who found Animal House funny? Well, consider the plot. It's the story of conflict between two college fraternities: the Deltas and the Omegas. The Omegas are wholesome careerists, active in ROTC and sedate social activities. The Deltas only want to drink and party. The college dean wants to kick the Deltas out of school. So he talks to Greg, president of the Omegas.
Dean Wormer: Greg, what's the worst fraternity on this campus?
Greg: That would be hard to say, sir. They're all outstanding in their own way.
Dean Wormer: Cut the horseshit. I've got the disciplinary files right here.
Who dumped a truckload of fizzies into the swim meet?
Who delivered the medical school cadavers to the alumni dinner?
Every Halloween the trees are filled with underwear.
Every spring the toilets explode.
Greg: You're talking about Delta, sir.
Dean Wormer: Of course I'm talking about Delta, you twerp. This year it's going to be different. This year we're going to grab the bull by the balls and kick those punks off campus!
Greg: What do you intend to do, sir? Delta's already on probation.
Dean Wormer: They are?
Greg: Yes, sir.
Dean Wormer: OK, then as of this moment, they're on Double Secret Probation!
Greg: Double Secret Probation, sir?
What follows is war between the Omegas and the Deltas. The Deltas suffer a number of reverses, finally getting kicked out of school for bad grades. But they rally in the end by sabotaging the homecoming parade in a spectacular way that humiliates the dean and wrecks the Omegas' float.
In the last frames of the movie the viewer is told how things turned out later in life for particular characters.
Among the Omegas, Greg becomes a Nixon White House aide and is raped in prison. Niedermeyer, the sadistic ROTC cadet officer, is fragged (murdered) by his own troops in Vietnam.
Among the Deltas, Otter, the Lothario, becomes a gynecologist in Beverly Hills. Bluto (played by John Belushi) becomes a US Senator.
So who, besides Leonard Maltin, could find this story unfunny?
Mitt Romney, a Mormon teetotaler who was almost of college age in 1962, would definitely not find Animal House amusing. Dick Cheney, who was 21 in 1962, would likewise find no humor in the film. And it's hard to imagine how repellent human beings such as Tony Blair and Benjamin Netanyahu could enjoy this comedy.
I suggest that those who find humor and satisfaction in the victory of the Deltas would share two qualities: first, lack of respect for authority figures and second, utter contempt for those who suck up to them. There would be no war criminals in this group.