Animal House: How Belushi And The Deltas Changed Comedy

By Rebeka Knott
John Belushi (left) and Martha Smith in 'Animal House.' Source: Getty Images / IMDB

National Lampoon’s Animal House is often cited as a revolutionary movie comedy. It wasn't like the comedies that had come before -- in a word, it was dangerous. Comedy takes many forms, and movie comedy had often been about wackiness -- strange antics committed by lovable oddballs, or cool guys who always have the witty comeback. Whatever the persona, characters in comedies had usually been harmless. There hadn't been the sort of menace we were presented in Animal House

This film, about the worst-behaved, messiest, most notorious fraternity house on the campus of Faber College, was sprawling and unpredictable. Viewed from a certain perspective, we were rooting for the losers, the bad guys, the slobs. What was redeeming about these denizens of Delta House? It's hard to say. They were somewhat charming, well, some of them were. Was John Belushi's Brother Bluto charming? Was he the kind of guy you'd like to know in real life? And then there's another of the more hypnotic characters, Daniel Simpson Day, known as "D-Day." At one point in the film, Dean Wormer is threatening to revoke the fraternity's charter, and observes that all the Deltas have bad grades -- except one. "Daniel Simpson Day," he says, "has no grade point average." D-Day had no grades and no clear personality -- he was a marauder on a motorcycle, there to start trouble with little other purpose. He was a wildman and a party animal, and in Animal House that's all he needed to be.

Roger Ebert hailed this unprecedented film as a triumph.

The movie is vulgar, raunchy, ribald, and occasionally scatological. It is also the funniest comedy since Mel Brooks made "The Producers" (1968). "Animal House" is funny for some of the same reasons the National Lampoon is funny (and Second City and "Saturday Night Live" are funny): Because it finds some kind of precarious balance between insanity and accuracy, between cheerfully wretched excess and an ability to reproduce the most revealing nuances of human behavior. ... It's like an end run around Hollywood's traditional notions of comedy. It's anarchic, messy, and filled with energy. It assaults us. 

The movie was a spinoff of the antics written about in the iconic National Lampoon magazine. It was actually one of many films to share the name National Lampoon in its title. The movie was based on stories written by Chris Miller, Harold Ramis and Ivan Reitman after drawing on their own real-life experiences in college.  

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