John Landis Penelope Gilliatt - Essay

Penelope Gilliatt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"National Lampoon's Animal House," directed by John Landis, is set in a college called Faber in 1962. But it is not by backdating comedy that one gets away with bad comedy. This comic-book frat-house farce goes WHAM! EECH!! at the expense of a system that self-evidently fosters invaluable intelligences. The picture gives us much facetiousness about a fat undergraduate who steals food (ZOWIE!!) and a professor who apologizes because "Paradise Lost" is a long read (SPLAT!!!!)…. One's ribs are nudged until they ache. The witty hard truths about American college education in the early sixties scarcely inhere in guffaws about beer-drinking and about rather Germanic pranks and about the taking of "diet pills" during exams. Some of us—a lot of us—were there at the time, and the pith of any good lampooning would surely lie in showing the straits of a privileged class of young people with a feeling of thwarted morality. A point could be made of the fact that there are virtually no blacks in the student cast, but the film ignores it. Nor does the picture, in its roll call of stereotypes, give any attention to the intellectually underendowed. The status of being intentionally funny is awarded exclusively to the good-looking and the successfully flirtatious. If one didn't know something about education here, one would think it hermetic from the rest of the world to the point of hygienic refrigeration; if one didn't know the unique rapidity and self-criticism of humor here, one would think wit an absent ingredient. The film tells social untruths that go beyond the excuse of presenting the sort of humor called "undergraduate." "Animal House" depicts a university life that is deeply antiacademic, an undergraduate life that is as blind as a pit pony, and an almost criminally false idea of the national sense of the comedic. The inhabitants of this country, including its undergraduates, surely proffered in the sixties some of the bravest jokes in its history. (pp. 53-4)

Penelope Gilliatt, "Glazed," in The New Yorker (© 1978 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LIV. No. 26, August 14, 1978, pp. 53-4.∗