Isn't it a little late for the true story of "National Lampoon's Animal House?" And isn't it quite unnecessary? How many times has one watched the film and pondered the accuracy of the film's depiction of Bluto Blutarsky? Isn't that like debating the real origins of Will Ferrell's Frank "The Tank" in "Old School," or pondering the creation of Van Wilder?
That being said, "Animal House" is, without a doubt, one of the most beloved comedies ever committed to celluloid, and, along with "The Blues Brothers," John Belushi's finest big screen work. (Not that there's much debate on this one; would anyone vote for "1941" or "Continental Divide?")
The sheer amount of talent the film spawned is still staggering -- everyone from "Amadeus" star Tom Hulce to character actors Peter Reigert and Bruce "D-Day" McGill. Even Kevin Bacon and "Seinfeld's" "Maestro," Mark Metcalf, can be glimpsed (as can Donald Sutherland's backside). Plus, the behind-the-scenes names involved in the production are worth noting, specifically Harold Ramis, Ivan Reitman, and John Landis.
Still, when one thinks of the film today, what tends to pop into the mind is a single indelible image, one that has spawned countless posters and T-shirts: Belushi's mug. And here, I think, is where Miller's concept falls apart. As hilariously lewd and unhinged as the film's plot was, it is the faces and lines of dialogue that still swirl in the brain ("Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?").
That brings us to Chris Miller's "The Real Animal House," subtitled, "A Mostly Lucid Memoir." Miller was a writer for "National Lampoon," the infamous Harvard humor magazine, and this name actually meant something at one time. This was before the Lampoon moniker was plastered on oodles of sub-direct-to-video wastes of shelf space like "National Lampoon's Gold Diggers" -- featuring the comedy stylings of former "Barker beauty" Nikki Ziering -- and "National Lampoon Presents Dorm Daze," which I'm sure you all remember.
But before these dark days, the Lampoon was the birthplace for several certifiable geniuses, and a few legendary films. "Animal House" is probably the Lampoon's legacy (like Dorfman), and its backstory can be traced to Miller's college days. There was no Faber College, but there was Dartmouth, and that's where Delta House actually existed around 1959-63. Years later, Miller co-wrote the film and was the basis for Hulce's character.
Harold Ramis, in his introduction, does his best to sell the text to Bluto junkies in need of more than a DVD commentary. "In the pages of Chris' stories you will, of course, find characters and incidents depicted in the film," he writes. "What didn't make it into the film were some of the hard-core events, true stories that the producers and executives at Universal found too shocking or disgusting to include in a film intended for general release." Here, Ramis says, are all the "too-disgusting stories" that were deemed too much for the movie-going public.
So, does "too-disgusting" invariably equal funny? Um, I don't think so. See a great many (poorly) filmed comedies -- say, anything with Jerry O'Connell or Jamie Kennedy.
Exhibit B is "The Real Animal House," which, as the book's second subtitle states, is "the awesomely depraved saga of the fraternity that inspired the movie." "Awesomely depraved?" This sounds like the terminology of Jeff Spicoli's drug-fried nephew, not one of the co-writers of an American comedy classic.
If the front cover doesn't clue us in on the utter lack of laughs that are to come, try Miller's "zany" preface: "Readers, I've made every effort to portray my sophomore year accurately, but since I was totally hammered most of the time, you can't hold me to any of this, okay?" Wow. Chris Miller got drunk in college. What a cool, unique guy.
Does the reader care about the genitalia of the guy who co-wrote "Animal House?" Chris Miller thinks so.
Are you laughing yet? No? There's more hilarity, as that tale leads to Miller's Delta House nickname.
Somehow, on the page, this moment lacks the absurdly mythic quality of the film. Readers would easily choose any exchange in Landis' take -- "Why Flounder?" "Why not?!" -- over any page, line, or word of Miller's book. Maybe, Chris, it's time to move on.
Or, if you must, how about a book on the making of the film? Or an analysis of its continued pop-cultural influence? Either option could have been bookended by some brief recollections of the author's real Delta House days. Or, how about just letting sleeping films lie? We can always watch the DVD, or just wait for another airing on cable.
What "The Real Animal House" makes abundantly clear is that three hundred pages of someone else's college memories is generally too much, unless the context is some sort of major cultural event -- I'll give you a pass if, say, you were attending Kent State in 1970 and had a front-row view for tragedy, or your college football team perished in a plane crash. But if your college days mostly centered around getting lit and getting laid, and were already portrayed on the big screen in succinct and gut-busting fashion, what do I care?
Chris Miller is like the annoying drunk who sidles up next to you at the pub and burps out his life story in all its obnoxious glory. Or the aged "party guy" whose best days were decades ago, yet still cannot help spilling details that no one besides him was interested in to begin with. Frankly, there are enough true-life stories being vomited into print to pay attention to this one.
Is this a generational thing? Maybe I'm too young to truly appreciate Miller's text. Perhaps one had to have experienced life in the fifties and sixties to really understand, man. Or maybe it helps to blast Otis Day & the Knights in the background. I do know this: There is not a single story here that made me laugh out loud, lightly chuckle, or even crack a smile.
I guess you had to be there.
Christopher Schobert is a Buffalo freelance reviewer.
The Real Animal House: A Mostly Lucid Memoir
The Awesomely Depraved Saga of the Fraternity That Inspired the Movie
By Chris Miller
Little Brown, 336 pages, $25