TIFF’s TOGA! The Reinvention of American Comedy Review: Animal House Reunion


Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s TOGA! The Reinvention of American Comedy which runs from July 17th to August 29th at TIFF Bell Lightbox. For more information of this unprecedented film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.

Courtesy of Next Projection and TIFF, last night I witnessed a unique and exciting cinema panel with some of the makers and cast members of the cult college classic Animal House (1978). This reunion really set the tone for Toga! The Reinvention of American Comedy—a series TIFF is currently programming. In fact, it is this very film that inspired the title. Since TIFF’s mandate speaks to accessibility, it was nice to see this series distance itself from the others, particularly the highly ambitious A Century of Chinese Cinema program. Here, the demographic is certainly different, and TIFF does an admirable job of providing panel sessions that are appropriate for the given audience. In line with the sense of humour of the films, the panel was hilarious, the conversations were lively, and hearing stories from the making of the film were almost as funny as the film itself!

Sound clips from the film played as the audience took their seats. As I sat in the second row, I realized how many fans this film has. Two seats over from me, a man spoke the lines of dialogue and sang the lyrics of the songs heard through the speakers. His wife asked him, “do you know the words to the whole movie?” I bet he did. And he wasn’t the only die-hard fan that grew up on this film. The audiences questions would reinforce this later: Animal House became a legend of its generation. I, for one, had only seen this as a kid—maybe 10-12 years old—and I didn’t find it all that funny. I guess I wasn’t old enough to understand the jokes yet. However, those people born a couple decades before me were in an uproar. Their excitement was immeasurable. One audience member who asked a question came to the event with his frat brothers. This is all to say that Animal House has generated a wide following, and impacted a lot of people’s lives.

At quarter after the 7pm start time, people began to get a little restless. But, rest assured, following a brilliantly edited montage for the Toga! series—which began with a clip from Animal House—Jesse Wente, the head of film programmes at TIFF—came out sporting a college sweatshirt (in lieu of a fancy suit) and brought the rest of the guests on stage: producers Ivan Reitman and Matty Simons, director John Landis, and cast members Stephen Furst (Flounder) and Martha Smith (Babs). Skipping over the usual intro, Wente dove right in so as not to lose any time. The event went longer than expected as well, so, in the end, the audience got much more than they paid for!

The reunion panel was in a conversation style. The panellists made comments and spoke towards each other, allowing the conversation to build around what was important while remaining quite spontaneous, allowing for them to go off on tangents, tell stories, and make jokes. Jesse nearly never had to ask a premeditated question; the conversation had an energy of its own—one not to be interrupted.

They began by talking about the production process, which involved a great deal of transitions both in regards to the film and those who would eventually become involved. What began as Laser Orgy Girls with Charles Manson then became High School Humour, and when realizing that the sex and drugs wouldn’t be suitable for High School, they moved it to college: Animal House was born. Universal then made a development deal based on the idea that the “National Lampoon” title would help support the film. After two years, they were asked if they could make the film for under $3 000 000, which they agreed to. At this point, John Landis hilariously noted, “the one movie I had made at this point was Cannibal Girls for $12 000, so under 3 million, no problem.” He also noted that because he had only made Cannibal Girls he wouldn’t be permitted to act as the director on Animal House. During this part of the conversation they continually made mention to what they believed they had: a great script. They believed in the script, written by Harold Ramis, Doug Kenney, and Chris Miller, and wanted the film to get made.

Turning their attention to the two cast members, Matty was asked how he found Stephen, and he replied, “Well, I was getting a Pizza, and I opened the box, and on top of the box was a resume and a picture of a fat guy.” The crowd went in an uproar. After the guffaws silenced, Stephen explained that he “came to Hollywood and got work right away. It wasn’t as an actor but as a pizza delivery guy… I was delivering pizza in Hollywood to celebrities and it thrilled me to no end. I delivered a pizza to Wonderwoman, and she answered the door with the outfit on.” The laughs continued. So, he started to put his picture and resume at the top of the box and he got picked up. This joke about pizza delivery and Wonderwoman would be rehashed throughout the rest of the panel. It’s clear that all the comedians are quick, sharp, and reflexive.

Most of the cast came from Broadway. Martha, for one, wasn’t. She explained that she was called in to read the script for Mandy, her nemesis. But she liked Babs, and came back to interview for her. She recaptured her experience: “WOW General Hospital, and then there was this little thing [Animal House], and I didn’t get General Hospital and I’m so happy for that cause now I’m in Toronto!” Landis then went on to talk about Chevy Chase as Otter, and how he convinced Chevy to take on Foul Play instead of Animal House. Eventually, the panel moved towards its most interesting topic: John Belushi as Bluto (John Bultarsky)—one of the finest comedy acting performances to this day. John had worked for National Lampoon for four years, he worked on Lemmings, the radio show, etc. so they were desperate to get him. They made note to separate the professionalism of John Belushi during the making of Animal House and his unacceptable behaviour that came later on when he was hooked on coke.

Later, when talking about how positive the working experience was, John Landis suggests that it was on of those films where it feels great while making it, and the film actually turns out great. This doesn‘t always happen: sometimes shooting is great and the film is poor; sometimes it‘s the other way around. In regards to this, Landis claims that Harold Ramis is brilliant, but it was Doug Kenney that made this film happen the way it did. According to Landis, “Doug was the real soul of this movie. I‘m just thrilled to have been a part of it.”

During the question portion, some of the most interesting points about the film were brought up:

Question: “to Ivan and John: I can’t think of any movie that has so many lines still used in pop   culture…I’m curious how much of that was in the script.

Answer: There was a lot of improvisation but the script was very tight. Babs line was “you’re a pig”, which she changed to “you’re a P.I.G. pig.” Stephen’s line, “the negroes took our dates” was another surprise to them. A lot of the physical comedy was improvised.

It seems that, despite the tight and well made script, the actor’s performances were still relatively spontaneous and improvised. This provides a great parallel with the film: the cast members acted loosely and spontaneously, with plenty of energy—exactly what would’ve been needed to portray raucous college students.

The following question helped contextualize this.

Question: “What’s the innocence of this movie that makes it timeless”

Answer: Matty: “its relatability”

Landis: “I think this movie captures this interesting moment between 18 and 20, when people go to college or the military… best years of their lives… captures that sense of freedom. When you’re an adult but not an adult. Captures that sense of freedom and sexuality, and anarchy, and energy, and power.”

Reitman: And it captures this from a youthful point of view, not the adults point of view.

One of the last questions of the night dealt with the rights to the film, which are owned entirely by Universal. When asked whether they could ever recreate it today, Matty spoke about how he talked to Jack Black about it, but he would never do it: “he would never even think of following John Belushi.” Regardless, there is still the option of remaking it, or perhaps taking it on as a Broadway play.

Overall, Animal House Reunion was a big hit. The guests were hilarious, the 500+ people in the audience were happy, and there was a great energy surrounding the event. It was the perfect setup for the film—which played soon after. Still excited, everyone left the theater, and most lined right back up to get good seats for the film.

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Kamran Ahmed

Staff Film Critic. Visit my personal blog at Aesthetics of The Mind
Kamran's areas of interest include formalism, realism & reality, affect, and notions of the aesthetic. With experiences as a TA, an event panelist, a presenter at conferences from UofT to Harvard, and a writer of a self-authored film blog, Kamran would like to share with others his profound interest in the profilmic in the hopes of inspiring, in them, a similar love for film.