Animal House, Ghostbusters, and the Covert Conservatism of Boomer Humor
Last month, Jason Reitman announced he’s making a new Ghostbusters film that picks up thirty years after his father Ivan Reitman’s two Ghostbuster comedies left off, and ignoring the all-female 2016 Ghostbusters, which reportedly ruined fan-boy childhoods everywhere. As Reitman told Entertainment Weekly, “This is the next chapter in the original franchise. It is not a reboot. What happened in the ‘80s happened in the ‘80s, and this is set in the present day.”
It’s not really that surprising. The original Ghostbusters marked the financial peak of a baby-boomer comedy revolution, a peak its makers, studio, and stars–except for an all-important one, Bill Murray– have been trying to reclimb ever since. The revolution began in 1969 when Doug Kenney and Henry Beard graduated Harvard and left its Lampoon humor magazine to found their own, the National Lampoon, which begat its radio hour, stage shows, books, an unofficial watered-down TV version, SNL, and movies, beginning in 1978 with Animal House. Kenney, who died at 33 in 1980, co-wrote it with the Lampoon’s Chris Miller and Harold Ramis. Ivan Reitman produced and John Landis directed. Its success led to a half dozen Lampoon-adjacent comedies, Meatballs, Gilda Live!, Caddyshack, The Blues Brothers, Stripes, and Vacation, culminating in Ghostbusters, which grossed an astounding $238 million. It marked a seismic shift in movie comedy, and an incredibly funny body of work.
Movies For The Kids, But Not Kids’ Movies
“A massive youth market had emerged,” wrote J. Hoberman in 1985, “for whom The Graduate and Easy Rider were ancient history. The time was right for a bubble-gum blockbuster and Saturday Night Fever was followed by two other epochal youth pix: Grease and Animal House.” Looking back in 2013, Ivan Reitman agreed: “Animal House is a language changer. You had Woody Allen doing certain kinds of things, you had The Graduate and M*A*S*H, but these were all from a fairly adult point of view. Now comes Animal House, which really represents young adult teenagers and college-aged kids with its point of view. Even though it’s set in 1962, it really represents the voice of the Baby Boom generation. It started a shift to a whole series of movies—and I made a number of them, as did other people—that I think revealed a whole different attitude in American film comedy.”
Not many filmmakers would want credit for ending the New Hollywood golden age of 1967-1980 or so, which produced, besides The Graduate and M*A*S*H, comedies like American Grafitti, A New Leaf, Nashville, Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Annie Hall, and Network–only to be replaced by Lampoon movies or boomer classics like Porky’s, Airplane, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Risky Business. And Reitman’s not wrong. Boomers found the 1978-84 Lampoon era a lot more relatable than Being There, Arthur, Manhattan, The King of Comedy, or Albert Brooks’ Real Life and Modern Romance.
With the exception of Brooks, baby boomers made none of those films, and Brooks had no interest in teen comedies. Of the New Hollywood comedy directors, only Woody Allen thrived in the 1980s, because of a unique relationship with Orion, an indie-friendly studio. Studio exceptions appeared, like Tootsie, Victor/Victoria, The Big Chill, and My Favorite Year. But as a rule, boomer filmmakers interested in an audience that could legally buy beer had to go independent to make Stranger Than Paradise, Down by Law, Repo Man, Desperately Seeking Susan, She’s Gotta Have It, Raising Arizona, or Do the Right Thing.
“Animal House was contemporary radical,” John Landis has said. “One of the things the film had going for it was that because it’s a period picture, taking place in 1962, we were able to deal with class, race, sex and other things in more outrageous ways than we might otherwise have been able to get away with. We had that buffering layer of time, retrospect.”
With another buffer, that of 2019 looking back on 1978, it’s baffling what Landis sees as “radical” in Animal House’s battle between the snob Omega house and the slob Delta house. At the time, its nudity, R-rated language, and culture war on crew-cut squares certainly must have looked radical to its teenage audience. People have called it a satire of the Nixon Administration, mainly because we learn at the end of the movie that Omega Greg Marmalard later became a Nixon White House aide, was convicted after Watergate, and raped in prison. Dressing up Animal House as political satire for one prison rape joke is a bit much. Amidst its lame takes on race and a wide-variety of rape jokes (prison, date, statutory, and abduction), in every real way Animal House embraces a pre-feminist, pre-Civil Rights Act America, one that finds liberal Kennedy New Frontier optimism and politics laughable.
Animal House still can make you laugh out loud at times, when you’re not wincing at the garbage jokes. It marks a creative peak of the Lampoon, matched, maybe topped only by its High School Yearbook. In movies, the writers, director, and almost the entire cast never did better work. Belushi’s Bluto perfectly balances over-the-top physical comedy and subtly-nuanced reaction shots. No one learns any important lessons at all, a rare and welcome thing in a movie comedy.
Animal House and the rest of the 78-84 comedies emerged from their culturally-conservative Reagan Era moment, especially Ramis, Reitman, and Murray’s movies. Dr. Strangelove, Catch-22, or M*A*S*H*, eviscerate the military. Stripes, on the other hand, turns slobs into cold warriors, and it does so hilariously. It’s a Be All That You Can Be comedy. “We wanted to revolt against the establishment,” Ramis once told Playboy of his 1960s days at Chicago’s Second City Theater, “at 23, you’re supposed to. When you’re young you tend to blame society. But as a function of getting older…I began taking personal responsibility for what happens in my life, and that became the issue.”
Who You Gonna Call? Not the Government!
Conservatives love to throw the words “personal responsibility” at everybody else. Kubrick and Altman would no doubt be surprised to learn that questioning the establishment is for kids. Written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, Ghostbusters casts Murray, Ramis, and Aykroyd as another set of lumpen boomers, this time loafing grad students living on grants to study parapsychology. Once a budget-cutting dean boots them off campus, the boys start a small ghost-busting business. A pesky EPA inspector, that most establishment of foes, forces the boys to release all the spooks they’ve caught, creating a massive ghost problem in New York City. Big government bureaucracy kicks three goldbricks off a welfare roll. Then it hamstrings them when they become small businessmen, until society falls apart at the seams without their help. Could there be a better articulation of the Reagan Era than Ghostbusters? Of course it made $238 million in 1984.
After National Review named Ghostbusters one of the all-time great conservative movies, Ivan Reitman said, “I’ve always been something of a conservative-slash-libertarian. The first movie deals with going into business for yourself, and it’s anti-EPA—too much government regulation. It does have a very interesting point of view that really resonates.”
Given Bill Murray’s well-known leftish politics and more ambitious filmmaking, is it any wonder he’s blown off a third Ghostbusters for thirty years? Murray sought out other kinds of movies from the beginning, playing Hunter Thompson in an actual satire of the Nixon Era, Where the Buffalo Roam; Tootsie; or The Razor’s Edge, from Somerset Maugham’s novel. He’s made more movies now with Wes Anderson than with Ramis or Reitman.
We can’t go back to the Lampoon comedies of the 1980s any more than we can return to the screwball comedies of the 1930s or the silent slapstick of 1920s. Ramis died in 2014, his last collaboration with Murray being 1993’s Groundhog Day. Ramis and Murray didn’t need sequels, because their movies were a progression of spiritual sequels that (mostly) got better and better. I’m sorry we didn’t get more of them together, but we didn’t.
Jason Reitman has always been a smart filmmaker, but anyone hoping to revisit the past will most likely be disappointed by what he does. Maybe he’s trying set things right for Ghostbusters’ conservative fan-boy base. After all, when the lady Ghostbusters appeared, that audience shat its collective diaper and threw it at mommy.
But Reitman isn’t his dad and has never tried to be. Juno, Young Adult, and Up In the Air arguably share his father’s conservatism. But he makes much more complicated, subtle, and sophisticated films. Whatever his Ghostbusters turns out being, it won’t be your childhood, because it can’t be.