The man who played Otter in the landmark comedy gets the current culture wars all wrong.
Tim Matheson is making the press rounds for a project he completed more than 40 years ago.
“National Lampoon’s Animal House” did more than crush the box office following its release on July 28, 1978. It made John Belushi a star and set the template for future college comedies.
Few, if any, came close to matching it.
Matheson, who played Otter, recently shared his thoughts on the film’s legacy. He also dished on why “Animal House” wouldn’t be made as is today. It’s a similar argument Mel Brooks repeatedly makes about “Blazing Saddles.”
They’re both right.
The actor, now 70, described one sequence that would stop screenwriters cold today during a San Francisco screening of “Animal House” last month.
“I think going to visit Otis Day and the Knights at the Dexter Lake Club (is a scene) which is almost blatantly racist, or could be perceived as being blatantly racist, because there are some cuts in there that are in rather poor taste, or could be considered in rather poor taste.
This is the same comedy that considered food fights the ultimate laugh getter.
Matheson says the studio behind the film feared audiences would recoil at the scene in question.
“The studio, after they’d finished and cut the movie and they looked at it, they said, ‘You can’t have this scene in here at this Dexter Lake Club. You can’t do that. It’s racist. You’re making fun of these black people and the way they feel about these privileged white kids.’ “
Enter Richard Pryor. The studio screened an early cut of “Animal House” for Pryor who gave the project his official approval.
“Richard Pryor looked at it and he said, ‘This movie is funny. This movie’s great. It’s not racist. White people are crazy,’ and so they left it in.”
It’s a great anecdote adding texture to a part of film history. For more context, let’s remember the film was set in the 1960s. Young white college students of the era were far less enlightened than they are today.
Matheson is on less solid ground when it comes to the film’s meaning in 2018.
“I think if it was made today, it would probably be watered down a little bit because (of) the political realities of today, and it would probably be picketed by this administration and all the Christian conservatives.”
The comedy world savages President Trump on a daily basis. Late night TV. Comedy Central. “Saturday Night Live.” HBO. Showtime. Stand up stages nationwide. At any given moment a comedian is shredding the President. And, beyond a few early swipes at “Saturday Night Live,” President Trump ignores the lot of it.
There’s zero indication Trump or anyone on his team would “picket” a film like “Animal House.”
As for Matheson’s second charge? It’s even sillier.
When was the last time Christians picketed a movie or TV project? The cultural attacks against Christians continue apace but with little if any collective outrage. Remember last year’s indie comedy dud “The Little Hours?”
Here’s the film’s official description courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes:
Medieval nuns Alessandra (Alison Brie), Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza), and Ginevra (Kate Micucci) lead a simple life in their convent. Their days are spent chafing at monastic routine, spying on one another, and berating the estate’s day laborer. After a particularly vicious insult session drives the peasant away, Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly) brings on new hired hand Massetto (Dave Franco), a virile young servant forced into hiding by his angry lord. Introduced to the sisters as a deaf-mute to discourage temptation, Massetto struggles to maintain his cover as the repressed nunnery erupts in a whirlwind of pansexual horniness, substance abuse, and wicked revelry.
Did any Christian so much as shrug a shoulder during the film’s release? No.
The new Netflix film “A Futile and Stupid Gesture” recalls the rise of National Lampoon as well as “Animal House’s” creation. The film’s anarchic spirit would likely rub liberal scolds the wrong way in 2018, forcing conservatives to rally to the film’s defense on free speech grounds.
Matheson didn’t appear to acknowledge that reality during the screening.
So bravo to Matheson for being part of an iconic comedy, one sure to make future generations laugh like we first did 40 years ago.
His cultural crystal ball needs serious tinkering, though.
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