How did it happen? Matty Simmons, a co-producer of the 1978 megahit “National Lampoon’s Animal House” and longtime publisher of the magazine that spawned it, never quite answers that question. Nor does he quite put his finger on the movie’s enduring appeal, beyond the vague pronouncement that “the overarching moral of the screenplay was: There’s a lot of ‘bad’ in some of us and a little ‘bad’ in all of us.”
But he does have plenty of good stories to tell about how the movie was made, based on his own memories and those of others, and all are very entertaining, even if many have already been told elsewhere. And he does provide some clues. He reminds us that three of the relative novices behind the camera went on to become hugely successful comedy auteurs: Ivan Reitman (“Ghostbusters,” etc.), Simmons’s co-producer; Harold Ramis (“Caddyshack,” etc.), who wrote the script with Doug Kenney and Chris Miller of the Lampoon; and John Landis (“The Blues Brothers,” etc.), the director. Landis was far from the first choice, Simmons says, but his vision was essential in making “Animal House” what it was, especially his determination to soften some of the script’s harder edges — a determination that Simmons, self-servingly but I assume accurately, says he shared.
Then there are the actors. John Belushi’s star-making performance as the über-slob Bluto was the movie’s secret weapon, but everyone was well cast, even if the process was often circuitous. The veteran screen villain John Vernon, so memorably intimidating as the dean, got the part, Simmons says, only after the studio’s idea of casting a comedian was dismissed and Landis’s choice, Jack Webb of “Dragnet” fame, politely told the director that he was out of his mind.
Simmons claims that “there has never been anything in comedy equal to the acting strength and perfect casting that came out of our film.” That’s an awfully sweeping statement, but I’m not sure he’s wrong.
A word of warning about “Fat, Drunk, and Stupid”: Its subtitle notwithstanding, only about half the book directly concerns the making of “Animal House.” Simmons touches on the movie in the first of his 20 chapters, then spends the next four on the less than gripping back story, beginning with his own pre-Lampoon career in magazine publishing. The last five chapters, much of which feels like filler, are devoted mostly to things that happened after “Animal House” was released.
The “where are they now?” updates are fun to read, but these later chapters are most valuable as a cautionary tale about why a one-of-a-kind phenomenon like “Animal House” should not be tampered with. Read about the various attempts to write a sequel, and you will be grateful there never was one. There was an ABC sitcom spinoff, “Delta House,” but it didn’t last long, and Simmons makes it clear why. (Hint: standards and practices.)
Simmons does not seem to have learned his lesson from those failures: he writes with pride about his involvement in plans for a Broadway musical version of “Animal House.” I don’t know why anyone would think an all-singing, all-dancing “Animal House” is a good idea. (Simmons offers a glimmer of hope by mentioning the possibility of Jack Black as Bluto, then dashes it by saying that Black, one of the few performers who might be able to fill Belushi’s shoes, has already turned the part down.)
Then again, who knows? As Simmons reminds us, there was a time when not many people thought the movie was a good idea either.
Peter Keepnews is an editor at The Times.