Harold Ramis dies. Conservatives declare their love for him and his films. It is therefore only a matter of time before Ramis is smeared as racist. The Village Voice did the honors last week by lashing out at one of the most iconic scenes in the career-making classic comedy co-written by Ramis, 1978’s “Animal House.”
Are the true underdogs in Animal House (which Ramis co-wrote) the slob frat that suffers under the tony Greek system or the occasional African-Americans the movie exposes them to, young men who steal the slobs’ women and couldn’t even get into that college? And are we truly meant to root for guys who describe Otis Day & the Knights as an example of “primitive cultures”?
The Village Voice also posts a screengrab from its own 35 year-old review, again labeling as racist the scene in The Dexter Lake Club:
…away nonconformism is its blatant acknowledgement of racism among its supposedly sympathetic characters. A bunch of “animals” wander into an all-black roadside joint with their pick-up dates, and then run out when blacks become unsmilingly menacing. I have never seen a scene like this in an American movie…
The first complaint is on its face ridiculous and illogical to the point of being anti-science.
Today, the Voice seems to believe that you cannot be a true movie underdog if there are those in worse societal shape than those portrayed as underdogs. The “animals” of Delta House fighting an oppressive university system can’t be underdogs because black people in 1962 (the year the film takes place) were worse off.
Fair enough. But if “Animal House” had been about black underdogs, would they have really been underdogs? Using The Voice’s logic, American blacks could not be underdogs with the Russian people living under the yolk of smothering, violent Soviet communism in 1962. The Voice might want to argue that Soviet communism in 1962 wasn’t as oppressive as being a black man in America’s Midwest circa 1962, but that would just prove that no one at The Voice has ever read a book.
Moreover, the Voice’s logic means that no underdog film (“Rudy,” “The Bad News Bears,” “The Longest Yard”) can truly be an underdog film because somewhere in the world someone is even more of an underdog than they are.
The Voice is also dishonest or misinformed about the crack about “primitive people.” The comment doesn’t come from one of the “animals,” it comes from one of the girls they have just picked up and is directed at the situation, not anyone in particular.
The complaint about racism from The Voice’s original 1978 review reveals an urban provincialism that has infected the elite media for decades.
The Voice probably doesn’t/didn’t know this but white people have been known to experience a certain amount of hostility after wandering off the beaten track and into an all-black neighborhood/bar/club. This is probably why comedian Richard Pryor okayed the “Animal House” Dexter Lake Club scene after hyper-sensitive Universal studio executives demanded it be cut. Pryor was an honest comedian and knew this was an honest scene.
Comedy wasn’t always as stifling and politically correct as it is today. There was a time when exaggerated truths could be used for comedy aimed at what we now call The Protected Class. Comedy was not only funnier then, it was more honest, intelligent, and even healing.
Moreover, most of the comedy from the Dexter Lake Club scene is really aimed at our white protagonists and their utter cluelessness. The black bar patrons probably would have left these guys alone had they been cool instead of alternately nervous and over-familiar.
Undeterred by The Voice’s charges of racism, and using a script written by John Hughes, Ramis would direct a similar scene just a few years later in “National Lampoon’s Vacation” (1983). On their way to Walley World, the whiter than white Griswold family gets lost in what used to be called a ghetto (probably East St. Louis). For calling a black man “homes” and asking “what it is?” the clueless Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) gets bad directions back to the freeway and hustled out of five dollars and his station wagon hubcaps.
Anyone who has lived in the real world knows how real these scenes are. Exaggerated certainly, but real nonetheless and therefore very, very funny.
If the Village Voice were a little more worldly and a little less Dean Wormerish they could relax and laugh … at themselves and the world. Permanently outraged, ignorant of the facts, and culturally bubbled is no way to go through life, son.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC