“Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son.”
That’s one of the more memorable lines from “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” a harsh-yet-succinct 12-word lecture delivered by Dean Vernon Wormer to Faber College freshman Kent “Flounder” Dorfman, and it’s stuck with me since the movie hit theaters on June 1, 1978.
In the scene, Wormer, played by actor John Vernon, isn’t offering advice so much as ridiculing the absurdly low-achieving student played by Stephen Furst whose grade point average is hovering at the 0.2 mark. It’s funny because it’s true. At that moment in the film, as the dean is preparing to expel members of the Delta Tau Chi fraternity (and notify their draft boards), the camera catches classmate John “Bluto” Blutarsky with pencils up his nose. The scene culminates with Flounder losing his lunch on the dean. I saw that movie as a semi-aimless college sophomore when it came out 45 years ago. And I was completely captivated.
Director John Landis doesn’t present Dorfman as a role model but as something of a loveable loser. In Animal House, there are basically two kinds of people. Either you are well-meaning but flawed like all the denizens of the Delta House. Or you are ambitious, cruel and amoral as represented by members of Omega Theta Pi, one of whom, we learn when the credits roll, is destined to be killed by his own troops in Vietnam, and another ends up in prison after serving as an aide to President Richard Nixon.
Delta members exercise poor judgment, of course. They cheat on tests. They drink too much. They force pledges to shoplift from a grocery. But their misbehavior trends toward the juvenile. Omegas, like Greg Marmalard or Doug Neidermeyer, lean more toward antisocial personality disorder. They think nothing of forcing an ROTC recruit to do a push-up face first into a pile of horse droppings (the hapless Flounder, again). Did I mention all the fascist-leaning Omegas dutifully accept fraternity initiation by way of a wooden paddle across the backside (”Please, sir, can I have another?”)?
I would blame this 109 minutes of what was surely intended as meaningless silliness for imprinting on me the importance of not giving a crap — or accepting any in the face — but I fear the die was cast much earlier. It’s too easy to classify people as either aimless or overachievers. But not by much. Not all Republicans are Omegas, and not all Democrats are Deltas, but there’s clearly a lot of overlap there. Tucker Carlson might be the most Omega person on the planet. He’s not only cheerfully cruel, but he’s dishonest and self-serving. In fact, his villainy is probably too cartoonish even for the creators of Animal House. Which contemporary celebrity shall we recruit for the Delta House? Jack Black? The late Betty White? Bill Clinton? Johnny Depp? Again, we’re not looking for role models. They do know how to have raucous fun — including at their own expense.
Hey, I never said I was proud of my Delta House tendencies. I simply recognize them. My wife is much more self-disciplined then I am, but that doesn’t make her an Omega. She’s more like Karen Allen’s Katy, the girlfriend of Boon (Peter Riegert). She is amused by Delta antics but isn’t truly one of them. That we are eventually informed that the two Faber lovebirds go on to get married three times and divorced twice feels about right, too. My wife discusses divorce just about every time I mention her in a column. Uh-oh. Fortunately for me, she can be distracted by a good Bluto shuffle.
A more self-disciplined life probably would have had its perks. Better job, better pay, better fitness level. But it also carries a cost. Would I have had a chance to meet all the fascinating people that a life in journalism affords? Would I have had the chance to tell their stories, maybe help a few along the way by shining a light on the good and bad? Compassion isn’t an Omega trait. Nor is curiosity. Or is this just what Delta losers like myself tell ourselves to sleep better at night — well, when we’re not stuffing pencils up our nose and ignoring the counsel of authority figures. I don’t know. Real life skews toward the ambiguous. Or as Bluto notes when facing expulsion, “Seven years of college down the drain. Might as well join the f-ing Peace Corps.”
Still, I suspect the best part about being a Delta House type is never taking yourself too seriously. If, after all, someone does something terrible in your general direction, and you suddenly feel the need to take revenge, you announce something along the lines of “I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part.” This may lead to you and your friends disrupting a local parade, but you won’t seek to cause actual physical harm to others (which is such an Omega thing to do). We Delts drink, we laugh, we eat piggishly, and we might even mock ourselves and the world around us. But we never, ever slap, smack, punch, kick, thwack, spank (unless someone politely asks but that’s another topic for another day) or threaten. That’s just not how we Flounders roll.
Peter Jensen is an editorial writer at The Sun; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.