Channeling ‘Animal House,’ 1979

Reading Time: 3 minutes

About this series: I revisited my journals from my first year as a freelance writer and found they told a story of their own. In this series I get the rare opportunity to give myself, and other writers, career advice with nearly 50 years of hindsight. Enjoy!

Looking back through my journals as a beginning writer, I rediscovered this inspiration that I saw as my First Big Break:

No major thoughts or insights except for an article idea for TV Guide or such: a look at the new Animal House spinoff series from the viewpoint of a Dartmouth frat tube room. Could be fun.

Otherwise a routine day. Went to church; Bert preached a good sermon about using our talents wisely …

Journal, Volume II
14 January 1979
“National Lampoon’s Animal House” was released at the end of July, 1978. By TV’s mid-season launch in January, 1979, all three networks had booked campus frat comedies.

It’s hard to overstate the impact of “National Lampoon’s Animal House” on my generation (and subsequent ones). National Lampoon was the premiere humor magazine of the time, and was expanding its franchise into films. Star John Belushi was jumping into Hollywood for the first time after being a key original cast member of “Saturday Night Live” (back when it was funny).

Those of us who went to Dartmouth, however, knew what most fans didn’t: Dartmouth alum Chris Miller ’63 was the writer behind the “Animal House” universe, which he started with stories for National Lampoon. He was the original Pinto, his nickname at Alpha Delta fraternity. He later wrote a tell-all book about it.

“Animal House” was an immediate hit in the Boomerverse, which included most Americans who were of college age in the 1960s or ’70s. That was also the main TV viewing audience. Surprise! All three commercial television networks — ABC, NBC, and CBS — scrambled to put campus comedies in their lineups.

There wasn’t enough time to turn around these projects in time for the start of the fall season in September, so all three had mid-season premieres in early 1979. Conveniently, I was settling into a shared house just miles from the Dartmouth campus.

That house and the frat house tube room both had cable TV, which was a new boon in a world where broadcast television stations were limited to cities. In rural New Hampshire, we could only pull in one or two channels over the air. With cable, we could get all four networks plus two independent stations and even The Weather Channel!*

Meanwhile, in a case of life imitating fiction, Dartmouth’s faculty and administration were getting serious — again — about cracking down on fraternities. And I was in the perfect position to watch the drama unfold on screen and on campus.

The fraternity-show rush

But I would have to work fast. With no connections, I had no sneak previews and would have to watch these shows as they aired. And they were starting in a few days:

  • “Delta House” was produced by the same creative team and most of the cast from the movie. It was scheduled to launch on January 18 on ABC. This had the most potential. Fans were eager to see it, even if Belushi wasn’t in the cast (his contract was with NBC).
  • The pilot for “Brothers and Sisters” was going to air on NBC a few days later, on the 21st.
  • A special preview of “Co-ed Fever” was scheduled for February 4 on CBS before its pilot was to launch in a Monday night slot on February 19.

If I acted fast I could query TV Guide, get the green light, and get a couple of episodes of the first two under my belt. Then I could see the third, do a comparison, and send in my article. Magazines in those days needed some lead time, but it would still be current because of the 13-week initial season. The preview might mean I could include “Co-Ed Fever” in an article for the week that series was launching.

Remember, though, these were the days before email, so my queries and any response would have to go by the post office. Most editors didn’t want phone calls, which was fine by me because long-distance rates were expensive.

Would I make it? No spoilers here. Let’s see what happens in a future journal entry.

*TWC was nowhere as exciting as it is today. It offered current conditions for your area scrolling on a background of live Doppler radar. In a world where we were getting forecasts from hand-drawn maps, that was pretty cool. Or hot, as the case may be.