10 February 2005 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
This 'House' is condemned.
"National Lampoon's Animal House" was one of those rare films that changed the entire film industry. A huge box-office hit, it spawned dozens (maybe hundreds) of imitations. Naturally, television wanted some of the gravy. In the 1979 TV season, all three U.S. TV networks rushed frat-house sitcoms onto the air. The ones on CBS and NBC were outright crap, and died quickly. 'Delta House', on ABC, was likewise crap, but had the advantage of being the *official* TV version of 'Animal House', due to casting several of the film's actors in their same roles here.
John Belushi, who had starred as 'Bluto' Blutarsky in the film, was (no surprise) unwilling to commit to a weekly sitcom. In this show's one piece of cleverness, a surrogate Bluto was cast in the form of actor Josh Mostel as 'Blotto', Bluto's brother. Josh Mostel is a talented actor: his physical type makes him difficult to cast, but he has a far broader range than his father, the grossly overrated Less-Than-Zero Mostel. (In an interview, Josh Mostel revealed the one and only piece of showbiz wisdom ever imparted to him by his father: 'Just before you go on stage, suck on something red so your tongue will show up.') It would have been intriguing if Belushi had guest-starred in 'Delta House'. Despite his absence, the scriptwriters made running references to his character. In one episode, Blotto announced that he'd received a letter from his brother Bluto, prompting a Delta brother to respond 'I didn't know Bluto could write' and another Delta to riposte 'I didn't know Blotto could read.' We did get to learn a bit more about the characters (and actors) who were carried over from the original movie ... for example, actor Bruce "D-Day" McGill demonstrating his ability to dislocate his joints so that his legs are reversed from hip to ankle!
The most obvious flaw in 'Delta House' was that network television simply could not offer the bawdy humour, drugs references, and obscenity-laced dialogue which had made 'Animal House' so popular. Much as Blotto was a bowdlerised version of Bluto, this sitcom was an antiseptic version of a film which was a hit precisely *because* of its skanky elements. Without any 'Animal House' shenanigans, 'Delta House' fell back on the lowest sitcom humour. A typical gag: in one episode, an attractive co-ed walked through the frat house wearing an army uniform. She went into a room, closed the door, then *immediately* opened the door and came out again wearing a sexy miniskirt and high heels. The laugh track guffawed uproariously, but the unfunny effect was clearly achieved by a very obvious jump cut.
For modern viewers, the single biggest attraction of 'Delta House' is a glimpse of the young Michelle Pfeiffer, early in her career. But Pfeiffer's role on 'Delta House' was extremely small, and she was given nothing to do beyond the standard bimbo bits. Pfeiffer has aged in an interesting way; I find her far sexier the way she is now (as I write this) than as she was at the time of 'Delta House' ... and she's a better actress now, too. The only alumnus of 'Delta House' to graduate with honours is make-up man Michael Blake, who is now the leading authority on the life and career of Lon Chaney. Really, there's nothing much going on here.