Tune in Tonight: The Three "Animal Houses"
Television survives by feeding off itself. When the industry latches onto something big, it rides it into the ground, then into the shale underground, then into Earth’s molten core and out the other side. Thanks to the success of House, we’ve had multiple shows about terrible people whose appalling behavior is constantly overlooked because they’re good at their jobs. Thanks to NCIS, we are at maximum capacity for crime procedurals that involve attractive actors spending much of their time standing around microscopes together. There will never not be at least one TV show on the air about attractive young white people living in dubiously large New York City apartments, or brilliant doctors who refuse to play by the rules.
As of this writing, there exists two TV shows that take place in the Archie universe, three shows about zombies, and more than a dozen superhero themed shows, with still more to come. This is certainly nothing new—in fact, it’s been forty years since the most blatant example of television networks ripping each other off. After the surprise success of Animal House, the original “slobs vs. snobs” comedy, ABC, NBC, and CBS all decided they needed their own version, and cranked them out one after another like so much U.S. Canner grade sausage less than a year later. All three proved to be staggeringly mediocre, none of them survived a full season.
Animal House was arguably the most influential comedy of the late 20th century, but it stinks like fine Limburger today. It was written by some of the people who created National Lampoon, a bunch of rich white guys who were extremely, constantly pleased with themselves, and that smugness comes through in every frame. A few amusing moments of physical comedy aren’t really worth the racist and sexist humor, but if nothing else you can reminisce about the good ol’ days, when the “heroes” of a movie could be peeping Toms, or consider committing statutory rape with a 13 year-old. It just made sense that a sitcom based on a movie where some asshole frat boys abandon their dates with a bunch of scary black guys would make for perfect 8 p.m. family hour viewing, and so NBC answered the call with Brothers and Sisters, CBS with Co-Ed Fever, and ABC with Delta House.
That Delta House limped along just a little further than its competitors is not surprising, because it was written by some of the talent behind Animal House itself, and even featured some of the original actors. Mind you, not any of the actors anyone cared about, save perhaps Stephen Furst as Flounder and John Vernon as Dean Wormer, but hey, they also managed to land D-Day and the other guy. Not letting a little thing like not being able to land the biggest star in the cast stop them from a cheap cash-in, rather than recast Bluto Blutarsky, a new character was created, his younger brother, named—get this, you’re gonna love it—Blotto Blutarsky. Blotto was played by Josh Mostel, at thirty-three more than a decade older than the average college student, and looking every minute of it.
Several episodes of Delta House survive on YouTube, and, neutered by its time slot, rely mostly on such hijinks as Blotto being forced to play on the college football team, or the fellas rigging a beauty contest. In the episode I watched, the guys pull some shenanigans that allow them to pass off their rival frat’s house as their own during Parents Weekend. Going by the laugh track, which was on constant loop even during scene transitions when nothing happens, this is the funniest thing you’ll ever see, possibly even funnier than its source material. Nevertheless, I didn’t laugh. I didn’t smile. My mouth didn’t so much as twitch. Even if what was happening was funny, I was too distracted by trying to keep straight which actors were supposed to be playing faculty, and which actors with receding hairlines and shapeless dad bods were supposed to be teenage college students. Unable to get sex jokes past network censors, it relies much more heavily on slapstick, and on characters doing “funny” voices. However, if you’re wondering “But, Gena, what about the racism?”, rest assured, the rival frat, whose dorm house looks like a Southern antebellum mansion for some reason, has a black butler on duty, whom they treat with withering contempt. The butler seems to exist mostly so you know just how awful the other frat is supposed to be, which is helpful, because, frankly, as is the case with the movie, everybody is pretty terrible. It’s merely a question of who’s slightly less terrible, and here it’s the people who are living in what appears to be a crackhouse and stumble around drunk before noon. I don’t claim to have an explanation for these things, I only write about them.
No episodes of Brothers and Sisters currently exist for our viewing pleasure, but it followed virtually the same formula as Delta House, where a bunch of college guys with goofy nicknames and inordinately large amounts of free time on their hands do little else but antagonize other students and faculty members, or come up with unnecessarily elaborate schemes to get a date with the hottest babe on campus. The air of desperation surrounding Brothers and Sisters comes through not only in its opening credits, but in the episode guide on Wikipedia—Zipper rescues a chimpanzee from a laboratory, Zipper is kidnapped by angry sorority sisters, Checko tries to cure Zipper of chronic hiccups—and one has to wonder what the selling point was that got this on the air, other than perhaps “It’s like Animal House…but now!” Even then, that distinction was moot, as Delta House, like Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley, was set in the 60s largely in theory, with a theme song by Meat Loaf’s songwriting partner Jim Steinman, and suspiciously long, feathered, very late 70s hair on the male actors.
The last of the three, Co-Ed Fever, is probably the most memorable, because of its rare status as a TV show that was canceled after just one episode aired. Not even airing Rocky as a lead-in could save this stinkburger, and the remaining five episodes were burned off in a late Saturday afternoon time slot on Canadian television.
The sole distinction Co-Ed Fever had from its competitors was that, rather than just being beautiful, personality-free objects of desire (like Michelle Pfeiffer playing a character known only as “The Bombshell” on Delta House), or snooty comic foils like on Brothers and Sisters, the girls in this show were just as wild and ready to party as the guys. Gosh, with a can’t lose premise like that, how is it possible that just three minutes of this show are available for viewing on YouTube? But that’s all that’s currently out there, along with some of the commercials that aired with it. These warm, pleasant advertisements for Chemical Bank and One-a-Day vitamins (featuring a pre-E.T. Dee Wallace) set a comfortable mood for Co-Ed Fever, which is immediately ruined by its insufferable theme song. Sounding a bit like “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah,” it’s sung in a shrill, nasal female voice that tries to rhyme “quarter” and “daughter.” Go head, listen to this thing, I’ll wait. Now, are you ready for this? The composer of the theme song? Henry Mancini. Yes, Henry “The Pink Panther” Mancini. Henry “Peter Gunn” Mancini. Henry “Moon River” Mancini. Who knew he was also known as Henry “Theme From Co-Ed Fever” Mancini? He was large, he contained multitudes.
Co-Ed Fever takes place at a formerly all-girls college that has recently begun admitting male students. We know this because it’s mentioned in the promo. It’s mentioned in the theme song (twice). The very first line of dialogue in the episode is “I can’t believe it! Men on campus!” The sight of them in the bookstore and library is treated with the kind of awe one reserves for spotting a California condor. One student, Elizabeth (Cathryn O’Neil), practicing ballet in the middle of the dorm house living room (as one does), claims that she “dropped nine books today,” in an effort to get some of these mystical, magical beasts to notice her presence, because if there’s one thing attractive young female college students have to work very hard at, it’s getting male attention.
One of these aforesaid unicorns is Gobo (Michael Pasternak), and you can tell right away that he’s the Wacky Fun Guy, because he smirks a lot, and he’s called Gobo, as all three of these shows demanded characters with names that sound like forgotten Marx Brothers. Gobo chats up Melba (Jillian Kesner), who’s undoubtedly the Cute Tomboy, as she’s shown repairing a jukebox (as surely all college housing has their own jukeboxes). “Help you change that tire, little lady?” he asks her, and when she declines he says, “It’s not a tire, it’s a jukebox. You women can’t handle anything!”
Before we get to experience any more of this rich “battle of the sexes” humor, the phone rings, and the ancient house mother, Mrs. Selby (Jane Rose), comes bolting out of another room to answer it. Why an elderly woman would be left in charge of a bunch of horny college students is anyone’s guess, but I’d be willing to bet that, had the show survived, she would probably gotten the lion’s share of off-color jokes (or not, as Rose died, presumably of both old age and embarrassment, shortly after the fifth episode was filmed). We’ll never know, though, as the clip ends there, and remains all that we’ll be able to experience of Co-Ed Fever, unless someone happened to be hanging around their house on a Saturday afternoon in Canada, and had the foresight to record a bit of pop culture history. In keeping with television feeding off itself, Co-Ed Fever, unlike its competitors, didn’t disappear entirely. The dorm house was recycled just months later for the first season of The Facts of Life, a sitcom that enjoyed a long and successful run – until, ironically, it decided to go co-ed.
Original airdate: February 3, 1979 (Delta House), February 4, 1979 (Co-Ed Fever)