The 1970s was a decade of profound change in the landscape of American movie comedy. Just as in the sixties, when the Hollywood studios had sought to connect with the emerging countercultural youth audience by embracing the talents of young, often film school-educated directors, the seventies saw formerly fringe elements of the American comedy scene migrate ever closer to the mainstream. The rise of comedy clubs, and the example of such boundary-pushing comedy legends as Lenny Bruce, saw the emergence of a new standup-comic sensibility based less on traditional punchlines than on the unabashed presentation of raw, at times even shocking material. At the same time, sketch-comedy troupes such as Second City and The Groundlings began to depart from the Laugh-In/Carol Burnett Show model and push their characters and scenarios to ever more outrageous extremes, while the instant success of Saturday Night Live in 1975 crystallized comedy's new rock-and-roll attitude by combining sketch comedy with live music. Finally, the expansion of Harvard's venerable humour magazine Lampoon into the National Lampoon multimedia mini-empire ushered in a new generation of comedy writers and performers.
In 1978, all these forces aligned on the big screen in National Lampoon's Animal House, which shattered box-office records, brought R-rated comedy to the mainstream, and made "Toga! Toga!" into a generational rallying cry. Produced by Canadian Ivan Reitman (whose most notable/notorious previous production had been David Cronenberg's 1977 Rabid) and directed by John Landis, who had already helped bring the new freewheeling, absurdist seventies brand of humour to the screen with The Kentucky Fried Movie, Animal House was a seamless integration of classic comedy tropes with the stylings of the comedic counterculture. Its story of a motley crew of academic underdogs triumphing over privileged conservatism distills the essence of the college-bred outsider humour that fuelled SNL and the Lampoon, and established the neo-countercultural template of social rejects vs. "straight" society that would be employed in American comedies for the next four decades (and counting). Where Cheech & Chong's raggedy Up in Smoke, released two months after Animal House, presented the last gasp (or puff) of sixties drop-out drug culture, Animal House combined rock 'n' roll attitude and crass humour with (meta)cinematic finesse: Bluto's fourth-wall-busting raised eyebrow to the camera while peeping into a sorority bedroom perfectly embodies that fusion of boundary-pushing content and smart self-awareness that would prove to have such an enormous impact on comedies to come.
While the film's influence is readily apparent in its many cinematic successors — from such late-seventies and early-eighties hits as Meatballs, Stripes, The Blues Brothers, Trading Places and Revenge of the Nerds to the later generations of filmmakers, writers and performers that begat Old School, Anchorman, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, American Pie, The Hangover and Bridesmaids — it has also permeated comedy culture as a whole. From late-night television (David Letterman, Conan O'Brien, Jimmy Kimmel) to radio (Howard Stern and a legion of lesser "shock jocks") to stand-up (take your pick), the mainstreaming of ribald humour pioneered by Animal House has now become the comedy norm, and has altered broadcast standards correspondingly. Would Seinfeld's infamous "Master of Your Domain" episode have been possible without Animal House, let alone much of The Simpsons, anything on Family Guy, or the even wilder reaches of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, Aqua Teen Hunger Force or Archer?
Of course, Animal House is also crucial for the wealth of talent it brought together and turned loose on an unsuspecting world. Already a rising star at SNL, John Belushi became the id of a generation as the popeyed Bluto, while his colleague Bill Murray — the star of Reitman's Animal House follow-ups Meatballs, Stripes and Ghostbusters — became its sarcastic, wised-up ego. Matty Simmons, the founder of National Lampoon and Animal House co-producer, made the Lampoon brand into an enduring movie presence with the wildly popular Vacation series, featuring former Lampoon alum and SNL star Chevy Chase. Director John Landis went on to make some of the defining comedies of the 1980s — including classics such as The Blues Brothers, Trading Places and Coming to America — while Reitman kept the Animal House spirit alive both in his own films as director (Kindergarten Cop), by producing Howard Stern's film debut Private Parts and Todd Phillips' Animal House redux Old School, and by bequeathing to the world his son Jason, who made his own foray into his family's comic dynasty with the searingly funny satire Thank You for Smoking. Both together and apart, the Animal House fraternity has reinvented comedy for the modern era and reshaped America's comic sensibility, one toga at a time.
— Jesse Wente