First things Furst: don’t miss my paean to numbers 10 through 8 on this list: Malibu CA, The Ugily Family and All That Glitters. Read that HERE.
7. DELTA HOUSE
Mad magazine saved my life when I was six years old. I exaggerate not here, as my earliest memories of suicidal depression date from kindergarten onward.
Then, at a 1974 flea market, I scored a shopping bag full of old Mads for a quarter and got a respite from that relentless post-toddler fatalism.
Pops McBeardo, my Vietnam vet Green Beret father, did not approve. To Pops, Mad was the product of irreverent “punks” created to subvert children and belch in the face of authority.
He was correct, of course. We just differed (then and now) as to whether that was (and is) a bad thing.
Even more contentious was my second signal that perhaps soldiering on past first grade might hold some promise: Saturday Night Live.
Pint-sized insomniac that I was, I caught the original broadcast of the third episode and instantly got hooked. Need I even point out that John Belushi was my immediate favorite?
Pops, in turn, blamed these sources of aid and comfort for making me the way I was.
It rushed to a volcanic head in the summer of 1978, as I turned 10, and National Lampoon’s Animal House erupted among us.
My experience with National Lampoon, to that point, was a couple of freaked out flip-throughs in the magazine section at the Route 35 Shop Rite in Hazlet, New Jersey.
Quick enough, I learned to go directly to the “Foto Funnies”, mentally photograph the black-and-white boobs therein, and put it back on the top rack. I’d get there. In time.
A movie, though, with my comedy hero. Where the boobs would be in color. And moving around. I could hardly stand to wait a second, let alone the better part of a decade. So as each of my older relatives and teenage day-camp counselors saw Animal House, I quizzed them for details, even keeping a notebook, where I more or less accurately construed the plot and all the major gag points.
Imagine my stupefied ecstasy, then, when out of nowhere, I saw a promo for Delta House. Suddenly, there would be a sitcom version of Animal House with most of the original cast and even an interesting Belushi stand-in: Josh Mostel, son of Zero, of whom I was a lifelong fan (which is as powerful a testament as any to my 1970s New York City incubation).
The trick would be getting past Pops when Delta House premiered one Thursday, but that was easy enough. We had a tiny black-and-white Zenith in the basement. I volunteered to walk our Akita after dinner and, once I got back, slipped downstairs while he fussed over the dog, threw a blanket on top of the TV and myself, and inserted my transistor radio earplug into the side of the set.
And then, Christ … that fucking bullshit show fucking sucked.
Keep in mind that I was ten and Delta House was essentially bringing my dreams to life (minus the boobs, of course): here was the Animal House gang in my house every week. And, still, I knew that each and every episode was, as Michael Jackson once said of what coated the walls of his jailhouse restroom facilities, “doo-doo feces.”
Delta House was (way) more feeble-minded than The Brady Bunch and driven by (way) more ludicrous plot devices than Gilligan’s Island, minus the charm of those program’s joke-world contrivances—plus the fact that they were created for kids.
And I was a kid, so I knew stupid and queer when I saw it. Blotto, for example, showing feats of strength by bench-pressing a TV while Flounder sat on it—for ten uninterrupted minutes—defined stupid and queer. Most unforgivably, it was unfunny and stupid and queer.
In fact, the rival networks’ Animal House rip-offs—Co-Ed Fever, which aired once on CBS and NBC’s Brothers and Sisters—were infinitely more amusing than Delta House. And they were appalling.
Still, I faked it. I raved about Delta House at school. I repeated the routine of sneaking to the basement to watch even after ABC switched it to Saturday nights. From January to April 1979, I lied and lived with the lying.
Then Delta House was gone, the victim of an inevitable ratings Waterloo, and forgotten by the world but not, of course, by me. In hindsight, I started to wonder if perhaps, as with my early viewing of SCTV, Delta House operated on a comedic plane beyond what my fifth-grade sensibilities could entirely process.
After all, Blotto bench-pressing Flounder, in the meta-world of Mellonville where it would appear as an impossibly idiotic sitcomification of a taboo-shattering R-rated comedy, would be brilliantly hilarious. Perhaps it was just a case of abstract thinking capabilities not yet on full-firing capability.
Reading If You Don’t Buy This Book, We’ll Kill This Dog, National Lampoon publisher Matty Simmons’ memoir, only fueled my hind-sighted hopefulness. He points out there that the pilot was written by the original Animal House team and that Nat Lamp all-stars on the order John Hughes, Ted Mann and Tod Carroll scripted subsequent episodes.
Simmons claims the show simply fell victim to network standards and that it went out with a sterling reputation. “People were thanking us for bringing physical comedy back to television,” he writes.
Sometime in the early 2000s, I came across a bootleg DVD of the entire run of Delta House episodes at a horror convention. At last, I’d find peace.
Need I even tell you how much more dire Delta House is than I remembered it?
It is. And it’s worse than you can even imagine, too.
It’s incalculably inferior to Fast Times, the pallid CBS version of Fast Times at Ridgemont High that cropped up momentarily in 1986 and even more congealed by brain death than the (actually, kind of amazing) Fox network Revenge of the Nerds pilot.
To watch Delta House is to see cocaine vomited onto your TV screen from the inside. It is beyond amateurish and beyond inept to the point of causing stress. One can only wonder: at the moment that some studio fiend looked up from his desktop snow-bank to deem this bilge air-worthy, were there no adults in charge of Hollywood and, by larger extent, the world?
Still, Delta House never reaches a nadir of incompetence that breaks through to any manner or pleasure, perverse or otherwise. It’s too fatally boring.
Allow me to run down:
• The characters mug, rarely speak and just sort of saunter around the set.
• The cheapest of laugh tracks punctuates the inactivity in staggered, but fairly constant bursts.
• Slapstick set-ups seem to occur, but not really (let alone do they have any payoffs).
• Dean Wormer growls.
• Skinny, very ’70s California blonde Michelle Pfeiffer—a highly different creature from the “bombshell” figures of the show’s 1962 setting—wanders past playing a character called, naturally, “The Bombshell”.
• … and then it’s over.
That’s it. Fifteen times. Delta House.
And so Delta House, to its core, is an entirely unlovely and unlovable thing. But, as with so much other fecal deluges polluting my personal history and always-on consciousness, fondness for it exists because, as described above, it is “mine.”
It felt like they made Delta House for me. They failed. I tried to cover for them. I tried to justify the lies as time marched on. Eventually, I came to grips with the barbaric reality.
Time wounds all heels.
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