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'Animal House' 40th anniversary: What happened to raunchy comedies?

"National Lampoon's Animal House" opened 40 years ago this weekend and with it came ...

Posted: Jul 27, 2018 3:56 PM
Updated: Jul 27, 2018 3:56 PM

"National Lampoon's Animal House" opened 40 years ago this weekend and with it came toga parties, food fights and a new age for film comedy.

The Universal Pictures film, which stars the late John Belushi and tells the story of a wild fraternity at the fictional Faber College, was a box office success in 1978, making $141.6 million domestically. That's $555.1 million when accounting for inflation, which makes it one of the most successful R-rated films ever made.

"It was, in its own way, a game changer," said Leonard Maltin, a film critic and historian. "'Animal House' opened the door to a new brand of widely popular comedy films and pushed the envelope in terms of what was then considered good taste."

The film popularized a certain genre of comedy -- one that is raunchy and R-rated. But 40 years after Bluto's rousing speech at Delta House, comedies are struggling to find its place at a box office that's dominated by franchises and mythologies like "Star Wars" and "Avengers."

Audiences also don't really need movies to get their fill of that type of outrageous humor anymore. They have real life, according to Dana Polan, a professor in the Department of Cinema Studies at NYU.

"We see it on the front pages of our newspapers around some of our political leaders. It is much more around us," he said. "'Animal House' was anti-establishment in the 1970's, so the very fact that our establishment blatantly acts bad now causes it to lose its sting."

"Animal House" was inducted into US National Film Registry at the Library of Congress in 2001 and came in at No. 36 on the American Film Institute's list of funniest American movies of all time in 2000. Its success inspired a series of R-rated imitations such as "Porky's," "Revenge of the Nerds" and "Up the Academy," a teen comedy made by the Lampoon's magazine rival, Mad Magazine. But over time, it was "Animal House" that leaped into the upper echelon of film comedies, even though its punchlines about race and gender have aged badly.

Related: US box office has record quarter thanks to a string of summer hits

The impact of "Animal House" transcended the 70s and 80s. You can see its influence in the 90s with "There's Something About Mary," in the 2000s with "Old School" and more recently with "The Hangover" and "Bridesmaids." Yet, despite a roughly 8% spike in box office revenue this year, hit comedies in the mold of "Animal House," or really any comedies for that matter, are hard to find.

The top three highest-grossing R-rated comedies at the box office this year are "Game Night," "Blockers" and "Tag." Those three films come in at No. 21, 25 and 29, respectively, on the year's box office list, according to comScore.

The top comedy of the year, "Game Night," opened at No. 2, but made only $69 million total during its domestic run. That's not bad for the mid-budget film, but it's $6 million less than what "Black Panther" made in a single day during its opening weekend. It's also nearly $50 million less than the total revenue for "Girls Trip," which was the top R-rated comedy last year.

In fact, the last time an R-rated comedy was in the top 10 on the year-end box office list was 2012's "Ted." And the last time an R-rated comedy opened at No. 1 at the box office was almost a year ago with "The Hitman's Bodyguard." Before that, it was "The Boss" in April of 2016.

The Wall Street Journal's Ben Fritz has a theory as to why comedies have struggled at the box office.

"With stand-up specials on Netflix, pranksters on YouTube and animated GIFs on social media, people can get more than enough laughs on any digital device," wrote Fritz.

Fritz added that now "people who want to laugh at the cinema can do so at the same time they watch their favorite superheroes kick butt" in films such as "Deadpool 2" and "Thor: Ragnarok."

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