House Rules: Chris Miller takes us back to the Real Animal House

    icon Nov 16, 2006
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In 1974 a youthful P.J. O'Rourke was looking for articles for the "Pubescence" issue of National Lampoon he was editing and asked Contributing Editor Chris Miller for some of his famously hilarious perversity. Having debuted in the July 1971 issue with his nostalgic ode to recreational self-gratification "Caked Joy Rag", Miller had achieved near rock star status based on his unique literary blend of sex, drugs, nostalgia, science fiction and absurdity. But as the deadline approached, he was blocked.

Miller reached into a drawer in his Manhattan apartment and pulled out the typewritten sheets of a memoir he began of his days at Dartmouth in the early Sixties, where he had been a proud member of Alpha Delta Phi, notorious as the "sickest" fraternity house on the Ivy League campus. 

Ever since graduation Miller hoped to do something with all of the weird tales he'd collected during his time at the Adelphian Lodge, as the house was known. At his agent's urging he worked up three sample chapters but there didn't seem to be much interest among publishers for stories that glorified fraternal craziness and projectile vomiting. But as the deadline loomed, the time seemed right to unleash Pinto, Otter and the other fraternal characters he'd encountered upon the world.

"Chris Miller got to Dartmouth in 1959, joined the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity and I guess we could say that the rest is apocryphal," writes Harold Ramis , in his forward to The Real Animal House", Miller's recently published "mostly lucid memoir of the awesomely depraved saga of the fraternity that inspired the movie".

"The Night of the Seven Fires" hit newsstands in the fall of 1974 and the issue was their highest seller ever. Part of that was undoubtedly due to Miller's popularity, but the hot girl in the tube top on the cover coyly holding a maraschino cherry might have something to do with it, too.

But the real importance of the appearance of that first part of "Tales of the Adelphian Lodge" is that it eventually led to the collaboration of Miller, Ramis and Lampoon founder and editor Doug Kenney on the script for National Lampoon's Animal House, which became the top grossing comedy of all time.

Now after decades toiling in the screen trade, Miller has returned to his first love, writing stories that are hilariously autobiographical, sick, revolting, revolutionary, and as hot & steamy as a five-minute French kiss in a beer soaked basement.

The Real Animal House (336 pages, Little Brown) is Miller's chance to finally set the record straight about the band of brothers who transformed his life forever back in the relatively carefree days before Lee Harvey Oswald climbed the steps of the book depository and Vietnam became the bloodiest series on television in living color.

The true joy of reading The Real Animal House, for anyone who was a fan of his writing for the Lampoon in the Seventies and Eighties, is that his wonderful narrative voice is still there. This is the story of Pinto, Miller's pledge name at AD, and how he came to join this sublimely sick collection of nihilistic bon vivants and drunks with names like Doberman, Seal, Rat, Hardbar, Dumptruck, Hydrant, Giraffe, Magpie, Coyote and Zeke Banananose.

For younger readers who growing up in an age of cable television, Internet porn, Howard Stern and transgender clubs in their high school, it may be informative to read of an era of single sex colleges, the introduction of black rhythm and blues to suburban white ears, and the pressure to conform to 1950's ideals of mature adult behavior.

Rocky Graziano and Bo Diddly and Johnny Mathis, but it might be instructive for them to see how some of their parents and grandparents spent their college years. Just goes to show that when conservatives yearn for the family values of the Ozzie and Harriet era, different families had different values.

Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead used to say that the Dead were like licorice. Not everyone likes licorice, he said. But people that like licorice, like licorice a lot. The same could be said for Miller and his tales of fraternal insanity. It's not everyone's cup of absinthe. But as those who criticized the movie "Animal House" for grossness missed the political satire of Nixon and his goons hidden behind the evil Dean Wormer and his young minions, Neidermeyer and Marmalard, some will dismiss these stories as nothing more than boorish drunken shenanigans. This is a shame and a disservice to discriminating readers.

Yes, there is an awful lot of drinking. No, they shouldn't have been drinking and driving and no, they probably didn't have seat belts on. But the joy and exuberance that Pinto and his pals demonstrate holds a lesson for every generation that needs to learn not to blindly follow the expectations of parents and guidance counselors, but to seek out those blissful bands of merry misfits that appear from time to time.

The dedication to The Real Animal House reads "To family, wherever you find it." The ADs of Dartmouth during the Eisenhower era were like they used to say about Lord Byron; "Mad, bad and dangerous to know." But Miller, escaping a suffocating home life in suburban 1950s New York, found his true family in the bosom of the social outcasts of his fraternity.

"Animal House" who never read any of his fiction, Miller's memoir is a chance to be introduced to a new audience.

The Real Animal House is a seriously funny read.

Pinto Speaks: Review Interview with Chris Miller

We all have a beginning, or what Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye referred to as "all that David Copperfield crap". John Christian Miller was born in Brooklyn New York in 1942. He lived with his mother, father and younger brother in Brooklyn for six years before the family moved to Roslyn on Long Island, a half an hour outside New York City. Roslyn would later be the inspiration for Nozzlin in Miller's nostalgic tales of horniness and hilarity "Tales of Nozzlin High".

Following a high school career largely devoted to his love of Rock 'n Roll, E.C. comics and science fiction, Miller attended his father's alma mater, Dartmouth, entering in the fall of 1959. At first he studied business at the urging of his father, but later majored in English. He received a Masters Degree from Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business, just to be on the safe side.

Review Magazine   spoke with Miller recently by phone from his Venice, California home. We started by asking about how he began writing fiction commercially and how he came to write for National Lampoon.

Review: How did you begin selling your stories?

In the fall of 1969 I had a friend who was a cartoonist, barely scraping by in her Greenwich Village apartment and she called me one day. "Chris, I have this new gig. Something new is happening this fall."

Suddenly there was this onslaught of pornographic magazines with names like Fun and Screw.  My friend said, "They're looking for stories to put in between the pictures." The editor told me when the deadline was and I came home from the ad agency, smoked some weed, and pumped out some piece of crap.  He checked it to make sure it had enough sex and then I got a deal to write a dozen stories in a row for publication in a place where it didn't matter, without combat consequences. That was where I did my basic training.

"Caked Joy Rag" and I sent three stories around and that's how I met former Playboy editor David Standish. Hef didn't like them but (another Playboy editor) Craig Vetter mentioned me to the Lampoon. They pulled it out of their files and Doug Kenney called me up and they printed it and that's how it started.

Review: When did you become aware you had a following among Lampoon readers?

At first I wasn't really aware of any reaction except that Doug Kenney liked my work, as did my friends. But I was leading a 1971 counter cultural lifestyle at the time and was spending most of my time with a close group of friends that became my new family. That happened at a succession of summerhouses on Fire Island and later at Woodstock.  For eight years they were my family. It was having that special relationship with people that you drop acid with.

Review: How did you come to write about your experiences with your fraternity?

Three stories that appeared in the Lampoon were originally chapters for a book I wanted to write. When I decided that I needed to stretch myself, I decided I wanted to do a book called "Animal House". The stories were "Pinto's First Lay", "The Night of the Seven Fires" and "Good Sports". They were thrown into a drawer until I was stuck for a story and pulled out "Night of the Seven Fires".

"Pinto's First Lay" was published and that was another departure from my whacked out stories. They were more like cinema verite, just describing more or less what happened.

Review: How did you come to be involved with the movie script that Doug and Harold Ramis were working on?

Doug said "What would you think if we did a movie with fraternities." And I said I'd probably write my own. Fast. And then he asked me if I'd write it with them.

Review: How much of the Alpha Delta house made it into the movie?

A lot of the spirit of my fraternity is really, really there - the hip detachment. The college is just so different from Dartmouth. It doesn't really feel like Dartmouth. The party and the road trip is where we really got it right.

Review: What did your fraternity brothers think of the movie?

They loved it. The guy who called up the girl's college pretending to be the fianc� of a dead sorority sister was an AD named Turnip. When he saw that scene in the movie he stood up, thrust his arms in the air and took bows in all directions.

Review: Your collaboration with Doug and Harold sounds like a great experience.

It was the most ecstatic collaboration. To work on that movie was to feel joy and the electricians felt it too.

Review: When did you decide to move from New York to California?

Look what happened to Orson Welles. I didn't go racing out there. Only later when this girlfriend was out there and she wanted me there did I make the move. Not much was going on so I came out West and found it was very difficult to make hay. Having written Animal House would get me a meeting, but that's all. But, still, that's something.

Review: But you still continued writing for the Lampoon magazine from time to time.

Lampoon publisher and Animal House producer Matty Simmons would call and ask for a story and I'd say "sure, okay" and I would squeeze out the occasional piece. But the thought of not writing for the magazine regularly happened in 1975 when I saw that the second string of new writers and editors had taken over.

Review: Why did you decide to write a book about your fraternity?

Well, the conceit of the book is that the guys who came back from Korea on the GI Bill around 1953 were different. In comes the Class of '55. Guys from the war joined the AD house and by the time they were seniors they had taken over. It wasn't nice upper class boys. They were raising hell. I mentioned this to Dean Seymour who said "That seems right." Succeeding pledge classes would hear about it and we were encouraged to be creative.

Review: You had a motto parodying Orwell's 1984

Sickness is Health. Blackness is Truth. Drinking is Strength.

"Night of the Seven Fires" and there were still guys in my fraternity who used the initials SIHBITDIS as a secret word and I got all kinds of crap from later classes.

Review: When you started writing these stories in the 70's how much were you in touch with the brothers you were writing about?

Around the time of Animal House there was a flurry of being in touch with everyone. Otter once in a while. Rhesus Monkey. Alby. Doberman I continued to see once in a while. Shortly after 1980 I got married and didn't see people all that often. When I got this book deal there was a bunch of new getting together. When I didn't remember whether the shutters on my dorm were green or white I looked it up on the Internet.

Review: You were a big comics reader as a kid, weren't you. Did that influence you?

I read Walt Disney comics from the 1950's. A lot of the comics were Huey, Dewey and Louie. The Junior Woodchucks and the Junior Woodchuck handbook. Whenever they got in a pickle, they'd pull out the handbook and every answer would be there. In the '50's there were comics that seemed to rise above the rest. They had wit, sophistication and good art. Walt Disney comics and stories were good. Little Lulu was cool. It had a na�ve charm and a dry sense of humor. They rose above. I still have "Goodnight, Moon" on my shelf. Then I got into E.C. Comics. At some point I was a huge reader. There was drama on the radio and TV. I inhaled that.

Review: Who were some writers who influenced you?

I adored Damon Runyon. That voice totally fit the dealers I was writing about in some of my stories. Robert Sheckley. L. Frank Baum. The Oz books lit up my life. It was my first visit to alternate realities. Al Feldstein from E.C. comics and Harvey Kurtzman from MAD. Phillip Roth of course. Portnoy's Complaint. Roth did things that no one had done before. I thought, " I can do that too." Hardboiled writing in general, Hemingway to Chandler. I like the lack of sentimentality. Joseph Heller and Catch-22. The various writings of Terry Southern and Candy. Oh, and Paul Desmond. When I was writing well I kept feeling like I was playing a Paul Desmond solo. He's the guy from Brubeck's Take Five. His solos were liquid and clean and graceful and soaring and when I was hitting it and in the groove, that's how I felt.

Review: Have you been back to Dartmouth since you visited it in the early 90's to write an article for Playboy?

Yes, I was there two years ago. In early spring I took my son around to have a look at Dartmouth and some other northeast schools. We were in Hanover and I meet John Engleman who has been House Advisor for 35 years. He's this friendly spirit keeping them from getting in trouble. The house has deteriorated. If I make some moderate money I'd like to do something about that.

Review: Is there any way you could have attended Dartmouth and not pledged AD? What would that life have been like?


Miller: Wow. If I'd made the mistake of joining some straight house? In my mind my Dad's fraternity was terribly straight - filled with captains of industry. AD was just the right house for me to join. If an AD didn't live down the hall from me I don't know. There were 24 houses on campus and as a freshman I was very into networking. But this guy told stories that just cracked me up. I thought, "Yeah, he's in my tribe." In another dorm in another hallway I'd have had a reasonably good time and led some much more constrained life.

Review: Any other titles you considered?

Miller: I was going to name the book "When I Was Young and Drunk".

Review: Do you have a website yet?

It's It'll be kind of minimalist at first and then we'll build it up over time. I wanted to forge a way to have a dialogue. There was never a National Lampoon convention. When I toured there would be a very warm connection but they were such college kids. So this will finally be nice to hear what people say.

Review: Any final thoughts?

Two questions people want to know: Was there any stuff that was so awful you didn't include it in the book? Yes. Will you ever write about it? No.

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