Animal House and the Practical Joke as Anti-Rite – Joe Mendenhall

Mary Douglas’ “Jokes” speaks on the concept of jokes as “anti-rites”.[1] Douglas says, “the rite imposes order and harmony while the joke disorganizes.”[2] This concept of tearing down order is most readily apparent when looking at practical jokes, or pranks, where a joke’s sole purpose is to provide chaos. In the film Animal House (Landhis, 1978), practical jokes are abundant, and when analyzing them you can see that Douglas’ idea of the joke as the anti-rite holds true. For example, the “Only We Can Do That to Our Pledges” scene presents a rite that becomes disorganized through a prank. The scene opens upon military training, a highly ritualized act. The superior officer enters upon a horse, he rides up the lines of soldiers, barks orders at them, and generally belittles them, presenting himself as superior. This is an established military rite. The pranksters directly contrast the appearance of the soldiers. While the soldiers are highly ordered and stiff, the pranksters are relaxed and aloof, hinting at the disorder they are about to sow. After several attempts, they manage to hit a golf ball at the officer’s horse. It rears, providing the first seed of disorder. The next golf ball hits the officer himself, who falls to the ground, becomes entangled in his horse’s reigns, and is literally dragged through the mud. The lines of soldiers scatter. Order has been usurped by chaos. The joke has disorganized the rite, leaving the previously stiff, linear soldiers running freely through the field, and the previously high sitting officer hugging the ground. Douglas says, “[Jokes] do not affirm the dominant values, but denigrate and devalue.”[3] And just so, this practical joke in Animal House serves to devalue the authority of the officer, one of the film’s main villains.

[1] Douglas, Mary. “Jokes.” In Implicit Meanings, 102. New York, 1975.

[2] Douglas, Mary. “Jokes.” In Implicit Meanings, 102. New York, 1975.

[3] Douglas, Mary. “Jokes.” In Implicit Meanings, 102. New York, 1975.

One comment

  1. This scene is a great example of how Animal House treats practical joking as an (anti) rite of passage for the characters of the film. In the film’s finale, the process of devaluing authority which you have outlined here comes to a climax as the jokers usurp the authority of the entire town for the sake of comic relief. Interestingly, Netflix’s ‘A Futile and Stupid Gesture’ (2017) deals with this process of joking as a theme of Doug Kenney’s life as a whole, including his work on Animal House. I recommend giving it a watch as it explores the relationship between the humour of comedy and the stresses of reality.

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