Do you remember when Gilbert Gottfried (rest in peace) was met with jeers of “too soon” after a 9/11 joke only three weeks after the towers fell? Do you remember how he saved his hide by launching into a particularly graphic take on the Aristocrats Joke in his patented shrill screech? I don’t, because I was too young. But, as with following Jesus Christ or attending Woodstock, one doesn’t have to have been there to get what it’s all about. To look back at that night at the Friars’ Club is a journey through time not just because it reflects the nation’s post 9/11 paranoia, trauma, and soon-to-erupt jingoism but also because of how the comic solved the problem. I’m not one for the “Comedy Wars,” but the age of social media is not the age of the Aristocrats Joke. He’d’ve been in stocks if he pulled that after the Russian invasion of Ukraine or the 2016 election. It may be best the sweet prince with those delicate vocal chords has gone on before us. He was not for this world, but of that one.
The other lesson, however, is that—as Randy Marsh taught us—tragedies are allowed to be funny after some time (22.3 years according to the experts); the drumbeat of the seconds imperceptibly, but undeniably, begets a change in essence. And so after a time, we can, it should follow, scan the past with new vigor and fresh eyes. It is, I contend, time to do this for that forgotten period, the moment before Trump but after the financial crash, the time when the low-waisted, baby doll top Paris Hiltons of the world were giving way to something more high-waisted, but not yet dyed green. I am speaking, of course, about 2014. By accident, I recently stumbled upon—unearthed (on my Roku)—an artifact from this historical lacuna—Alpha House (2014).
Ostensibly, it’s an Animal House (1978) rip-off with not-so-subtle hints of American Pie (1999) and other Jason Biggs fare. By this measure, it is awful. The plot makes even less sense than usual (the fraternity-to-end-all-fraternities is forced to share their house with a sorority by an evil dean, who also forbids them to fraternize or make one another uncomfortable. The two sides begin trying to get their opponents thrown out through sexual harassment complaints to take control of the colonial manor they split). Some of the camera work is amateurish even by the lights of this amateur (there’s one shot that comes to mind where the top of a character’s head is sliced off by the frame). And, with all due respect to the actors, I can’t say I found the gratuitous breast and butt shots very appealing; the yoga scene will haunt my nightmares for years to come. Be warned. But these failures actually point to the movie’s only true success—embodying the essence of 2014.
Let me count the ways: 2014 was the age of Gamergate, a war between social justice-oriented, especially female, journalists and gamers who opposed various kinds of diversity in video gaming. It was time of the “alpha male” and the “pick-up artist.” It’s no surprise then that the fraternity in the film is known only as the “Alpha House.” Their idea of a Greek Life charity day booth is a beer chugging contest. The sorority, by contrast, is led by Kelly (Heather Page Cohn), who tries to educate her sisters about the gender wage gap but is (as we learn over the course of the movie) secretly just as kinky and desirous of men as the rest. One member of the sorority keeps reiterating how tired she is of Kelly’s feminism shtick. Alpha House implies over and over again that the misogyny of the men is all in good fun, that it’s only the stuck-up hypocrisy of a few that upset the natural order.
The real kicker, however, is the evil dean (D.C. Douglas). We learn that his only real reason for instituting this shift is a desire to get a job at a women’s college. His goal is to show his interest in “women’s issues” by “sissifying” the frat. Why does he want to be at a women’s college? He’s unbelievably effete with an almost Vincent Price-like swagger, and, at one point, leaves a hand on a naked pledge’s chest for just a bit too long. I assumed that, within the world of this movie, he had to be gay, a clear marker (again in this world) of a betrayal of masculinity as such. But Alpha House, dear reader, is not so simple. No. No. No. We see him chatting on his computer at one point. At minimum, the movie implies that he’s a furry. At maximum, it whispers that he’s a furry with a taste for younger, college-age (or younger?) girls. The bad guy isn’t just effeminate—he’s a raving weirdo and possible sexual sociopath.
I could go on and on. The frat bros keep having members thrown out because they can’t even begin to control themselves sexually. Most of the women are treated as airheads who love nothing more than pillow fights and bad tattoos (though, to be fair, this is yet another mark of 2014—bad tattoos). The dean tells the students that they need to integrate because this is a new age of diversity, equity, and inclusion (he doesn’t use those words because people didn’t say them in that order then, but nonetheless). This was, of course, around the time that all-male clubs at universities like Harvard were pressured into accepting women for the same reasons. It’s astounding how well Alpha House touches on every aspect of that strange moment.
In fall 2014 I returned to my college campus after a year abroad. Things were very different. I could drink legally in the US. Ubers were everywhere all of a sudden. And, strangest of all, there were protests at my school! I’d heard tell of the dreaded Bush years, of the conservative newspapers being burned on students’ doorsteps. But I came to college during the quiet Obama years. The biggest deal we had was gay marriage. And, though the school was Catholic, I don’t recall much to-do aside from occasional conversations between students and maybe some parties. But now there was something every week—a drag show getting protested, sexual misconduct and assault sit-ins, and so much more. It was strange. But, then again, so was 2014. It was a moment of transition, the bridge between the before time and the now, the seemingly placid Obama years and the age of Trump (from which we’ve never really escaped). Alpha House may not be a great movie, but it knows its moment. It’s a mess, but only because 2014 was.