The Dean’s List: 6 Great College Comedies and Their Requisite Lessons

Tina Fey in ‘Admission’/Image © David Lee/Focus Features
Tina Fey in ‘Admission’/Image © David Lee/Focus Features

In “Admission,” the new rom-com based on the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz, Tina Fey plays Portia Nathan, a Princeton admissions officer tasked each year with deciding which of the nation’s best young minds will be invited to enter those hallowed ivy walls. As one of the department’s best, Portia finds herself up for promotion when the Dean of Admissions (Wallace Shawn) announces his impending retirement. But the Dean’s news comes just as straight-laced Portia reconnects with John Pressman (Paul Rudd), a friend from college, who now runs an alternative high school -- and who thinks he might be teaching the son Portia gave up for adoption years ago. Hilarity naturally ensues.

Though “Admission” focuses more on collegiate faculty than co-eds, it offers occasional glimpses into undergrad life, with plenty of beauty shots of the Princeton campus, plus cameos by the school’s real Dean of Admissions and campus a cappella group the Princeton Nassoons, and, of course, the requisite kegger.

With the academy on the brain, we felt inspired to have a little college comedy reunion. Here are some of the films that make the grade.

"Animal House" (1978)
You know that feeling when you go back to your alma mater and the campus feels a little smaller? The students a lot younger? And the whole place seems cast in nostalgic sepia tones? A reunion with “Animal House” inspires a similar wistfulness. Having watched the subgenre that this original gross-out college comedy begat grow crasser and brasher, the prototype now seems somehow gentler; almost, dare we say, sweet. But don’t get us wrong: baby-faced Tom Hulce, Peter Riegert, Kevin Bacon, and the late great John Belushi still easily earn a prime spot on our dean’s list of collegiate comedies (the scene with the horse in the dean’s office will never stop being funny). And this influential film not only influenced movies about college, it also made its mark on the academy itself, inspiring scholarship on how “Animal House” and its ilk have distorted the American perception of higher education. Bluto would be proud.

College Lesson: Cheaters never win, particularly when they steal the answers to the wrong test.

"Back to School" (1986)
In one of his few turns where he actually does get some respect, Rodney Dangerfield stars as Thornton Melon, a high school dropout who transforms his father’s storefront tailor shop into a booming plus-size retail chain. But when his struggling son Jason (Keith Gordon) threatens to drop out of Grand Lakes University, pater Melon vows to show him the importance of education by, you guessed it, going back to school. What follows is pure '80s zaniness, as father and son attempt to hold their own against the frat jocks, keep their grades up, and win the hearts of otherwise entangled co-eds (or in Dangerfield’s case an English professor, played by Sally Kellerman, who woos him with a very seductive reading of Joyce). “Back to School” also receives high marks for its impressive supporting cast, including Ned Beatty as the dean, David Martin (yes, he’s called “Dean Martin”); Robert Downey Jr., as Jason’s mischievous roommate; and Sam Kinison as the angriest history teacher ever.

College Lesson: Great writers may not be the best critics of their own work, a lesson Melon learns when he pays Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (in a cameo as himself) to write an essay on the work of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

"Legally Blonde" (2001)
Sure, only the first act of this Reese Witherspoon comedy classic (based on the novel by Amanda Brown) actually takes place in college before Southern California sorority sister, Elle Woods, chases the man she loves to Harvard Law School. But in just those few opening scenes, “Legally Blonde” perfectly (and hilariously) captures the anxiety about what comes after graduation. And besides, with on-campus housing, library study groups, and even a lovable townie (Jennifer Coolidge as sad sack manicurist Paulette), this silver screen version of law school feels enough like undergrad to handily make the list.

College Lesson: Dating professors is sketchy, but teaching assistants are fair game.

"Old School" (2003)
Decidedly not an adaptation of Tobias Wolff’s lauded boarding school novel of the same name, this Will Ferrell vehicle is built on the premise that just as nerdy high school boys dream of a post-parental world of beer pong and scantily clad co-eds, so do nerdy thirty-somethings long to slough off adult responsibilities and return to their drunken collegiate glory days. “Old School” follows Ferrell’s Frank and his two buddies Mitch (Luke Wilson) and Beanie (Vince Vaughn) as they attempt to recapture those bright college years by opening a frat house at their local university. Like the Delta Tau Chi of “Animal House,” Frank and friends must go up against a disapproving dean (played with smarmy glee by Jeremy Piven). But unlike the eternally broke animal housers, these frat boys (er men) have grown-up bank accounts, creating what the BBC called “American Pie with a Platinum Visa.”

College Lesson: If mom and dad won’t bankroll your “extracurricular activities,” wait twenty years and go back and pay for it yourself.

"Liberal Arts" (2012)
So you know that nostalgic longing for the old boola boola that we were just talking about? “Liberal Arts” is about that feeling. Josh Radnor (who also wrote and directed the film) stars as Jesse Fisher, a mildly depressed thirty-five-year-old admissions officer at an NYU-like college, who travels back to his Ohio alma mater to honor his retiring English professor (Richard Jenkins). Back in the cozy sanctum of his sylvan campus (played beautifully by Radnor’s real-life alma mater, Kenyon College), Jesse feels simultaneously at home and yet somehow older than ever, a tension made particularly acute when he meets and is tempted by the near perfect co-ed Zibby, an intellectually sophisticated but emotionally vulnerable sophomore, played beautifully by Elizabeth Olsen. The pair connects over classical music, literature, and letter writing, and ultimately, it’s through his struggle with his inappropriate feelings for this much younger woman that Jesse finally lets go of the torch he’s been carrying for his days in the ivory tower. Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman called it “the best movie about college I’ve seen since I don’t know what,” and with subtle humor, loving shots of the Kenyan campus, and real conversations about literature (when’s the last time you saw a movie that dug deep into Infinite Jest?), we’re inclined to agree.

College Lesson: You may not use what you learned in that Survey of Classical Music class, but the playlist will provide a great soundtrack for walking around New York.

"Pitch Perfect" (2012)
It’s “Glee” goes to college, as the Bellas, an all-girls a cappella group, tries desperately to take down the smugly more successful boys’ group, the Treble Makers, at nationals. Loosely based on Mickey Rapkin’s nonfiction examination of the world of collegiate a cappella, “Pitch Perfect” is a welcome female-centric entry into the testosterone heavy world of gross-out college comedies. Sure, some of the humor is a little on-the-nose and the musical numbers often feel somehow too polished, but the dialogue is snappy and Anna Kendrick as Beca, a would-be DJ turned reluctant Bella, provides a charmingly bemused guide into the weird world of competitive singing. Oh, and Rebel Wilson as Fat Amy (that’s what she calls herself), pulls a Bluto and, like John Belushi before her, basically steals the whole movie.

College Lesson: You got into college by loading up on extracurriculars, so why give up now?