pcu

25 Years Later, ‘PCU’ Is Still Hilarious. Except for the ‘PC’ Part.

The essential '90s college romp looks different today — but its relevance can't be denied

I can’t have been the only kid who, between 1998 and 2001, routinely came home from school, flipped on Comedy Central, and saw that PCU was on again. Being at the mercy of live basic cable, I typically judged it my best option, though I’d known the 79-minute film by heart for as long as I could remember: Its brevity, lightness and formulaic plot made it feel more like the standout episode of a favorite sitcom. While I dug the older campus romps, including Animal House and Revenge of the Nerds, this one was closest to the college experience that awaited me: I later was accepted at, though didn’t attend, Wesleyan University, inspiration for the film’s Port Chester University.

If you’re not familiar with this 1994 flop-turned-minor-cult-classic, here’s the rundown: PCU is a small liberal arts college riven with ideological fault lines. Almost everyone sticks to their chosen in-group: protest hippies, militant feminists, the black student union, frisbee-tossing dopers, etc. Our antiheroes belong to the Pit, a house of slackers whose parties and pranks have earned them numerous enemies, but they’re not as reviled as the young Reaganites of Balls and Shaft, an underground blue-blood fraternity incensed by PCU’s summary ban on Greek life, not to mention a prevailing atmosphere of “political correctness.” The audience surrogate, a visiting preppy pre-frosh named Tom, blunders into this war zone and soon has an angry horde chasing him everywhere.

But what, exactly, is the critique of the social climate presented in PCU? It’s not something I gave much thought as a teen — I just enjoyed watching the Pit’s merry rogues wise off and dump raw meat out a cafeteria window onto a peaceful vegan demonstration. Awkwardly for our current era, the screenplay seems to treat the mushy progressivism of the main student body as a problem analogous to the reactionary scheming of the WASP contingent, led by a peak-smarm David Spade. It’s the classic “both sides” argument, with the hedonists of an apolitical center as the sardonic, blasé voice of reason and equal-opportunity antagonists for left and right factions alike.

The plot even partakes of “horseshoe theory,” the now often cited or challenged idea that the two extremes of the political spectrum are actually in alignment. Following in the tradition of Animal House, PCU features a villainous administrator, college President Garcia-Thompson, played by the incomparable Jessica Walter. (Frankly, she steals the movie, but what else would you expect from her?) Garcia-Thompson is obsessed with making the school more inclusive and sensitive, and while her efforts to that end are presented as ridiculous abdications built on false choices — “I think that Bisexual Asian Studies should have its own building. The question is who goes? The math department or the hockey team?” — her core initiatives are sound, if a trifle overreaching: She wants to do away with PCU’s offensive Native American mascot (good!) and replace it with a captive whooping crane of endangered status (can’t say I endorse that!).

This stuff irritates the old white dudes on the Board of Trustees, and it likewise annoys the young Republicans, yet the latter forge an unlikely alliance with Garcia-Thompson to evict the the Pit crew from their house, which they hope to take for their own. The campus bleeding hearts provide the unwitting leverage for this coup with their incessant formal complaints against the Pit and an outstanding bill for the group’s campaign of property damage. In 2019, it’s faintly ludicrous to entertain this notion of all-against-the-center — unless you’re talking about presidential candidate Howard Schultz, I guess — and a little insulting that the lefties are cast as useful rubes whose decent intent amounts to self-sabotage. Moreover, their tendency to band together and hunt down an oppressor figure as a literal mob has echoes in columns by today’s right-leaning pundits, who view Twitter backlash and cancel culture as mass hysteria.

Then there’s the Pit itself, captained by Droz, an already balding super-senior memorably brought to life by Jeremy Piven. Droz is the engine of the film, and Piven’s blend of anarchic zeal and hyperconfident delivery is perhaps the reason it had some belated success; his ad-libbed admonishment to a punk housemate played by Jon Favreau — “You’re wearing the shirt of the band you’re going to see. Don’t be that guy.” — is PCU’s most enduring quote.

In solo DVD commentary I unbelievably listened to one dull afternoon, Piven laments that he wasn’t given more opportunity to improvise this way, which sort of confirms the character’s libertarian streak. One thing you realize upon revisiting PCU is that Droz, however much he hates the country-club legacies, shares in their fundamental conservatism and horror at the snowflake-friendly status quo. Garcia-Thompson at one point chides him for installing speed bumps on handicap ramps, yet these cringey details are easy to miss when you’re waiting on the next joke.

Piven himself went on to define mid-aughts white-guy douchiness in Entourage and, more recently, has been accused of sexual misconduct by eight women. (It’s not fair to retroactively impute his career or personality to the nature of Droz, but if the shoe fits…) You can easily imagine an inferior version of PCU starring a young Joe Rogan. Droz’s no-fucks-given personality and wide, rowdy message — we can all get along if we throw an epic rager! — are a kind of screen for the implied conditional there: He wants everyone to forget their pet causes and try to numb their righteous indignation. The stakes there are personal, as well: If he can’t pry an ex-girlfriend loose from her man-hating “Womynist” collective, he’ll never have a shot at winning her back.

Unfortunately, “people just need to lighten up” is the cheap wisdom of an inflammatory troll, and it’s weird to find it a triumph when Garcia-Thompson is eventually fired by the old trustees because the students gin up an ironically climactic protest by chanting “we’re not gonna protest.” PCU simply isn’t ambitious enough to go deeper than that, and we had to wait another 20 years for Dear White People to really test the balance between activism and tradition in an ivory tower setting. Nevertheless, at its best, PCU struck a genuinely funny nuance. I always return to the moment when a couple of Womynists, drawn reluctantly to the Pit for a kegger, are mildly accosted by a meathead who wants to fetch them a “brewdog.” He embarks on this errand, and one woman marvels at his obedience: “It’s like, if you’re nice to them, they bring you things?”

Is this arguing that feminists need to shut up about the patriarchy and be more tolerant of men? In the context of this screenplay — and given YouTube comments like “Replace gender studies with this one video. It will save humanity” — that reading would be hard to challenge. But PCU’s saving grace, besides many great performances and gags that make no political statement whatsoever (who doesn’t love when Droz swipes the entire bar from a snooty cocktail party and traps the guests in a room with the stereo blaring an infinite loop of “Afternoon Delight”?), is that it still values the open-minded attitude of the leftists it skewers. The hippies, not the blue-blazered slime, are the ones willing to reconsider their assumptions, to embrace for a moment the frivolity of youth, and join in spontaneous, intersectional celebration. They’re united by thirst for change.

You’d be correct to say this resolution trivializes some of the communities and movements represented, that “we’re all the same” is tired pap. It’s true that as satire, PCU is slight, scattershot and dated. It’s also a comfort to those who have rarely suffered; I loved to watch Tom, the pre-frosh ingenue, reject his destiny with the dying white aristocracy for a place among the cool kids in the Pit — as if this were the supreme tension of the movie. Even today, though, I wonder if that outcome didn’t put me on a better path, toward authenticity instead of classism. And I’ll always be thankful for what I’ve come to regard as PCU’s hidden truth, something only the last couple decades bring into focus: The privileged have always grumbled that they’re the victims of everyone else’s search for justice and equality, and year after year they act like any tiny step in that direction marks the demise of some glittering utopia. Clearly, they are full of shit, and that rhetoric deserves no oxygen. Otherwise… well, I think you know.