HBO’s Frat House

Somehow, up until this evening, when a friend shared a link by way of Facebook, I wasn’t aware of the controversy surrounding the 1998 HBO documentary Frat House. Apparently, the film, shot by Todd Phillips and Andrew Gurland, never aired on HBO, in spite of the fact that it won two Sundance Film Festival awards in 1998. It would seem the cable network scuttled the project after it became known that the filmmakers had staged hazing scenes, paying frat members $50 each to play pledges, and reenact events said to have happened during their own initiations. Phillips and Gurland, according to what I’ve read, were found out when someone familiar with Muhlenberg College, where much of the documentary was shot, realized that the hazing scenes couldn’t be real, as they were shot in the Spring, well before their pledge season. Phillips, who has gone on to have a successful career in Hollywood, writing and directing comedies like Old School and The Hangover, however, has a different take on HBO’s refusal to air Frat House. The following exchange took place between Phillips and writer Alex Godfrey ten years ago.

GODFREY: Can you talk about the release controversy?

PHILLIPS: The controversy stems from one thing. When you turn your cameras on the sons and daughters of rich white Americans, you’re going to get heat for it. HBO has made many award winning documentaries and they’ve all been about pimps and whores and strippers and crack and taxi-cab confessions and blah blah blah. They’ve been easy targets. They’ve made movies about skinheads and anti-abortion maniacs. Important movies, but movies about the fringe of society. The fringe, I feel, are easy targets, but Frat House is about upper-class white Americans whose parents are lawyers and doctors and politicians. It sounds like I’m spewing crazy paranoid controversy theory, but it’s true. And when you do that movie, these people, who have many resources, will threaten to sue. You’ll either fight that battle or not, and HBO has chosen not to fight that battle. That’s the controversy. It’s a shame–they own the copyright, they funded the entire movie, so I’ve no option.

Phillips, by the way, was one of the cab drivers in the first season of HBO’s series Taxicab Confessions, so he knows of what he speaks.

Anyway, the video is now on YouTube, and, against my better judgement, I think I’m going to watch it. While I have a great dislike for shit like this usually, this kind of intrigues me. Maybe it’s because Phillips is also the man behind the GG Allin docmentary Hated. Or, maybe there’s some small part of me that’s still bitter about having to actually find and make my own friends in college, instead of just buying my way into what’s essentially an alcohol-fueled arranged marriage. Probably, though, I’m just looking for an excuse not to read the news tonight and get even further depressed about the state of the world. If you’d like to watch along with me, here’s the video. Just hit “play” at 11:00 PM (EST), and it’ll be just like we’re snuggled up under a blanket, this cold winter night, watching it together.

note: How cool would it have been if they had dropped the documentary facade altogether and just let GG Allin loose in one of these frats, filming the results? I wouldn’t consider myself a huge fan of his music, but I think that he would have been a genius when it came to hazing. He would have raised it to an art form.

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  1. anonymous
    Posted March 7, 2012 at 10:28 pm | Permalink

    Every time I meet someone who has been a part of a frat, I immediately assume that he’s eaten a “soggy biscuit.” It may not be true, but I can’t help but think it. And it generally makes me feel better my lot in life. “I may not make the kind of money that you make,” I think, “but I’ve never eaten the biscuit.”


  2. Edward
    Posted March 7, 2012 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

    I think I’d rather watch freaky Christian home-schoolers singing lustily about Santorum the baby saver.

  3. Edward
    Posted March 7, 2012 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

    OK, I am watching. And I have a question. Did that one guy just kiss his frat brother?

  4. Eel
    Posted March 7, 2012 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

    “If only we could get Ruth Buzzi into this frat.”

  5. Knox
    Posted March 8, 2012 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    I love starting my day with homoerotocism. It’s better than black coffee.

  6. teacherpatti
    Posted March 8, 2012 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    Ah, the old “why buy your friends, we’re free?” argument! I was in a sorority and I can say that I was never hazed. I never had to do anything that made me uncomfortable. I certainly was not friends with many of the girls in the sorority, btw, and never felt like I was “buying” anything. I was hugely ambitious back then and part of me wanted to use the networks that I thought being in a sorority would bring me. Turns out most of them just went for the MRS degree or viewed work as a way station until the first baby. Nevertheless, I did make some excellent friends and I still see 4 or 5 of the women regularly. I don’t know that we ever would have met if we hadn’t all joined the sorority.

  7. Elf
    Posted March 8, 2012 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    It just occurred to me that is like a frat for poor people.

  8. j
    Posted March 8, 2012 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    I rushed all four years, bbq hopping for the free food. I was not well liked in the greek social circles.

  9. Posted March 8, 2012 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    Patti, not to be snide, but you just admitted it. You joined the sorority hoping to obtain connections easily that the rest of us would have to seek out.

    You may not feel that you “bought friends” but you did attempt to “buy connections.” That’s not a criticism, but I think it’s the motivation behind why most people join frats. I think that Mark’s statement, though a bit condescending and revealing of his attitude toward frats, is fairly accurate.

    I don’t care about fraternities or sororities, having been old by the time I went to school, though.

  10. Burt Reynolds
    Posted March 8, 2012 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    I was in a fraternity. Parties and Girls. Best “purchase” I have ever made.

  11. John Galt
    Posted March 8, 2012 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    I pledged four different frats. I couldn’t get enough of the baby elephant walk.

  12. dirtgrain
    Posted March 10, 2012 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    This documentary shows exactly what Ypsilanti is missing. Bring back the Arm of Honor.

  13. Eel
    Posted March 29, 2012 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    “I was a member of a fraternity that asked pledges, in order to become a brother, to: swim in a kiddie pool of vomit, urine, fecal matter, semen and rotten food products; eat omelets made of vomit; chug cups of vinegar, which in one case caused a pledge to vomit blood; drink beer poured down fellow pledges’ ass cracks… among other abuses.”

    I read that and immediately had to hustle back over here to share it.


  14. Eel
    Posted March 29, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    P.S. I think they’re doing something similar at Smarty Cats these days.

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