30 Years of PCU

If you channel-surfed your way through Sunday afternoons in the late 1990s, chances are you watched PCU at least once—and, maybe, a few dozen times after that. 

Written by Adam Leff ’90 and Zak Penn ’90 (and featuring before-they-were-famous performances by the likes of Jon Favreau and David Spade), the film centers on the fictional Port Chester University in Connecticut, where quarreling factions—hippies, jocks, feminists, vegans—come together to help a group of hard-partying students avoid eviction. The film was a box office bomb when it was released in 1994, then became a cult classic on cable TV. (Finding it today takes some effort: it’s not on any of the usual streaming platforms, and used DVDs routinely sell for $50 or more on eBay.) And starting with the establishing shots of College Row, this 80-minute send-up of grunge-era campus politics is rife with Wesleyan Easter eggs and in-jokes pulled from the writers’ days in Middletown.  

Thirty years after the film’s release, Penn, whose screenwriting has become a staple of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Leff, who bowed out of Hollywood decades ago, talk about skewering the period’s political correctness, how PCU was received at their alma mater, and the joy of hearing “don’t be that guy” for the first time.  

Adam Leff ’90: This is the root of the idea of [PCU]: We went to college expecting Animal House, and when we got there, it was protest marches, candlelight vigils, and a student body that in some part seemed to be trying to dismantle everything that college life had been before then.  

Zak Penn ’90: It felt like, there’s a new set of rules on campus, and you need to know the vernacular. The whole basis of what people call political correctness is about language more than anything else. That’s what makes it kind of interesting, but also a little bit ridiculous and toothless. 

Leff: So many of the students seemed to spend their time in anguish and almost outright anger. Looking back on it as an older person, I have more perspective and more sympathy for those [protest] movements—I mean, I was not part of any minority and my rights as I saw them were in no way threatened. I didn’t fully see where some of these people were coming from; that’s my shortcoming. But to a privileged 18-year-old white kid seeing all this protesting, it seemed comical to me. 

Penn: What Wesleyan had that was different from some other schools that were, like, standard PC, was that it really did have this wide range of groups. It wasn’t homogeneous in any way. 

Leff: I TA’d the Language of Film class, and Zak was one of my students—I was taking a second senior year, so that’s why I was his TA but also ended up in his graduating class. We were both talking that spring about what we were going to do after college. And he’s like, “I want to be a screenwriter.” And I said, that’s exactly what I want to do.  

Penn: Six months after graduating, we wrote Last Action Hero. We got an agent and then it sold, which was a crazy experience in and of itself: We were now professional screenwriters. And we were fired immediately from the project. 

Leff: We took the good with the bad. The good was that our career had been launched in a very public way. 

Penn: Last Action Hero was this crazy, weird experience. But PCU was two guys who went to Wesleyan, wrote a comedy about going to college, and hooked up with a producer [Paul Schiff ’81] who went to the same college and intimately understood what we were talking about. I think Adam and I could probably wrap our heads around that a little more. 

Leff: Paul was very much a rising star at 20th Century Fox. He could kind of walk in and say, “I want this to be my next project.” Our pitch in a nutshell was Animal House for the ’90s. 

Penn: With PCU, I learned so much about the filmmaking process. Paul moved us into his offices, so we were sitting there for auditions. Frankly, other than the movies I directed, PCU was by far the most inclusive, positive experience I ever had as a screenwriter. 

Leff: In Last Action Hero, we were persona non grata on set. The opposite experience happened on PCU, where we were on set as much as we wanted to be. I have not since had as good an experience, where the writer was that involved on a day-to-day basis. It was everything I had hoped being a screenwriter would be about. 

Penn: We had written this joke: “Don’t wear the shirt of the band you’re going to go see.” And when [lead actor] Jeremy Piven ad-libbed the line “Don’t be that guy,” it was like, this is what I wanted: The technical people have done a great job, the actors seem to know what they’re doing, and a little bit of magic is happening. When the director turns and is like, “Are you guys cool with that?” We are so cool with that. That is an experience that is hard to replicate. 

Leff: Before the movie was released mainstream, we took it to Wesleyan, showed the picture, and then we did a question and answer [session] afterwards. The showing was so gratifying because of the recognition from the students watching it. I think they laughed from the first minute to the last minute nonstop—every inside joke, they would just be falling out of their seats. It was the most gratifying screening we had because it was an audience that fully got it and appreciated it. 

Penn: And then, you know, the movie comes out and it’s an absolute bomb. I mean, it totally bombed. It didn’t seem like [the studio was] marketing it at all, which probably isn’t fair [to say], but that’s the way it seemed to us. That was demoralizing. I really started to try to appreciate that at least I can watch this movie with my friends and not apologize for it. I’ve had a lot of people tell me they thought PCU is stupid. That’s cool—it is stupid, on purpose.  

Leff: I didn’t realize how much of a cult hit it was until I met my wife’s younger brother, and he and his crew could recite the whole film. There had been this major cable [TV] life to the movie that I had not been aware of. 

Penn: Someone pointed out to me that Comedy Central was the PCU channel for a long time. . . . It wasn’t until probably eight to 10 years later that it fully hit me that people caught up with this movie. Thank God. 

Leff: I think [PCU] stands up. In many ways we’re redoing the ’90s right now, but I think we’re redoing it with even less of a sense of humor, if that’s possible. 

Penn: It’s not a perfect movie by a longshot—no movie is—and we were very young when we made it. But I know it’s resonated, and it makes people laugh. That’s more important to me than anything else.

Top photo: Jeremy Piven in PCU. Photo courtesy The Everett Collection.