Anatomy Of A Comic Tale

The Arts

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Stories tend to reflect the times in which they were written, whether you mean them to or not. Before John Hughes became a film director, he was a creative director at the Leo Burnett ad agency’s Chicago branch. In 1979 he got snowed in and was stuck at home, so he wrote a short story for the collegiate magazine ‘National Lampoon’, the national spin-off from the Harvard Lampoon which under Tony Hendra’s editorial guidance was proving so successful.

For their holiday issue he picked up a road atlas, flicked through it and wrote a short story called ‘Vacation ’58’ which began; ‘If Dad hadn’t shot Walt Disney in the leg, it would have been our best vacation ever.’ He was riffing on suburban America’s curdled dreams and his own memories of difficult family trips in smoke-filled station wagons. In the story, bickering but loving teenage siblings Rusty and Audrey, patient mum Ellen, and optimistic dad Clark make for a charming, funny and poignant tale of a father attempting to bond with his wife and children by driving from Chicago to LA to visit Disneyland. By the time he gets there his dream is in tatters, and when he finds the park is shut he forces Walt Disney to reopen it. But the catastrophic experience reunites his family.

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I tried to buy the rights to the story. It seemed obvious to me that it was a comic classic. Matty Simmons at NatLamp got there first – he had money and connections, for a start – and Warner made the film, which was a faithful representation of the story, with Disneyworld changed to Wallyworld for obvious reasons. Among the film’s delights were gifted comedienne Imogen Coca playing the hated elderly relative who ends up on the car’s roof rack, an animal-loving cop and Chevy Chase’s deluded father hopelessly trying to talk to his son in the desert.

The film was a huge success and resulted in a spin-off called ‘European Vacation’, which director Amy Heckerling totally wrecked by failing to understand the smart dynamic of the original, instead trading in embarrassing racial stereotypes and pratfalls.

The next one largely recaptured the charm of the first. ‘Christmas Vacation’ brought back the Griswolds’ white-trash Cousin Eddie, played by Randy Quaid, and had great fun at the expense of a popular enemy at that time – Yuppies. A fourth film, ‘Vegas Vacation’, was as very nearly as unwatchable as the second film.

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Last year, a reboot appeared, in which Clark Griswold’s son (not Anthony Michael Hall but Ed Helms) reprised almost every single joke from the original, including a drive in a hideous temperamental vehicle, this time called the Tartan Prancer — “the Honda of Albania” — in place of the wonderful Wagon Queen Family Truckster, whose shifty dealer had described its colour as ‘Metallic Pea’.

But times change and stories change, and this time the reboot – while having a few genuine laughs, mostly involving Chris Hemsworth – reflected the era’s new conservatism. Most depressingly, the original witty black humour (which in the original story involves the death of a dog and a relative) was replaced with random throwaway cruelties – a suicide, a fatal crash, asphyxiation, a pedophile, hateful students, embittered employees.

So what began as a benign black comedy on family life somehow twisted to current obsessions; trigger-happy cops, defecation and a strange fixation with sexual problems. The question I most want to ask is – where does written and filmed humour (I don’t mean ironic post-modernism but actually funny material) go from here, and whether anyone has read a genuinely witty book in a while?

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One comment on “Anatomy Of A Comic Tale”

  1. Helen Martin says:

    Witty or humorous? I will think about that one.

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