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Five Things Writers Can Learn From National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

December 19, 2016
5 min read time

Like 1983’s Vacation, 1989’s Christmas Vacation was written by John Hughes and likewise based on one of his National Lampoon short stories (this one entitled “Christmas ’59”). A beloved sequel and holiday film, Christmas Vacation has been entertaining families for decades. Below are five things writers can learn from the film.

1.) Know What Works

Returning as the sole writer, John Hughes knew what worked in the first Vacation better than anyone else. That’s probably why there are more callbacks and repeated jokes from the first film than there were in European Vacation. The Griswolds’ car flies off road and lands haphazardly at their destination. Check. Clark flirts and fantasizes about another woman. Check. A family member’s pet gets accidentally killed by Clark. Check. Clark freaks out and has a curse-filled diatribe in front of his family. Check. Cousin Eddie. Check. In fact, with some of these bits, Hughes doubled down. Christmas Vacation might not be as R-rated as the first film, but Clark has even more freak-outs. His character is more manic and off-the-rails. Every character tick, every impulse, is emphasized for maximum Clark Griswoldness. Likewise not only is Cousin Eddie back, he has a larger role and is even more madcap. Thus, the two strongest characters are given the most focus and they’re given more opportunities to be as funny as possible.

2.) Your Raunch Factor Should Be Balanced By Your Heart Factor

For a holiday family film, Christmas Vacation gets pretty raunchy at times. The main reason the film gets away with this is because of its heart. For every raunchy moment, there’s a sentimental moment. In one scene Clark is dreaming of having a swimming pool. It starts off innocently enough, but soon grows erotic as he imagines the girl he flirted with earlier at the department store. She strips and dives into the pool. Not neccessarily the stuff of family films. Immediately after the scene, Clark has a heart-to-heart with Cousin Eddie’s daughter about Santa Claus. She’s cynical and doesn’t believe in him. Clark convinces the little girl he does exist and later sees to it that she’ll get a gift from Santa. In the wrong hands, this would be horribly schmaltzy and appear disingenuous after indulging in naughty humor. But Hughes knew just how to balance these opposing tones. There’s a similarly sentimental scene in which Clark discovers old family movies in the attic and tears up as he watches them. Isolated, it borders on being saccharine. In the context of the film, however, it’s a necessary moment that shows despite its raunchier moments, this is a Christmas movie and family is important.

3.) Your Characters Can Do A Lot Of Horrible Things Just As Long As They’re Funny

This is a point I made in my article about the first Vacation and it also holds true for Christmas Vacation. Clark Griswold kills a cat. He threatens his neighbors with a chainsaw. He has frequent angry outbursts in which he destroys his own Christmas decorations and rants madly in front of his children. Cousin Eddie, gifted with his larger role, likewise exhibits less than upstanding behavior: he’s crude, exploits the generosity of family members, and buys a ridiculous amount of dog food as he talks about not being able to buy his children Christmas gifts. If you’re making people laugh, they’re going to like your in spite of the horrible things they do. Plus, it’s also a matter of tone and the characters’ motivation. You know deep down Clark is a decent guy. He loves his family. His number one priority is making sure they have the most awesome Christmas ever. He also has the aforementioned heartfelt moments (crying during the old family movies; convincing Eddie’s daughter there really is a Santa; etc). The film never feels mean-spirited, thus we forgive Clark and Eddie’s transgressions.

4.) If You Have Less Locations, Bring In More Characters

Unlike the prior two films, this Vacation isn’t a destination trip. The Griswolds are stationary and, for the most part, the location never changes. One of the reasons the travel structure is so popular in films is it keeps things moving, new locations, new obstacles, and it gives the main characters a destination (i.e. a goal). It’s a challenge for a writer to give a story fluidity and purpose if they never go anywhere. Hughes, on the other hand, is the same man who wrote a film that takes place entirely at one location and it turned out being one of the most beloved films of the 1980s (The Breakfast Club). Not surprisingly, Hughes rose to the challenge and conceived a way to give Christmas Vacation a sense of motion even though the Griswolds stay home for the holidays: it’s constantly introducing new characters. First there are the Griswolds’ yuppie neighbors. Then we get to see where Clark works and meet a coworker and his boss. Then Clark and Ellen’s parents show up. Then Cousin Eddie and his family. And finally, Clark’s elderly uncle and aunt join the festivities. Note how all the character introductions are spaced-out. New faces and new character dynamics keep emerging even though we pretty much stay at the Griswolds’ home.

5.) Plant Seeds For Your Third Act

Despite not having a ‘Walley World’ destination, Hughes made it a point to build to some kind of conclusion in Christmas Vacation. This is why the subplot involving Clark’s workplace and the Christmas bonus was introduced. Relying on more lighthearted, comedic stakes rather than full-blown dramatic stakes, Clark has already put money down on a swimming pool and if he doesn’t get his bonus, he’s going to be in a financial hole. After Clark discovers he’s not receiving his bonus and flips out in front of his family, Cousin Eddie takes it upon himself to kidnap Clark’s boss and bring him back to the Griswold’s home, wrapped in a bow and humiliated. This was actually Hughes’ original ending for the first film: Clark kidnaps Roy Walley after discovering the park is closed. This ending was actually shot but didn’t test well with audiences, so Hughes rewrote the ending and they promptly reshot it. Knowing what didn’t work for one film might work for another, Hughes dusted off the kidnapping bit and applied it to Cousin Eddie and Clark’s boss. Of course Clark’s boss learns the error of his Scrooge-like ways and decides to not press charges. He also gives Clark an even bigger Christmas bonus! Yay! The Griswolds are going to get a swimming pool and holiday cheer is preserved!

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