Updated: Mar 30
As a publication, National Lampoon has generated some of the best comedy writers of the latter half of the 20th century. Spinning out of the Harvard Lampoon, it continued the momentum built by its predecessor by launching the careers of all who touched it. The Vacation film series, in particular, has some of the most lasting legacy today.
Forever a part of Freeform/ABC Family’s “25 Days of Christmas,” National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is absorbed as part of the month long deluge of Christmas content even by people who had no idea what it was. A large part of Christmas culture is formed by these films. Christmas as a holiday is steeped in tradition and nostalgia, and the use of this movie as part of that feeling is instrumental. The kind of family portrayed in Christmas Vacation is one that has permeated white American culture for decades.
John Hughes penned the first Vacation movie and based it off of his trip to Disney with his family. While Hughes did not attend Harvard, it cannot be understated how much Harvard and the Ivy League have influenced modern American comedy. Plenty of affluent (usually white) male creators worked for the Lampoon and using their connections, moved on to shape the comedy landscape of the 1970’s and 80’s in such places as Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons. As such, the cyclical nostalgic nature of Christmas keeps regurgitating the classics of a different time.
That is not to say that Christmas Vacation isn’t without quality. The performances turned in by everyone involved - from Chevy Chase to Beverly D’Angelo to the late, great, Doris Roberts - prove that everyone was willing to give it their all to make something special. Part of the appeal of the franchise is the Simpsons-esque stasis that the family maintains. The kids are always portrayed by different actors, permanently teens and young adults. The family uses the generic nuclear family template on purpose. They propose to upend these stereotypes, as was the spirit of the times. The Simpsons was also written by a great many Harvard alumni and shows a middle class (quite literally) nuclear family.
Post-Vietnam War America struggled with reconciling its identity. The generation of upcoming comedians and writers were from a more traditional time period, and they hoped to rebel by turning old stereotypes on their head. However, their point of references were very narrow. These creators, from mostly small homogenous towns, had universal experiences. What seemed like a new and fresh take to them, now seems to only reinforce the perceived monoculture that their upbringings taught them.
Clark Griswold as a leading character is an exercise in male fragility and privilege, endemic to the times. He is expecting a Christmas bonus, and even goes ahead and spends the money without even confirming whether or not he is going to get one. His expectation is portrayed to be clearly shortsighted, and we’re not necessarily supposed to believe that he’s without fault. However, we are made to think that his employers are cheap misers who are stepping on the underdog. This frustration is the genesis for a lot of the movie’s comedy, as Clark becomes more and more unhinged with each increasing slight. He feels entitled to his bonus and to making Christmas special for his family. He feels owed something that was never truly promised to him.
This narrow view of the workplace is an indication of the perspective of the creators involved. Most of them had dads who worked at some indiscriminate office and brought home Christmas bonuses. They lived in the kinds of homes that the Griswold's lived in, and they would completely empathize with where Clark is coming from. They would see him as wronged, and they would get why he reacts so violently. It is, after all, Christmas. What kind of job wouldn’t cut their employee some slack? That is, as long as their employee isn’t in the service industry or the medical industry or any other number of jobs in which, Christmas is just another day. For a lot of people, they get cut no breaks due to the fact that it is Christmas.
Christmas Vacation turns 40 this year, and while its age shows, its place in the culture is still relevant after all this time. The perspective it represents is very indicative of those who created it. It brings a lot of nostalgia and joy to the people who grew up with it, and can share it with those who didn’t. While all of that is okay, it’s good to keep in mind that new and diverse voices are creating new stories every day.
Marco is a comedian, writer, and under employed New Yorker trying to make it in this damn world. He enjoys fruitlessly pursuing love on dating apps and keeping track of all of the movies he’s seen on Letterboxd.