ICYMI: Long Cat Media on National Lampoon's Vacation
The duo behind the Long Cat Media podcasts – Laurence Owen and Lindsay Sharman – take a trip with the Griswolds
Lindsay: Initial expectations: National Lampoon’s Vacation is an 80s comedy with a theme park. Sounds like it’s made for us! Laurence and I have been theme park enthusiasts for some time now, and yes, that makes us very cool. We even got married at Disney World, and soon after gave birth to our very own theme park – Mockery Manor*.
We should be the ideal audience for National Lampoon’s Vacation, shouldn’t we? Nooope. This is a dated, dubious movie, folks. It did have good moments, but mainly we spent the 92-minute runtime exclaiming such things as "What is going on? Why are we seeing the mum’s boobs again? How long is this comedic set-up going to go on for?! Is that a young Jane Krakowski?"
Laurence: OK, let’s start with the plot – cheeky hapless dad Clark Griswold takes his wife Ellen and children Rusty and Audrey on a road trip cross country to visit Walley World.
I’ve never much enjoyed the 'everything-goes-wrong road trip' genre of family comedies: I find them stressful and usually want to flip tables as each inevitable disaster approaches. But this didn’t give me the toe-curling stress response I’d expected.
What was striking was just how many jokes are set up but then just… move on. Scenes like Clark getting lost in the desert feel like such well-trodden ground that you think “Ah, there’s the Lawrence of Arabia music, there’s the skeleton wearing the same clothes as him… soon he’ll collapse and some desert people will rescue him, and he’ll be indoctrinated into their way of life etc.” But instead he just arrives at a gas station where the family is waiting. And then the film moves on. He’s not even comically sunburnt. It’s like the film goes “yeah, you know the rest of this bit,” and spares you the hassle of a punchline. It’s… efficient?
Lindsay: Comedy, some might argue, is about building stress and then relieving it in a heightened and/or unexpected manner (Gadsby!! *shakes fist*). But National Lampoon’s Vacation kept setting up stressful situations (dangerous driving, accidentally killing a pet, a granny dying) and then, instead of capitalising on all that zany potential, taking it reeeeeally easy. Like, hey man, no need to get too excited. It’s fine. Shit happens. *shrug*
The film has the low, low stakes of a giant SNL skit. Or maybe the problem is that there’s no real commitment to mania. Even at the climax when Chevy Chase is supposedly at his wit’s end, he’s only a smidge more wild-eyed and sweary than before. And the wife’s response to her husband pointing a gun at two innocent security guards is essentially, "oh honey, siiiigh." The overall result is VERY WEIRD, like a laid-back fever dream.
So it’s like a mellow cartoon. But then there’s the racism. Yep.
The Griswolds are a parody of a typical middle-class American family, oh-so suburban and naive; the perfect set-up for tired ‘fish out of water’ tropes (even by 1983). The most heinous example of this is when they take a wrong turn into a ‘bad neighbourhood’, depicted as exclusively black. It’s a hive of gun-toting pimps, prostitutes and thieves, all primed to prey on the Griswolds when they ask for directions. The family drive away minus hubcaps. And that’s it. That’s literally the whole joke.
Laurence: I think this film hinges on how much we like Chevy Chase. As Clark, he gives it big comedy dad-throb energy. He loves his kids (though forgets the girl’s name sometimes) and his wife Ellen (even when he’s vigorously attempting to cheat on her) and he’s just trying his dang best. Ellen herself is the straight man for Clark to bounce off, but she’s also there to be smokin’ hot. This might look like a family comedy, but in the first 20 minutes Ellen has been the butt of a blowjob gag, and we’ve seen full nipple in a ‘where’s the joke tho’ shower scene. Both of us were getting flashbacks to sitting with parents in childhood living rooms, watching what appeared to be an innocuous family comedy, then sitting in awkward silence when all the boobs appeared.
So, this isn’t really worth a rewatch.
*But hey, tell you what else is set in the 80s and has a theme park and some decent comedy that isn’t racist or sexist – Mockery Manor!
Long Cat Media write and produce the following podcasts:
The Ballad of Anne and Mary with Christina Bianco, Sooz Kempner and Hamilton's Karl Queensborourgh
Mockery Manor starring Sooz Kempner and Alistair Beckett-King
Madame Magenta: Sonos Mystica
Listen to all of Long Cat Media's podcasts wherever you get them or at longcatmedia.com/podcast