“National Lampoon”: Five Lessons in Writing Comedy

Jan 12, 2016 | Writing

The original Vacation (1983) was written by 80s cinema legend John Hughes. It was based on his National Lampoon piece “Vacation ’58”, and it was the script that catapulted him into the film business. After the Harold Ramis directed film became a box office smash, Hughes could write his own ticket in Hollywood as a writer/director. It was the experience of adapting “Vacation ’58”, however, where Hughes mastered the craft of screenwriting. And it was not an easy experience. Starting off as an earnest coming of age story (in which Rusty was the point of view character) and finally emerging as an epic screwball comedy with Clark Griswold in the driver’s seat, Vacation is one of the best examples of the masterpiece being in the rewrites. Hughes rose to the challenge and penned one of the greatest comedies of all time. Below are five things we can learn from the film…

1.) Right Story, Right Character
No doubt, Hughes’ original vision in which Rusty was the main protagonist would have been a charming, heartfelt film, but it wouldn’t have led to a hit movie that inspired three sequels, a reboot, and that’s still being shown on cable TV. In many ways, the best thing that ever happened to Hughes’ career was Chevy Chase getting attached to his script, forcing the character of Clark Griswold front and center. Rather than a more passive protagonist who’s merely reacting to his overzealous father, the film became about Clark’s manic obsession with his family having the most awesome time ever. Walley World is just a means to an end. Driving across America is the true purpose of the vacation. As Clark says, “Getting there is half the fun.” This creates much more of a comic engine than if we were seeing it all through Rusty’s eyes. Clark’s mania is what fuels the film and allows for an increasing upping of the ante. How far will Clark go? Will his family forgive him this time? Is he going to get someone killed?
2.) Your Lead Character Can Be Insane Just As Long As Your Supporting Characters Aren’t 
On the surface Clark Griswold is a very relatable character. He’s just a typical, dorky Dad from the suburbs. A devoted father and husband just trying to show his family a good time. Right? Wrong. Clark Griswold has a dark side, and getting to Walley World is his dark obsession. Clark is the unbridled “id” of every American dad and he’s madbent on his family having the most awesome time ever. That’s what’s important. Nothing else. The reason why Clark is able to get away with so much lunacy is because he’s leveled out by his family. His wife, Ellen, is the voice-of-reason. She’s relatable. As are the children: Rusty and Audrey. They’re bewildered by Clark’s antics and his Walley World or bust mantra. Having normal, relatable characters are essential for a crazy character to bounce off of. It’s the classic straight guy/nutty guy dynamic; a rock solid formula.
3.) Your Lead Character Can Do Horrible Things Just As Long As They’re Funny
Clark Griswold kills a dog. He drops his wife’s dead aunt on her family’s doorstep. He berates his wife and children with an obscenity laden diatribe. He flirts heavily with a super model and almost cheats on his wife. He also doesn’t repent after being caught with his pants down, and he’s still forgiven! Even at the film’s climax, Clark doesn’t have to pay for taking a man hostage and breaking into a closed Walley World with a BB gun. Clark never answers for any of his transgressions. Of course this was a film made in the less politically correct 1980s. But I propose you could still get away with all this and for one crucial reason: It’s Laugh Out Loud Funny. If you’re making people laugh, they’re more likely to get on board with your character, even if he is flawed – in Clark’s case, severly so.
4.) Include A Cousin Eddie
Every comedy should have at least one character that’s almost as nutty if not nuttier than your lead character. Yes, most of your supporting characters should be relatable and a foil. But halfway through the film, a curveball is always welcomed. Whether it’s Leslie Chow in the Hangover movies or Will Ferrell’s funeral crasher in Wedding Crashers, a comedy is enhanced by these type of maverick characters. Cousin Eddie fulfills this role in Vacation. If Clark is the unbridled “id” of every nerdy, suburban father, Eddie is the “id” of every embarassing relative you secretly think is hysterically funny. Eddie is simultaneously uncouth and lovable. He’s the only character who ever upstages Clark and no doubt this is why he was brought back in the later sequels. It’s like saying “You think this guy is funny, well, how about this guy!?” But like with any good thing, this can be overdone. You have too many crazy characters and you’re heading towards Spoofville. Like Tabasco sauce, a little craziness goes a long way. Your Cousin Eddie is an ace up your sleeve, not a hand to play over and over again.
5.) You Can Be Episodic With A Strong Through Line

One of the most dreaded phrases in development circles is “too episodic”. Nonetheless, they keep making road trip movies, which are episodic by nature. One of the reasons is because it’s a surefire way of having set-pieces in your film. But if all your film does is move from one whacky set-piece to the next, it’s likely to feel hollow and might even become grating after awhile. The trick is having a strong through line in your script. Where are the characters going? Is there a clear goal? What do the characters hope to achieve when they get there? How do the characters react to each new situation? Is the relationship between the characters being tracked? Do they learn anything? Do they grow? Do they regress? The Hangover wasn’t a road trip, but it followed the beats of a mystery, which are likewise episodic. Each clue led to a new location and situation. Again, this worked because it had a strong goal and through line (finding out what happened the night before, finding the missing groom, etc.). In Vacation Clark’s goal of reaching Walley World and showing his family an awesome time is tracked throughout the film. “It’s a quest. A quest for fun.” Clark increasingly testing the limits of his wife and children as he pursues his goal not only offers many comic possibilities, it allows for some great character work: Clark and Ellen duet on the Mocking Bird song; Clark and Rusty “sharing” a beer in the desert. It’s these more grounded, stolen moments that give the film another sought after ingredient in modern-day comedies: Heart. John Hughes was a master of this. He understood family and its varying degrees of dysfunction. One moment you can be having fun with them, the next second you’re screaming at each other. This is one of the reasons why no matter how episodic or absurd it gets, the original Vacation still holds up. The Griswolds were three dimensional characters. Clark, Ellen, Rusty and Audrey all have their own private worldview, which in their most trying moments crests to the surface.

Edwin Cannistraci

Screenwriter

Edwin Cannistraci is a professional screenwriter. His comedy specs PIERRE PIERRE and O’GUNN both sold with more than one A-list actor and director attached. In addition, he’s successfully pitched feature scripts, TV pilots and has landed various assignment jobs for Universal, Warner Bros, Paramount and Disney.