“What are you gonna do with that big bonus check? You’re gonna blow it on yourself, I hope.”
“Who me? Heck, no!”
This is one of my favorite exchanges from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. When you’ve seen this movie a thousand times, you take pleasure in its more elusive moments.
Every December, Christmas Vacation recaptures the zeitgeist with roughly a dozen other holiday staples (you know what they are). And every December, I am reminded how much I cherish the enthusiastic, the ridiculous, the essential, Clark W. Griswold.
Clark is a national treasure for many reasons. For starters, he’s played perfectly by Chevy Chase, a comic actor whose brilliance is found in an ability to deliver absurdity with a straight face. (“Me winning isn’t. You do.”)
Chase strikes a balance of making Clark into a totally unbelievable person, who is at the same time, exactly like your dad.
While his missteps lead to lunacy, he is more than a caricature for fathers everywhere. No, your dad is not a restrained version of Clark. He is precisely Clark, he just hasn’t held up an amusement park…yet.
Who among us hasn’t had their father drag them to things you don’t want to do in the name of tradition, give meticulous attention to things that don’t matter, be woefully incapable of innocent flirtation, create numerous fire hazards in the name of illumination, have their spouse outsmart them at every turn, and fall completely in love with anything rediscovered in an attic? Exactly.
Randy Quaid’s Cousin Eddie is frequently the most celebrated character in the movie, and deservedly so. Quaid is a gifted actor. He received Oscar, Golden Globe, and Emmy nominations for more dramatic performances. But for my generation, his greatest cinematic achievement will always be turning the subordinate roles of a war Veteran-turned-drunk crop duster and a dim-witted cousin into iconic movie characters. He didn’t just create culture-capturing figures out of role players, he saved humanity from extinction.
Quaid is hard to take your eyes off of in Christmas Vacation. Even his behavior in the wide shots garner big laughs. All of that said, Clark is the more interesting character study in the Griswold universe. Despite the farcical nature of his actions, there are actual stakes to his ineptitude. We revere Eddie, but we don’t care what happens to Eddie. We want Clark to succeed. That’s the job of any protagonist: they have to make you care.
That’s a harder task in comedy, especially ones that are asked to be a franchise. Good comedies make you laugh. Great comedies make you relate. That’s why so many sequels fail. They offer up characters we had a really good time with previously, but if they were funnier than they were identifiable, it’s a difficult act to repeat — cough! The Hangover Trilogy, cough!
Christmas Vacation has plenty of laughs, but it also has heart. No matter how cartoonish or insignificant the Griswold’s dilemma is, viewers identify with the pleasures and anxieties of the holidays. We want the payoff of the Griswold’s triumph because that’s our family too, in different clothes.
Clark is similar to Steve Carrell’s Michael Scott after the first season of The Office. In season one, Michael was a very funny character on a show with no identity. But as many successful sitcoms do, The Office captured an audience for the long-term when Michael Scott became more than the idiot boss, but the idiot boss driven by the need to be loved. That added context gave us a reason to care. Beyond the laughs of his repeated blunders was something more important to the complete story of any comedy: Empathy.
Carell plays that character with the same sensibility as Chase’s Griswold. To be around these guys is painful. To go to bat for these guys is easy. The cringing they cause is funnier when you know it serves a lesson being learned in real time.
In their case, the ham-handedness is not always the result of stupidity. Often times, our biggest mistakes occur in ignoring our limits to be the hero to the ones we love. For Clark, everything he does is in an effort to be the impeccable family man, even with the rest of the Griswold’s spending the movie reminding him that they don’t expect him to be.
He doesn’t care. It’s still worth trying. And because we know this about him, the trying brings us back, every single year. And it remains to be very funny.
We’ll always love Christmas Vacation. And we’ll always love Clark W. Griswold.