Being a Griswold at Christmas

What would make up for 35 years of dentists and mechanics chortling over my last name? I want to be fair and rational about this, so I suggest we just dig up John Hughes and use his thigh bone to beat out the tempo to the song for National Lampoon’s Vacation on his skull.

Hughes, who died in 2009 at only 59, was the prolific director/writer of memorable movies such as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; Breakfast Club; Planes, Trains, and Automobiles; Uncle Buck; Home Alone; Mr. Mom; and Sixteen Candles. The New York Times said he became synonymous with comedies about disaffected youth (in mostly suburban white Chicago). For me, in the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas, he becomes every wit behind a deli counter who stops slicing the ham loaf to say, “Griswold? Have you ever seen that movie…?”

I know, it could be a lot worse: John Gacy, Joel Rifkin, Sam Hitler. My name is not Jerry Lewis, Jerry Seinfeld, Jerry Garcia, Jerry Mander. I am not Holden Caulfield or Porky Pig. But Hughes’ choice to use an ancient, honorable surname, which happens to be mine, for his movie character has made for a long after-party. My kids hear about it all the time, at school and in sports, as do other Griswolds, evidently.

“It’s been 33 years since the original National Lampoon’s Vacation movie and still people comment when they hear our last name is ‘Griswold,’” says one family who went mad from the comments and recreated both Family Truckster and trip from the movie.

Hughes first used the name in his short story “Vacation ’58,” written for the September 1979 issue of National Lampoon. Hughes was an ad writer in that decade but hoped to break in to comedy. When he was in New York, he says, “I tried to finish my business by noon, and then I’d hang out at the Lampoon. No one would talk to me for months.”

I seem to remember hearing that he used the name because the founders of National Lampoon came from the Harvard Lampoon, and since “the greatest Yale President” was Alfred Whitney Griswold, who had once served as Editor for The Yale Record, the (older) counterpart to the Harvard Lampoon, the name was primed for satire. I can find no evidence of this now, but it seems plausible Hughes would try to please those he hoped to break in with.

As a teen boy I was an avid reader of the Lampoon, a combination that was another thing wrong with America. My friends and I thought the story was hilarious because Clark shoots Walt Disney in the leg and goes to prison. When the Lampoon needed a follow-up movie to their unexpected hit Animal House (1978), they tapped Hughes, and he wrote the Vacation screenplay from his story, with a changed ending. The movie came out in 1983 and helped cement Hughes’ early reputation in Hollywood.

Vacation was intended to be a little raunchy and for 20-somethings, but it was better than that. I imagine producers still sitting in post-mortems, nodding that it has heart.

Beverly D’Angelo, who plays Ellen Griswold, says, “I really thought it would be a lark, and it was very much in the context of, this is for the people who love Saturday Night Live and this is a satire. […] I was amazed that it was a hit because people didn’t see it as a satire and this niche thing. […] And I thought it would go away. It never went away, and to this day, it hasn’t gone away, so I thank god that I did that. […] And this relationship that I have with the public because of the Griswolds—what a gift. Generations.”

I never identified with Clark W. Griswold or his family, even though I have relatives with some of their first names, and a cousin who was sort of like Eddie, except bigger, more colorful, and more dangerous. And while I would not call the name’s relationship with the public a gift, I have always liked the character Chevy Chase created. Clark Griswold is smart, caring, generally good-humored (even if he has to fake it politely sometimes), a bit clueless, and not always in the right. He has energy but can be bumbling. (Chase has said he was deeply influenced by the physical comedy of Jacques Tati.) He has his own passions and pushes back if someone tries to thwart him for no good reason. He can even fly off the handle, but no one gets genuinely hurt. Clark has been called an everyman, which I suppose is true enough, if we are talking about the upper-middle class.

Whatever Hughes’ thing with the Griswold name was, he got one thing right: how often people get it wrong. Maybe this was its comic attractiveness: the plethora of consonants but only two vowels to turn the mouth on. People often say “Griz-wald,” as Clark’s yuppie neighbor does, or mangle it, as the jelly-of-the-month courier does in the Christmas movie: Grizbun. People so often change the name that when I was heading off to basic training, I joked to friends I would become John Griswood at Ft. Leonard Wood. That was my listing in the training-company yearbook at graduation.

Clark’s employer gets the name wrong in Hughes’ second Griswold story in the Lampoon (“Christmas ’59,” December 1980), which became Christmas Vacation:

“‘The company really found that old Christmas spirit this year,’ he said to Mom in the kitchen.

“’You got your bonus?’

“’Yeah,’ he said, reaching into his pocket. ‘A cigarette lighter with my name on it.’

“’It’s spelled wrong,’ Mom noticed.”

This is the last indignity, the insult added to injury, that Hughes used in various forms, and which his characters react to.

“Hey, Griz-wald, where do you think you’re gonna [literally anything]?” some jerk says.

Bend over, I’ll show you,” our reply.

When people bring up the first movie with me, they often have a strange vacant look, as if they suspect they are not being as funny as lines they cannot quite remember. This sinks into yuks over the name. When they bring up the Christmas movie, they seem to want to share something; I think of that line about Clark as the “last true family man.”

D’Angelo says elsewhere, “The first Vacation was rated R, but then this phenomena happened [with Christmas Vacation] that people brought their kids and instead of saying, ‘Look at these people,’ the audience went, ‘This is us.’ They laughed with them instead of at them. And it changed things.”

Despite the seasonal attention, Christmas Vacation is, for this Griswold, the best of the seven in the franchise (one is just a long ad). Clark is as rounded and humane as most comic characters get, and I can relate to that.