The Funny Ritual of the American Family Vacation

national lampoon's family vacation chevy chase

To celebrate the summer and to coincide with an impending Father’s Day, I am reposting this piece on National Lampoon’s Vacation. I reassert that the film is a formidable contribution to American humor, a fact made even more evident by the lame updated version of the film released in 2015 (simply titled Vacation), written and directed by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley. The return to the Griswold family featured an adult Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms) repeating the desperate but loving efforts of his father all those years ago. The film is just plain awful but still managed to make substantive money at the box office. I see that success as testament to the legacy of the original film along with the enduring appeal of disastrous family vacations in the American psyche. The original film remains the seminal statement of this beautiful and dysfunctional family ritual.

In the summer of 1983, Americans were treated to one of the best comedy films to examine the American family vacation and its inescapable heart of darkness: National Lampoon’s Vacation, directed by Harold Ramis and written by John Hughes, who based the screenplay on his short story “Vacation ’58.” The film stands as the best cultural document to exploit the humor of the American family vacation, that mainstream celebration reasserting the right to own the landscape and be miserable in the process–and all at great expense. There is no cultural behavior that is so consistently marked with promise year after year and also, in equal proportions, disappointment–unless we talk about marriage itself, but I dare not suggest that.

National Lampoon's Vacation chevy chase family vacation

Few movies tapped into the zeitgeist more effectively than Vacation. This is not only evidenced by its success in the marketplace, immediately in that big first summer (most online sources assert a box office of $61,000,000 and a budget somewhere around $15 million) ; then also with the continuing payoff from the sequels it encouraged and the high-rotation syndication it has earned for the last thirty years. There are few film or television families with greater reach into American culture than the Griswolds.

The film is especially poignant to American fathers who, no matter what other factors come into play, enter upon this challenge as if they are performing a noble duty to God and Country. (I hasten to add that women–mothers–have their own nightmares of the family vacation, primarily built around having to recreate the domestic space in any and all spaces occupied by the family–talk about exhaustion!–but Vacation is driven in all ways by Clark, the failed provider.) When a father begins a family vacation, the task is taken on out of a feeling of obligation first and foremost, not a desire for relaxation. As Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) puts it; the family is on a “quest for fun,” a perpetual search just as elusive as any effort to find the Holy Grail.

It is the delving into the pathetic psyche of the mainstream American father who chooses year after year to endure the ritual that makes Vacation such a compelling example of American humor. Every father is Clark Griswold, a bumbling simpleton with a good heart but very little understanding of his limitations.

Chevy Chase vacation

Chevy Chase, in his dream role, deserves an Oscar in his creation of Clark Griswold simply for making him worthy of our sympathy. He is both ridiculous and believable. He is a first-rate idiot, bless his heart. But he keeps trying because he understands what all American family vacation providers understand: he cannot stop. Stopping is failure. Deep down he must always believe that the obeisance of such a powerful ritual will be repaid. Marty Moose owes us.

Chevy chase punches moose at wally world

As I write this, I am on vacation, and I am exhausted. I can’t wait to get home so that I can get some rest. I am going to float the idea of leaving a day early. But in the meantime, today is for sea kayaks. The four of us will explore like Lewis and Clark. The sea looks a bit angry today, but what could go wrong? Good family fun, with a hint of danger, or at least….hassle.

American family vacations are funny things. There are many reasons for this, but the humor derives most from the core incongruity that defines the practice. It is filled with hope that does not learn from previous failures. Even though I am consciously overstating the case, it still strikes me as fair and accurate. My memories of my childhood family vacations are all incredibly pleasant, even the one where we spent three rainy days in a Myrtle Beach hotel room before my Dad proclaimed he had had enough. He checked out, drove home to borrow a camper from his father, then picked up my Mom’s parents to join the three of us for a drive up to Chesapeake Bay. Why? Because it was there!

Given the chance to declare defeat to the whims of the weather god, my Dad chose, rather, to double-down and make the rest of his vacation a journey across a big bridge and tunnel and include extended family as well. Reckless!

National-Lampoons-Vacation-Ford-LTD-Country-Squire

It was great, especially when the camper (a pick-up truck with a camper set on top) broke down on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel. It came to a pitiful, coughing stop on one of the few “islands” between the long tunnel segments. If we had broken down within one of the tunnel sections, according to my Dad, he would have had to bury his father-in-law on the spot. My grandfather had terrible claustrophobia, and he had agreed to make the trip ONLY if he did not have to enter the tunnel. The plan was to drop him and my grandmother off at a hotel before the beginning of the tunnel and to pick them back up on the return. My Dad ignored all signs and plowed ahead, certain that his father-in-law would appreciate the experience (Oh, man, that was gutsy. A bit stupid, too. But funny.)

I loved the whole trip. At age 8, what was not to love? The Chesapeake Tunnel was cool, despite the car trouble. The motel room at Myrtle Beach was cool, too, despite the rain. Just now, in my middle age, I am fully realizing all that was going on. My brother and sister had moved out in the previous year (they were nine and eleven years older than I was), and this was the first vacation with simply the one, youngest child. That must have seemed all wrong for my parents. But it was wonderful for me to be completely oblivious to exactly how miserable the grown-ups were–and, more importantly, how hard they were working to give me a vacation to remember. There is something in that. And such things take place every summer in America.

Americans love vacations with a vengeance. It seems worthwhile to hope against hope that the next one will come together perfectly. My family, for example, will come back to the beach next summer and do all of this again. And the year after that. And each time we will reaffirm hope that our children will one day remember and cherish how much fun they had. I hope also that they will be amazed at how oblivious they were to how exhausting the whole damn thing was. And laugh as they tell the stories.

Good talk, Russ.

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(c) 2013, Jeffrey Melton

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37 responses

  1. This was a really great read! I have fond memories of taking family vacations as a child. They’re a great way to spend quality time with the family and should be taken often!

    1. I agree it is a great read brings back great memories for me and my family! humor is without question. I must say that this stoy is of my favorite all time movi

  2. I have searched pinterest and my brain and I know there is lots
    of cooking involved in this diet and by the end of the week when you do not mind blue poop.
    For many people ’30 day’ is rejected in their minds eye as being something unpleasant that is hard to
    match with regular foods. You only gain freedom from it when you
    can play with your kids, not have to be beautiful.

  3. As editor, I trash hundreds of poorly written responses to posts like the above, which are obviously spam. But the comment from “hot tub servicing devon” had a certain absurd, poetic charm, that I wanted to share it with you. What about hot tub servicing leads to cooking that leads to “blue poop”? –the editor

    1. I was wondering the same thing. Nice post though.

  4. Reblogged this on Humor in America and commented:

    Hope you are all having good summer vacations (and not moving, like me). Enjoy.

  5. Vacation – so much expectation that is only sometimes paid off. I remember travel being way more fun as a kid, when all I was responsible for was packing my clothes and a ton of books. We road-tripped, so my main memories of vacations are trips to the library beforehand, followed by hours of reading in the van. Good times for a bookworm :)

    Worst vacation – when we went to the southernmost tip of Texas in the middle of July. I’m sure I would have liked the San Antonio riverwalk much better if it hadn’t been 105 degrees with 100% humidity.

  6. All my childhood memories of vacations are wonderful! And you made me think for the first time, that maybe, my parents felt like I now do! I can only hope my children will also remember it with fondness.

  7. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of riding with my two younger sisters in the back of the station wagon on family vacation while my mom yelled at my dad in the front seat for taking one of his “scenic” routes. Great post!

  8. Nice read indeed. I love the Griswolds and I love family vacation, especially camping. Incidentally, I recently read a piece written by John Steinbeck, published in Popular Science in1967. I don’t know if he was being ironic, but he clearly didn’t understand the need for a Griswold kind of vacation. But I have many nice memories of my family’s old wreck making another trip through Norway, Sweden an Denmark. We always managed to get back again. I remember one time when we used chewing gum to stop a leak and the car always overheated as we crossed the mountains. We still do vacation on a very tight budget.

  9. Good read. When I was a kid we took a long drive from Alabama to Dallas, TX as a vacation. For what? Still not sure. We went to Six Flags. We saw the house from the show Dallas. There were fights, there were grumblings, there were long, painful stents on the road. My father, a silent version of Clark, kept us moving, hardly smiling in the process.

    Was it fun? No. Was it a great memory. Yep.

  10. That looks like the station wagon my family traveled in. Too funny!

  11. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed.

  12. Can you believe I’ve never seen this movie? I think maybe I did see a few minutes of it once, especially if there’s a scene where Clark falls asleep at the wheel only to be woke up (too late) by one of his kids’ “Stiiinky feeet”. Will have to check it out some time.

  13. Traveling is an adventure

  14. So, my family and I love this movie so much that we quote it constantly. And, we watch Christmas Vacation in July. We do not like European Vacation or Vegas Vacation. Sorry. And I hate when people misquote the movie or say “Remember when the grandmother dies.” She breathed on me. A dead person breathed on me.

  15. Our “family vacations” were annual drives between Delaware and Maine by June 1, and return by toward end of August — to get ready for school (really made me HATE school, but I LOVED school, so no problems).

    My mother did the driving with her mother, my elderly, grand, Victorian grandmother — replete with hair net and hat the entire journey — sat beside her. I was in the back seat with the dog and the cat, all “free-range.” In my boredom, I would try to play games with other kids in cars all driving the same way. Teen age years were really bad with me on those trips!

    And, so it went for close to 30 years. Anything to get out from the Wilmington sweltering heat and humidity. Those were the last decades Maine ever had “Maine summers.”

  16. Reblogged this on Victoria Dickinson Consulting – VDC and commented:
    Super, great post! Americana at it’s summer best, memory lane!

  17. I will always love these epic movies. they were hilarious.

  18. Good read. It reminded me of my favorite vacation as a kid camping through Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Also a good movie that I haven’t seen in 15 years, have to see if it’s on Netflix.

  19. This is a fantastic read! I missed out on a lot of vacations as a child because my father wasn’t a very spontaneous person and he didn’t particularly enjoy traveling, but I’ve had my fair share of wonderful times spent with my mom just going on adventures. It’s probably what makes me love traveling so much now.

    Thanks for sharing!

  20. Nice read!! Congrats on FP’d

  21. Let me offer a perspective from another cultural context. Vacations in India used to be mainly visits to family- grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles. Now, with economic growth and global lifestyles, we’re also embracing this idea of the family vacation. And I hear you when you describe the exhaustion and stress. Yet, there is a kid inside me that is determined to love travel and vacationing no matter what! Great read and congrats on being freshly pressed!

  22. This was such a great read. I’m an adult now and I think because we took summer vacations I do that now. Maybe not in a car first but once we arrive via plane I get a rental car and ride.

  23. funny video very interesting
    good

  24. Reblogged this on vediyanand and commented:
    wow

  25. Reblogged this on Just another Blog and commented:
    Having just come back from our Summer Vacation I can relate to this. Looking back at past vacations I would say the ritual is not unique to Americans, but Dads all over the world, well western worked, try to create the perfect vacation but often fall short, not to say a many great vacations have been had but there where always moments.

  26. This is fantastic! My family’s getting ready for a vacation in August, and as I was cleaning today I kept thinking the best reward would be to have everyone healthy and happy for that week. Thanks for the reminder that we’re not the only ones struggling to make such a fiasco fun.

  27. Just got back from our own family vacation and this piece made me miss all the fun and the not-so-fun, which makes the stories we tell even more entertaining. Thanks for sharing!

  28. Nicely written and how very true!

  29. The humming Fridge | Reply

    I loved reading this blog. Fun!

  30. Thank you for the gut belly laugh! I needed that so badly. My nightmares continue, as I had to ride backwards in our station wagon. Still can’t do it.

  31. Reblogged this on Vince Liuzzi's WordPress Blog and commented:
    One of the funniest movies of all time… Next to Christmas Vacation!

  32. Reblogged this on Sig Nordal and commented:
    “The film is especially poignant to American fathers who, no matter what other factors come into play, enter upon this challenge as if they are performing a noble duty to God and Country.”

  33. wonderful ! I can so relate to this write up of yours because I too tried to sum up how exactly an Indian Family Vacation is like in one of my blogs -https://the-passport-souls.travel.blog/2017/01/19/family-vacations-the-indian-way/.. your write up made me nostalgic ,ah childhood memories of family vacations .

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