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John Hughes: Finding the Humour in Christmas

8 min read

20th Century Fox

is known by many for his 80s comedies centred around teenagers and high school. Films such as The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Pretty In Pink immediately spring to mind whenever his name is brought up in conversation, and rightly so as these films successfully established a specific tone and style that would define Hughes' output during the 80s but also the coming of age subgenre as a whole. Even when his career started veering towards more whimsical, family friendly stories in the 90s with films like Flubber and 101 Dalmatians, it would always be the films he wrote and directed in the early to mid 80s that would be forever associated with John Hughes as a filmmaker.

However, Hughes wrote a string of comedies spanning from the late 80s to the early 90s that would all together ditch the high school setting and instead focused on the relatable struggles families go through around the holiday season, with each film finding more and more ways to highlight and exaggerate these traditions for comedic purposes. It is this run of films that really showcase Hughes' comedic sensibilities as a writer and have appropriately become Christmas classics in the process. 

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, and are Christmas staples for many families and generations purely down to Hughes' writing and how he is able to turn things we all take for granted during the holiday season and accentuating the bizarre nature of it all in increasingly over the top ways.

Before looking at the three aforementioned films and seeing how they utilise their comedy so effectively, it is important to acknowledge the film that launched this trend for Hughes in the first place, Planes, Trains and Automobiles. It was this film that kickstarted the template that Hughes would evolve and perfect with his next few projects, taking something that is relatable to most people and bringing the absurdity and humour of it to the forefront. At its core, Planes, Trains and Automobiles is simply about a man trying to get home for Thanksgiving yet the film finds increasingly more over the top ways to obstruct his journey. These are things that, in the film, are presented in a very wacky and outlandish manner but when those elements are brought back to their core fundamentals, they are all things that everyone has gone through at least once when stuck in a similar situation.

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989)

This is where Christmas Vacation and the constant torment of the Griswold's comes into play. Released two years after Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Christmas Vacation takes the beloved Griswold family and puts them in a scenario most people dread during this festive time of year…having all of your relatives stay over for Christmas. 

Christmas Vacation is a masterclass in taking common traditions of Christmas that are stressful enough anyway for most families and finding ludicrous methods of heightening how wrong that can go and how it amplifies the intensity of the situation for those involved. For instance, everything that could possibly go wrong for Clark and his family does, but with Christmas fast approaching and more relatives appearing out of nowhere, it greatly pushes Clark to breaking point therefore leading to further problems.

Mundane things we all take for granted like cooking the turkey, finding a Christmas tree and decorating the house with Christmas lights are taken to the extreme in terms of how wrong they can end up. The turkey is cooked to the point of oblivion, the tree is comically way too big for the house and the amount of lights covering the house are so powerful it ends up cutting the electricity to the rest of the city. It is details like these that cement Christmas Vacation as a great festive comedy that really understands what everyone goes through during this time of year and exaggerates it to the point of no return to hilarious effect. 

Even as the grandparents arrive, it is treated with a sense of brooding and terror for the Griswolds, like a build in tension you would see in a horror film with the only difference being that this time it is heavily blown out of proportion with dramatic camera work and the humorously warped sound of the door bell that gets more distorted the more it is rung. These are all things people can very easily relate to and the manner in which they get continually more disastrous allows Hughes' writing to connect with a wide range of audiences, all thanks to the comedy that is on display and how empathetic it can appear in the final product.

Warner Bros. Pictures

Home Alone (1990)

One year later, Hughes would take what he did so well on Christmas Vacation and streamline it through the lens of one specific fear that parents have when going on holiday, what if you left your child home alone. It is a simple concept that has run through parents minds for years, but by setting the story at Christmas and including the angle of burglars trying to break into the house allowed Hughes to add a needed sense of urgency to the story whilst also taking the festive traditions he had made fun of with Christmas Vacation and utilising them here as well as flipping some on their head due to the nature of the plot. 

With Home Alone, Hughes manages to find the humour in the smaller moments. A lot of the comedy in the film, of course, comes from the Wet Bandits' constant failed attempts at being burglars and Kate McCallister's tedious journey back home which feels very reminiscent to that of Neal Page's arduous trip in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Both of these subplots lead to memorable scenes that point out some key areas of the festive season. Whether it's the hilarious exchanges between Harry and Marv or Kate's struggle to find a way home before Christmas day via any means of transport possible, it is these subplots that bring out the humorous nature of things people do around this time of year. Whereas Christmas Vacation showed it, Home Alone uses the exploits of Kate, Harry and Marv to verbally bring them to the audience's attention instead.

With that being said, there are still a few instances where the over the top humour of Christmas Vacation shows up to brilliant results. Most notably, the entire sequence where the family wakes up late and makes a mad dash for the airport, something that would also be replicated in its sequel due to how well it works here. From the sped up editing to John Williams' iconic score, this entire scene is the perfect amount of silliness the film requires at that given time, again heavily exaggerating something most people can relate to when going on holiday and presenting it in such a ridiculous fashion that it pushes the absurdity of the situation to the front of stage.

However, it is the moments we spend with Kevin on his own where we see some of the core traditions we associate with Christmas being altered or flipped on their head entirely. Most of these come at points in the film where Kevin is trying to distract or divert the Wet Bandits, making it appear as if people are still living in the house. Even scenes where Kevin is just trying to shop on his own for example, by design of the story, automatically swaps out the notion of Christmas shopping with your family.

20th Century Fox

Home Alone 2: Lost In New York (1992)

Most of what was said about Home Alone can apply to its sequel as well. It takes a lot of the key elements that made the original work but switches up the setting and scenario enough to make it stand on its own two feet. 

The primary difference this film makes when compared to the original is by taking the concept of Kevin being stuck on his own at Christmas and having him be lost in the big apple as opposed to his own house which he knows like the back of his hand. This change alone presents another fear that parents have, especially during the hectic shopping trips in the lead up to Christmas, and that is losing your child in and amongst the hoards of people that are roaming the streets looking for bargains. Home Alone 2 takes this and amplifies to the most extreme degree. Kevin happens to be lost in one of the biggest cities in America and his family are in a completely different country, he is quite literally on his own with no one to help him.

Home Alone 2, for the most part, plays this scenario more for emotion than it did in the original but that's not to say it doesn't lead to comedic results on more than a few occasions throughout its almost 2-hour runtime. All of the sequences set within the hotel are some of the funniest moments of the entire film, thanks mostly because of Tim Curry's irreplaceable performance, but there are also plenty of scenes set in the surrounding area that still hit the spot in terms of comedy timing. One recurring part that comes to mind is the woman who Kevin and the Sticky Bandits bump into twice which results in her smacking both Harry and Marv in the face. A straightforward but effective joke that plays with your expectations and somehow gets funnier the more it happens.

Obviously, we could spend hours talking about the trap sequences in both Home Alone films, which are great in their own respective ways, but they act more as the icing on the cake when you look at these two films as a whole. It is the jokes Hughes is able to squeeze out of specific yet recognisable things that are what drive both of the Home Alone films when you view them from a comedic standpoint.

20th Century Fox

The majority of Christmas films that came beforehand mostly leaned towards the heartwarming side of the holiday, only occasionally dipping into comedy when necessary. However, with these three films, John Hughes was able to bring the idea of a Christmas film back down to earth in a way that everyone can understand and connect to whilst at the same time pointing out just how strange some of those festive traditions can be when looking at them at face value. Also not to mention the bizarre lengths some people will go to celebrate said traditions. 

For many, Hughes didn't just define the 80s coming of age film but he also created the backbone of the modern Christmas comedy. A template that has been copied multiple times but has never quite been perfected the same way Hughes was able to with these three Christmas classics.