From national lampoon to hollywood -- 12/3/21

Today's selection -- from You Couldn't Ignore Me If You Tried by Susannah Gora. John Hughes, legendary director of such movies as National Lampoon’s Vacation and Pretty in Pink, went from advertising copywriter to comedy writer for National Lampoon, all the way to Hollywood:
"National Lampoon founder and chairman of the board Matty Simmons was so impressed with [John] Hughes that he let him work from home in the suburbs of Chicago. 'I'll fly you in every two weeks,' Simmons remembers telling Hughes, 'you'll attend the editorial meetings, and then you'll go back to Chicago and quit your job [in advertising], and just write. He was so good,' says Simmons. 'He came in and became one of the best humor writers in the history of the Lampoon.' Hughes was always naturally funny. His former ad­vertising colleague Bob Richter remembers being at Hughes's house one night, 'and John opening his sock drawer, and he did twenty minutes on the contents of his sock drawer that were twenty of the funniest minutes I'd ever seen anyone do. All I remember is nearly falling on the floor laughing at all the silly stuff that he imagined out of his sock drawer,' (Later, Hughes would tell the Chicago Tribune, 'Paper clips can be funny.')

"In the 1970s, while Hughes was making his journey into adulthood, Hollywood was experiencing a youthquake that served to lay the foundation for the teen films Hughes would one day create. It was becoming, said late entertainment exec Bernie Brillstein, 'a new world-of youth.' American Graffiti George Lucas's nostalgia­ infused 1973 ode to the innocence of his high-school days in a pre­  Vietnam America -- 'Where were you in '62?' its poster asked tenderly -- showed the extraordinarily powerful effect that music can have in a story about teenagers -- not the scored, sweeping, orchestral 'movie music' used by Hollywood since the early days of the indus­try, nor the cloying songs customarily written for film, but good pop music, the very tunes those very teenagers in American Graffiti would have been listening to on restless summer nights in 1962 on their car radios.

"Lucas's next film, 1977's monumental epic Star Wars, featured a youthful hero and heroine (Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia), yet the storyline was a galaxy far, far away from Graffiti's high-schoolers and hot rods. Nevertheless, Star Wars taught Hollywood about the immense power of the teenage dollar. For much of the unprecedented success of the film could be attributed to young people: everybody saw Star Wars, but teenagers, revealing the fanatical devotion unique to their demographic, would come to the multiplex to see it again and again, and 'would bring all their friends,' as Brillstein said.

"And then, in 1978, National Lampoon's Animal House hit the­aters. The raunchy comedy, cowritten by Harold Ramis, coproduced by Ivan Reitman, and directed by John Landis, was inspired by a short story from the Lampoon, and broke new ground in the art of crudeness. The tale of the Deltas, a fraternity at a college based on Dartmouth, featured plenty of make-outs, gross-outs, and an unfor­gettable toga party. It also featured a young sketch comic from Chicago named, John Belushi, who had made a name for himself as one of the Not Ready For Prime Time Players on Saturday Night Live. In Animal House he portrayed the repulsive yet lovable brute Bluto, a Falstaffian fratboy who, in one memorable scene, imitates an exploding zit. The movie would go on to make a staggering $140 million, and become the highest-grossing comedy the movie industry had ever known. Sud­denly, Hollywood was eager to do business with anyone associated with the Lampoon, which, at that time, included John Hughes, then in his late twenties and a contributing editor at the magazine. 

"In early 1979, a few months after Animal House hit theaters, Hughes was stuck at home with his family as a record snowstorm dumped over sixteen inches of snow on the Windy City in one day. As the snow descended, Hughes sat in his bedroom office with an atlas, typing a short story for the Lampoon about the miserable road trip of a family called the Griswolds (the tale culminates with the father shooting Walt Disney in the leg). The piece was called 'Vaca­tion '58.' 'I immediately told him, "I'm going to make a movie out of this,"' Matty Simmons remembers saying to Hughes, and sure enough, soon after the story was published in the September 1979 issue of National Lampoon, it was bought by Warner Bros. Though Hughes had never so much as laid eyes on a screenplay, Matty Sim­mons offered him the chance to write the screen adaptation of his Griswolds story. The studio 'wanted to put in a professional screen­writer,' says Simmons, 'but I refused to let that happen.'

"Through sheer determination, relentlessness, and raw talent, John Hughes had made the leap from writing jokes in his boyhood bedroom to succeeding in the world of advertising to becoming a part of the industry that had mesmerized him his whole life. He was now officially in the movie business. Theatergoers were offered a wide array of movies having to do with young people, from the far­cical and stupid (such as 1982's Porky's, a paean to raunchiness that made Animal House seem like Citizen Kane in comparison and be­came the highest-grossing comedy of that year) to the innocuous (Meatballs) to adult movies about young people (Breaking Away, Diner). But one film stood out as truly groundbreaking: 1982's Fast Times at Ridgemont High, directed by twenty-eight-year-old Amy Heckerling and penned by a young Rolling Stone writer named Cameron Crowe, based on a book by the same name that Crowe had written while spending a year posing as a student at a San Diego high school. Crowe, who had skipped some grades in school, was himself barely out of his teens when he wrote the script. Fast Times would, in many ways, open the door for the youth films John Hughes and his contemporaries would make in the mid- and late 1980s, by proving early on that youth audiences of that decade were hunger­ing for entertainment that was amusing but that still took their struggles seriously.

"Sure, Fast Times had a relaxed vibe, thanks to its Southern Cali­fornian setting, shots of kids hanging out in pools, and Sean Penn's inimitable stoner-surfer dude Jeff Spicoli. But it was also, says Heck­erling, 'completely realistic, based on Cameron Crowe's journalistic look and honest reporting of what was going on.' Unlike the teens of movies past, the Fast Times kids had real problems that weren't entirely played for laughs or melodrama -- from the mundane (deal­ing with lousy bosses at their mall jobs) to the heavy (Jennifer Jason Leigh's character loses her virginity and eventually has an abortion). 'I wanted to show kids who actually had problems that were bigger than what a kid could handle,' says Heckerling."



Susannah Gora


You Couldn't Ignore Me If You Tried: The Brat Pack, John Hughes, and Their Impact on a Generation


There Rivers Press


Copyright 2010 by Susannah Gora
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