Laughing All the Way

photo courtesy of the author

“Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can: all of them make me laugh.”
—W.H. Auden

The VCR accepts the battered, hand-labeled tape with its familiar loading hum. Two boys sit, rapt, waiting for the film they’ve already seen a dozen times, knowing each line by heart and already anticipating the laughs in store. A few days earlier they’d gone so far as to record their own version of some of their favorite scenes together, repeating the funniest lines back and forth into an old cassette boombox late at night, trying their best not to collapse into a fit of giggles. The lines never get old, and they live off that laughter for days.

*

I’ve been fortunate to have the same best friend for my entire life. Our parents had already been friends for nearly a decade by the time we came around, so Matt, all of four months my senior, literally visited me at the hospital when I was born. We had our picture taken together at a professional studio when we were less than a year old (and, unfortunately, again when we were twelve years old, wearing neon colored shirts, sunglasses, and bicycle shorts). We grew up together in a shared world of baseball, religion, funny movies, and Billy Joel. And, like most great friends, Matt and I developed a conversational shorthand together—a secret, coded language honed over many years—that is all but impenetrable to those around us, even our wives. “I don’t understand like even half of what you guys are talking about,” is a not uncommon refrain.

“Can I borrow your towel? My car just hit a water buffalo.”

What most people don’t understand, though, is that a significant part of this secret language is actually comprised of quotes from the 80s comedy movies we watched endlessly together while growing up. Fletch, Airplane!, The Naked Gun, Ernest Goes to Camp, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, U.H.F., Spies Like Us, National Lampoon’s Vacation—we mainlined these films like street drugs as impressionable kids and, for one reason or another, the effect still hasn’t worn off to this day. I have no doubt that it’s maddening to those around us at times, but when we get in that zone, that bubble, it becomes entirely about one thing and one thing only: making each other laugh.

And what’s accomplished in these moments—even in a random text message after not talking for a month, quoting some silly line from a film we likely haven’t seen in years—is not just a quick laugh in the middle of a work day or a brief hit of nostalgia, but also this: that we shared a childhood together, filled with all the magic, wonder, and confusion that childhood contains, and that all of that still remains easily accessible to us, even today, in a very particular way. It’s a reminder of everything that’s connected the two of us throughout this strange life, and the shared sense of humor that’s run underneath it all, a steady constant despite the many different phases we’ve gone through as individuals, and the many miles that have separated us geographically for most of our adult lives. Texting lines from Spies Like Us to each other in the middle of the day, we’re no longer just workers, husbands, parents, responsible adults—instead we’re granted a kind of instant access to the nine-year-olds we used to be: spending the night at each other’s houses, sneaking candy and watching VHS tapes rented from the grocery store, endlessly rewinding our favorite scenes and quoting them back to each other for weeks on end.

“Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?”

Films like Airplane! and Fletch were directly responsible for a good deal of the trouble Matt and I got into for talking too much, often being separated for being too hyper or “not paying attention” at school, church, baseball practices, music lessons, camping trips, family get-togethers. Mostly, we wore it like a badge of honor.

It’s hard to say what exactly drew us to the particular films we gravitated towards, but they definitely had a few things in common. Slapstick comedy—broadly defined as ”a style of humor involving exaggerated physical activity which exceeds the boundaries of common sense”—was certainly a primary throughline, and it’s perhaps not all that difficult to see why a couple of restless, active boys would be drawn to such a thing. We were also endlessly tickled by sarcasm and innuendos, and the movies we watched most were often filled to the brim with both.

“Looks like heroin, Gene.”

Our own fathers, a comedic duo of the highest order in our young minds—having hosted our elementary school’s Amateur Hour show together, complete with a pie-in-the-face opening number—encouraged such things, both directly and indirectly. Although very different men by nature, mine full of manic restless energy and little filter, his dryly sarcastic and observational, they instilled in us a great appreciation and love of humor from a young age. And, as most kids of funny people quickly learn, not a whole lot in this world feels better than getting a well-earned laugh from your parents.

*

To be in love with Ernest P. Worrell, the way that I was in love with Ernest P. Worrell, you probably had to be a nine-year-old boy in 1987. Having spent a handful of years living in Southern California earlier in the decade, watching He-Man and Heathcliff and Land of the Lost on television every afternoon, I was already quite familiar with Ernest due to his ubiquitous presence in several California-area commercials. My brain had been primed to joyously guffaw whenever he uttered his trademark “Knowwhatimean, Vern?” catchphrase, having volleyed the phrase back and forth with my dad for years by the time Ernest finally showed up in his first feature film, Ernest Goes to Camp.

I’m tempted to think I was only responding to Jim Varney’s rubber-faced hilarity and knack for endearingly well-intentioned stupidity the way most any young boy would, but the truth of the matter is, my love of Ernest had a whole lot to do with my dad, and California, and being a certain age at a certain time. In some inexplicable way, I had grown to equate the joy of seeing Jim Varney on a screen with the joy of being my father’s son, of laughing with my Dad on our old blue sofa with the sun shining bright through the living room windows and the bike he’d just spent hours teaching me how to ride lying patiently in wait on the patio by the back lawn.

Like Matt, my dad was a sucker for silly movies. I have no idea what we found so great about Ernest Goes to Camp—it’s certainly not an opinion shared by most people—but it tickled us in the same way that films like The Shaggy Dog and theHerbie movie had a few years before, or like Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure would just a few years later. It was absurd and silly, and we loved it.

We don’t often get to choose the things that end up staying with us from our childhoods, and I certainly wouldn’t have guessed that something like Ernest Goes to Camp would stick with me in all the ways in which it has, or that it would in any way define a part of my relationship with my dad. Still, it did (or it does: he’ll randomly call me “Ernest” or “Vern” at times even today), so now I’m left to make sense of that, more than two decades after the fact.

I pulled up the film on YouTube last night, curious to see what memories it would spark, what neural pathways the actual film itself still clung to, and how much of my nine year old self I’d still be able to access by viewing it. I hadn’t seen a single frame of Ernest Goes to Camp in at least twenty years, but I surprised myself by remembering every single line. And I could hear my dad—the way I saw him as a kid—right there beside me, laughing along.

The film itself was rather awful, at least in retrospect, but that didn’t matter to me last night, lost as I was in its old familiar rhythms and beats. It felt like I’d stumbled upon an embarrassing childhood photograph—like a studio portrait of Matt and I in spandex and sunglasses, perhaps?—before quickly realizing that embarrassment was entirely beside the point. What mattered far more was that the moment ever existed at all.

*

My dad is almost never not joking. It’s long been his primary means of interacting with the world, his panacea and his best defense. Laughter is how he communicates, how he endears, how he disarms. If you met him right now, he would be trying to make you laugh before you even had time to finish this sentence. He loves to laugh—in fact, he often laughs louder at his own jokes than anybody else—but even more important to him is making you laugh. He uses humor and laughter, constant quips and puns and teasing, as a way of connecting, of bringing people together, of getting through awkward times and appreciating joyous ones. He deploys his tremendous sense of humor as both a bridge and a wall, an invitation and a deterrence: he wants you to have a good time, almost desperately wants you to like him, but doesn’t really want you to get too close.

In this way, perhaps more than any other, I am my father’s son.

But you also have to understand that, as a kid, my dad essentially was Clark W. Griswold. Tone down the more extreme pratfalls and absurdly outlandish behaviors (especially in the final act of National Lampoon’s Vacation), strip away just a bit—and only the tiniest bit—of Clark’s boundless enthusiasm for family traditions and adventure, and you have my father. A man of big plans and inspired ideas; of endless energy and eternal optimism; of lists and reminders and schedules that hung at times like a hornet’s nest over my childhood; of family outings and the importance of family traditions and togetherness; an overgrown kid with a big heart, full of love and capable of grand, if occasionally misguided, gestures. Although he’s changed a good deal since my sister and I grew up and left the house half a lifetime ago—has relaxed a bit more and learned how to let life happen at its own pace—he is absolutely still Clark W. Griswold at times, especially in our family’s collective remembrance. And mostly, he likes it that way.

“Honey, we’re not normal people. We’re the Griswolds.”

*

Around third or fourth grade, Matt and I began to worship at the church of Chevy Chase and quickly made it a habit to attend regularly, together or alone. Outside of our fathers, he was the funniest man we knew, a bumbling and hilarious presence to us no matter where he managed to show up. It’s no doubt a bit difficult for a modern audience to appreciate just how good Chase was in his heyday, how he brought the funny on a consistent basis for nearly a decade before his career devolved into an unfunny tailspin brought on by poor decisions, arrogance, and a really bad talk show. In 1985 alone, Chase starred in three of the year’s top fifteen box office films, a feat few actors have ever managed, before or since.

For two years straight, Matt and I lived on a steady diet of Foul Play, Seems Like Old Times, Fletch, Fletch Lives, Vacation, European Vacation, Spies Like Us, Funny Farm, and The Three Amigos. We knew these movies inside and out, memorized them as well as any Bible verse or baseball stat. If we weren’t busy watching them we were busy trying to make each other laugh remembering them, involved in a continual, hysterical game of one-upmanship, with bonus points for drawing out the other’s laughter at the most inopportune or inappropriate time. It’s a game that continues to this day.

*

Male relationships can be a strange things at times, with intimacy and closeness much more likely to be sensed or appreciated rather than directly commented on. Sitting on a couch with Matt or my dad, as a kid or in my thirties, watching something funny on a screen (or talking about something funny we’d recently seen on a screen), I feel more comfortable than at most any other time. It’s one of the very few social situations in my life in which I’m not actively trying to do or be anything, when I’m fully in the moment itself rather than lost some place in my head. It’s an unspoken connection as simple, pleasant and fully felt as anything I’ve ever experienced. These silly films, and the laughter they illicit, are a conduit to that closeness, a quick way into a lifetime of shared connections.

A popular theory among those who study such things is that laughter likely evolved before language, serving as a primal human tool, “a signal that things at the moment were OK, that danger was low and basic needs were met, and now was as good a time as any to explore, to play, to socialize.” While it came to serve many other purposes along the way—diffusing group tension, dispelling nervous energy, displacing aggression, subverting authority, attracting mates—it developed first and foremost as a way of bonding. “It taps into the core of what we are as social creatures, expressing from one person to another what often cannot be said in any other way.”

*

Last summer, my wife and I took our kids to Disneyland for the very first time. We rented a car to drive to Anaheim, where the Magic Kingdom patiently awaited us. I was keenly aware of how much I was looking forward to taking my kids to this mythical place, how much I hoped they would have an experience that they would remember for the rest of their lives. As such, visions of The Griswolds’ infamous journey to Wally World were never far from mind. For years I had seen National Lampoon’s Vacation through the eyes of Clark’s teenaged son, Rusty. But now, as a father myself, imbued with a paternal yearning to create the perfect family experience, the film began to take on an entirely different meaning for me.

On the drive down, my seven year old daughter suddenly decided she needed to use a restroom, right now, and so we pulled off at the nearest exit, in search of a restroom. We ran into the closest hotel off the freeway and, in what fairly be called one of the single greatest coincidences of my entire life, soon discovered that we had randomly stopped at the actual hotel where scenes from National Lampoon’s Vacation were shot way back in 1982. The odds seemed beyond astronomical, and I was left with an almost sure sense that the universe was smiling down upon me.

I tried to explain the monumental nature of what we had just stumbled upon to my wife, who politely indulged me by feigning interest for a minute, before reminding me that we needed to get back on the road. I tried to explain the moment’s significance to my children, but they’re nowhere near old enough to watch the Vacation films yet (but oh, someday!), so neither one of them had even the slightest idea what I was talking about.

Not wanting to leave the hotel before feeling my excitement matched in at least some small way, needing to feel a sense of connection with someone who could understand and validate this magical moment in my life, I quickly texted Matt a picture of where we were and how we got there. The response was immediate:

We were a thousand miles away, responsible adults and parents, now nearly thirty-seven years old. But just like that, we were kids all over again.