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How National Lampoon's Vacation came back from the dead

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National Lampoon’s Vacation is back on our screens once again. Andrew Lowry meets the stars to find out how it came to be resurrected…

If your memories of the world kick off somewhere between the Falklands and Gulf Wars, it’s pretty likely the National Lampoon’s Vacation series featured as large in your childhood as Timmy Mallett and confusion over what all that fuss over the Berlin Wall coming down was about.

Whether it was Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswold incompetently lusting after super-duper model Christie Brinkley in the 1983 original, or getting stuck on a London roundabout for about 12 hours in 1985’s European Vacation, or inadvertently electrocuting his cat with Christmas lights in 1989’s Christmas Vacation, the series produced some of the most indelible comic moments – and meltdowns – of the Eighties. And now it’s being revived, with The Hangover’s Ed Helms slotting into Chase’s slacks as his son, and Anchorman’s Christina Applegate as the daughter-in-law, it feels both anachronistic yet appropriate to call ‘long-suffering'.

“The originals were a huge deal for me,” says Helms of the potential pitfalls of reviving a franchise that peaked the year Taylor Swift was born. “I was eight when the first one came out, and I watched it constantly with my brother. It’s a sacred cow for me, it had to measure up." Helms and Applegate were satisfied with what the writers came up with – but there was another set of eyes whose approval the script had to meet. 

The originals

Luckily for the project, Chevy Chase – who can be a tricky customer – dug what he read, and he and Beverly D’Angelo (his onscreen wife in the original films) were enlisted to cameo. “I was so nervous,” says Applegate. “He came up to me and said, ‘I’m sorry, who are you and what have you done?’ But I found out later he’d seen Anchorman a thousand times. He was really kind and supportive – he just likes to mess with you. I’d have felt terrible if we’d bastardised his franchise.” 

Helms is equally chuffed at getting the rare Chase seal of approval: “I’m pretty sure I overheard Chevy say to someone else about me, ‘He’s kind of funny.’ That was like getting a nod from the Pope. I was thrilled."

A veteran star with a taste for mind games wasn’t the only difficulty in the making of this Vacation. As with the original, it’s really a series of vignettes given a loose structure by the idea of a goofy dad taking his family across the US for a (supposed) dream holiday at a theme park. The cast took a pounding unusual for a comedy in the days when many are content to just point a camera at someone referencing something nostalgic for as long as it take to get a laugh. For one scene where there’s a pitstop in an idyllic creek/sewage outlet, the main cast spent a whole day in an unheated mud pool. “That water was freezing. Then, near the end of the day, someone suddenly realised there actually was a heater,” says Helms. “I was overjoyed, but that just made it too comfortable, and we started getting drowsy in there. It’s a low-budget film, so I’m assuming they’d just emptied all the Porta Potties in there anyway.”

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Helms with his on screen brother-in-law Chris Hemsworth

Heavy rotation

Tougher still was a scene that called for Helms, Applegate and their onscreen children to be strapped into a rotating car and spun round. Neither was keen on it – Helms is claustrophobic, and Applegate just shudders at the memory: “It was 45 seconds at a time, which doesn’t sound much, but try looking at your watch for that long and it feels you could watch Titanic in that time. If Martin Scorsese offered me a lead opposite Al Pacino, but the part meant more time in a rotating car, it would still be a no.” 

That said, talking to the leads, the real nightmare wasn’t physical privation or phobias provoked – it was the traditional holiday nightmare of spending aeons of time with the same people. “It was like a real road trip,” says Helms. “After nine hours in the back of that sedan, we hated each other. Then we’d see the Grand Canyon, go, ‘Ooh, so beautiful,’ then we’d go back to hating each other.”

But actors suffering is one of the great Hollywood traditions, and if they don’t like it, there are telesales outfits hiring that’d be thrilled to have their services. ‘Tradition’ hasn’t been adhered to everywhere in the new Vacation, however. Helms and Applegate are both at pains to point out that the film reflects how 2015 is, you know, different to 1983.

Helms admits that the original film’s treatment of Chevy Chase leering over Brinkley isn’t quite kosher any more: “We’re in a different place culturally, and both comedy-wise and storytelling-wise,” he says. “In the original, Clark is sort of a charming cad, but let’s face it – he’s checking out a woman half his age while sitting next to his wife.” And as if to signal the fact that gender equality is much more a thing now, the 2015-vintage Vacation’s eye-candy-in-chief isn’t a swimsuit model, but an actual god: the mighty Thor, or ‘Chris Hemsworth’, as he goes by day to day. In a memorable cameo, he plays Helms' cheerily right-wing brother-in-law, who spends an entire scene in his undies, embellished by the biggest fake dong in film since Boogie Nights.

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Chevy Chase stuck between a rock and a hard place in the hit 1983 original

Humour police

“I wasn’t lascivious towards him,” says Applegate. “I was… marvelling. We talked about it for days afterwards. I want to look like him.” 

“It’s not fair,” says Helms. “He looks that way, but he’s funny. When I was growing up, I knew I’d never look like that, but I could comfort myself by knowing I was funny. He has it all, the bastard. I mean, he has a six-pack in the small of his back. I’ve never seen back abs before.”

If you’re not enticed by the thought of Chris Hemsworth swinging around his prosthetic genitalia, you may well be a member of the US critical community. Vacation opened a few weeks ago to, at times, sniffy reviews, which huffed and puffed about crudity, an excess of edge and – heavens – gags that refer to rimming and glory holes. Leaving aside the fact that the original film offers race and incest jokes for the entire family – nostalgia can really shave off some edges – it’s not clear what film people were expecting.

Applegate has no time for the humour police. “Why they’re saying that is because they’re afraid to do it themselves,” she says. “People are afraid of things, so they crap all over them. Dying is easy, but comedy is hard."

So, today’s lesson is: don’t mess with Veronica Corningstone. But what of Stu from The Hangover? After Vacation finds its audience in the time-honoured National Lampoon tradition – shown to kids by their cooler elder siblings – could he be enticed back for a sequel?

“I would be goddamn thrilled to do sequels. What’s left? I don’t know. Bastille Day?"

14 July – put it in your diary now.

National Lampoon’s Vacation is at cinemas from 21 August

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