The Coal-Black Comedy of John Hughes You Don’t Know
“Life moves at you pretty fast,” says Ferris Bueller, the movie alter-ego of 1980s comedy king John Hughes. “If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
Awww. That’s an awfully sweet sentiment, and if one didn’t know Hughes better, one could assume he was a modern-day Will Rogers, expressing folksy wisdom through his wise-cracking teen characters. But Hughes was far from folksy, and much of his early comedy reflected a much darker sensibility.
Case in point: As an adult, Molly Ringwald reconsidered her relationship with Hughes movies like Breakfast Club, where her Claire character eventually ended up with the boy who stuck his face between her thighs without consent. To better understand Hughes, Ringwald picked up a few old issues of National Lampoon on eBay. She was well aware of the scorched-earth sensibilities of the 1970s humor magazine, but still, she “was taken aback by the scope of the ugliness.”
In an essay Ringwald wrote for the New Yorker, she details what she found: “‘A Dog’s Tale’ has a boy watching his mother turn into a dog. ‘Against His Will’ features an ‘ugly fat’ woman who tries to rape a man at gunpoint in front of the man’s wife and parents because she can’t have sex any other way. ‘My Penis’ and ‘My Vagina’ are quasi-magical-realist stories written from the points of view of teenagers who wake up in the morning with different genitalia than they were assigned at birth; the protagonist of ‘My Penis’ literally forces her boyfriend’s mouth open to penetrate him, and the male in ‘My Vagina’ is gang-raped by his friends once they discover he has one. (The latter story ends with him having to use the money he saved for new skis on getting an abortion.)”
You can do the same exercise yourself by buying a random issue of National Lampoon from 1979 or 1980. You might find an editorial titled, “A Message from John Hughes to the Unemployed, the Sick, the Infirm, the Widowed, the Orphaned, the Disturbed, the Handicapped, the Downtrodden and All You Other Grumps.” It’s the piece in which he confesses, “I’m a fool if I think I can conceal the fact that my life is bent and twisted.”
Hughes’ short story “The Spy Who Wore Nothing” may seem like just an adolescent sex fantasy at first — its young protagonist meets an invisible government spy who’s always naked and wants to have endless sex. Where it gets dark: The same agent helps our hero shoot up his high school and then blow it up altogether.
How about the Revenge Issue, which contains “My Revenge Folder” — four pages of diatribes about the people that its author wants to kill.
It hardly seems like this stuff could be written by the guy who dreamed up the goofy, lovable Clark Griswold — until you remember the original ending of National Lampoon’s Vacation involved Clark breaking into Roy Walley’s house, holding him hostage with a gun and forcing the terrified Walley to dance for his family’s entertainment.
Even at his sappiest, Hughes was one dark dude.