John Hughes, Prolific Writer of Comedy Gold

I guess I never fully appreciated the true writing genius that was John Hughes, who died a couple of weeks ago of a heart attack at 59.

He wasn’t just a director. In fact, he was primarily a writer, a very prolific one, who started out writing jokes for Rodney Dangerfield on the side, after working tirelessly at his day job at the Leo Burnett ad agency. Later he submitted freelance work to National Lampoon, where they eventually hired him as an editor.

There, he hung out with P.J. O’Rourke. Think for a second about the writing talent in that pairing. The back-and-forth between those two must have been pretty entertaining, I’m guessing, especially on the occasional four-hour lunch.

Eventually he moved his focus to Hollywood, and the rest is history. He wrote some of the best funny movies of the last 30 years, classic comedies including:

  • Mr. Mom
  • Vacation
  • Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
  • Christmas Vacation
  • Home Alone
  • Beethoven

Most writers couldn’t come up with one movie on that list, much less all six. “Mr. Mom” and “Vacation” alone would cement his reputation as a comedy legend, and those came out in the same year, 1983.

And then there are the minor classics, like The Great Outdoors, Uncle Buck, Dutch, Weird Science, and a whole lot more.

A total of 38 movies have his name on them as screenwriter, nearly all of them in a period of just about 20 years, from 1982-2002.

How many screenwriters in the history of movies can match that track record? I don’t really know, but it can’t be very many.

And he was also, of course, a wonderful director of fun, clever, amusing movies like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Breakfast Club, and Sixteen Candles. He wrote those, too. And he produced over half of all these movies, as well.

He also loved music, and used his movies to promote it. He even says the only reason he went into writing was because he had no musical talent.

So as both writer and director, he basically invented a movie genre: quality, funny movies that are true and have characters with depth and inherent value.

Some of these may have aged a bit. But all movies from the 80s have aged, most of them quite a lot. Why is that? I’m not sure, but the silly hair and clothes sure don’t help. But we can’t blame Hughes for that, and besides, those weaknesses are overtaken by the quality of the stories, writing, and characters.

Some may dismiss his material as suburban and banal, the anti-Spike-Lee. OK, sure, it was about suburban white people. So what? Suburban white people have some compelling life stories to be told, too. Just because your Dad has a Porsche doesn’t mean you live a problem-free life, even though we like to pretend money fixes everything for us. And even if we grant that there is less true drama in those stories, the mark of a good writer is to make the everyday events interesting to us. And that’s exactly what Hughes did.

After dropping out of Hollywood to save his kids from its corrosive effects — thereby proving he respected his own kids, in addition to his movie character kids — he moved to a farm in northern Illinois and continued writing for movies under his pseudonym Edmond Dantes. He also wrote unpublished short stories for the last ten years of his life.

A true artist, both funny and endearing, who would not compromise his kids for the “advantages” of the L.A. lifestyle. Imagine that!

It’s pretty obvious to me that John Hughes was good people, who just happened to earn a living in Hollywood for a few years. For awhile, he was in Hollywood, but he was never “of” Hollywood.

And he was a prolific writer of comedy gold.

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