Poon Clang: National Lampoon’s Dad’s Week Off (1997)

Dave takes a look at the history of the iconic satirical rag, and how its journey into features went off the skids during the ’90s.

National Lampoon was an institution. A spinoff from the Harvard Lampoon, it was a magazine that reached the height of its popularity during the ‘70s, when it was able to inflict noticeable impact on American culture. Surrealism and parody were central to its core, and as it grew it seemed only natural that other mediums would embrace the wit and wisdom of its creativity – feature film in particular.

National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) was a roaring success [1] and contained elements that were originally published in the magazine, as did National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983) which was based on the John Hughes story, Vacation ’58. As time went on, though, the brand inevitably became diluted, and the beginning of the ‘90s was a key moment in its downslide.

1989 saw actor Tim Matheson and his business partner Daniel Grodnik table a three-quarters of a million-dollar bid for a controlling stake in National Lampoon Inc. [2]. However, twelve months later they had sold it on, this time to J2 Communications, a company founded by James P. Jimirro, the guy who helped launch The Disney Channel. J2 took it upon themselves to license the name to anyone with a chequebook. And by 1994, Variety was reporting how they’d tested the entertainment market by hawking the name out to the Miami-based Dolphin Cruises [3]. Themed restaurants were also high on the agenda, and interactive software was already in development.

In terms of their movies, for the first half of the ‘90s, they did at least retain a theatrical ambition. J2’s first feature, National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1 (1993), opened at number one at the U.S. box office and brought in a good return on its $13 million budget. National Lampoon’s Senior Trip (1995), meanwhile, took a paltry $2 million in its first week from fourteen-hundred locations, with Entertainment Weekly remarking how the franchise had “been reduced to its lowest common denominator” [4]. As such, it was something of an inevitability that the next National Lampoon movie we’d see would be from the comfort of our armchairs, and with DAD’S WEEK OFF, that was exactly the case [5].

Premiering on Showtime on 29th March 1997, we’re introduced to stressed-out Jack Porter (Henry Winkler), a salesman who’s tasked with selling the unsaleable; a role that leads to him collapsing in a burnt-out heap. Prescribed a week off to recuperate, his wife (Colleen Winton) whisks herself and the kids away to give him some uninterrupted downtime, leaving Jack home alone with only a sofa and TV for company. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, everything as it happens. With his best bud, Bernie (Richard Jeni), having had the push from his job and the boot from his wife, the party-hearty prankster kicks off a chain of events that lead Jack into a frantic seven days of drugs, arrests, implied infidelity, and kidnapping.

It’s impossible to dislike anything that Henry Winkler features in – and yeah, I’d even use this Fonzie-tipped extension of Roger Ebert’s Stanton-Walsh rule to describe The Waterboy (1998). Having said that, Dad’s Week Off tries its very best to put the kibosh on that broad statement, with irritating characters, tiresome set-ups and a narrative that descends unapologetically into cloying sentimentality.

From the outset, it seemed so promising. Granted, there’s an unerring similarity to Jonathan Demme’s impeccable Something Wild (1986) about the whole shebang, but even if you let that go, it’s a ship that’s steered in both writing and direction by what are surely the assured hands of the legendary Neal Israel. The writer of Police Academy (1984), Bachelor Party (1984), Moving Violations (1985) and Real Genius (1985), Israel seemed to lose a degree of clout in the wake of Surf Ninjas(1993) poor theatrical run. In fact, just prior to shooting Dad’s Week Off, he was working on episodes of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen’s small screen adventures, and it’s that kiddish element that interferes here.

On one hand we have bare bosoms parading in front of the camera; on the other, the comedy remains PG-friendly and laboriously geared towards slapstick, contrivance and happenstance. Far worse comedies graced video stores during the ‘90s, but not many have promised so much but delivered so little – even if the efforts of Winkler, Olivia d’Abo, and Ken Pogue give Dad’s Week Off some cause for sticking with it.

Canada ● 1997 ● Comedy, TVM ● 99mins

Henry Winkler, Olivia d’Abo, Richard Jeni, Ken Pogue ● Dir. Neal Israel ● Wri. Neal Israel, from a story by Robert Kosberg

[1] Albeit not the first National Lampoon movie. That honour went to the barely seen Disco Beaver from Outer Space (1978), which was made for HBO.
[2] The Media Business: An Actor Acquires Control of National Lampoon Inc., The New York Times, 17th March 1989
[3] J2’s Branching Out by Penny Britell, Variety, 11th January 1994
[4] Review: National Lampoon’s Senior Trip by J.R Taylor, Entertainment Weekly, 2nd February 1996
[5] Arguably, National Lampoon’s Attack of the 5ft 2 Woman (1994) and National Lampoon’s Favourite Deadly Sins (1995) were the first Showtime Poon’rs, but as they’re composed of unconnected shorts, I’m using creative license to determine Dad’s Week Off as the ‘next’. The common denominator with all of these was Showtime exec David Jablin, who also produced National Lampoon’s The Don’s Analyst (1997) which premiered on the network on 6th September 1997.

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