Have you ever been channel surfing this time of year, turned to that quintessential holiday movie A Christmas Story, and found yourself unable to change the channel? Why is A Christmas Story a classic? And what can writers learn from the movie?
How Jean Shepherd Wrote A Christmas Story
Like so many movies, A Christmas Story was adapted from a book, or really, just a small section of a novel: In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash by Jean Shepherd. Shepherd was primarily a radio comedian who told fictionalized stories about his childhood on the radio in the 1960s.
Jean Shepherd was something of the David Sedaris of the 1960s. He wasn’t a writer, but he had a lot of friends who were writers, including Shel Silverstein, author of the The Giving Tree and many other children’s books. His friends were constantly asking Shepherd to write a book about his hilarious, nostalgic stories of his made-up childhood.
Finally, Silverstein took matters into his own hands and began recording his conversations with Shepherd. Then he transcribed them and worked with Shepherd to edit them into a book. The novel was published in 1966, was an instant New York Times bestseller, and has gone through ten printings, a massive success.
How A Christmas Story Became a Movie
Director Bob Clark first became interested in making A Christmas Story when he heard Jean Shepherd on the radio, telling the story about the boy’s tongue sticking to the flagpole.
The movie was released in 1983 to mild success. It had a slow opening weekend and didn’t even run through Christmas in most theaters in the U.S. Over the years, though, the movie grew in popularity, especially when TNT began airing it twenty-four hours a day in 1997 on Christmas and Christmas Eve.
Now the movie A Christmas Story is considered by many to be the best Christmas movie of all time.
But what makes it so good? Why do people seem to love it so much?
The Structure of the Christmas Story Movie
Great stories make a promise of disaster at the very beginning and pay off that promise of disaster by the end. As Ian Irvine says, “What can I promise will go wrong?”
This promise of disaster and then payoff of disaster is completely true for A Christmas Story.
The Promise of Disaster: The movie begins with Ralphie talking about what he wants for Christmas: a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle. “You’ll shoot your eye out,” says his mother, a warning which is repeated throughout the film by his teacher, a mean mall Santa, and some scary witches.
The Payoff: At the movie’s climax, Ralphie gets the rifle as a surprise Christmas present. The first time he shoots the gun, the bullet ricochets and hits Ralphie in the eye, knocking off his glasses, which he then steps on and crushes.
What’s interesting about A Christmas Story is how simple, even spare, the main plot is. If you cut out all the scenes of the movie that aren’t about this central plot, it would be more like a TV sitcom than a feature film.
The rest of the film is a series of funny, episodic events vaguely about Christmas that are shuffled into the main plot.
This episodic structure is rare in most films or novels, but it’s actually pretty common for holiday films. Think about Love Actually or A Griswold’s Christmas Vacation, which are both episodic, more about a series of touching or funny events rather than a plot that builds up to a climax.
This episodic structure works especially well for comedies and is one of the reasons A Christmas Story is a classic. However, it’s much less effective for other genres.
Even so, while the structure of A Christmas Story works well for comedy, it would only be a classic if the film was actually funny. And this is where the movie really shines.
The 6 Types of Humor
Cartoonist Scott Adams says there are six types of humor:
- Naughty. Rude, indecent, raunchy.
- Clever. Witty, sharp.
- Cute. Kids, dogs, slapstick.
- Bizarre. Out of place.
- Mean. Self-explanatory, right?
- Recognizable. “Have you ever noticed…?” every Jerry Seinfeld Joke ever.
For a story, comic strip, or stand-up routine to be successful Adams’s rule is that you have to use at least two types of humor.
What makes A Christmas Story work is that it uses every type of humor.
It’s NAUGHTY: the leg lamp, cursing, beating up the bully.
It’s CLEVER: with the witty banter provided mostly by the narrator, e.g. “Our hillbilly neighbors, the Bumpuses, had at least… 785 smelly hound dogs. And they ignored every other human being on earth but my old man.”
It’s CUTE: the best example is when Ralphie gets performance anxiety in front of the mean Santa and can’t remember what he wants for Christmas, then finally remembers and crawls back up a slide to tell Santa, giving him his winningest smile.
It’s BIZARRE: in so many areas, including the hound dogs eating the Christmas turkey, the crazy leg lamp, and eating Christmas dinner at the Chinese restaurant.
It’s MEAN: beating up the bully, ripping the skin off Flick’s tongue when it gets stuck, but especially the mean Santa scene, again. When Ralphie cutely asks for the rifle, Santa says, “You’ll poke your eye out, kid,” then kicks him with a big black boot down the slide.
It’s RECOGNIZABLE: this story is founded on nostalgia. There are bullies, triple dog dares, mom’s “irrational” fears about dangerous things, getting in trouble for cursing, dads being… dads, and so many more nostalgic moments almost anyone can relate to.
The Overwhelming Power of Nostalgia
Perhaps the main reason this film is a classic is because of the power of nostalgia.
Jeff Goins told me about this scene from the show Mad Men. Don Draper is making a pitch to Kodak, and says:
Teddy told me the most important idea in advertising is “new.” Creates an itch. You simply put your product in there as a kind of… calamine lotion. But he also talked about a deeper bond with the product: nostalgia. It’s delicate… but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek, “nostalgia” literally means, “the pain from an old wound.” It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone.… It lets us travel the way a child travels. Around and around, and back home again… to a place where we know we are loved.
Like the pain of an old wound, A Christmas Story allows us to relive our experiences with bullies, the feeling of wanting something so bad like Ralphie wants his Red Ryder rifle, getting punished for cursing, the stress of parents fighting.
What makes A Christmas Story a classic is that it reminds us how it felt to be a kid, the good parts and the bad parts.
As a writer, how can you tap into that power of nostalgia? What story will you write that reminds your readers how it felt to be a kid?
Why do you think the movie A Christmas Story is a classic? Let us know in the comments.
Write a story about your childhood using two of the six types of humor listed above.
Merry Christmas, happy Holidays, and happy writing!