I don’t tend to think of Phil Dunphy and Clark Griswold, the dopey dads of Modern Family and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, respectively, as characters with whom I have much in common. But I’ve recently begun to reconsider, based on the running gags in each character’s comedy, both involving staircases.
Across his show’s 11 seasons, anytime Phil trots up the stairs in a hurry, the spring in his step comes decidedly un-sprung when he lands on a dislodged board and yells out on impact, “Gotta fix that step!” Clark Griswold’s running gag, involving a loose newel post in his family’s home, is a little subtler. But since Christmas Vacation is a movie rather than an open-ended sitcom, audiences do get some closure: in a bout of holiday-inspired fury, Clark, dressed in a Santa suit, uses a chainsaw to knock off the newel post entirely.
I don’t have a staircase in my modest Florentine one-bedroom. But I indeed have a running gag in my renting life, and you probably do, too.
There’s not been a time in the nearly-three years I’ve been in my home that the toilet seat wasn’t a little loose or otherwise compromised. It was a minor, pea-under-twenty-mattresses kind of issue, until it wasn’t: one day recently (well, six months ago), the seat came completely dislodged, and now sits precariously balanced atop the bowl. Guests are always given due warning, and it’s become like a trademarked quirk when people come over. Why rely on a signature cocktail or antipasto as a hostess when your theme-park-like Tuscan toilet adventure is inevitably more memorable?
Of course, it’s 2020, resolution season, and way past time to get it fixed. Some people look at me slack-jawed and ask the obvious: “Why wouldn’t you just call the owner?” But, without putting too much in writing, that one call would turn into…quite a lot of phone calls. Suffice it to say it’d be much easier to reach the end goal with a simple trip to a ferramenta or big-box supply store. (When I did try that, though, I was reminded of how Sam Hilt, in a 2015 article for The Florentine, compared Italy’s vast spectrum of toilet seats to what Charles de Gaulle once said of France: ‘How would you propose to govern a nation with 246 varieties of cheeses’?)
There must be more than a few of us out there who, however steadfast we may feel in our Italian footing, however self-assured we may appear as people or as inveterate Florentine renters, nonetheless get tripped up, Phil Dunphy-style, by the most unexpected and minor annoyances, errands, chores. Who knows why? Our minds and motivations are odd places, and running gags, in life as in comedy, can be oddly comforting. All I know is I felt seen this Christmas when I watched how the (monolingual!) Griswolds tacitly acknowledged their newel post and yet put off dealing with it. Given the heightened difficulties of handiwork for those of us living the Florentine rental life, well, it’s probably for the best that few have easy access to chainsaws.
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