On a very special holiday Chrisicisms...
Our Advent pop culture countdown begins with a list of classic TV specials for the season.
Each Sunday of Advent, I’m going to send out a list of holiday-themed pop culture to make your celebrations merry and bright! Today, we’re looking at a selection of TV specials, most of which are available to purchase or stream, although you may have to do some digging! Starting Wednesday, I’m also going to start a look back at different filmed adaptations of A Christmas Carol. We’ve got a lot in store for the holidays!
Television Christmas specials are almost more of a staple of the holiday season than Christmas movies. It makes sense; rather than rushing out to the theater, it’s easier to sit at home with a cup of cocoa and watch your favorite characters enjoy the holiday. Many kids of the ‘80s vividly remember sitting down for 2-hour stretches to watch Garfield, Rudolph, Frosty and others engage in their annual Christmas adventures.
But Christmas specials aren’t just for kids. Many television shows have created their own classic yuletide takes, and Netflix and other online outlets have made it possible to revisit these episodes, plus a host of specially made Christmas specials. Here are a list of 10 specials to keep on while you wrap gifts or celebrate with family.
Muppet Family Christmas: The best Christmas-themed Muppet event. This 1987 television special rests on a simple premise: The Muppet gang heads to Fozzie’s mom’s house to enjoy the holidays together. Along the way, they engage in sing-a-longs and sketches with the cast of “Sesame Street” and “Fraggle Rock.” One of the last Muppet projects Henson worked on before his death, this is a warm, highly enjoyable mix of heart and humor (the Swedish Chef attempting to make Big Bird into the Christmas turkey is a highlight). The songs, as usual for the Muppets, are wonderful, particularly the 10-minute carol sing at the end. Rights issues have kept the full version of this out of circulation for a long time, but if you know where to look on YouTube, you can enjoy the uncut version (the DVD available for purchase omits several scenes). If you haven’t seen it, definitely check it out; it’s one of the most enjoyable Christmas specials ever made. (Available to stream on YouTube).
The Office “Christmas Party”: Christmas has always been an integral part of “The Office.” The original British series culminated with a heartfelt Christmas special, and the American version offered several very funny holiday episodes (“Benihana Christmas” is a close runner-up to this one). But this season two classic is my go-to every year, capturing the awkwardness that accompanies every Yankee Swap. From Michael Scott gifting Ryan an iPod to Jim’s romantic gesture to Pam going awry, the cringe factor is high here, and we learn whether 15 bottles of vodka is enough to get 20 people plastered (spoiler: it is). (Peacock)
A Very Murray Christmas: Re-uniting Bill Murray and his Lost in Translation director Sofia Coppola, this 2105 Netflix special starts at a low key and then ends up a holiday delight. The conceit is that a Christmas special Murray is hosting at a New York hotel is canceled because of snow and the funnyman then spends the evening bantering and singing with employees and guests before a drunken dream gives him the special he dreamed for, complete with George Clooney and Miley Cyrus. What’s remarkable is how this hour-long special showcases nearly every facet of Bill Murray’s persona, from the sad-sack clown of his later years to the party-crashing folk figure to the charismatic lounge lizard of the ‘80s. This might also have the best mix of music of any holiday special in recent years, from a rousing rendition of the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” to Miley Cyrus’ goosebump-inducing take on “Silent Night” and even a Clooney/Murray duet of “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’.” It might take a bit to adjust to the initially downbeat tone, but this one is a true delight. (Netflix)
Community “Regional Holiday Music”: Like “The Office,” the cult NBC sitcom “Community” did several memorable Christmas episodes (if you want to place “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” above this one, I won’t fault you). But this musical episode from season 3 showcases the show’s meta humor and the talents of its cast while also taking “Glee” down a few pegs. When Greendale’s glee choir is unable to perform its annual Christmas concert, a sadistically cheerful choirmaster (Taran Killam) tries to recruit the study group using means that are right out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The result is 30 minutes of musical comedy, from Donald Glover’s Jehovah Witness rap to Allison Brie’s skewering of sexed-up holiday songs to Chevy Chase’s ode to “Baby Boomer Santa.” All this and then Gillian Jacobs totally Britta’s it up at the end. I miss this show. (Netflix)
A Colbert Christmas - The Greatest Gift of All!: Another great musical special, this Comedy Central gem from 2007 seems to have been forgotten, which is both odd in an age where Stephen Colbert is dominating late-night ratings and unfortunate, because it is fantastic. Following the “Colbert Report” character to his lodge where he’s preparing for a Christmas special, the show is a parody of corny holiday specials, as various guests pop up to sing a song before leaving awkwardly (usually avoiding Colbert’s insinuation about mistletoe). So you have Willie Nelson singing about a certain herb the Wise Men might have brought to the manger, Toby Keith taking down the War on Christmas, Jon Stewart trying to sell Hannukah to the staunchly Christian host, and John Legend singing a sex ballad about nutmeg. It’s funny and silly, and I guarantee it’s the only special where you’ll see Stephen Colbert cut Santa Claus out of a bear’s belly with a lightsaber. (Available to rent on iTunes)
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Mystery Science Theater 3000 “Santa Claus”: I know that Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is the more well-known holiday episode from MST3K, and it’s reputation is well-deserved. But this skewering of a Mexican family film, in which Santa Claus fights the Devil (!!), might be even funnier. In true MST3K fashion, watching this inane film is just as laugh-inducing as any riffs from Mike Nelson and the bots, as you’d imagine from a film that somehow includes Santa Claus, the Devil, voyeurism, superheroics and Merlin the Magician. (Amazon)
Seinfeld, “The Strike”: Festivus has become such a pop culture phenomenon, that it’s a bit jarring to realize that it wasn’t a “Seinfeld” episode until the show’s much-criticized final season and that the holiday itself is relegated to a B-plot in an episode centered on Kramer going back to work at a bagel shop. It doesn’t matter, because a.) that final season is funnier than it gets credit for, and b.) the Festivus celebration is still the funniest thing in a very funny episode. I love Frank Costanza’s story of the holiday's origins (“I was getting a doll for my son”), I love George trying to get out of gift-giving by creating The Human Fund. I love the pole. I love Elaine trying to get out of a date with a guy in a denim suit and yet still trying to get her sub card punched. I love Jerry dating the “two-face.” I love Kramer shouting “no bagel.” I love Elaine getting a fake number because she’s spent two hours in a steamy bagel shop (yama hama, it’s fright night). I have no grievances to air here; this is one of the great episodes of one of the great sitcoms. (Netflix)
A Claymation Christmas Celebration: When animator Will Vinton died a few years back , the world lost one of the great stop-motion artists. Thankfully, this 1987 holiday special is still available on YouTube, and it’s another unheralded great special. It’s a series of songs and vignettes told through the Claymation style Vinton popularized. There are jazzy camels singing “We Three Kings,” a very funny “Carol of the Bells” (conducted by Quazimodo), a gorgeous and impressionistic rendition of “Joy to the World,” and, of course, The California Raisins singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” I loved this special as a kid and was delighted to find that it still is a joy. (YouTube)
Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas: There’s a debate running in my house: is “Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas” boring, or is it wonderful? I’d argue the latter, and that what some people mistake for boring is actually a welcome and gentle rejoinder to the manic holiday celebrations we have now. This 1977 special, created by Jim Henson and his company, is a take on O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” following a poor young Otter and his Ma as they try to enter a music contest at Christmastime. Unlike Henson’s other work, there’s nothing anarchic or rowdy to this; it’s quaint and peaceful, but the songs are beautiful, the story heartfelt and the puppetry is amazing. This special is beloved by many, and for good reason: Nothing feels calculated or orchestrated; this feels homespun and hand-made. (Available for rent or purchase on most digital platforms).
Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special: There is nothing gentle or calm about Pee-Wee Herman, and his Christmas special sticks with the brand. A frantic, subversive special, it’s about as weird as you’d expect. Kids will love the energy of the enterprise, while adults will love the in-jokes (a gag with Dinah Shore singing “The 12 Days of Christmas” is really funny) and the way the special somehow blends holiday sincerity (it has a telling of the Christ story), juvenile antics and gay iconography (Zsa Zsa Ghabor, Charo and hunky Marines). There’s nothing quite like “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special,” which remains wonderfully bizarre. (Netflix)