At the end of last year’s “24 Hours of Halloween” — a marathon of spooky movies and TV shows curated by me for my imaginary TV station (“KHBE”) — I remarked jokingly that “48 Hours of Christmas” would follow. The joke turned quite serious when I realized I was short a Christmas entry this year. So the project is on!
The first thing that struck me was that actually watching a 48 hour marathon would stretch the limits of human endurance, unless a very different kind of Christmas “snow” was involved. Thirty-six hours is just about do-able, and I’ll be offering suggestions as to when to catch some shut-eye. Also, have some food on hand. In fact, go ahead and have some turkey. That whole thing about tryptophan making you sleepy is just as big a bullshit myth as sugar causing hyperactivity (so quit making excuses for your poorly-behaved children.)
Part of what made the original “24 Hours of Halloween” marathon work was that my notional cable station would run the programs commercial-free, and start everything promptly on the 0s and 5s. Any one-to-four-minute downtime between shows would be filled by quips and double-entendres from everyone’s favorite horror hostess, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. Since no equivalent pop-culture icon could fill her dress in a Christmas capacity, I decided to go ahead and pack those tiny spaces with commercials — but only vintage, holiday-themed commercials from the late 70s to the early 90s.
You want Hershey’s Kisses ringing like bells? You got it. (This one still pops up on real TV from time to time.)
You want Ronald McDonald ice-skating? You got it.
You want Joe College, in that horrid cable-knit sweater, home for winter break and waking up the whole damn house by brewing a pot of Folger’s? You got it.
And more Budweiser clydesdales than you can shake a peppermint stick at.
If there’s any other awkwardly-timed space to be filled, KHBE will just show footage of a Yule log for a few moments, maybe with some tasteful snippets of Mannheim Steamroller in the background.
(You’ll notice there’s not a lot of Disney stuff here, and that’s because Disney never really “did” Christmas very much, or all that well. I think they see Christmas as a competing brand of magical happiness. Maybe I’ll throw in that Chip ‘n’ Dale short where they hide from Donald Duck in the Christmas tree in the place of a few vintage commercials.)
The “36 Hours of Christmas” marathon will run from noon on December 22nd to midnight on the 23rd, so you can get a good night’s sleep and be up (bright-eyed and bushy-tailed) on Christmas Eve morning, and are able to stop being a lazy shut-in, and handle all of your family obligations. For those bound and determined to continue being a lazy shut-in, and/or those whose families are annoying fundamentalists or obnoxious Trump voters who can’t stop making quasi-racist remarks over the figgy pudding, the marathon will re-run in its entirety through the 24th and 25th. You’re welcome.
OK, the clock is striking twelve, you’ve cashed in some vacation hours from work, you’ve dumped a splash of peppermint schnapps into your hot cocoa (yes it’s noon, but no one will judge you), and you find KHBE down in the 800s of deep cable…what do we start with?
Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town
What better way to kick things off than with a bunch of creepy, plastic talking dolls? Over the past five decades, the Rankin/Bass production company has become practically synonymous with “kids’ TV Christmas specials,” and their stop-motion “Animagic” aesthetic (a song every few minutes, polyester snow, jerky, spastic movements and lifelessly staring eyes for the characters) is as beloved by some as a favorite ugly sweater.
Another reason we start the marathon here, besides the general ubiquitousness of Rankin/Bass at yuletide, is that it’s an origin story. 1970’s Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town, based on the 1934 song by the wonderfully-named songwriting team of Coots & Gillespie, explains how an orphan child, who was left on a doorstop with the nametag “Claus” around his neck, was taken in and raised by a family of toy-making elves (the Kringles), and grew up to be the familiar figure of Santa. He had to work his way up to delivering on a global scale. He started by bringing happiness to the gloomy children of Sombertown, although his methods may raise an eyebrow or two. During the song “If You Sit On My Lap Today (Be Prepared To Pay),” a beardless young Kris Kringle (voiced by well-known degenerate letch Mickey Rooney) demands a kiss from every child before he will give them their present. No wonder Burgermeister Meisterburger wanted to kick his ass out of town and back over the Mountain of Whispering Winds.
The logical follow-up is another variation of the old orphan-human-taken-in-and-raised-by-toy-making-elves trope. It can take awhile for some movies to enter the canon of “classics,” but 2003’s Elf appears to be well on its way. Will Ferrell is plenty of fun as Buddy, the human “elf,” but the real show is the production design (the North Pole looks exactly like a real-world Rankin/Bass scene) and the supporting performances. Ed Asner plays Santa Claus exactly like Santa Claus would probably be…a little frazzled, a little gruff, even, but still Santa Claus. And if the movie consisted of nothing but Bob Newhart as Papa Elf sitting and reading me the whole story, I would still watch every minute. Bob Newhart is one of the Holy Bee’s primary heroes, and he will be re-appearing later in the marathon. Elf can also be blamed for the brief renewal of affection for the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” before everyone decided it was totally creepy and rapey and it was put way in the back of our collective pop-culture cupboard. Keep an eye peeled for the original Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley) as a middle-management elf.
“Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas”
Christmas TV “specials” weren’t just for kids — old folks got their version, too. Especially once the major TV networks began broadcasting in living color in the mid-1960s, it seemed as though a special was granted to every washed-up crooner who had been made obsolete by rock & roll over the past decade, and had more than three sweaters in his closet. They stood, perspiring, on a living room set with a roaring fire (these things were usually taped in L.A. in September), sang a few traditional standards, and participated in a few feeble sketches with various guest stars. (“Who’s that at the door? Why, it’s Connie Francis!”)
Cheesy as it sounds, these things are quite beloved by those who grew up with them — often watching them with their grandparents, who were the target audience. I’m a little too young (darn it), but I do have hazy memories of the tail end of this era, and if I don’t remember anything specific, I remember this kind of thing being on a lot at Grandma & Grandpa’s.
Bing Crosby became indelibly associated with Christmas thanks to his 1942 recording of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.” A movie of the same name, along with countless other holiday recordings, followed over the next couple of decades. But Der Bingle didn’t become King of Christmas TV until the 1970s, when he began doing an annual special of the type described above. For the marathon, I’ve chosen 1977’s “Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas,” which originally aired four days before my third birthday. The flimsy premise is that Bing is visiting a distant cousin (Ron Moody) at his manor house in the U.K., and receives visits from British celebrities Twiggy (with whom he sang “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”) and David Bowie (with whom he sang the now very iconic “Little Drummer Boy/Peace On Earth” medley.) The producers also tossed in the full-length music video for Bowie’s “Heroes,” evidently for the sheer hell of it.
I suppose it was a little melancholy for viewers watching it in ‘77 — it may have been like seeing a real Christmas “spirit.” Crosby had collapsed and died on a golf course in Spain six weeks before the special aired. (Which leads to a joke that, as far as I know, only I laugh at: The other guys in Crosby’s foursome head home that afternoon. One their wives asks them, “How was golf today?” “The worst. It was the hardest round I’ve ever played. I’m exhausted and sore.” “Why’s that?” “Well, we had to hit the ball, then drag ol’ Bing, then hit the ball, then drag ol’ Bing…” I guess you have to be a golfer.)
Enough sweetness and light for now. Sometimes, I like my Christmas entertainment to be a little dark. Maybe not full-on Krampus dark (next year, perhaps), but the holidays are stressful at times, and embracing our not-so-cuddly sides is a good way to relieve the pressure.
1994’s forgotten gem The Ref is a black comedy that could almost serve as a prequel to American Beauty. The upper-middle class, unhappily-married couple is the Chasseurs (“It’s 18th-century French Huguenot!” as we’re constantly reminded) instead of the Burnhams, but we still get a snide Kevin Spacey as the condescending husband, simmering with repressed rage and self-pity. In the place of Annette Bening is the criminally underrated Judy Davis as the shrill, self-absorbed wife. They are taken hostage on Christmas Eve by Gus the cat burglar (Denis Leary), who has to play himself off as the couple’s marriage counsellor when relatives arrive for Christmas dinner until he can engineer an escape. Of course, he finds himself actually helping the couple work through their issues, finds himself in full Santa Claus drag by the end, and everyone learns an Important Lesson…except Grandma (an acid-tongued Glynis Johns) who chews through her gag when Gus is finally forced to tie her up. Leary was known at the time for his loud, braying intensity in his MTV promo spots and one-man show No Cure For Cancer, but Spacey and Davis are such acting powerhouses, his role in the last twenty minutes of The Ref is just a series of incredulous reaction shots.
The Simpsons — “Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire”
This is where it all started. Twenty-eight seasons and 605 episodes (as of this writing) of The Simpsons began on December 17, 1989 with this Christmas special, which also served as the pilot episode for the series as a whole. I was a high school freshman when I eagerly sat down to watch it (I was already familiar with the characters from their brief appearances on The Tracey Ullman Show), and I was not disappointed. It was fresh, it was irreverent, and it was different. Watching it again as a middle-aged man, I am struck by how off it all seems. The animation is crude, the joke pace is much slower than today, and the voices are all slightly wrong.
The episode’s premise is simple, and borrowed from many other Christmas-themed sitcom episodes: a cash-strapped Homer must take a job as a mall Santa to afford presents for the family. He ends up losing it all, and can only provide a mangy, idiotic, washed-up dog-racing greyhound. The dog is a huge hit, and Christmas is saved. (If you’re a Simpsons latecomer and have ever wondered why their dog is named Santa’s Little Helper, there you go.) And even if the jokes come at a slower pace and aren’t quite as razor-sharp as in later years, I still say Homer’s final oral exam at Santa School is one for the ages: “Name all of the reindeer.” “Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, uh…Donna Dixon?”
I am a huge fan of Dickens’ 1843 novella A Christmas Carol, and all of its movie and TV iterations and variations. I had to promise myself I wouldn’t include too many in the marathon. I limited myself to three, and this is the first. 1988’s Scrooged is a modern-day retelling of the Dickens tale, set in the cut-throat world of television production, and was penned by the notoriously misanthropic former Saturday Night Live writer Michael O’Donoghue. Bill Murray plays the Scrooge figure, Frank Cross, not as a hunched, miserly old coot, but as a slick, young, totally soulless TV executive. He deals with every person and situation with the same disdainful, smug, ironic detachment. Not many of us know a true Scrooge, but I suspect a lot of us may know a Frank Cross. Of course, after a visit from three spirits, we see a new and improved Frank Cross. Along the way, the film takes a lot of pointed swipes at the corporate greed and crass commercialism that typified the yuppie 80s. Bonus: weird cameos abound. Jamie Farr. Buddy Hackett. Mary Lou Retton. As promised, we will return to this Dickens tale before our time is through…
A Very Brady Christmas
The Brady Bunch ran for five seasons on ABC from 1969 to 1974…a generous allotment for a TV show that by any measure was flop. It never once placed in the Top 30 during its entire run, and despite its “mixed” family of two formerly single parents, it was considered old-fashioned and passe in the era of All In The Family and M*A*S*H.
But then something happened. It barely passed the 100-episode threshold for being sold into syndication, but because it did, a television legacy was born. It became a phenomenon due to its perpetual reruns beginning in the fall of 1975. For millions of American latch-key kids through the 1980s, The Brady Bunch was the show that was on when you got home from school. You would let yourself in, kick off your shoes, fix a snack, and fire up the TV to see that familiar blue grid and hear the familiar strains of the theme song. Dinner and homework were hours away. To Generation X, watching the Bradys after dark in prime time would be as foreign and wrong as baseball in January.
The Very Brady Christmas TV movie was a huge event in 1988, and I had looked forward to it for weeks, anxious to get a peek at how the Bradys appeared in the “modern” era. It’s weird how time seems shorter now. When the Bradys hit the screen again in ‘88, the era of their last regular episode — funky old 1974 — was like a distant epoch, Jurassic television, with totally foreign style, clothes, hair, vernacular (“groovy!”), everything. So, how exciting would it be in 2016 to see a reunion for a show from 2002? Exactly. Not at all.
A Very Brady Christmas hit all the marks we wanted. We see the Brady house set revealed in all its glory in an opening tracking shot. Mike and Carol Brady have definitely re-modeled in the interim. The den where the Brady kids watched TV and blasted through the glass-less sliding doors to the Astroturf backyard still has its fake wood paneling, but it is now a home gym, where grey-haired Mike and dye-job Carol pedal away on stationary bikes. The 70s avocado-and-orange color scheme of the kitchen and living room has been replaced by very late-80s cream, turquoise, and pastel rose (familiar from my own home at the time.) The Brady kids, home for Christmas together for the first time in years, are all grown up. (Though the youngest Bradys, Bobby and Cindy, are depicted as college students despite the fact that they’d be pushing 30 at this point, but who cares?)
The plot revolves around the family’s various minor relationship issues that they’re hiding from each other, but the whole exercise was really just an excuse to see people from our childhood reruns age.
We also have this TV movie event to thank for dozens of other holiday presentations using a variation on “A Very ————- Christmas” in the subsequent years. For that addition to the lexicon alone, it goes in the Christmas Hall of Fame.
Emmett Otter’s Jug Band Christmas
If you’ve ever read my autobiographical Christmas reminiscences, you’ll know that the cable channel Home Box Office was just as much a part of my childhood Christmas tapestry as gingerbread and holly leaves. December was a televisual feast on HBO, and one of the key elements was Emmett Otter, based on a children’s book by Russell Hoban, and brought to life by Jim Henson’s Muppet workshop. The first airing was 1978, but I didn’t catch it until 1981. The plot is an O.Henry pastiche — young Emmett and his woodland pals want to enter a talent show as a jug band and use the prize money to buy the widowed Mother Otter a nice present. Mother Otter, an amatuer singer, also wants to enter the talent show to buy Emmett a nice present. Emmett has to put a hole in his mother’s washtub to make a new stand-up bass, and Mother has to sell Emmett’s tool kit to buy a new dress. Neither is privy to the other’s plans, and they end up losing the talent show to the Riverbottom Nightmare Band, an earsplitting rock combo (consisting of a weasel, a stoat, a lizard, a snake, and a catfish) that blew the roof off the talent show, and frankly, deserved to win.
Walking home, dejected, Mother and the jug band begin blending their individual songs into a medley. Overhearing this, one of the judges points out they probably would have won if they had performed together. Bummer. (Awesome as the Riverbottom Nightmare Band is, I have to say Emmett’s friend Wendell Porcupine blows a pretty mean jug.)
Miracle On 34th Street
A lot of us have clicked by this perennial holiday classic as it aired on TCM or AMC, maybe stopping for a moment or two, but it seems a rare thing to actually sit and watch this 1947 film from start to finish. When you do so, what strikes you is how genuinely funny it is. Is the recently hired Santa Claus at the Macy’s department store the real thing? He certainly thinks he is. And as the story goes on, it becomes increasingly hard to prove he isn’t. In the end, it’s ambiguous, but leaning pretty firmly on the side of magic. The film is anchored by a great leading performance by the legendary Maureen O’Hara, providing a very early taste of feisty feminist spark for a 40s movie, aided and abetted by British stage veteran Edmund Gwenn as “Kris Kringle” — a performance that won him a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
The Year Without A Santa Claus
We dip into the Rankin/Bass oeuvre again for the 1974 sequel to Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town, which explores the notion of Santa (a raspy Mickey Rooney reprising his earlier role) taking the year off. What would happen? A lot of depressed little children. The special is notable for introducing the rival brothers Snow Miser and Heat Miser to popular culture, and featuring one of the saddest versions of “Blue Christmas” on record.
Holy cats, we’re twelve hours in at this point! It is now midnight, and you’ve been watching all day.
I’m no shill for Comcast (yet), but I think NBC comedies of the late 90s and early 00s contributed a few classic episodes to the Christmas landscape. How about a little NBC mini-block? (Apologies to Friends, Fraser, and 30 Rock, all of which had some great Christmas episodes, but this is 36 hours, not 48. Cuts had to be made somewhere, and I didn’t want to lose my favorite, now nearly-forgotten, NBC show NewsRadio. )
Seinfeld — “The Strike”
Feeling a little burned out on a solid wall of Christmas-Christmas-Christmas? It may be time to add a little Festivus to the mix. The holiday conceived by Frank Costanza as an alternative to the overexposed Christmas, Festivus (“for the rest of us”) is celebrated on December 23rd, features an aluminum pole instead of a tree, and events include “Feats of Strength” and “The Airing of Grievances.”
I am reminded how many of my favorite Seinfeld episodes, like this one which aired in December of 1997, were from the final season.
NewsRadio — “Christmas”
Who doesn’t want to bounce out of work early on the day before the Christmas break? Everyone at the radio station is antsy and watching the clock, anxious for their own personal festivities to begin. Out of the goodness of his heart, station manager Dave agrees to take on everyone’s last-day duties, resulting in hours and hours of extra work, and greatly shortening his supposed-to-be-overnight visit to his parents in Wisconsin. The visit ends up so short that Dave simply leaves the cab that brought him from the airport waiting in front of his parents’ house to take him back to the airport.
The Office — “Christmas Party”
Before Michael Scott became a semi-sympathetic character in the last few seasons of The Office, he was someone you wanted to reach through the TV screen and throttle to death. Watching him single-handedly destroy an office gift exchange party (“Yaaaankee Swap!”) in this episode from 2005 through his own obtuseness and narcissism is the summit of cringe comedy.
Saturday Night Live — “SNL Christmas”
Every year, Saturday Night Live airs a 90-minute compilation of their most popular Christmas-themed sketches in prime time. They vary the sketches slightly from year to year, but you’re guaranteed to see “Mainway Toys,” Adam Sandler’s “Hanukkah Song,” John Malkovich’s reading of “The Night Before Christmas,” Steve Martin’s “Holiday Wish,” “Glengarry Glen-Christmas,” and of course the mighty “Schweddy Balls,” which caused me to fall off the couch and almost lose control of all bodily functions the first time I saw it.
Our next feature film couldn’t be more different than Miracle on 34th Street. Like The Ref, Die Hard features a hostage situation on Christmas Eve. Unlike the basically decent Gus the cat burglar, these hostage takers don’t hesitate to splatter blood and brains all over the Nakatomi high-rise building. At least until rogue cop John McClane arrives on the scene. Like Festivus, 1988’s Die Hard has become celebrated as an alternative to more traditional entertainment. (SLEEP OPPORTUNITY: If you just can’t accept Die Hard as a “real” Christmas movie, go ahead and doze off. Your eyelids must be getting heavy by now. This one runs over two hours.)
The Best Of The Andy Williams Christmas Shows
The Andy Williams Show ran from 1962 to 1971, and like most variety shows of the era, would air a Christmas-themed episode every December. The Best Of is a compilation package that was shown on PBS for a few years in the early 2000s before disappearing, probably too corny and old-fashioned for even the average PBS viewer. It was so wholesome and sweet it made Lawrence Welk seem like Swedish death metal. It’s idea of a cutting-edge musical act was the Osmond Brothers. I was absolutely fascinated by this PBS package. I would tune in — furtively — each year, and watch the apple-cheeked singers and dancers in color-coordinated outfits frolic about in the fake snow as Williams belted out “The Holiday Season” or “Winter Wonderland.” If anyone came into the room where I was watching, I would turn red and change the channel, as if caught watching porn. No one outside of Branson, Missouri wants to be busted watching Andy Williams.
(Too hokey for PBS? It’s re-surfaced on YouTube…)
We’re about halfway through now…dawn is breaking on the 23rd.
To Be Continued…