Mention the name “Kardashian” to someone, and they might sneer in response, or rant about how they’ve made a fortune for doing little more than being rich and attractive. How dare this family find something they’re good at, and capitalize on it? Surely it wasn’t until they came along that America was fascinated with (and often threw money at) a person or concept that seemed absurdly simple, and maybe even a little dumb.
Well, folks, I’d like to tell you a little story about a man named Ross Bagdasarian. You might know him better under the name “David Seville.”
Bagdasarian, a struggling actor and singer/songwriter, found success in 1958 with the novelty hit “Witch Doctor,” and was evidently so tickled by the sped up vocals used for the “backup singer” (which was Bagdasarian himself) that he released an entire song done in that fashion, the holiday classic “The Chipmunk Song.” It was a smash, even winning three Grammy Awards, and still in heavy rotation today (and certainly easier on the ears than, say, “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” or “Dominic the Donkey”).
Bagdasarian parlayed the success of “The Chipmunk Song” into a handful of other singles, and a short-lived cartoon. When Bagdasarian’s son, Ross, Jr., inherited the Chipmunk media empire, he took it to even greater heights, producing albums like the legendary Chipmunk Punk (featuring covers of the blistering anti-authoritarian screeds “My Sharona” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”), a Saturday morning cartoon that aired for more than seven years, direct to video releases, and, well into the 21st century, a live action/CGI film series that by all accounts is atrocious, yet still made more than a billion dollars at the box office. You read that right, I wrote “billion.” With a B.
All this, because a guy thought a recording of himself singing in a squeaky voice was hilarious. That, my friends, is how you take nothing and spin it into gold.
A Chipmunk Christmas aired in 1981, between the release of Chipmunk Punk and the debut of the cartoon series, laying the groundwork for the latter by showing Alvin, Simon, and Theodore already living with Dave, their adoptive father/business manager. The show opens with the perpetually aggravated Dave, who comes off in this as kind of a taskmaster, pushing the Chipmunks into recording sessions only a few days before the holiday, and even agreeing to have them perform a Christmas Eve concert (at Carnegie Hall, no less).
Across town, a young boy named Tommy seems to be losing the battle against an unspecified illness, withering away in his shabby little bed in a shabby little apartment while his mother, who, for whatever reason, is dressed like a character in a Victorian era drama, looks on in worry and sadness. Alvin overhears the mother and her daughter at a store discussing how the one gift Tommy wants for Christmas more than anything else in the world is a Golden Echo harmonica, the same harmonica his musical hero (who is Alvin, a singing chipmunk) uses. Though the daughter tries to encourage the mother to buy Tommy the harmonica, the mother declines. They can’t afford it, you see, and it’s questionable whether or not Tommy will make it through the holiday anyway.
Saddened, Alvin visits Tommy and gives him his own harmonica, which has a remarkable effect on Tommy’s health. Alvin returns to the recording studio flush with the glow of generosity, but–oh no!–Dave announces that he’s to perform a harmonica solo at the Carnegie Hall concert. I didn’t know the Carnegie Hall crowd was big on harmonica solos, let alone when they’re performed by small woodland creatures, but it’s a cartoon, we’ll go with it.
Having given his harmonica to Tommy, Alvin must now scramble around to afford a replacement for it, so as not to upset Dave. Why he can’t simply tell Dave that he gave the harmonica to a dying child is unknown. In fact, this might be the most egregious use of what TV Tropes refers to as the “Idiot Ball,” in which a plot is moved along largely by characters refusing, for vague at best reasons, to explain their actions, often making things considerably more complicated than is necessary.
Dave catches Alvin dressing up like Santa Claus and attempting to earn money. Assuming that it’s to buy presents for himself, Dave punishes Alvin for his greed. Keenly aware that it was going to take a lot of padding to get this to even a slim twenty-five minutes, the show also features a bizarre dream sequence in which Alvin meets a character named Clyde Crashcup, who claims that he invented Christmas. Dave, a pompous asshole who is incensed at the idea that Alvin, for all intents and purposes a child, has the audacity to want things, overhears Alvin crying out “Money! I need money!” in his sleep, and angrily stalks away, muttering “I give up.”
Before Dave sends Alvin back to the chipmunk orphanage for his unforgivable avarice, someone finally sees fit to tell him what actually happened to the harmonica. At around the same time, Alvin, back at the store where he first overheard Tommy’s mother and sister, encounters a kindly old lady (voiced by animation mainstay June Foray), who eagerly offers to buy him a new harmonica. The day saved, Alvin is able to play his solo at the concert. Not only that, despite his mother questioning just three days earlier whether he would even survive the holiday, Tommy has recovered from his illness enough not just to attend the concert, but to come out on stage and wail on his harmonica. Not only that, at the end of the show we find out that the kindly old lady is–awwwwwwww–Mrs. Claus, who, unbeknownst to Santa, steps out on Christmas Eve and spreads some good cheer of her own.
Okay, fine, the Mrs. Claus reveal is very cute. But then again, June Foray (still with us, God bless her) could read The Fountainhead and make it sound like a warm, touching bedtime story. The rest of it, however, ooooof. In less than a half hour, it manages to incorporate not just the “Idiot Ball” trope, but one of my own least favorite cliches, one that sappy holiday specials draw from over and over, that of a privileged person learning the meaning of Christmas from a noble poor person. Though it’s not explicitly stated that Tommy’s family is poor, it’s symbolized in the sad little patched sheets on his bed, and his mother mentioning that they can’t afford the gift he wants. Clearly, it’s up to the wealthier Alvin to brighten his day, and, indeed, it’s suggested that the Golden Echo is solely responsible for Tommy’s miraculous recovery. Alvin didn’t just give this kid a harmonica, he saved his life.
In the end, Alvin’s gesture is hardly selfless, considering that a stranger buys him a brand new harmonica, and he’s further rewarded with praise and applause, which isn’t the most constructive way to teach children about the value of giving. If anything, it’s Dave who’s most in need of a lesson about the holiday spirit. Grumpy and impatient despite coasting on his adopted children’s musical talent, Dave would rather bloviate about the meaning of Christmas than actually do anything to express it. Even in the end, he still pulls a sour face when Alvin again asks Santa Claus for gifts for himself. Lighten up, Dave, and happy holidays.
Original airdate: December 14, 1981
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