I’ve been engaging in this pointless endeavor for more than three years. I’ve rewatched many hours of television from my childhood, with my feelings towards them ranging from warm, soothing nostalgia to abject horror that such a thing ever existed. Often I’m just puzzled. There were a lot of baffling decisions made, particularly with television of the 70s. Though the medium had existed for over two decades by that point, there still seemed to be a lot of confusion as to exactly what could be done with it, and how to do it. Perhaps it really was just radio but with pictures. Or, perhaps it could be a viable alternative to movies. Or, perhaps it could be a new way to showcase beautiful women in tight and/or skimpy clothing. Or it was the most effective advertising platform businesses had ever (or would ever, until the internet) had in their grasp. It was all of these things. It was none of these things. But, try it all anyway, just in case, to see what works best.
This was particularly true of variety shows, that great though now long dead genre that people like Rosie O’Donnell and Martin Short have tried numerous times to revive, with resoundingly unimpressive results. As I’ve written about time and time again, variety shows were a fascinating experiment in the “throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks” method of entertainment, with no clear indication as to who the audience was, and cast with a mix of performers who were known largely for appearing on other variety shows, and those who had no recognizable affinity (let alone talent for) singing, dancing, or doing comedy. Whether there was a palpable desperation to make it work, or an air of utter indifference, they were always entertaining to watch.
1977’s ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas wasn’t a variety show per se, but it certainly feels like one, particularly with a laugh track and some decidedly odd casting choices. Despite it being a fairly straightforward holiday special, in which someone learns to embrace the magic and joy of Christmas, much of the cast seems to have shown up immediately after an afternoon taping of The Hollywood Squares, and none of them are in any way suitable for their roles.
For starters, 51 year-old Paul Lynde and 48 year-old Anne Meara play the harried young parents of a brood of children all under the age of ten, but then you have Martha Raye as a 19th century society matron, and Happy Days‘ Anson Williams (announced as a “special cameo,” which defeats the purpose of a cameo appearance) as a neighborhood caroler. There doesn’t seem to be any joke to their being cast in these roles (unless you count the by then tiresome gag of Lynde literally playing it straight), and they remain in character for the entirety of the show. The problem is that, for most of the cast, their idea of “in character” is mostly a variation on the personas that made them famous. No amount of old timey clothes could make Paul Lynde look or act like anyone else but Paul Lynde, and Martha Raye was going to sing and mug at the camera no matter what kind of character she was playing. So many wacky comedic personalities all climbing over each other for a moment in the spotlight makes for some jarring tonal shifts whenever the show tries to get touching and heartwarming.
The show opens on Christmas Eve somewhere in the 1890s, at the Cosgrove household. Patriarch Clark (Paul Lynde) is worn down by the constant demands of his children, none of whom are capable of speaking at a volume level below eleven, who squabble amongst each other about the existence of Santa Claus. Wife Nellie (Anne Meara) has to contend with Clark’s overbearing live-in mother (Alice Ghostley, a whole three years older than Lynde), while preparing the house for a visit from her own parents (Martha Raye and Foster Brooks). Meanwhile, a traveling salesman (George Gobel) shows up at their house and is mistaken for an uncle whom evidently no one has ever seen before. I’d tell you more about what happens, but that’s really about it, and it’s a well padded forty-five minutes.
The name “Foster Brooks” won’t likely mean anything to anyone under thirty-five. Hell, it barely means anything to me, other than as a performer who had some vague connection to the first golden age of television comedy. Brooks’ sole shtick, back when this kind of thing was considered funny, was pretending to be drunk. He managed to make a successful career out of stumbling around and slurring his words, and indeed, there’s a titter in the audience when Brooks, in Twas the Night Before Christmas, announces that he’s not going to drink, then immediately proceeds to pull a flask from his jacket pocket. He spends the majority of the show plastered, because there’s nothing funnier than someone who can’t spend more than an hour with his family without drinking. Meanwhile, George Gobel does…well, whatever the hell it was he was famous for (some sort of doddering Midwestern farmer bit that spawned a dozen Bartles & Jaymes commercials), while Paul Lynde reacts to everything in his signature Paul Lynde manner, with pained expressions and sarcastic quips that sound wildly out of place in a Currier & Ives setting.
In the midst of all the shticks, bits, gags, and aging comedians trying their hardest to remind America why they love them, there’s a barely perceptible plot that involves Clark being so driven to the brink by holiday stress (not to mention having to track down his mother’s escaped cat) that he nearly blurts out the truth about Santa Claus to his children. He pulls himself together before it’s too late, however, and instead recites the titular poem. Again, I’d say more, but that’s really all there is to it. The show is about 75% sincere and 25% meant to be funny, but the jokes don’t land so much as creep into the room, stand around unnoticed for a few moments, then creep back out again. Even the laugh track is politely subdued.
Lest I come off like a Scrooge about mediocre television no one’s cared about in years, Twas the Night Before Christmas isn’t bad. It’s not anything. It needed to be either twice as campy, or totally sincere in order to make any kind of impression, though obviously the former would have been preferable, because, let’s face it, Paul Lynde making one good crack about Santa Claus coming only once year would have saved the whole thing. It’s not just me, though–the special was a ratings dud the week it aired, and was never shown again. It was a quickly fading relic, and soon to be packed away with the Christmas tree decorations no one wanted anymore.
Original airdate: December 7, 1977
Watch it here