“Twas the Night Before Christmas” (1977)

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.

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“ALF’s Special Christmas” (1987)

This year marks 35 years since the release of E.T., Steven Spielberg’s greatest child friendly movie, if not one of the greatest movies of all time overall. In recent years, film aficionados have tried their darndest to dismiss Spielberg as an overrated hack who works in sloppy sentimentality like Van Gogh worked in oils. E.T. in particular has been retconned as an exercise in fooling audiences into mistaking empty nostalgia for actual human emotion. To this I say cram it, nerds, it’s still a great movie, and Spielberg is still a great director, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull aside.

It also, of course, spawned a number of atrocious rip-offs, including Nukie, and the even more infamous Mac and Me, one of the most cynical children’s movies ever made, where fully half the action takes place inside a McDonald’s restaurant. One could even make the case for surprise TV smash ALF being, at the very least, inspired by E.T. The basic plots are the same: an alien ends up accidentally left on Earth and is taken in by a human family, where he quickly bonds with their young son. The family must go out of their way to hide the alien from shady government agents who mean to do it harm. Where E.T. sends the audience on an emotional rollercoaster ride through wonder, terror, grief, and joy, however, ALF was mostly just about what happens when you splice a teddy bear with Borscht Belt comedian Shecky Greene, and give him a long, phallic nose.

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“The Cabbage Patch Kids: First Christmas” (1984)

As our country continues its train ride into Hell, driven by a conductor who speaks in an inscrutable word salad, much like the Man From Another Place in Twin Peaks, it’s important to keep in mind that the concept of #MAGA, that dream world our President and his most ardent supporters speak about, never really existed. There’s never been a time when everyone had a Cadillac in their driveway, and people (wink) knew their place (nudge). The rich have always dominated the poor, teenagers have always been having sex, women have always been getting abortions, and the gays have always been gay. Other than the fact that you can now send a picture of a dancing hot dog to someone within less than a second, the world hasn’t changed all that much.

Remember last Christmas, when we all looked askance at parents who went to insane lengths to buy Hatchimals, the media hyped “hot toy” of the year? People lined up outside of stores before dawn, got into fistfights with each other over the last one, and paid up to ten times the price to predatory opportunists online. This year? You can get them for $20 at Big Lots. They can’t get rid of these things. But, it’s okay, as long as the rest of us who didn’t participate in such nonsense can smirk in satisfaction and judgment over what parents today will do in order to appease their spoiled brats.

But, here’s the thing (and I know that most people know this, but seem to conveniently forget it in favor of smug superiority): this exact same thing happens every few years, and has for decades. Before that, there was Tickle Me Elmo. Then there were Furbies, then Tamagotchis, and then Tickle Me Elmo again, for the first time. Before any of that, however, there were Cabbage Patch Kids.

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“Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas” (1977)

In December of 2015, Netflix aired A Very Murray Christmas, an original holiday special hosted by enjoyable comedic actor turned inexplicable pop culture demigod Bill Murray. Not surprisingly, given Murray’s persona, it’s very sly and self-aware, where even during the meant to be sincere moments Murray makes it clear that he’s much too cool to be doing such a thing. That’s not to pass judgment on him, most programs like this are done with a broad wink at the audience these days, as if to suggest that the people responsible for them think they’re at least as corny as you do. Whether it’s because we’re living in the “Age of Irony” (or whatever Salon-appropriate term can be applied to it), or some other as yet to be overthought reason, 21st century TV audiences seem to reject overt displays of sincerity, particularly when it comes to Christmas.

If you genuinely love that kind of thing, then the 70s was your peak decade. It offered multiple specials by the Carpenters, the Osmonds, John Denver, and Bing Crosby, among others. Presenting the kind of Christmas celebration most viewers would never experience, with horse-drawn sleigh rides in the snow and singalongs around a piano, often the stars would include their real life families in them, as if to suggest that the shows were really more like a home movie than a TV program. Of course, hindsight being 20/20, it’s hard to watch a lot of these shows knowing the sadness behind the scenes. It’s heartbreaking to hear Karen Carpenter sing anything, let alone “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” It’s difficult to see Donny and Marie Osmond lauding their parents for their traditional homespun values, knowing that they were the family’s primary source of income for many years, essentially missing out on their childhoods. It’s entirely possible that John Denver was sauced while filming his various specials. Then, of course, there was Bing Crosby.

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“A Christmas Dream” (1984)

“Teaching someone the meaning of Christmas” is probably my favorite genre of Christmas special. For one thing, it’s a situation that absolutely no one in real life will ever encounter. For another, they’re impossible to do without at least a small amount of, a shmear, if you will, of sap. Sometimes, as in 1984’s A Christmas Dream, it takes great, overflowing bucketfuls, enough to choke a reindeer.

A Christmas Dream stars Mr. T and Emmanuel Lewis, whom America had deemed among the “safe ones.” Despite looking and acting exactly like Mr. T, here he plays Benny, a street corner Santa who has a chance encounter with Billy (Emmanuel Lewis), a little boy wandering the streets of New York City by himself. Billy glumly informs Benny that he doesn’t believe in Christmas, and doubts Benny’s assurances that he can convince him otherwise. What’s got the wee lad so down, you might ask? Is he homeless? Is he an orphan? Has he been stricken with a terminal illness? No, he’s a latchkey kid, which Billy explains to Benny in a voice that suggests his parents keep him locked in a basement and feed him only bread and water.

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“He-Man & She-Ra: A Christmas Special” (1985)

Christmas episodes of sitcoms and cartoons are almost never their strongest episodes, mostly because there’s something a little forced and rote about them. With only a limited number of plot variations (It’s a Wonderful Life redux, a character rediscovers the true meaning of Christmas, etc.), it comes off as insincere. Is it December? Time to have an episode of Mr. Belvedere that’s a take on A Christmas Carol. It’s long been as predictable as that one member of your family who insists on giving you a picture frame as a present every year.

Considering that neither show took place on Earth, the makers of He-Man and She-Ra should not have felt obligated to do a holiday episode, but they did, and that’s how we ended up with the charmingly corny He-Man & She-Ra: A Christmas Special, airing in 1985. Similar to Die Hard, in that it isn’t so much about Christmas as that it just happens to take place at Christmas, it offers mermaids, metal dragons, robot dogs, “beast monsters,” a mindblowing original holiday song, and He-Man wearing a Santa Claus costume, complete with a white pageboy haircut.

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“Noel” (1992)

When I was a little girl, one of my favorite books was a collection of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales. They were a bit toned down for a younger audience–the Little Mermaid’s feet didn’t bleed whenever she tried to walk on land, for instance–except for one, which maintained the relentlessly bleak tone of the original version. That would be “The Little Match Girl,” which I read once, but have never forgotten, largely because, at age six or so, I was shocked that a story about a child left penniless and alone on the streets didn’t end with a beautiful queen taking her home to a magical castle, where she would want for nothing ever again. That was how fairy tales were supposed to end, with the characters living happily ever after. What kind of sadist writes a story for children that ends with a child freezing to death, after she burns out all her matches trying to see the ghost of her dead grandmother?

Ever since then, I’ve had a dislike for children’s entertainment in which the specter of death lingers ominously in the background. Yes, yes, I realize that kids have to learn sometime, but there’s plenty of time for them to figure out that life is hard and unfair without a seemingly innocuous cartoon hammering it into them. This is especially true for Christmas specials–they’re usually maudlin enough as is, without inserting some sort of metaphor for the fleetingness of time. Nevertheless, get that spiked eggnog ready, because have I got a doozy for you–1992’s Noel, a heartwarming holiday special that teaches that time will have its way with us, leaving us abandoned and forgotten until we’re finally able to embrace the sweet release that only death can bring.

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“A Very Brady Christmas” (1988)

I’ve already written at length about the numerous ill-fated attempts at recapturing the ol’ Brady Bunch magic during the 70s and 80s, but now, it being the holiday season and all, I suppose I should talk about the one that didn’t result in profound embarrassment for everyone involved. That would be 1988’s A Very Brady Christmas, a one shot TV movie that ended up being among the most watched programs of the year. Like drinking an entire punchbowl of eggnog, it’s sweet and goes down easy, but leaves you feeling kind of nauseous.

The movie opens with Mike and Carol Brady, living in empty nest bliss in the same house as the original show. Alice shows up at their door one day, weeping over being dumped by her husband, Sam the Butcher, for a younger woman, in what we can assume was revenge for her running off to Hollywood and engaging in a passionate affair with Rip Taylor. Bereft of family or other friends, she stays with the Bradys, donning her old uniform and going back to work, because evidently being a housekeeper is the only thing that gives her life meaning.

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“Rapsittie Street Kids: Believe in Santa” (2002)

Christmas is a time for peace, togetherness, and upholding traditions. Tradition is especially important when it comes to holiday season entertainment–despite Hollywood putting out at least one new Christmas movie every year, most of us prefer to watch It’s a Wonderful Life for the 150th time, or continue the endless debate over whether Alastair Sim or Reginald Owen played the best Ebenezer Scrooge (answer: of course it was Alastair Sim, don’t be silly). We don’t want to get to know new characters when we could be wrapping ourselves in well-worn but still cozy blankets instead.

New Christmas specials sometimes turn out to be cute little gems, like 1999’s Olive, the Other Reindeer. Some, like the previously reviewed Christmas in Tattertown, are quirky failures. Then there is Rapsittie Street Kids: Believe in Santa, which aired once in 2002, and was never seen again. Disappearing into obscurity immediately after the credits rolled, it was recently rediscovered thanks to YouTube.

The best that can be said about Rapsittie Street Kids is that it’s original. You will almost certainly have never seen anything like it before, nor will you ever see anything like it again. In fact, it’s so original that you’ll think you dreamt it, because surely nothing this grossly incompetent could have possibly been deemed acceptable for primetime network viewing, let alone be promoted as the first in a series of original holiday specials.

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“A Chipmunk Christmas” (1981)

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.

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