Mon
Dec 17 2012 10:00am

11 Odd, Campy, Surreal Holiday Specials That Should Be Classics

11 Odd, Campy, Surreal Holiday Specials That Should Be Classics

Four years ago around this time, I wrote a post about some of my favorite bizarro holiday specials to help ring in our very first Tor.com Cthulhumas/Life Day/Krampusnacht/Solstice celebration. While a lot has changed since 2008, my abiding love of strange and unusual holiday-inspired lunacy is as strong as ever, so please enjoy this updated guide to some classic (or should-be classic) yuletide entertainment….

First off, I should admit that I’m a sucker for a lot of holiday standards, from The Grinch and Peanuts to Rudolph and Frosty the Snowman. I adore both White Christmas and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, but there’s also a lot of schmaltzy, badly-written nonsense floating around out there like so much stale, crusty fruitcake this time of year…and when the usual holiday fare starts wearing thin, it’s time to mix things up a bit.

The following movies and TV specials are amazing because they find new ways of celebrating the holiday spirit, with all its weird traditions and potentially awkward moments and unmeetable expectations. It’s not about irony or snark or subversion—it’s about making your own odd, goofy, wonderful kind of holiday cheer, wherever you can find it...

 

Scrooged (1988): There are so many ways in which a late-80s update of A Christmas Carol could have gone horribly wrong, and yet Bill Murray is indescribably brilliant as viciously cynical TV exec Frank Cross, out to score holiday ratings with his tacky, exploitative live production of the Dickens classic (meta!). Murray’s trademark sarcasm and deadpan retorts make him the most entertaining incarnation of Scrooge ever, but when his smarmy yuppie facade finally cracks…well, let’s just say that the end of this movie gets me every time. By the time Murray and the rest of the cast (including Karen Allen, Carol Kane, Bobcat Goldthwait, David Johansen and Robert Mitchum) start singing along to “Put A Little Love In Your Heart,” I defy you not to get a little teary (in a good way!) One of the greatest holiday movies of all time, in my book.

 

Christmas At Pee-Wee’s Playhouse (1988): In which Grace Jones arrives in a giant box and performs the only rendition of “The Little Drummer Boy” I’ll ever truly love. Plus, Pee-Wee teaches Little Richard how to ice skate, Charo performs “Feliz Navidad” with robot accompaniment, and Zsa Zsa Gabor appears as “Princess Zsa Zsa” and SO MUCH MORE. A hyper-affectionate throwback to the campy holiday TV extravaganzas of the 60s and 70s, Pee-Wee’s Christmas special is a total bizarre, sparkly delight with a heart of gold (and you can actually watch the whole thing here, thanks to the magic of YouTube! Just try not to read the comments. Ever.)

 

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1985): I’ve already written about this amazingly bizarre and wonderful special at length, but I really can’t say enough good things about this puppety lovechild of L. Frank Baum and Rankin & Bass. It’s dark and weird and there are elves, wind demons, and a battle that involves a Santa-hating dragon...not to mention the fact that the plot centers on a council of immortal beings trying to decide whether to let Santa join them, or let him die of old age. (Spoiler: he doesn’t die, but it’s not like there aren’t people on the fence, for awhile). In short, not your usual, relentlessly cheery holiday fare, but it’s beautifully made, the design is stunning, and it’s certainly an original, fascinating take on the legend of Santa Claus through the lens of myth and fantasy.

 

The Year Without A Santa Claus (1974): While there’s nothing else quite as intensely strange as The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus in the Rankin/Bass holiday canon, this little doozy certainly has its moments. You have to love any premise kicked off by a whiny, chronically depressed Santa who just doesn’t give a damn about Christmas anymore. Plus, the Heat Miser and Snow Miser are the catchiest duo to ever hit holiday animation, deep-seated mommy-issues and all; if you need a quick fix, you can catch their classic, campy little number above. In the end, though, the film delivers a fun twist on the Santa story, thanks to the irrepressible Mrs. Claus, who helps her husband rediscover the Christmas spirit and saves the day. It’s also a nice change of pace to see Mrs. Claus taking the reins (with an assist from Mother Nature, no less!)—she’s a smart, sassy holiday heroine, and there really aren’t as many of those as there should be.

 

Community: The show has had two fantastic Christmas-themed episodes to date; the first, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” is a smart, warped take on stop-motion animated holiday classics, combining group therapy and psychodrama with a fantasy land full of whimsical talking toys. The second is simply one of my favorite TV episodes of all time: “Regional Holiday Music” starts off as a goofy parody of Glee, but builds into an exploration of why the holidays are important and meaningful, as an opportunity to celebrate with the people you love, on your own terms.

It comes as close to a cliché sitcom-y resolution as Community is ever likely to get, but that happy ending has been more than earned by the fact that the show deals honestly with the reality that the holidays can be a dark time for some people, and all the forced holiday cheer in the world can’t compete with a little sincerity between friends. And I haven’t even mentioned the songs, which are all glorious and amazing—my favorite is probably Annie’s creepy, brilliant pseudo-seduction of Jeff (above), which deconstructs the infantilized Betty Boop-style appeal of a song like “Santa Baby” in the most hilarious way possible....

 

A Muppet Family Christmas (1987): Not to knock the outstanding Muppet Christmas Carol, but this has always been my favorite Muppet holiday special, bringing together all of the characters from Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, and Fraggle Rock for some loosely plotted, rollicking Christmas merrymaking. The basic premise starts off with Fozzy invading his mother’s farm with the rest of the Muppet Show crew, just as she’s trying to leave for a vacation in Malibu. Meanwhile, Miss Piggy is stuck at photo shoot and spends most of the special running late for various reasons, while the house fills up with unexpected guests, carolers and assorted monsters. In the midst of all the chaos and singing and mild dysfunction, of course, a wonderful time is had by all, and we even get a cameo of Jim Henson himself at the very end, as all the Muppets sing “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.” It’s really not to be missed.

 

Phineas and Ferb Christmas Vacation! (2009): Even if you’ve never seen the show, I’d still highly recommend this special, which manages to showcase the writers’ trademark ingenuity in terms of plotting, ridiculously clever dialogue and references and all the show’s usual features and in-jokes while creating a truly delightful, heartwarming celebration of the holidays. The plot’s a little too complicated to some up here, but it’s silly and light, and yet somehow manages to be more touching than it has any right to be. Also, the special guest star who voices Santa? Clancy Brown. Not a bad starting point if you’ve been hearing good things about the series, and a seasonal must-see if you’re already a fan (or if you just love ridiculously clever, warm holiday enterainment).

 

The Venture Bros.: The Season One episode “A Very Venture Christmas” starts off with a brilliant pastiche of every Christmas special cliché ever and ends with a visit from the Krampus. There’s also a bomb planted in a miniature Nativity scene. I don’t even want to say anything more. It’s just ridiculous, and amazing. Krampus!

 

Futurama: Even casual Futurama fans will probably already be familiar with the fact that a psychotic Robot Santa terrorizes the Planet Express gang every Xmas (in the future, of course, the holiday is pronounced “eks-mas”). The character was introduced in the first season’s “Xmas Story” (which ends with a rousing rendition of “Santa Claus Is Gunning You Down”), and returns in the third season episode “A Tale of Two Santas,” which also features Kwanzaabot, mistaken robo-idenitity, and Dr. Zoidberg pretending to be Jesus. Robot Santa also features in the fifth season’s “Futurama Holiday Spectacular” and Bender’s Big Score. Sure, in the future, Santa might be feared across the galaxy as a soulless killing machine—but nothing brings people closer than huddling indoors to escape his holiday wrath, so at least there’s something to look forward to....

 

Will Vinton’s Claymation Christmas Celebration (1987): This slice of strange but enjoyable holiday cheer features an odd array of claymation characters, from the California Raisins to a snarky duo of comic-relief dinosaurs. Admittedly, it’s kind of trippy, in that Very Special 80s way. Say what you want about the 1980s—it was a strange decade, especially on the television front—but knock back a few glasses of eggnog and see if you can turn your back on the spectacle of talking dinosaurs and giant anthropomorphized raisins soulfully singing Christmas carols. Maybe not a full-on classic, but call it a fruity palate cleanser between marathon reruns of A Christmas Story and It’s A Wonderful Life.

 

The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978): Of course this makes the list, every year, forever. In terms of sheer campy absurdity, the notoriously ridiculous Star Wars Holiday Special is a perennial contender for the What. The Hell. Were They Thinking? Award. From the Boba Fett cartoon to the sight of an elderly Wookiee visibly aroused by the disco stylings of Diahann Carroll to Bea Arthur serenading the Mos Eisley cantina, the Special is a tragic experiment in messy kitsch which continues to wreak havoc in the back alleys of our pop culture consciousness. While it has never been released—in fact, George Lucas has reportedly stated, “If I had the time and a sledgehammer, I would track down every copy of that show and smash it”—the SWHS is surprisingly easy to hunt down if you use The Force. And know how to perform a Google search. It should be noted (as a public service) that the gang from RiffTrax provide the kind of snarky commentary that might be the only way to make it through all two hours with your sanity intact. However you want to go about it, if it’s weirdness you’re after, you won’t be disappointed. Scarred, possibly. Deeply traumatized? Most definitely. But not disappointed.

So, those are my oddball recommendations—if the Island of Misfit Toys had its own cable channel, I imagine it would have a lot in common with this particular lineup...maybe with some bonus Gremlins and Blackadder’s Christmas Carol (or even Santa Claus: The Movie) thrown in for good (?) measure. But I can’t be the only one who likes to mix it up every year—share some of your own favorites in the comments, and however you end up spending the holidays this year, I hope they’re warm, wonderful, and highly entertaining!


Bridget McGovern is the non-fiction editor of Tor.com. She can’t believe she’s missed out on Pee Wee’s Christmas Special all these years, and is making up for lost time. You can never have enough wigs and glitter around, this time of year...

28 comments
Christopher Morgan
1. cmorgan
I vote for The Leprechaun's Christmas Gold. A trippy little nonsense from Ranking and Bass.
Bruce Arthurs
2. Bruce-Arthurs
The California Raisin's special includes my favorite version of "We Three Kings." Not bad for a group whose career dried up before it even started.
Bridget McGovern
3. BMcGovern
@ Bruce-Arthurs: I...see what you did there. And I applaud it :) I almost included the clip of the camels singing "We Three Kings"--it's definitely one of the high points!
hapax
4. hapax
There was a wonderfully weird, schmaltzy made-for-television special maybe fifteen years ago, that re-set the story of the Three Wise Men with three escapees from a California mental hospital, that ended up with them delivering a baby in a camp for homeless undocumented workers.

I remember bawling at the end, but I also remember having had a lot of, h'rr'm, eggnog that evening. I've always wanted to track it down and re-watch it sober.
Rajan Khanna
5. rajanyk
Great list, Bridget!

My favorite is still Emmet Otter's Jugband Christmas, which is just a little weird all around. It is a little traditional in its message, but I think the Riverbottom Nightmare Band's glam musical performance is still one of the best moments in any Christmas movie.
hapax
6. Fritz
You missed the Xena Xmas episode and a Dream for Wings that Work and the Pinky and The Brain Xmas special
hapax
7. AdamMcGovern
A few weeks ago "It's a SpongeBob Christmas!" immediately boarded the sleigh and took over as the new standard of hallucinatory storybook wonder and serotonin-drained holiday dread. And I always had a soft spot for "Miracle on 34th Street" -- I dearly wanna believe there's a magical gentleman who can figure out when the R train is running, and follow him.
hapax
8. John C. Bunnell
Two more for consideration here:

Mrs. Santa Claus: A 1996 live-action TV movie/musical starring Angela Lansbury in the title role -- in a plot that very loosely crosses "Year Without A Santa Claus" and "Annie", in that here it's Mrs. Claus who's fleeing the North Pole, only to land in New York in 1910, where she gets involved in the women's suffrage movement and helps shut down a toy factory that's abusing its child laborers. With Lansbury in the lead, Terence Mann as the nasty toymaker, and Broadway master Jerry Herman writing the songs, this was about as good as a Christmas musical can get, and far less cheesy than one might expect of a Hallmark production (which it was). Also, where else are you going to find Charles Durning playing Santa Claus?

A Very Possible Christmas: Not a special as such, being the Christmas episode from the Disney animated series Kim Possible. Dr. Drakken is channeling the Grinch (Shego: "You've stopped using words."), sidekick Ron Stoppable is trying to stop Drakken himself so Kim can have a proper family Christmas, and Ron's favorite old-school holiday special "The Six Tasks of Snowman Hank" has been cancelled this year in favor of an Xtreme Xmas Sports special shot at the North Pole. But once everything intersects, it turns out Drakken is also a Snowman Hank fan, and (temporary) peace on Earth is achieved with the usual Possible aplomb. The fun here is both in the character interplay and in the "Snowman Hank" subplot, which is a deft homage to the Rankin/Bass specials. Diane Duane has written an unsolicited outline for the "Snowman Hank" special, which should tell you something about how well-executed the episode was....
Steven Halter
9. stevenhalter
Adam@7:"It's a SpongeBob Christmas!" should definitely go on this list from now on.
Alan Courchene
10. Majicou
The final completed episode of Invader Zim, "The Most Horrible X-Mas Ever," should get a mention. Zim tries to understand and exploit Christmas, Mini-Moose is retconned in, the people of Earth face Santa's jolly boots of doom, and there's an Evangelion reference (see if you can spot it!) So grab a glass of cheer, raise the shields, and settle in for 22 minutes.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
11. Lisamarie
Hahaha, I kind of love that the Star Wars Holiday Special is on here. Worth seeing once just so you can verify for yourself that it REALLY is THAT BAD (although I love the 4 armed chef, haha) but...not sure I will ever watch it again, unless my son wants to or something. It's kind of like a rite of passage for Star Wars fans. It has to be seen to be believed. It's not so bad it's good, it's almost beyond 'so bad it's horrible' but yet...like a train wreck. Everybody I know always ends up having to look it up at least once.

Even better if you can get a recording with the original commercials. Next up, fighting the frizzies!
hapax
12. msst
We're No Angels (1955) get's my vote.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/We%27re_No_Angels_%281955_film%29
Keith DeCandido
13. krad
There was The Tick's holiday episode "The Tick Loves Santa!" with a wave of duplicate evil Santas cascading down upon the city, and the Tick crying out, "It's a Yule tide!"

(Ah, YouTube, how I love thee. Click here, and go in to about the two-minute mark.....)

---Keith R.A. DeCandido
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
14. Lisamarie
Oh, and I used to have this video of the He-Man/She-Ra Christmas Special, in which Skeletor gets Christmas Spirit!!!!!!!

I think the nostalgia critic or some other snarky internet personality did a pretty funny review of it somewhere.
hapax
15. Laundry Lady
I love the Claymation Christmas. I grew up watching on old VHS recording of it off of television. My sister recently bought it on DVD. The music is actually pretty cool (I bought the soundtrack a couple years ago), but unfortunatley it is incredibly electronic, as most eighties music is. I also agree with an above poster, Emmett Otter's Jugband Christmas is another great one (though it's kind of a screwy version of the Gift of the Magi). I just introduced both to my three year old daughter and she loves them. In fact she is so obsessed with the Claymation Christmas soundtrack that she won't listen to anything else.
Robert H. Bedford
16. RobB
I'd say The Year Without A Santa Claus is a classic, with all the airings on The Family Channel.

For whatever reason, Santa Claus: The Movie with Dudley Moore as an elf and John Lithgow as Evil Corporate CEO has a soft spot which I'd consider a classic.
hapax
17. Dr. Cox
"Merry Christmas Mr. Bean" isn't all that sci-fi--just the Dalek action figures in one scene--but it's hilarious, as is "Blackadder's Christmas Carol" and "Bernard and the Genie."
Michael Burke
19. Ludon
I have two old episodes of well known shows (Dragnet and Dick Van Dyke) to add to the discussion.

In Dragnet's "The Big Little Jesus", Sgt. Friday goes in search of the Baby Jesus statue missing from a church Nativity Scene and finds it in a situation too feel-good to be done on today's TV.

In "Uhny Uftz", Rob (Dick Van Dyke) sees a UFO while working late one night at the office. This is not really a Christmas special, but I'm suggesting it because after seeing Rob solve the mystery, you'll think of it as a Christmas show.
Bridget McGovern
20. BMcGovern
Wow...these are some fantastic suggestions, so far (just catching up now; I was offline yesterday, heading home for the holidays :)

@hapax #4: I think the movie you're talking about is called The Three Kings--there seem to be a lot of people trying to track down a copy online!

@John C. Bunnell #8: I'd love to check out both of those, but I kind of can't believe I've never seen Mrs. Santa Claus (Jerry Herman, Angela Lansbury, and a slew of Emmy nominations? Sounds amazing).

@msst #12: Yes! We're No Angels (1955), with Bogart, Aldo Ray and Peter Ustinov (not to be confused with the 1989 David Mamet/De Niro/Sean Penn movie--totally different) is fabulous. I haven't seen it since I was little!
Bridget McGovern
21. BMcGovern
@krad #13: "Like a great blue salmon of Justice, the mighty Tick courses upstream to the very spawning ground of evil!" Amazing. Definitely added to the list :)

@Lisamarie #14: Good news! Not only is He-Man & She-Ra: A Christmas Special on Netflix and Hulu, but it's also on YouTube. I haven't had a chance to watch it yet, but it looks promising, in a so-bad-it's-maybe-good? way...

@RobB #16: It's true, but I still meet people who've never experienced the craziness of TYWASC, and that's just a shame :) And my younger sister absolutely loves Santa Claus: The Movie (along with Prancer)...John Lithgow can do no wrong, in my book, but I'm also a little less tolerant of the child actors involved in both movies than she is...

Everything else, I can't wait to check out, from SpongeBob, Invader Zim, and Kim Possible to Mr. Bean and Dick Van Dyke. I also have to second (third) the recommedations of The Leprechaun's Christmas Gold and Emmett Otter, since there can never be too much Rankin/Bass, in my opinion. Speaking of which, if you haven't seen Santa Claus is Comin' To Town in a while, do yourself a favor--between the Burgermeister and his crazy robot army and the Winter Warlock, it's one of my (other) all-time favorites!
Robert H. Bedford
22. RobB
@21. BMcGovern: It's true, but I still meet people who've never experienced the craziness of TYWASC, and that's just a shame :)
Those poor souls. Though not as poor as those who saw "The Miser Brothers Christmas" or the live action version of TYWASC with John Goodman and Harvey Fierstein.
Bridget McGovern
23. BMcGovern
@RobB: Ugh...there's a very special Christmas-themed circle of hell waiting for whoever greenlit both of those abominations (not to mention the unfortunate live-action Grinch, which I try never to mention in polite company. But this is a safe space :)
Steven Halter
24. stevenhalter
Thanks krad@13: The Tick has always amused me--I had no idea there was a Christmas special.
hapax
25. Hank Harwell
What? No love for The Max Headroom Christmas Turkey? You can't discuss the trippy '80's TV scene without a mention of Max!
Jami Gold
26. JamiGold
"Heat Miser" is one of my all-time favorite songs from my childhood. I love that they brought the "Year without a Santa Claus" back. For the longest time, that was the neglected R/B video of that era.
Vivian U
27. Viviannn
Got halfway through Scrooged. Awful. Not funny. Pointlessly violent and boring. The song was the only good thing to come out of it. Poor Bill Murray. Bridget, I will never trust your recommendations again.
Bridget McGovern
28. BMcGovern
@Viviann: Huh--well, to each her own, I suppose! Scrooged is much beloved by most of my family and and friends, but I guess it wasn't to your taste. Still highly recommended, as far as I'm concerned! Maybe I should point out that Scrooged followed The Goonies by three years--both are directed by Richard Donner, and share some of the same manic sensibilities, so if you're a Goonies fan, you'll have some idea of what to expect in terms of pacing and the amount of slapstick involved.
Susan Davis
29. sue
The Year Without a Santa Claus "should be" a classic? Should me no shoulds; it is.

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