“Christmas with the Joker”
Written by Eddie Gorodetsky
Directed by Kent Butterworth
Supervising Composer Shirley Walker
Music Composed by Michael McCuistion, Lolita Ritmanis
Animation Services by Akom Production Co.
Original Airdate: November 13th, 1992
Plot: Batman and Robin’s quiet Christmas at home is interrupted when the Joker takes over the airwaves with his own version of Christmas special, including hostages and a wild goose chase around Gotham for the Dynamic Duo.
In a sense, “Christmas with the Joker” feels like the pilot to a very different show than “On Leather Wings.” The first episode featured a Batman early in his career, when Harvey Dent was still unscarred and the police did not trust him. Despite the flying man and Batman’s quips, “On Leather Wings” felt more serious, in the vein of Batman: Year One.
“Christmas with the Joker,” on the other hand, feels more like an action packed episode of Batman ’66. There’s Robin, to lighten the mood and deliver some truly terrible puns. There’s the Joker, announcing his plans on live television and leading Batman from death trap to death trap. And then there’s Conroy, delivering Batman’s lines with such seriousness that they’re downright campy. Maybe there’s only so many ways you can say “Robin, destroy that cannon, I’ll draw their fire,” but he also sounds super serious explaining that he never saw It’s a Wonderful Life because he could never get past the title.
But as a pilot, this episode does a great job of establishing two of the most important characters in the Batman mythos, the Joker and Robin.
Robin will be in less than a third of the episodes, and most of those towards the end of the run, but he serves an important role here. First, this episode establishes that Dick Grayson is Bruce Wayne’s family, the one he eats goose dinner and watches movies with, the character that humanizes Bruce and keeps him from slipping entirely into being Batman. Robin being Batman’s family directly contrasts Batman with the Joker who, it is repeatedly mentioned, has no family of his own.
And in the field, Robin is a junior partner, the one who decouples the train and takes out the cannon while Batman takes on the more dangerous job. Loren Lester voices Dick Grayson throughout the series, and while he never gives a stand out performance, he does a good job of being the guy trying to keep his sense of humor in grim circumstances.
More memorable is Mark Hamill’s performance as the Joker. It’s astonishing the way he easily shifts mood from mirthful to wrathful to bored to annoyed to happy again but really, it all comes down to that laugh, that wonderful, full throated, cackle. It’s a high pitched scream and it always sounds like the Joker is really enjoying being a supervillain, which Jack Nicholson’s Joker never did.
There are a lot of Joker episodes and each one features a different aspect of the character. In this one, it’s Joker the showman. While he uses plenty of violent threats, the Joker doesn’t seem to need anyone to actually die, and he doesn’t want money, there’s no ransom demand. What he wants is attention, specifically Batman’s attention. He wants to be the performer “no one wants to see but everyone will watch.”
And, as a running gag, he’s not even a good performer. He moves his lips while doing a ventriloquist routine, he’s clearly recording his own intro, he can’t even get a real studio audience so he builds his own out of cardboard (then blows them up when he’s bored.)
There’s also a meta-awareness to the character, as if he knows that his real fans exist outside of the television. This is how he can sing a version of “Jingle Bells” about the Joker getting away even as he gets away, provide his own title card for the episode, and directly address the audience about going to commercial. He’s performing for Batman, but he’s also performing for us.
That’s one reason the Joker can never kill Batman, he’d lose his best audience and his best comedy partner. There are two instances in the episode, when Batman can’t find his hideout, and then when the Joker threatens to kill the hostages unless Batman opens a present, where the Joker has basically won, but he can’t leave it at that, so he gives Batman a hint as to where the base is, and then only hits Batman with a pie. If there’s a major flaw in this episode, it’s that Batman only wins because the Joker let’s him stay in the game, and then the Joker trips on a random roller skate. Why do we need a Batman again?
That said, this is an okay episode. Neither the music nor the animation particularly stand out, with the exception of the Batman theme incorporated into the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” while Batman and Robin fight giant nutcrackers. There’s genuinely good character work as Robin begs Batman to stay in for one night. We get our first view of Arkham Asylum, and appropriately enough, we see the Joker immediately escape from it.
And while it’s not his usual purple zoot suit (as seen on the Joker statues), I do love the Joker’s orange cardigan over green turtleneck look. It’s so festive, and the breakaway hands so useful. I’ve long argued that Batman has the best dressed rogues gallery in comics, and the Joker is one reason why.