Howdy Doody’s Christmas

TitleDebuted in 1951

8 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: Buffalo Bob, Howdy Doody and Clarabell the Clown are anxiously awaiting the arrival of Santa Claus. When Santa doesn’t show up at midnight, they take a rocket to the North Pole and discover that Ugly Sam has captured Santa, believing him to be a bandit. While Bob and Clarabell struggle with Sam, Howdy frees Santa so he can make his Christmas ride.

Fun Fact: Clarabell the Clown is played here by Bob Keeshan, who later went on to star in his own show as Captain Kangaroo.

My thoughts: The Howdy Doody Show ran from 1947 to 1960 and set a format for children’s programming that many future shows emulated. Buffalo Bob Smith originated the character of Howdy Doody on radio and there are several fascinating stories around the creation and evolution of his puppet incarnation. My favorite involves the puppet’s creator angrily stealing it from the show, forcing them to fabricate a story that Howdy Doody was helping the presidential candidates on the campaign trail. This Christmas episode hasn’t aged well, so it all comes across as feeling very amateurish, a little like a show being put on in someone’s backyard. Dayton Allen, as Ugly Sam, particularly hams up his performance and seems to have one eye on the camera most of the time. Allen went on to do a lot of voice work, providing the voices for Deputy Dawg and Lancelot Link (Secret Chimp), which were favorites of mine when I was a kid. There’s really not much to this one, but it’s cool to watch from a historical point of view, though, since it really did have a profound influence on the future of television.

Clarabell

Clarabell knows your darkest secrets.

Bob and howdy

Howdy Doody is blissfully ignorant.

Dogpile on Sam

I don’t think I want to know…

Gagged Santa

Dang, Santa! Cookies and milk aren’t enough and now you’re eating your own hat?

Individual Superlative: Genre Overload – The show has a Western theme, a circus theme, a science fiction theme and a Christmas theme. Maybe Howdy Doody needed to slow his roll a little.

Want to Watch it? Howdy Doody’s Christmas is available on YouTube

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Blackadder’s Christmas Carol

titleDebuted in 1988

44 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: Ebenezer Blackadder is the kindest man in England and although he’s only planned a modest Christmas for himself and his employee, Baldrick, he ends up giving away all their money, food and presents. The Spirit of Christmas visits him during the night to congratulate him on his goodness and mentions that his ancestors were not as good, showing him the sly craftiness of two of them. When Ebenezer Blackadder sees what the future hold if he stays good versus what happens if he becomes devious and greedy like the others, he sees that ‘bad guys have all the fun’ and changes his ways.

Fun Fact: Robbie Coltrane’s appearance as the Spirit of Christmas is very similar to his appearance as Hagrid in the Harry Potter movies and, since J.K. Rowling started writing the first book two years after this special, some believe was inspired by this when writing the character.

My thoughts: It’s always great to see a take on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that is truly innovative and this one absolutely turns it on its head. Here, the Scrooge character starts out good and becomes bad because of what the ghost shows him and it’s very funny, particularly if you’re already familiar with the characters from the Blackadder BBC series.  The show ran for four seasons, each set in a different time period and centered around Edmund Blackadder (played by Rowan Atkinson), a scheming man whose motivations lean toward acquiring more power, money or status for himself. This special aired between Seasons 2 and 3 and showed new scenes from Season 2 (which took place in Medieval England) and Season 3 (which was set during the Elizabethan Era). The future scenes showed Blackadder’s descendant becoming a galactic High Commander and marrying a queen if he goes bad versus becoming a slave to Baldrick’s descendants if he stays good. The show is full of laugh out loud moments and silly characters, and there’s a great moral punch line where Ebenezer discovers that his new bad behavior has directly prevented him from receiving a special reward from Queen Victoria, showing how ultimately, you reap what you sow. It’s a fun and enjoyable take on the classic tale.

spirit-of-christmas

The Spirit of Christmas looks like he could use a good conditioner.

queen-elizabeth

I like to think Queen Elizabeth looked and acted exactly like this.

piglet-features

It’s too late to cover her ears now, Albert. She already heard Blackadder call her ‘Queen Piglet Features.’

future

It takes a courageous man to wear that skimpy costume.

Individual Superlative: Most Bizarrely Hilarious Rewritten Christmas Song – The very large orphans serenade Mr. Blackadder with a version of ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ in which they replace almost all the words with repetitions of ‘piggy wiggy woo’ and that ridiculous version has become a holiday staple in our house.

Want to Watch it? Blackadder’s Christmas Carol  is available on DVD and iTunes.

Mr. Krueger’s Christmas

title

Debuted in 1980

25 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: Willy Krueger is an apartment building custodian who lives with his cat in the building’s basement and on Christmas Eve, he fantasizes about being a well-respected gentleman in a fine house, helping to decorate the giant Christmas tree in Temple Square and conducting the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. A group of carolers visits him and he invites them to stay, but they only sing one song. He envisions himself in Bethlehem and kneels to talk to Jesus, thanking him for being his constant and best friend, and then two of the carolers return and ask him to join them.

Fun Fact: James Stewart said that conducting the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was a lifelong dream of his that he finally got to live out in this film.

My thoughts: This special was produced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and features classic movie legend James Stewart as Mr. Krueger in one of the last roles of his fifty year career. (He only did two things after this and one of them was voice work on An American Tail: Fievel Goes West.) I’m a huge fan of his and think his performance here is really wonderful. The director has said that Mr. Stewart felt very strongly about the film, worried about the over-commercialization of Christmas and fearing that the real meaning of the holiday was getting lost in the shuffle. When he is imagining himself conducting the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, there’s a moment at the end of the song when the choir applauds him and that was apparently spontaneous and unscripted. The ending is a little over-saccharine, with the little girl caroler telling him she loves him (even though they literally just met) as they are heading off to join the carolers and there’s a voiceover (from WKRP’s Gordon Jump) reminding us that Jesus loves us, too. But you have to expect that in a special like this and it’s worth watching if you’re a Jimmy Stewart fan.

snow-haze

In this (very blurred) vision, he is sleigh-riding while the choir is all around him singing Sleigh Ride.

dancing

What would a Christmas tree lighting be without dancers wearing HUGE skirts?

clarissa

Is Clarissa about to smile sweetly at Mr. Krueger or fire demonic bolts from her eyes?

mittens-on-the-tree

Somebody else’s forgotten mittens are the saddest tree decorations ever.

Individual Superlative: That Voice, Though – I grew up watching It’s a Wonderful Life every year on TV and hearing Jimmy Stewart say ‘Merry Christmas’ is like an injection of nostalgic Christmas warmth. He says it a lot here.

Want to Watch it? Mr. Krueger’s Christmas is available on DVD and YouTube.

Happy Days: Guess Who’s Coming to Christmas?

title

Debuted in 1974

22 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: Fonzie tells the gang that he is going to Waukesha for a big family Christmas. But Richie finds out that Fonzie is actually spending the holiday alone. So the Cunninghams ask Fonzie to come over and repair their broken Santa Claus figure and then convince him to stay for Christmas Eve dinner festivities with them.

Fun Fact: George Lucas saw Ron Howard in the rejected pilot episode for Happy Days (which was originally aired as a segment of Love, American Style) and cast him in American Graffiti, which was very successful at the box office and helped the show get picked up as a series.

My thoughts: Like most people my age, I watched Happy Days pretty regularly when it first started. There was a big fascination with the 1950’s at the time and the show’s success owes a lot to that wave of nostalgia, which is pretty funny when you think about the fact that the show was only set about twenty years before the current time. (It would be like getting all nostalgic now over a show set in the 1990’s.) This episode opens at Arnold’s Diner and we see Fonzie talking to Al, who says he isn’t going to the Cunningham’s Christmas party because he thinks they only invited him because they felt sorry for him being alone. The rest of the episode is a flashback as Fonzie is telling him about his first Christmas with the Cunninghams, but we never go back to Fonzie and Al, which makes the show feel unfinished. The show itself doesn’t age well and now feels ham-handed and trite. Plot-wise, I like that the Cunninghams found a way to bring Fonzie into their Christmas without making him feel uncomfortable. Overall, though, this one can be easily missed.  And I have to mention the mistletoe scene at the beginning that was funny in the 1970’s but is just uncomfortably awful now.

office-party

I think you’ve had enough, Mr. C.


sad-christmas-eve

The saddest Christmas Eve dinner ever.


blessing

Joanie prays quietly, but Fonzie apparently has a direct line.


trimming-the-tree

It’s a perfect family Christmas!

Individual Superlative: Chuck? Chuck Who? – This was the last appearance of the Cunningham’s oldest son, Chuck. In the nine seasons that followed, he was never seen or mentioned again.

Want to Watch it? Happy Days: Guess Who’s Coming to Christmas is available on DVD, YouTube and Hulu.

Gullah Gullah Island: A Gullah Gullah Christmas

title

Debuted in 1997

23 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: Shaina dreams that she goes to the North Pole and meets Santa. When the reindeer all get sick, Binyah Binyah Pollywog stands in for them and pulls Santa’s sleigh. The family enjoys Christmas together.

Fun Fact: During its original broadcast, Gullah Gullah Island was Nickelodeon’s highest-rated preschool show.

My thoughts: It’s easy to dismiss Gullah Gullah Island as yet another saccharine representation of a picture-perfect family with parents who balance wisdom and kindness, cherubic well-mannered children and even a wonderful extended family to smooth over the rough spots if anyone has a slip. But there’s something immensely likeable about this show and I found myself entertained by the fun they all seemed to be having and the genuine care they all showed for each other. The mother and father here are Ron and Natalie Daise, who are married in real life and the kids are played by their own children, who are all actually talented. But the show wasn’t a vanity project (as you may imagine from the cast) but rather a celebration of the Gullah culture of the sea islands around South Carolina and Georgia. The character of Binyah Binyah Polliwog is the most tiresome part of the show for me (but probably also a favorite of kids, so I’ll cut him some slack) and he features largely in this Christmas special. There are some cute touches, such as the garden that grows Christmas ornaments, and there are lots of fun musical numbers, but overall, it’s not one I watch every year.

binyah

Is Binyah Binyah throwing gang signs here?  I have concerns.

santa

Santa’s beard game is on point.

mrs-claus

But Mrs. Santa seems to be channeling the Bride of Frankenstein.

elfis

And Elfis is channeling…no, I don’t want to know.

Individual Superlative: Elfis Has Left the Building – One of the elves that Shaina meets in her dream North Pole is ‘Elfis’ who dresses and talks like Elvis Presley. I’m sure 90’s kids really loved that joke.

Want to Watch it? Gullah Gullah Island: A Gullah Gullah Christmas is available on VHS and DVD.

Rich Little’s Christmas Carol

Title

Debuted in 1978

55 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: Miserly Ebenezer Scrooge has no use for Christmas. On Christmas Eve, he’s visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, who show him the error of his ways. Changed by the experience, he embraces the season and those around him.

Fun Fact: Rich Little used to incorporate a Christmas Carol bit in his stand-up routine, but Scrooge was Jack Benny instead of W.C. Fields.

My thoughts: When I was young, this special was an annual staple on HBO, along with Emmett Otter’s Jugband Christmas and The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t. We were big fans of Rich Little’s celebrity impressions at my house and I remember watching The Kopycats, which was a TV variety series based entirely around impressionists. In this version of Dickens’ story, Little plays every character as a different celebrity (or famous character) and some of them work really well (such as Humphrey Bogart as the Ghost of Christmas Past) and some of them really don’t (such as Inspector Clouseau as the Ghost of Christmas Future – it’s a terrible idea to get silly with the most serious part of the story). The show was videotaped and features a laugh track that is overused to the point of distraction. The writing throughout is peppered with one-liners and cheesy jokes and there are a few musical numbers thrown in for good measure. I remember enjoying this when I first saw it, but it is tremendously dated at this point and because of that, it just doesn’t hold up all that well.

Nixon as Marley

As Jacob Marley, Richard Nixon is wrapped up in tape instead of chains.

Groucho

Groucho is Mr. Fezziwig.  Now you KNOW those parties would be legendary.

Tiny Tim

This is just wrong.

Three Men

In case you ever said to yourself, “I wish John Wayne, James Mason and George Burns had done a movie together.”

Individual Superlative: RIP Everyone – It seems that every time this special gets mentioned, someone jokes about how all the impersonated celebrities are dead and many of them were probably dead when it was made. Actually, only six of them were already dead when this premiered in 1978 and three of them actually made it into the 21st century. But they’re all gone now, since Jean Stapleton passed in 2013.

Want to Watch it? Rich Little’s Christmas Carol is available on DVD and in segments on YouTube.

Are You Being Served?: Christmas Crackers

Title

Debuted in 1975

27 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: The staff of Grace Brothers arrives at the store early to discuss ideas for boosting sales but Mr. Rumbold shows up with the news that Mr. Grace has rented fun costumes for all of them to wear. Their Christmas lunch is disappointing, with a tiny turkey, combustible Christmas pudding and not much else. But the decorations are lovely and everyone gets into the holiday spirit to close with a festive song.

Fun Fact: This episode marked the first appearance of Doremy Vernon as the Canteen Manager (who stayed for most of the series) and the last appearance of Mr. Mash.

My thoughts: Like many comedies of this era, Are You Being Served? is silly, formulaic and predictable. Mr. Lucas is going to insult Mrs. Slocombe, there’s going to be a point-of-display model that goes wrong and Mrs. Slocombe will make a double entendre statement about her cat. But it still manages to be good fun most of the time, with a few genuine laughs along the way. This is not my favorite of their Christmas episodes, but it still has its high points, including the bit at the end when they tell Young Mr. Grace that he’s done very well (which is something he usually says to them). You’re expecting the worst when the department decorations are revealed, so it’s a surprise when they turn out to be lovely and it makes for an unexpectedly sweet and cheerful ending.

Charming smile

Mr. Grainger displays the warm and friendly smile he will give to children.

Point of display model

Mrs. Slocombe is not amused by the point-of-display model…and she is unanimous in this!

Funny faces

Captain Peacock’s googly eyes are awesome.

Staff in costume

Of course, Mr. Humphries has the most outrageous costume.

Individual Superlative: Christmas Envy – From the ‘Christmas pud’ to pulling the giant crackers, this special makes you want to spend at least one Christmas in the U.K.

Want to Watch it? Are You Being Served?: Christmas Crackers is available on DVD and you can watch it on YouTube.