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

Santa’s Workshop

TitleDebuted in 1932

7 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: It’s Christmas Eve and the elves are busy prepping the reindeer and finalizing all the toys. Santa makes a final review of the naughty and nice list and inspects the toys before packing them up for his trip. A toy airplane knocks several shelves worth of toys onto the floor, where they have an impromptu parade into Santa’s bag and he bids everyone farewell, then flies away on his sleigh.

Fun Fact: This was the fourth Silly Symphony animated short to be released in full color.

My thoughts: Disney’s contract distribution deal with United Artists significantly boosted the quality of the studio’s animated shorts and this is one where you can really see the difference. The backgrounds are loaded with details and there’s so much going on in every frame. I think I saw this one for the first time as part of the Disney Channel Christmas special, when it was kind of meshed together with The Night Before Christmas (which picks up right where this one leaves off) and I loved it. I’ve always had a particular love of those cartoons that showed manufacturers or artists at work, with lots of funny gags on how things are made. This one is full of all kinds of silly concepts, such as checkerboard paint (for making checkerboards) and scaring the dolls with spiders to make their hair stand on end so it can be permed. The scene in which an African-American doll says ‘mammy’ instead of ‘mama’ is almost always removed when this short is aired. Santa is depicted as delightfully jolly and fun-loving, succumbing to the urge to play with his own toys a bit. And the elf who promises to add a cake of soap to Billy Brown’s stocking is voiced by Walt Disney himself. This one’s a nice dash of Christmas cheer.

Head elf

The elf who monitors good behavior doesn’t stand for shenanigans.

Santa and list

Could Santa be any jollier?

Tail drill

Yikes!  Did you get permission from the horses for this?

OK

Santa just approved this doll’s behind. No wonder he’s jolly.

Individual Superlative: Equal Opportunity Offender – In addition to the African-American stereotype doll, there are also Asian and Jewish stereotype toys in the toy parade at the end.  Just to make sure they didn’t leave anyone out in the ‘Wow, is this going to be controversial in a few decades’ category.

Want to Watch it? Santa’s Workshop is available on DVD and YouTube.

A Pinky & the Brain Christmas

titleDebuted in 1995

22 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: Brain’s plan to take over the world at Christmas involves having Santa deliver a special ‘Noodle Noggin’ toy to every house, allowing him to hypnotize every person within earshot of the toy. He and Pinky go to the North Pole and pose as elves to manipulate the system and get their toys made and delivered. But on Christmas morning, just as Brain gets ready to speak through his transmitter, he reads Pinky’s letter to Santa (in which Pinky asks Santa to give all his gifts to his best friend, Brain) and has a change of heart, wishing everyone a Merry Christmas.

Fun Fact: The characters’ voice actors, Rob Paulson and Maurice LaMarche, have said that they were in tears while recording the end of this episode.

My thoughts: Pinky and the Brain were recurring characters on the wonderful Animaniacs show, which started in 1993, and they were spun off into their own show in 1995. The show ran for four seasons and eventually spun off into a new series, which also included Elmyra from Tiny Toon Adventures. This episode really showcases what made this show (and Animaniacs before it) so wonderful. There is humor that works really well for kids and humor aimed specifically at the adults (such as the moment at the North Pole when Pinky tells Brain they’ve been invited to a Christmas party at Donner’s place and Brain tells Pinky he doesn’t want to join the Donner party). But there is also real warmth here, too. The characters have depth and complexity to them. Throughout the special, Pinky keeps bringing up his letter to Santa and Brain keeps ridiculing him for it. So when Brain reads the letter, you see that he really feels regret at how he’s treated his friend and when he delivers his new message, it’s so heartfelt. I think this one deserves more recognition and a place alongside the classics.

reindeer

Such tiny tiny reindeer.

elves

The elf outfit really suits Pinky.  NARF!

santa-reviewing-his-list

Would Santa use an exercise bike?  I think he’s more of a treadmill guy.

touched

Me too, Brain.  ALL the feels.

Individual Superlative: Ready for Prime Time – This episode was originally aired as a prime time special and not just as a regular episode of the show. It won a prime time Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program.

Want to Watch it? A Pinky & the Brain Christmas is available on VHS and DVD.

Rugrats: The Santa Experience

titleDebuted in 1992

24 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: When Angelica discovers that the mall Santa is fake, she gets a box of toys to compensate and the unfair trades she makes with Lil and Phil get her worried that she will get coal for Christmas. All the families go to a mountain cabin for the holiday and Chuckie and Tommy set traps for Santa to find out if he’s actually good or bad. Chuckie’s dad tries to pose as Santa, and Angelica’s dad tries to hire a Santa impersonator, but those both go badly, then the real Santa shows up with presents for everyone (even Angelica).

Fun Fact: This is not only the first Christmas episode of Rugrats, but also the first time we actually get to see Angelica’s mother.

My thoughts: Rugrats ran for nine seasons on Nickelodeon and was one of the most successful cartoons on the network. This episode aired in its second season and is a really good representation of the show in general. Although the show is fairly formulaic, the characters are entertaining enough to make the show enjoyable to watch and the scripts had moments that played well to children watching, but also included some concepts that were aimed at the parents watching with them. There’s a lot going on in this episode that makes it good and most of it revolves around people caring for each other. Sure, Angelica is mostly centered on not getting coal for Christmas, but it shows that she knows what she did was wrong. When she gets her dream present from Santa, he tells her that sometimes wanting to be good can be important, but then we see that there IS a lump of coal in her dream house, reminding us that simply wanting to be good doesn’t cover everything. The earnestness with which the dads try to give their kids a perfect Christmas is sweet and we’re left with the conclusion that Christmas doesn’t need to be perfect. It generally is wonderful enough on its own.

babies-in-awe

The babies are understandably  in awe of Santa.

santa-and-angelica

But he seems pretty easy going here with Angelica.

mom

How do you even manage this hairstyle?

working-mom

Working moms are getting a bad rep here.

Individual Superlative: Most Honest Declaration – While all the parents are announcing what they plan to do in order to achieve the perfect Christmas, Grandpa declares that he will drink lots of eggnog and fall asleep. In my opinion, this is an important contribution to the holiday and I think I will join him. Eggnog solidarity, Grandpa!

Want to Watch it? Rugrats: The Santa Experience is available on VHS and DVD.

Invader Zim: The Most Horrible X-mas Ever

titleDebuted in 2002

24 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: Zim poses as Santa in order to get money and then, as he learns more about Santa, to lure humans to their doom. But the Santa suit he creates begins to believe he’s actually Santa and fills Zim with warm emotions and jolly feelings toward children. Dib and Gaz show up in time to stop him by jettisoning the mutated spirit of Santa into space.

Fun Fact: This was the last episode to be completed before the series was cancelled, but it was actually the first Season 2 episode to air in the US.

My thoughts: Invader Zim was a short-lived series on Nickelodeon created by comic book writer Jhonen Vasquez (best known for his Johnny the Homicidal Maniac comic series). The basic plot (an alien sent to Earth to infiltrate and plot world domination) is simple, but offers a lot to work with and the show had a fair-sized cult following. It’s a little confusing if you’ve never seen any of the show before, but still enjoyable even without the full knowledge of the characters. The show is bookended by a mechanical snowman narrator, telling a group of children the story we’re watching as something that happened in the long ago past. It’s definitely on the darker side, in plot elements and character design, but there are plenty of funny moments and quite a lot of unpredictability, which is always welcome in the world of overdone holiday plots. Definitely worth watching, especially if you enjoy things a little on the weird side.

snowman-narrator

The robot snowman should do something about that unibrow.

jolly-jail

The ‘Jolly Jail’ turns incarceration into minty holiday fun!

soft-hearted-santa

Santa’s going all emotional on us.

easter-platypus

Next plan: The Easter Platypus!

Individual Superlative: Least Reassuring Santa Outcome – In the story’s ending narration, the talking snowman tells the children that Santa isn’t dead (which is normally good news) but that he’s out in space, gathering power to come back and destroy us all. You better watch out!

Want to Watch it? Invader Zim: The Most Horrible X-mas Ever is available on DVD.

Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus

titleDebuted in 1974

23 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: Eight year old Virginia O’Hanlon is teased by her friends for still believing in Santa Claus and she writes a letter to the editor of the New York Sun, asking if Santa is real. Her parents and friends share their thoughts on the situation and she worries that the editor will not answer her. The editor is unsure how to respond but after sharing a nice dinner with the family of a local paperboy, he writes a heartfelt letter affirming Santa’s existence.

Fun Fact: The voice of Virginia O’Hanlon was provided by Courtney Lemmon, daughter of classic film star Jack Lemmon.

My thoughts: This special got its start after the real Virginia O’Hanlon passed away in 1971 and some of her friends got together to write the story of her famous letter. The story was optioned for this special and was so well received at the time that it won a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Children’s Special. The animation was done by Bill Melendez, who also did the animation for the Peanuts specials. This is pretty obvious, though, seeing that the specials are very similar in style. What stands out about this one, though, are the ethnic stereotypes that abound, from the exaggeratedly oversized lips on the African American girl to the ‘faith and begorrah’ Irish cop to the Chinese boy whose ‘most honorable father’ runs a Chinese restaurant. And then there’s Pee Wee, who has a bizarre voice and only says, “me too.” And the freakishly proportioned bodies of the show’s women, who sport measurements that probably run around 48-12-48. Many moments of character animation take them out of their scene and show them against a marbled background, which is weird. The sentiment of this special is touching, as is the true story that it’s based on. But the warmth is wrapped up in a peculiar package that only could have come out in the early 70’s.

mr-church

Mr. Church is mighty suspicious of young Tommy.

ohanlons

One of many bizarre moments when characters laugh at something that’s not really funny. Here, Mother has just called them in to dinner. Hilarious.

teacher

Oh, those proportions!!  And why are their necks so LONG?

young-grasshopper

Most Honorable Father appears to have some junk in the trunk.

Individual Superlative: Most Cutthroat Joke – Absolutely the most ‘what just happened?’ moment in this special is when Mr. Church asks his secretary for a razor and she makes a slashing motion across her throat and says, “Oh, Mr. Church, you’re not going to…” before he interrupts her to assure her he just needs a shave. I just can’t wrap my contemporary mind around anyone thinking this was ever a funny joke that was okay for a children’s special.

Want to Watch it? Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus is available on YouTube.

Elf on the Shelf: An Elf’s Story

titleDebuted in 2011

22 minutes

Plot in 3 Sentences: When Santa tells a new scout elf about a boy (named Taylor McTuttle) who is starting to doubt Santa’s existence, the elf volunteers to be sent there, believing he can turn things around. The family names their new elf ‘Chippey’ and although everyone else welcomes him into their house, Taylor’s disbelief pushes him to break the rule and touch Chippey, which robs him of his magic. Chippey’s fellow elves take him back to the North Pole and when Taylor writes Santa to apologize, Chippey’s magic returns and he celebrates Christmas with the McTuttles.

Fun Fact: The original Elf on the Shelf book was written by a mother and daughter team in 2004.

My thoughts: There are so many things I dislike about this half hour advertisement masquerading as a Christmas special that I don’t know where to start. Actually, I guess I already started with the fact that it’s just an extended commercial. I could let that slide, I think, if it was actually good, but it’s not. It’s just not at all. The animation is poor quality, the few lines intended to be funny miss by a mile and the songs are so cheesy they should come with a warning for the lactose intolerant. Sure, there’s some good choreography in the big elf dance number, but the song uses the word, “Extravaganzalorious” repeatedly to express the joy they’re all feeling. And in the obligatory meant-to-be-heartwarming song sung by the McTuttle girls, the lines, “Christmas is a time for forgiveness; that’s why we all believe in Christmas” are also sung repeatedly and that’s what supposedly makes Taylor regret his actions. He then says it doesn’t feel like Christmas without Chippey…after they only had Chippey for two days and Taylor hated him for both of those days! Ugh. Very little kids who have no real discerning taste in entertainment might enjoy this, but otherwise, I’d say steer clear.

santa

Santa has a cumulo-nimbus beard.

book-promo

A not-so-subtle plug for the book.

hospital

I hope they don’t have candy cane rectal thermometers, too.

bad-touch

Bad touch!

Individual Superlative: Littlest Big Brother – A huge backlash against the whole Elf on a Shelf phenomenon followed a couple of years after this special, with many people believing that Elf on a Shelf trains children to be comfortable with surveillance and give up privacy.

Want to Watch it? Elf on the Shelf: An Elf’s Story is available on DVD, Blu-Ray, iTunes and it usually shows up on the networks during the holidays.