The trick to a good Christmas special is a lot of talent, a sweet plot and a couple of jokes that fly over kids' heads. That way, parents can enjoy it with the youngest viewers without having to dip repeatedly into the eggnog.
ABC's "Elmo's Christmas Countdown" Sunday, Dec. 23, offers all of this. The optimistic red monster of "Sesame Street" keeps the faith when all seems lost. In so doing, he teaches everyone that miracles can happen.
In this special that combines puppets and live actors, Stiller the Elf (Ben Stiller) tells Stan the Snowball the story of the year Christmas almost didn't happen. Market research was indicating that Oscar the Grouch "has more Christmas joy, more Christmas spirit and more Christmas chutzpah than anyone else," Stiller says.
He gives Oscar a precious gift, the Christmas Counter-Downer, which Oscar deems "a pain in the King Wenceslas." Nasty Oscar tosses the tree-shaped Counter-Downer, with its 10 numerical blocks in it, in the air. The blocks vanish, and without them, Christmas cannot arrive. So Elmo makes a "Christmas wish on a Christmas star for a Christmas miracle."
On the show, Elmo wishes that all of the numbers return to the Counter-Downer so Christmas can happen.
In real life (or as real as one is willing to believe "Sesame Street" characters are), "Elmo would ask Santa that anyone would not be sick and everyone would be happy," Elmo says in his high-pitched voice, with an assist from puppeteer Kevin Clash.
Being on this show made the actors happy, say some who participated.
"It was really fun to do," Stiller says. "It was really fun to be a Muppet."
Stiller always loved the show, he says, and appeared on it years before he had children.
This special "has a good counting message," Stiller says. "That's the great thing about the show, it's always been able to educate without the kids feeling as if they are being taught anything because it is so much fun. And in terms of the show, the message -- the Christmas/Hanukkah thing of looking forward to it and then the thing actually happening.
"I like the story within a story," he says. "It reminds me of a lot of those old Christmas specials like 'Rudolph,' with Burl Ives as the snowman, and I like that feel of it."
As Stiller tells his story to Stan, Sheryl Crow, Anne Hathaway ("The Devil Wears Prada"), Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Hudson and Alicia Keys are among those who stop by to sing lovely Christmas songs. Kevin James also sings in the grand finale and makes a fine Santa if not a fine singing Santa.
Brad Paisley, in a sleigh with Grover and penguins, sings "Jingle Bells." Paisley looks as if he is having a blast, and months after the taping, says this was a highlight of his career.
"My manager called me and said, 'We have an offer from "Sesame Street" to be in one of their specials.' And I said, 'Wow! You are kidding.' I was ecstatic," Paisley says. "There is a short list of things left for me that I haven't gotten to do. It was on my list. To get to know those people, it comes from that's my generation that grew up with 'Sesame Street.' Sitting there with Grover, Grover was my era. Grover is who I perform with in this. That was so surreal -- for me to have conversations with this puppet."
Even those who did not grow up with "Sesame Street" love it. Steve Schirripa, who played Bobby "Bacala" Baccalieri on "The Sopranos," does a hilarious bit with Tony Sirico, who was Paulie "Walnuts" Gualtieri on the HBO mob drama.
Schirripa is dressed liked Ernie with Sirico as Bert - unibrow included - as they sit in Ernie's and Bert's chairs and take directions from their puppet alter egos. In this goofy scene, Ernie has a gingerbread man stuck in his ear so he can't hear Bert yelling at him.
"It was a lot of fun," Schirripa says. "First they told me I was Bert. Then I got a call from Tony. (Imitating his friend Sirico's voice) 'Listen to me - I am Bert. You are Ernie. You hear me?' Never mind what I want.
"The 'Sesame Street' workshop is in Queens, and the people are so nice there," Schirripa says. "If anybody acts anything but nice there you would have to be out of your mind. I did it to be part of it this historic thing and thought it would be really good. ... Who doesn't like 'Sesame Street'? If you don't like 'Sesame Street,' something's wrong with you."
The special has some truly wonderful moments, with Hathaway dancing with Big Bird, Hudson singing "Merry Christmas" and Keys telling a downtrodden Elmo, "When things are at their worst, their darkest, that's when you have to believe the most."
Though Stiller the Elf grows frantic as Christmas draws nearer and all of the numbers are not in the Counter-Downer, Elmo's faith never wavers.
Elmo says he really does believe. His favorite holiday song, "Elmo Be Home for Christmas," was not on the special, but he sang a few bars before getting serious ... or as serious as a red furry puppet can get.
The message of the show is, "It's better to give than to receive," Elmo says. "That's very important."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times