On television, the holidays have traditionally been a time when celebrities pretend to welcome you into their homes. (The homes themselves are often pretend.) They trot out family members, light a fire, sing the good old songs and dress to imply a winter wonderland just outside. We learn that behind the friendly face, or facade, is an even friendlier face or facade. A degree of cheerful amateurism is allowed.
Since the death of variety -- a form that Rosie O'Donnell will attempt to resurrect on Thanksgiving Eve -- this brand of holiday special has gone somewhat out of style. But this year brings us Sunday night's Stephen Colbert's "A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All!," heralded by the host himself as "the greatest newsman-hosted holiday Christmas special since 'A Walter Cronkite Tet Offensive.' " In keeping with Colbert's conservative "Colbert Report" persona -- it is the made-up Stephen Colbert, not the real one, who hosts the show -- it is, one might say, an aggressively old-fashioned, old-fashioned Christmas show.
"Oh, hi, I didn't see you there, along one full wall of my mountain cabin," says Colbert by way of greeting, getting right to the heart of the artifice. Wearing blue jeans, a red turtleneck and a white cable-knit cardigan, along with a manic grin, he overacts appropriately, sings (very well) and "dances" and juggles. (The songs are by "Daily Show" executive producer David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger, of Fountains of Wayne, who also collaborated on the Broadway musical "Cry-Baby.")
The premise is that Colbert finds himself trapped in his mountain cabin by a bear, unable to get down to New York to film his Christmas special. (Bears are a constant source of terror on "The Colbert Report.") In the course of the show, the Christmas special stumbles through his door.
He greets his roster of guests in mock amazement: "Country music superstar Toby Keith!" "Indie folk darling Feist!" "Country music legend Willie Nelson!" "Late-night basic cable's Jon Stewart!" "Ageless icon of generosity and joy Santa Claus!" At some point he finds himself under the mistletoe with each of them, saying "Well, this is awkward"; indeed, the hour is full of strangeness -- Colbert playing dreidel against a potato pancake, John Legend singing a sexy ballad to nutmeg and Nelson an ode to marijuana; interspecies French kissing; and Elvis Costello eaten by a bear. The timing is slightly off, the acting stiff, the applause track possibly ironic, the green-screen effects a little cheesy.
Colbert has said that he wanted no cynicism in this hour, and it does drive toward moments of sincerity. A group sing on Nick Lowe's irony-proof "(What's So Funny 'bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?" is rather moving. An ensuing duet by Colbert and Costello argues philosophically for the Christmas spirit: "In a world like ours/Take it from Stephen/There are much worse things to believe in."
"Some folks believe in nothing," they sing. "But if you believe in nothing/Then what's to keep the nothing/From coming for you?" Holiday specials rarely get so heavy.
A look at the real Alistair Cooke
"The Unseen Alistair Cooke," which airs Sunday as an episode of PBS' "Masterpiece" -- which, as "Masterpiece Theatre," Cooke hosted for 21 years -- is not a holiday special as such. But it does show you the home life of a TV personality and has home movies. And there is a kind of relational math, involving "Masterpiece Theatre," Charles Dickens and a kindly Old World sprite, by which I can prove that Cooke is Santa Claus.
The British Cooke's day job was as a foreign correspondent, reporting on the U.S. for the U.K., in print and on radio. The rest of the time he apparently liked to have fun, the "hellion" in his nature regularly outwrestling the Puritan.
He was generally lucky in his personal life. (It wasn't perfect: There was one failed marriage, and he didn't relate well to his son or stepson.) But his greatest love may have been his adopted country, and the film he shot of it himself, as he traveled around -- including footage of Charlie Chaplin, car hops, Texas cattle and Lauren Bacall -- is the big present under this particular tree.
'The Unseen Alistair Cooke'
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)
'A Colbert Christmas'
Where: Comedy Central
When: 10 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)