When the great library of Alexandria burned in 48 BC, much of the knowledge of the ancient world was lost. But we have the Internet now, where everything lasts forever, and thanks to the collective consciousness we call YouTube, the Cockroach Overlords of 3957 will still be laughing at the clever cats and clumsy humans of the early 21st century, just as we in the here and now can still enjoy the holiday specials of TV’s own antiquity. In that spirit of eternity and in the holiday tradition of regifting, I retrieve from the mists of 2014 this (only slightly altered) 2014 romp through the Yuletide, as preserved online for all time just a click away, until the copyright lawyers move in.
The holidays are a special time — that is to say, a time for specials. All over the television, the seasonal signifiers, the holly and the mistletoe, trees and lights, snowflakes and fake furs are dragged out of storage and gaily appended to sitcoms, serials, talk shows, game shows and come-but-once-a-year simulacrums of this or that person’s old-fashioned, down-home-in-the-holler, up-on-the-mountain Christmas.
Thus has it been since time immemorial, relatively speaking.
There are two Christmases of course — the religious one that gives the holiday its name and Nativity tale, and the one that encompasses everything else: the pagan roots, the Dickensian trimmings, the Clement Moore reindeer names, the Johnny Marks reindeer games. Even Santa Claus, for all that he is descended from a Christian saint, operates currently as a freelance, situationally secular figure, available for everything from razor ads to this week’s “Doctor Who.”
“Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future,” T.S. Eliot poetically speculated, “and time future contained in time past. If all time is eternally present,” you are possibly watching YouTube, where (some of) all the Christmas specials, skits, cartoons, parodies and songs that ever were, live in perpetuity or until someone’s lawyer has them taken down. What follow are easy links to a selection to make your days in front of an Internet-connected screen merry and bright, along with descriptive copy metaphorically to guide your sleigh. Rise, and walk with me.
And as Scrooge was borne backward through the Yules, so do we arrive at Dec. 22, 1963, and the Christmas episode of the single-season “The Judy Garland Show,” a pretend Christmas party on a Hollywood living room soundstage set. (I say Hollywood, but there are times when it seems to be snowing outside.) Soon-to-be-replaced staff arranger and writer of special material Mel Tormé, who duets with Garland on his own (roasting) chestnut “The Christmas Song,” has written that she taped the show on little sleep after heavy drinking; whatever, she comes across, excepting a couple of small flubs, as in control of her gifts, a great American artist and public raw nerve. As ever, she seems perpetually modern, out of time, for all time. The appearances by her younger children, Lorna and Jack Luft, require a bit of indulgence, though they’re standard for “at home with” holiday specials; but daughter Liza Minnelli, 17, is already coming into her own. Tormé harmonizes elaborately; whatever else was going on between them, these people liked to sing. Jack Jones, recently heard on the Cartoon Network miniseries “Over the Garden Wall,” offers some clean-cut crooning. In a couple of months, the Beatles would arrive.
“Santa’s afraid to come to Vietnam,” says Bob Hope in the January 1968 special crafted from his 1967 USO tour of Southeast Asia. “Last year he only got as far as the first Ho and he was picked up by the MPs.” Whatever you think about the geopolitical circumstances of its creation or, indeed, of Hope as a stand-up comedian, it’s a fascinating document, if not quite a documentary, shot on film and closer to cinema vérité than anything similar you’d see on TV now. We are accustomed now to living in a state of apparently permanent war, but few would have expected at the time that there were seven years still to run on Vietnam. (American involvement in World War II had, after all, lasted only four.) There are jokes about the antiwar movement back home (“Can you imagine those peaceniks burning their draft cards? Why don’t they come over here and Charlie will burn them for them”), but mostly they go to the miseries of military life in a war zone. Raquel Welch frugs energetically in a knit minidress and delivers a game reading of Linda Ronstadt’s “Different Drum.” For historical comparison, here’s a 1944 Hope USO radio broadcast, from “somewhere in the South Pacific.” Silent footage from other Hope Vietnam tours can be seen here.
Were there ever any friendlier words spoken in English than “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash?” The one-man Mt. Rushmore of country music made four Christmas specials for CBS in the late 1970s that mixed holiday favorites, gospel tunes, novelty numbers, skits, and hits from Cash’s august back catalogue. (The singer was on the edge of a sales slump, but still singing like Johnny Cash.) Of the four, the most straightforward and musically satisfying is the second, from Nashville in 1977, which has an autobiographical through-line that puts him in Army fatigues and reunites him with old Sun Records labelmates Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins — even then nearly 30 years younger than the Rolling Stones are now. (Lewis, the Killer, is especially strong.) The assembled company, including June Carter (of course), the Statler Brothers and Roy Clark, comes together for a climactic “Children, Go Where I Send Thee,” powered by rising modulations and palpable delight. The 1978 edition, from “Television City in Hollywood” — that’s CBS, over yonder to Beverly and Fairfax — features Steve Martin, wild and crazy; Andy Kaufman appears in the next and last special, mild and crazy.
Missing from Cash’s Sun reunion is Elvis Presley, who had died only months before. A decade earlier he had made his own holiday program (broadcast on NBC on Dec. 3, 1968), now commonly called the “comeback” special. Presley’s manager, the self-styled Col. Tom Parker, had wanted a straightforward collection of holiday favorites, but director Steve Binder managed to get something else, equally apt for the season and legendary since: a real rebirth, taking Presley back to the beginning and dragging him forward into the present. Clad all in black leather, shaking off the dust and breaking through the crust of his Hollywoodification, the King sounds great and never looked better. The holiday material was reduced to a reading of “Blue Christmas”; this raw-footage clip adds “Santa Claus Is Back in Town” and some lint. The take-no-prisoners closing number, “If I Can Dream,” also delivers an appropriately hopeful, churchy charge.
Kate Bush taped a BBC Christmas special in 1979; it, too, had only one Christmas song (“December Will Be Magic Again”), but Bush was a Christmas tree wherever she went. Peter Gabriel, introduced, in hymnal harmony, as “Peter, the Angel Gabriel,” guest stars.
The Muppets have often had their way with seasonal material, but “A Muppet Family Christmas,” from 1987, has the distinction of bringing all the branches together, with the “Muppet Show” Muppets, the “Sesame Street” Muppets, the “Fraggle Rock” Muppets and even the Muppet Babies all descending upon Fozzie Bear’s mother’s house. (“They’re weirdos, Fozzie” she says, “but they’re nice weirdos” — the Muppets in a nutshell.) It is a distinction of perhaps little import to some, but this is the real Muppet deal, the classic lineup, with Jim Henson still alive, Frank Oz still (often literally) at his side, and Jason Segel only in second grade.
The deep well of the Internet (links do not constitute endorsement of copyright violations) also make it possible for me to seasonally revisit two favorite takes on the Nativity from the world of Britcom. (I wouldn’t call them disrespectful, but none of my beliefs or traditions is being played with here; obviously mileage will vary.) The disco-fied “Holy Sprog” is a segment from the 1996 Christmas special of “The Fast Show,” Paul Whitehouse and Charlie Higson’s great sketch series, whose most recognizable cast member to American audiences will be Mark Williams, Arthur Weasley in the “Harry Potter” films. (He’s one of the shepherds here.) The context needs some explanation — “Channel 9,” a regular feature of the series, is the low-rent television organ of the imaginary republic of Republicca, a Mediterranean mash-up nation whose language incorporates things that are or sound like Greek, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. The “cheesy peas” the third Wise Men man brings are a running gag). “Stranger in the manger/Crazy nights, crazy days.”
In the next decade, pillars of millennial British comedy (and “IT Crowd” co-stars) Mark Berry and Richard Ayoade created and played in the 2004 Webber-Rice pastiche “AD/BC: A Rock Opera,” a tale of Bethlehem that focuses on the innkeeper at whose inn, room was there none — “the greatest story never told.” It’s perfect down to the last blurry video effect, impudent dance step, ‘70s hair style and assymetrical time signature. Also present are Julian Barratt (“Nathan Barley”), Julia Davis (“Nighty Night”) and Matt Lucas (“Little Britain”) as God; Barratt’s “Mighty Boosh” co-star Noel Fielding is also visible at times.
Set around a fictional television station stocked with adaptable characters, the Canadian sketch comedy “SCTV” — whose company included John Candy, Rick Moranis, Catherine O’Hara, Joe Flaherty, Andrea Martin, Dave Thomas and, eventually, Martin Short (who was Ed Grimley there first) — was always good for Christmas. Some holiday snaps from the run of the show (1976-84): “Great White North” hosts/hosers Bob and Doug McKenzie share a recipe for beer nog; the kids of “Pre-Teen World” offer holiday tips; the polka-playing Shmenge Brothers present a Christmas in Leutonia; and “The Dusty Towne Sexy Holiday Special” welcomes guest Divine.
I must have been busy playing with a ball of yarn over the several years that British animator Simon Tofield’s “Simon’s Cat” was becoming an international phenomenon, with more than 3 million subscribers to its YouTube page, related books, a cartoon strip, plush toys, mugs, T-shirts, jewelry. The appearance of a new Christmas-themed cartoon, “Catnip,” drew my attention. (Earlier holiday pieces are here and here.) Basically, the cat is a) hungry and b) casually destructive, and the cartoons, which get the movement and the mania just right, are as good as documentaries.
In the 1985 “He-Man and She-Ra: A Christmas Special” a pair of Earth children, lost while hunting for a tree to kill for Christmas, are accidentally transported to Eternia, causing a cast of sexy cartoon immortals lots of extra work. It’s almost fortunate, then, that they have never heard of Christmas, or Christmas vacation, though its spirit has begun to infiltrate their exotic plane. Quoth fleshless piece of work Skeletor, who has obviously seen “Star Wars,” “There is a great disturbance -- a new spirit of goodness.” Eventually, he will be carrying a Manchine puppy through the snow: the power of Christmas compels him. Santa must be near, and is.
Robert Lloyd tweets bleary-eyed @LATimesTVLloyd