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.
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.”
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.
Robert Lloyd tweets bleary-eyed @LATimesTVLloyd