Every holiday season brings a fresh deluge of made-for-TV movies and specials, heavily promoted yet quickly forgotten, like last year’s Black Friday deals. If you don’t believe me, go to Hulu right now and look over their long menu of holiday specials. I recognized one.
As a rule Christmas movies are not made to stand the test of time. They’re formulaic, including the casting. Some up-and-comer is always paired with a star we can’t quite seem to get rid of. They make you feel good, if for no other reason than knowing that Kathie Lee Gifford will never go without work.
Holiday TV specials have a longer shelf life than Christmas movies, though that has less to do with the quality of these shows than the fact that people keep watching Seinfeld, The Office, Friends, Buffy, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, all of which have Christmas episodes. It’s not quite the same watching Festivus in July though.
For me, no holiday season is complete without the two Christmas specials that stand apart from the rest. Both were produced as one-offs. Both came with an added bonus — a full soundtrack album that was itself an amazing achievement. (And yes, I said album. I grew up listening to 12-inch Christmas records, not the cherry-picked singles that are played ad nauseam on the radio.)
Of course, one of these is A Charlie Brown Christmas. It is the North Star, and all other holiday programs stumble weakly toward its light. One of the many pleasures of that 1965 classic is knowing that CBS almost didn’t air it. The network suits were expecting some kind of fast-paced cartoon with voice actors who sounded like Rocky and Bullwinkle. Instead, Lee Mendelson and Charles Schulz delivered a subdued, subversive parable about the humble origins of Christmas, read by children and scored to West Coast jazz. A Charlie Brown Christmas is like the opposite of retail therapy. Whether you start by listening to Vince Guaraldi’s soundtrack or watching the uncut version of the show, you won’t want to do any shopping afterward. No wonder CBS hated it.
My second choice may surprise you — perhaps because you’ve never heard of it. In 2008, Stephen Colbert pitched a holiday special to his then-employer, Comedy Central. It would be a slightly blasphemous takeoff on all those made-for-TV Christmas specials that those of us of a certain age remember. You know, the ones with Bradys or Carpenters or Osmonds sitting around a crackling fire built right there on the studio set, wearing festive sweaters and pretending they’re having a holiday at home. A parody special was very on-brand for Colbert in 2008, back when he was still playing a self-serving pundit who was half Bill O’Reilly, half some heckler sarcastically mimicking Bill O’Reilly.
I am not going to go so far as to say that the resulting special — modestly titled A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All! — is a classic. But every year, I wind up watching the thing and listening to the soundtrack all the way through, including the song that didn’t make the final cut. It holds up.
The show opens with Stephen inside his holiday chateau in upstate New York, composing a song that he hopes will bring him enough royalty money to support his neglected family. (Three actual Colbert children appear at the door, dressed as Dickensian waifs.) The song, “Another Christmas Song,” is a hilariously conflicted mashup of religious and commercial clichés, which Stephen belts out while dancing around his cabin, throwing on clothes and boots. He’s bundling up for the trek to NYC, where Elvis Costello is waiting to tape a Christmas special with him.
But! When Stephen opens the door to go to his show-within-the-show, there’s a bear outside. As any fan of The Colbert Report will recall, bears were his Public Enemy No. 1. Terrified to venture further, Stephen hunkers down in his cabin, where a steady flow of musical guests manage to find their way in. Each of them brings the greatest gift of all: a sublimely wonderful Christmas parody song that Stephen can include on his royalty-earning CD.
Toby Keith pops in sporting a semiautomatic rifle, and proceeds to tell us what he’d like to do to all those liberal Christmas deniers. Willie Nelson croons a love song to the herb “more powerful than frankincense or myrrh,” as plumes of marijuana smoke fill the room. Jon Stewart, Stephen’s former Daily Show boss, tries to interest him in Hanukkah, and also tries to match Stephen’s singing voice, failing in both respects. John Legend appears in a sexy park-ranger outfit and delivers what is without a doubt the raunchiest song about nutmeg you will ever hear.
On the sacrilege meter, none of this approaches the first 15 minutes of Bad Santa, say. Yet A Colbert Christmas also has its sweetly sentimental and even spiritual side, which should surprise no Colbert admirer reading this. When he prays for divine intervention to save his show-within-a-show, an angel appears (Canadian songbird Feist) and tunefully asks Stephen to “please be patient” before putting him on hold. There’s a lovely group-sing of “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding.”
But it’s the show’s concluding number that gets me every time. Elvis and Stephen sing a duet, “There Are Much Worse Things To Believe In,” a bit of lyrical magic that rescues Christmas from the false choice of either excessive commercialism or excessive religiosity. Because let’s face it, Jesus is the reason for the season ... and so is Hallmark.
David Javerbaum, former head writer of The Daily Show, teamed up with Adam Schlesinger from Fountains of Wayne on the songs. The special has a corny but not especially dated feel to it, and you should watch it now. Unfortunately, this means you’ll have to spend some bucks to purchase a download of A Colbert Christmas. Reruns of The Cleveland Show and Crank Yankers are apparently good enough for the Comedy Central streaming app, but not one of the greatest — and funniest — holiday stories ever told.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.