Bah Humbug! Why Are Most Christmas TV Specials So Bad?

Nov 25, 2016
Originally published on November 25, 2016 6:29 pm

You know it from the first few notes of Thurl Ravenscroft's barrel-chested performance — singing "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" with the same flair he brought to playing Tony the Tiger in Kellogg's cereal commercials — Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a holiday classic.

The animated film turns 50 this year, airing on NBC about three weeks before its actual birthday. And it is, admittedly, a little weird to call a 26-minute cartoon about a green guy who learns not to steal Christmas presents an enduring masterpiece.

But The Grinch, which CBS debuted on Dec. 18, 1966, did everything right. It had a great pedigree; Seuss alter-ego Theodor Geisel produced the project with legendary Warner Brothers animator Chuck Jones, who served as director.

It had a cheeky story which appealed to kids and grownups. And it had a kitschy narrator in horror movie king Boris Karloff.

So why can't modern Christmas TV specials make this kind of magic happen more often?

To be sure, there are cute animated specials with modern cartoon characters, like the Toy Story crew and a certain green ogre named Shrek. (I do love the moment in Shrek the Halls when the gingerbread man reveals that Christmastime is less heartwarming and more heart-rendingly dangerous for cookies like him.)

But those bits come off more like crafty moments of corporate synergy than a special holiday treat. I was encouraged when I heard Disney had a new holiday special planned this year for ABC called The Wonderful world of Disney: Magical Holiday Celebration.

But then the promo for the show aired, with this tagline: "During the show, don't miss an exclusive look at Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, in theaters December 16."

Just like that, a fun special became a giant commercial for a Disney-owned movie franchise. (And we all know how badly the Star Wars Holiday Special turned out, don't we?)

Even the shows that are supposed to be lame aren't quite lame in the way they intended. Exhibit A: Bill Murray's Netflix special A Very Murray Christmas; which couldn't decide if it was making fun of holiday specials or celebrating them in a very weird way.

One scene features Murray trying to talk showbiz pal Chris Rock into doing a Christmas special with him.

"So you're doing a live special in the middle of the biggest blizzard of the year?" Rock says to Murray, screaming his lines like he's doing a voice over for Madagascar. "That is so you, Bill. That is so you."

"But now you're here," Murray says. "And it's us!"

"No!" Rock answers. And he ends up going on camera, anyway.

That's not lame in an ironic way. It's just kinda lame.

At least Empire stars Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard had the good sense to bring on singers like Mary J. Blige, Patti Labelle and John Legend for their White Hot Holidays special last year on Fox.

The powerful vocal performances helped distract from awkward dialogue between Howard and Henson that often felt like an update of lines from an old Sonny and Cher special.

"Why the long face?" Henson asks Howard at one point in the show.

"Because I never get what I want," he answers.

Henson's response seems straight from the Cookie Lyons playbook: "Well ... what are you doing that's naughty?"

"I was always a good kid," Howard responds. As the audience and Henson express their disbelief, he drops the punch line. "I didn't say nothing about being a good adult. I was a good kid." That's a looong way to go for a couple of chuckles.

Henson is doing the special by herself on Fox next month. Perhaps the holiday was a little too hot for two stars to share.

As a critic, I've always been drawn to the Christmas specials that surprise with a little unexpected absurdity. When David Bowie joined Bing Crosby to croon a mashup of Peace on Earth and the Little Drummer Boy on a Crosby TV special, I loved the sense of rock 'n' roll's future showing respect to an old school showbiz icon. (Of course, A Charlie Brown Christmas and the related Peanuts holiday specials are in a class all their own.)

And when the toy-making elf Hermey informed his boss he'd rather be a dentist in stop-motion animated classic Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, I felt the kind of pride misfits everywhere experience in seeing one of our own let his freak flag fly a bit.

Ultimately, the best holiday specials have a unique balance of nostalgia, surprise, creativity and holiday spirit. Pulling all that off in a one-time TV event often requires a Christmas miracle.

Which may explain why we see so few great ones on TV after all.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A TV holiday classic turns 50 this year - a real heart warmer about someone as cuddly as a cactus and as charming as an eel. Dr. Seuss' "How The Grinch Stole Christmas!" airs tonight on NBC. And NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says the cartoon's endurance only highlights how hard it is to make a truly excellent Christmas special.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: You know it from the first few notes of Thurl Ravenscroft's barrel-chested performance. This is a Christmas classic.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'RE A MEAN ONE, MR. GRINCH")

THURL RAVENSCROFT: (Singing) You're a mean one, Mr. Grinch.

DEGGANS: OK, so it might seem a little weird to call a 26-minute cartoon about a green guy who learns not to steal Christmas presents a holiday classic, but "The Grinch," which debuted on December 18, 1966, did everything right. It had a great pedigree. Seuss mastermind Theodor Geisel worked with legendary Warner Brothers animator Chuck Jones. It had a cheeky story that appealed to kids and grown-ups. And it had a kitschy narrator - horror movie king Boris Karloff.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS!")

BORIS KARLOFF: (As the Grinch) They're finding out now that no Christmas is coming. They're just waking up. I know just what they'll do.

DEGGANS: So why can't modern Christmas TV specials make this kind of magic happen, too? Yeah, there are animated specials with modern cartoon characters, like the "Toy Story" crew or a certain green ogre.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SHREK THE HALLS")

MIKE MYERS: (As Shrek) 'Twas the night before christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR SLAMMING)

MYERS: (As Shrek) What?

EDDIE MURPHY: (As Donkey) Merry Christmas, Shrek.

DEGGANS: But those bits come off more like crafting moments of corporate synergy than a special holiday treat. I was encouraged when I heard Disney had a new holiday special planned this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Disney lights up the most magical castles on earth in a new holiday tradition for the whole family...

DEGGANS: But then I heard this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And during the show, don't miss an exclusive look at "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story," in theaters December 16.

DEGGANS: That essentially turned the special into a giant commercial for a Disney-owned movie franchise. Even new Christmas specials that are supposed to be lame aren't quite lame in the way they intended, like Bill Murray's Netflix special "A Very Murray Christmas," which featured a character named Bill Murray trying to talk showbiz pal Chris Rock into doing a Christmas special with him.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A VERY MURRAY CHRISTMAS")

CHRIS ROCK: (As himself) So you're doing a live special in the middle of the biggest blizzard of the year? That is so you, Bill. That is so you.

BILL MURRAY: (As himself) But now you're here.

ROCK: (As himself) Yeah.

MURRAY: (As himself) And it's us.

MURRAY: (As himself) No.

DEGGANS: That's not lame in an ironic way. It's just kind of lame. At least "Empire" stars Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard had the good sense to bring on singers like Patti LaBelle and John Legend for their "White Hot Holidays" special last year on Fox.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TARAJI AND TERRENCE’S WHITE HOT HOLIDAYS")

JOHN LEGEND: (Singing) You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I'm telling you why. Santa Clause is coming to town...

DEGGANS: The singing helped distract from awkward dialogue between Howard and Henson. It kind of felt like an update of lines from an old Sonny and Cher special.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TARAJI AND TERRENCE’S WHITE HOT HOLIDAYS")

TARAJI HENSON: Why the long face, Terrence?

TERRENCE HOWARD: Because I never get what I want.

HENSON: Well, why not? What are you doing?

HOWARD: I was always a good kid, you know?

HENSON: Uh huh, that's impossible.

HOWARD: No, I was a good kid. I didn't say nothing about being a good adult. I was a good kid.

(LAUGHTER)

DEGGANS: Henson's doing the special by herself next month. Perhaps the holiday was a little too hot for two stars to share. As a critic, I've always been drawn to the Christmas specials that have a little unexpected absurdity. Whether it's David Bowie and Bing Crosby crooning a mash-up of "Peace On Earth" and "The Little Drummer Boy" on a Crosby TV special.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BING CROSBY'S MERRIE OLDE CHRISTMAS")

DAVIE BOWIE: (Singing) Peace on Earth, can it be? Years from now, perhaps we'll see.

DEGGANS: Or Hermey the toy-making elf who really wants to be a dentist in the stop-motion animation classic "Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV MOVIE, "RUDOLPH, THE RED-NOSED REINDEER")

PAUL SOLES: (As Hermey the elf) I just don't like to make toys.

CARL BANAS: (As Head Elf) Oh, well, if that's all - what? You don't want like to make toys?

SOLES: (As Hermey the elf) No.

DEGGANS: Ultimately, the best holiday specials have a unique balance of nostalgia, surprise, creativity and holiday spirit. Pulling all that off in a one-time TV event takes a Christmas miracle, which may explain why we see so few great ones on TV after all. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BING CROSBY'S MERRIE OLDE CHRISTMAS")

BING CROSBY AND DAVID BOWIE: (Singing) Our finest gifts we bring, pa-rum-pa-pum-pum, rum-pa-pum-pum, rum-pa-pum-pum... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.