5 Quintessential Christmas Specials

We all celebrate the holiday season with different activities and traditions. Some of us decorate trees, some go to Mass, some huddle misanthropically in their homes with a bottle of bourbon waiting for the carolers to go away.

But one thing that almost everyone enjoys in December is gathering around the glowing comfort of their television sets for a nice, traditional Christmas Special. And while the following specials aren’t exactly the height of traditionalism, they are all guaranteed bring you a little music and laughter (and maybe even a heartwarming Holiday message or two).

Feel free to share your favorite holiday episodes in the comments!

1. “Xmas Story,” Futurama (Episode 204)

“Your mistletoe is no match for my TOW missile!”

Futurama is (or was, before it was renewed in 2009 for a parade of sub-par episodes) a near-perfect show. Scripted by a crew of dedicated math, science, and pop culture nerds, this animated sitcom set 1000 years in the future was the ultimate combination of clever humor, stupid puns, and genuine heart.

“Xmas Story” is a great example of this, challenging the typical holiday formula by disrupting every tradition we hold dear. Is there a Christmas tree? Yeah, but it’s a palm tree, because pines are extinct in the year 3000. Is there a Christmas dinner? Yeah, but it’s exploded roadkill. Is there a Santa Claus? Yes, Virginia, but he’s an evil militant robot with a motorized war-sleigh and advanced weaponry.

Beyond how funny it is to watch the dimwitted Fry attempt to choose between a $500 parrot and 500 stink-lizards to give to love-interest Leela as a gift (“Girls like swarms of lizards, right?”), the real treasure of this episode comes from its emotional center. Fry and Leela—both essentially orphans and the last of their kind—learn to find comfort in each other while huddling in fear from Robot Santa (otherwise known as “the father of all lies”). Truly, it is a Christmas miracle.

2. “A Very Sunny Christmas,” It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

“Why wouldn’t we throw rocks at trains?”

It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia is one of those shows that really rewards viewers who can handle a certain amount of aggressive unpleasantness, as long as it’s really freaking hilarious. The motley ensemble of characters on this so-appalling-it’s-funny sitcom seem to both love and hate each other in equal measures, which is (let’s be honest) exactly how many of us feel about our own families during the holidays.

This special, which draws very loosely from A Christmas Carol, is an hour-long extravaganza of bitterness and misguided morals and naked Danny Devito. And it’s glorious. Everything goes horribly wrong (there’s copious amounts of blood involved, but I don’t want to give away whose blood it is), and nothing gets wrapped up in a nice neat Christmas bow to make the audience feel better. What we’re left with instead is the idea that it’s possible to cling to the holiday spirit in the worst of times, even if you’re just throwing rocks at trains at six in the morning with your friends.

(Also, if this horror show doesn’t put your own holiday disasters in perspective, nothing will.)

3. “Woodland Critter Christmas,” South Park (Episode 814)

Stan and the Christmas Critters, South Park

“What a special time and special day, it’s Woodland Critter Christmas!”

I feel a little guilty at this point, because I’m starting to realize that many of these episodes are not totally in keeping with the hope and purity of the season. And while I promise that the Futurama and Always Sunny episodes have some semblance of Christmas goodwill to them (sort of), I can’t make that promise for “Woodland Critter Christmas.” It’s all comedy and no heart, basically. And you probably shouldn’t watch it if you’re very sensitive about Biblical jokes.

Still, for anyone who’s ever thought that holiday specials for children were just too precious to stomach—talking animals, banal singing, bland messages of faith and love—this episode is like a cathartic Christmas gift for the soul. Creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker (for whom nothing at all is sacred) gleefully turn this familiar Christmas cuteness on its head, creating a wonderful, shocking narrative that bounces along to clumsily-rhymed narration and a couple of hilariously mindless songs by Parker. And the climax involves Santa kicking ass and taking names, which is always a plus.

4. “Comparative Religion,” Community (Episode 112)

Shirley and her Christmas tree, Community

“Guys, everyone’s religion is weird. Let’s just not talk about it.”

Pretty much the only Christmas/holiday special I’ve ever seen to directly address the recent political correctness of the season (an attempt at inclusiveness and courtesy that some, guided in part by Fox News, have deemed the War on Christmas), “Comparative Religion” is easily my favorite Community episode of all time.

(Yes, I like it even more than “Modern Warfare” or “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas.” What are you going to do about it?)

Community, which you may not have even heard of given its criminally low ratings, is an endlessly creative, brilliantly-written show about a diverse study group in community college who come to love each other as a kind of surrogate family. This episode centers around Shirley, the oft-underused “mother” figure in the ensemble, and it tells the story of what happens when the group suddenly discovers that they each follow a separate religion: Christianity, Jehovah’s Witness, Judaism, Islam, Atheism, Agnosticism (“Boooo, that’s the lazy man’s Atheist!”), and something called born-again Level 5 Laser Lotus Buddhism, which is most likely a cult.

Because Shirley’s Christianity is so important to her—and because it had apparently never occurred to her that the rest of her new family would not feel the same way—this story is actually a very important examination of love, respect, and acceptance. It’s also an extremely joke-heavy episode, though, and if you don’t think Anthony Michael Hall’s overcompensating bully character is one of the funniest things you’ve ever seen (“Dude, my LIFE is a gym!!!”), I’m not sure I understand you one bit.

5. The Star Wars Holiday Special

“That’s the spirit! You’ll be celebrating Life Day before you know it!”

This cheap-looking mistake of a holiday special, which aired only once in November of 1978, has been relegated to bootleg status due to George Lucas’ refusal to acknowledge its existence by releasing a DVD.

Now, if that doesn’t make you want to see this train wreck for yourself, here’s the plot: Chewbacca’s family—Malla, Itchy, and Lumpy—are waiting anxiously for their patriarch to return from fighting for the Alliance so that they can all celebrate Life Day, a made-up Wookiee holiday, together. Life Day is never really explained, except that it has something to do with peace and love and involves putting on a red robe and parading around while holding shimmery orbs.

Julie celebrating Life Day

I’m only half-Wookiee, but I take Life Day very seriously.

Anyway, it’s a good thing that the actual plot only takes up about 15 percent of the special, because the Wookies only ever howl at each other in their own language, which is not even subtitled and can only really be tolerated for a few minutes at a time. Therefore, in addition to this ill-advised story focus, we get approximately ninety different variety-show bits to fill the time, performed by celebrity guest stars such as Harvey Corman, Bea Arthur, and The Jefferson Starship. This might also have been done because Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher could only be snagged for a few minutes of screen time each (and boy, do they look like they regret it).

Now, this special isn’t good. I’m not even sure you could comfortably place it in the so-bad-it’s-good category with the likes of Plan 9 From Outer Space and Attack of the Crab Monsters. It’s legitimately so bad that some (many) find it unbearable. But if you have the right attitude (and possibly some holiday cocktails), this viewing experience will lead you through an almost transcendent example of bad storytelling. This is a terribleness of which you have only previously dreamed. And it is beautiful.

So if you dare, get yourself a bootleg and settle in with the family and copious amounts of very strong eggnog. Sing along with Bea Arthur in her Tatooine tavern. Meet Boba Fett in his first canon appearance as part of a weirdly-animated cartoon digression. Rock out to hologram Jefferson Starship’s performance of the bland yet mesmerizing “Light the Sky on Fire.” After all, finding joy in the darkness is what this season is all about.

Happy Life Day, everyone!

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