Christmas specials are a seasonal TV tradition. Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer. A most us watch every December without fail.
But there have also been a lot of downright strange seasonal TV efforts. Some good, some bad but all baffling, these specials took the holiday and gave it an off-kilter spin. Hot actors and passing fads tried to cash in on the festive season making for an odd, awkward Yuletide mix. Animated characters inexplicably donned Santa hats and handed out gifts, and people who had no business singing suddenly began to warble carols.
Sometimes, the strangeness was just a perfect storm of ineptitude, cynical marketing, and bad writing. Sometimes, it was a fresh, dark spin on the season that was entirely intentional. But either way, they were always memorable.
Need a dose of Christmas weird? Check out a few of these bizarre TV Christmas classics.
15. A Very Brady Christmas (1988)
Horrible. Yet we all tuned in to see this yuletide reunion of that straight-laced ‘70s family with the astroturf lawn. The plot had a bit of the Gift of the Magi in it, as Carol and afro-sporting Mike cancelled their competing vacations in order to get the whole family together for the holidays.
A somewhat darker take on the original family series, the TV movie nevertheless had typical Brady cornball moments. It all climaxed with Mike rescuing two men from a collapsed building while Carol led the onlookers in a rendition of ‘Oh Come All Ye Faithful’. This special led to a new series reboot that was even darker.
14. A Colbert Christmas (2008)
We knew this special would be strange. It was hosted and written by Stephen Colbert afterall. But we had no idea just how strange it would get. Set in a cabin, Colbert was trapped by a bear, and visited by several famous friends who sang songs like ‘Can I Interest You In Hannukah?’ (Jon Stewart), ‘Little Dealer Boy’ (Willie Nelson), and ‘Nutmeg’ (John Legend). Eventually, the bear turned out to be Elvis Costello. And in a hilarious bit of crass commercialism, Colbert plugged sales of the DVD release right into the special.
13. Blackadder’s Christmas Carol (1988)
This was a one-off special based on Rowan Atkinson‘s popular BBC comedy series. In this twisted adaptation of the familiar Dicken’s tale, Ebenezer Blackadder (Atkinson) was a kind man who was taken advantage of by con artists and lived a miserable, poor life. On Christmas Eve, he was shown the error of his ways through flashbacks and a peek into a sci-fi future. He awoke a ruthless jerk, taking revenge on all who thrived off his charity. Wow. Now there was a holiday message. Hugh Laurie narrated and co-starred.
12. A Christmas Dream (1984)
Mr. T and Webster star Emmanuel Lewis together? It happened. These two ‘80s icons teamed up for this TV special in which Lewis played a latch key kid who learned the meaning of Christmas from a sidewalk Santa (Mr. T). David Copperfield and Willie Tyler and Lester also showed up to add some contrived, strange moments of Christmas cheer. A real blast from the past, with even some singing and dancing from the diminutive Lewis. One does indeed pity the fool who had to sit through this.
11. A Claymation Christmas (1987)
Another eighties flash-in-the-pan with a Christmas special. The stop-motion California Raisins – created by Will Vinton as a commercial gimmick – headlined this musical special, offering up a Motown version of ‘Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer’. There was also a doo-wop version of ‘We Three Kings’ sung by camels, and an ice ballet supplied by some very talented walruses. Hosted by two dinosaurs, the special generated a Primetime Emmy for animation, not to mention a popular soundtrack album and a parody on The Simpsons.
10. Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)
What were they thinking? Why did George Lucas sign off on this horrible musical/comedy dreck? Hard to say. Everyone involved in this silly celebration of ‘Life Day’ either laughs or rolls their eyes when asked about this TV special. It was a childish tale in which Han Solo visited Chewbacca’s home planet. There were comedy sequences, and several songs (include one by Jefferson Starship). Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) ended the madness by warbling lyrics set to the Star Wars theme.
9. Pee Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special (1988)
Paul Reubens, aka Pee Wee, was at the height of his fame when he hosted this prime time special. It was basically just an extended episode of his kiddie show for adults – but with lots of wild special guests, and plenty of over-the-top Yuletide cheer.
One can’t think of any holiday special that featured more celebrities than this show. Everyone from Joan Rivers to Oprah stopped by the playhouse for some eggnog. And don’t forget Laurence Fishburne as Cowboy Curtis.
8. Nick and Jessica’s Family Christmas (2004)
MTV’s favorite couple of a decade ago tried to resurrect the Christmas variety show with this unwatchable effort. It was fun to watch Jessica’s ditzy persona on their reality show. But when she played it dumb on stage in front of a laughing studio audience in this, it just seemed sad.
Their scripted banter in this special was extremely awkward – especially when it was combined with actual memories and footage from their family Christmases of the past. Ashlee Simpson showed up to sing a duet of ‘Little Drummer Boy’ with her older sister. It didn’t help. The couple celebrated the next Christmas with a divorce.
7. Christmas Comes To Pacland (1983)
The success of Pac-Man led to an inevitable cartoon from Hanna-Barbera. The little circles with mouths were given feet and arms so they resembled Mike from Monsters Inc.. Few watched the knock-off cartoon, though this Christmas special lives on for its general weirdness.
Pac-Man was given the job of helping Christmas after Santa lost his way and crash landed in Pacland. Pac-Man even enlisted the help of those evil ghosts, who wore scarves to indicate the wintery season. Donkey Kong makes more sense as a holiday special.
6. The Junky’s Christmas (1993)
Nothing says Christmas like Claymation. However, this special was not a family-friendly tale. The disturbing animated short was based on a story by beat writer William Burroughs and told the story of a drug addict needing a fix on Christmas Eve.
He eventually made a sacrifice and was rewarded for his Christmas spirit in a surprisingly moving climax. Produced by Francis Ford Coppola, this cartoon featured Burroughs himself in the opening and closing.
5. Babes In Toyland (1986)
A young Drew Barrymore helmed this latest version of the famous operetta – previously adapted by Laurel and Hardy and Walt Disney. Barrymore played a young girl who didn’t like toys who ended up in Toyland on Christmas Eve.
There, she battled an evil bad guy who wished to take over Toyland with the help of some ogres. She also helped out Jack Nimble (a very young Keanu Reeves) in his plan to marry a local lass. Highlights (or are they lowlights?) included Keanu singing and lots of human-sized toy soldiers. It was not very good, but it was colourful. Shot in Germany.
4. The Munster’s Scary Little Christmas (1996)
Networks keep trying to revive this much-loved series but it never quite works. In this 1990s version, young Eddie lacks the Christmas spirit, so dad Herman tried to conjure up a traditional Transylvanian Christmas. Much slapstick comedy ensued and, at one point, Santa was changed into a fruit cake. Huh? The whole gang eventually came together to get fruitcake Santa back on schedule and save Christmas.
3. He-Man And She-ra’s Christmas Special (1986)
The story of how Christmas came to Eternia. The evil Skeletor acted as the Grinch in this tale of two kids from Earth who find themselves trapped in the land of He-Man only days before Christmas. Skeletor of course immediately kidnapped them but was won over by the Spirit of Christmas. It all ended in a Christmas party at He-Man’s castle digs.
2. Merry Christmas, Mr. Bean (1992)
Although this originally aired as part of the Mr. Bean series, it now airs annually as a stand-alone special. And it’s not hard to see why. The last episode written by series creator Richard Curtis, this did more to make Mr. Bean a name in North America than any episode up to that time.
It was a charming silent tale of the somewhat conceited Bean, and his attempts to have a perfect Christmas, largely without the annoyance of the outside world. It is still best remembered for Bean getting a massive turkey stuck on his head, though it was filled with many hilarious sight gags. Never has such an obnoxious character seemed so lovable.
1. Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever
Who says we don’t make them like we used to? Here’s a new seasonal Lifetime TV movie that ranks with the likes of trendy Christmas efforts from Mr. T and Pacman. Grumpy Cat looks really funny, but does little else. Heck, the kitty doesn’t even move.
Adding the voice of Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation) doesn’t help. Neither does a plot about a pet store robbery and the true meaning of Christmas. Buy Grumpy’s calendar instead.