Holidays With the Idiot Box: What I Learned From Watching Way Too Many 1980s Christmas Specials

This past Saturday a friend of mine hosted in a party with a simple conceit: We’d all gather ’round her television and watch Christmas specials from days of yore. Not the good ones. The terrible ones. The cheap ones. The ones specifically designed to fascinate credulous, stupid kids. For nearly eight hours a roomful of twenty- and thirtysomethings drank copious amounts of booze, stuffed ham into their faces, and consumed the stale remnants of TV past. This is what I gleaned from the experience.

The Jetsons’ Christmas Carol

I never felt one way or another about The Jetsons. I might have watched the show a bit when I was very, very young, but I discovered Star Trek and science fiction pretty early on, and TNG and Asimov were soon scratching my space itches. Cartoon space people didn’t seem all that interesting compared to Captain Picard. Based on their Christmas special it seems that Young Me made absolutely the right decision, because this show seemed extraordinarily dull. That made me a little sad, as the futuristic optimism that seems to pervade The Jetsons seems admirable. We’re awash in dystopias and apocalypses, and I’d love to see modern science fiction get back to flying cars and pet aliens, if only for a moment.

I liked the Jetsons in that one Kanye video, though.

Yogi Bear’s All-Star Comedy Christmas Caper

Yogi Bear is a bad character. I thought that as a kid, and I think that now. He’s an asshole who steals people’s lunches and always gets what he wants. He harasses a put-upon government employee who’s trying to keep our national parks system running, and jerks around his weary sidekick. He’s neither a character that the audience can root for, nor is he an interesting bad guy a la Walter White. He’s just a jerk we’re supposed to think is funny.

You know who’s way more cool than Yogi Bear? Winnie the Pooh. Pooh struggles, learns, and wrestles with the world around him. Despite being a Bear of Very Little Brain, Pooh puts that brain to use and attempts to grapple with challenges in a way that’s identifiable and sympathetic. We have all been Pooh. We have all had to deal with blustery days, been afraid of huffalumps, and eaten too much honey. Pooh is Job. He’s an everyman. He’s us. Yogi would probably steal Pooh’s lunch and just think it was funny.

Yogi’s Christmas special is garbage. Snagglepuss and some other people show up. Yogi dresses up as Santa. Woo.

The Cabbage Patch Kids Christmas Vacation

The Cabbage Patch Kids are effing creepy and if you think they’re cute it’s probably because you’re a serial killer with several lengths of stretched human skin drying in your basement. My personal theory is that they are not children at all, but demonic cabbage golems closely related to the goblins from Troll 2. I did not like this special.

Christmas Comes to Pac-Land

There was a whole slew of media layered onto Pac-Man (including a theme park) and in retrospect it all seems massively forced. There’s no real depth to Pac-Man. He eats things. Ghosts chase him. Sometimes he chases ghosts. That’s it. Any pursuit of a larger mythology is going to run into a wall eventually, because writers tasked with making a Pac-Man cartoon are going to have to constantly dream up a new adventure for him that involves chomping. Every plot, problem, solution, everything: It will all have to involve power pellets. That does not make for a compelling, deep story or fictional world.

In Christmas Comes to Pac-Land Santa’s Sleigh crashes, but Pac-Man and his friends fix it. Santa’s worried that he doesn’t have enough time for Christmas, but Pac-Man gives St. Nick and the reindeer some power pellets. Fueled by the most unadorned of video game power-ups, Kringle & Co. zoom through the air and deliver presents to the children of the world. As far as Pac-Man Christmas stories go, that’s pretty much the best you could probably do. It’s got Santa, there’s a central conflict, and then the problem is solved with glorified gluttony.

G.I. Joe, Cobra C.L.A.W.S. Are Coming to Town

G.I Joe was the one cartoon I wasn’t allowed to watch as a kid. My parents said that it was jingoistic and glorified militarism and, to be fair, they were absolutely right. Cobra C.L.A.W.S. Are Coming to Town prominently features a shrink ray that is also an embiggening ray, and at the end of it a giant parrot saves the day. This special wasn’t great, but given all the wackiness I kind of wish I had been allowed to watch G.I. Joe.

Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Chirstmas Special

Pee-Wee’s Playhouse is one of the only pieces of kid media that I’ve enjoyed more as an adult than as a kid. I didn’t get it as a kid. There was usually only the bare bones of a plot, I found Paul Reubens’ voice grating, and I was probably profoundly bored by the sever lack of dinosaurs, swords, and spaceships.

Now, though, I appreciate the gleeful maximalist surrealism of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, and the Christmas special was utterly fabulous. The list of stars (Magic Johnson! Charo! Oprah!) is extensive to the point of ridiculous, and the show seems to know exactly what it’s doing. It knows that it’s a plotless, shiny mess, and it revels in its own weird nature. I don’t know if I really like Pee-Wee’s Playhouse now, but I certainly respect it.

Super Mario World, The Night Before Cave Christmas

Super Mario World does not (somewhat confusingly) take place in a world called “Super Mario World.” It take place in Dinosaur Land. There are no dinosaurs in Dinosaur Land. There are turtles, dragon turtles, piranha plants, and angry eye-having mushrooms, but there are no tyrannosaurs, triceratopses, or pachycephalosauruses. Sure, there’s Yoshi. Yoshi is, like, some kind of deinonychus thing (I guess) but she’s (I’m assuming the female pronoun is okay here, because egg-laying) is all cartoony and cute. Dinosaurs are not cute. Dinosaurs are prehistoric instruments of thunder and blood, and Yoshi is too scared to go into a ghost house. A real deinonychus would not be scared of ghosts, be they house-based or otherwise. A real deinonychus would find a way to hunt and eat an incorporeal being.

ANYWAY, Dinosaur Land is a place where there are no dinosaurs, but there is Yoshi, Mario, Luigi, Peach, and some cavemen. At least there are in the cartoon. There were no cavemen in the Super Mario World video game. As a kid, it made me really, really angry to see cavemen portrayed next to dinosaurs in popular culture. “CAVEMEN AND DINOSAURS DIDN’T LIVE TOGETHER” I would angrily shout at the Flintstones and other, similar things “THEY DIDN’T WHY ARE YOU WRONG I DON’T LIKE THIS CARTOON.” Maybe as a result of this I’ve never thought that cavemen are cool. Early humans are cool. I totally geeked out over Otzi the Iceman when they found him in 1991. That was amazing, and I learned all about how he might have lived from various TV specials and articles that came out at the time. I enjoyed anthropology classes. Early humans are alright.

As a cultural and genre concept, though, I’ve never liked cavemen. Cavemen are almost always portrayed with dinosaurs and as a trope they represent more than anything else pop culture being wrong about science. Bowser, for some reason, captures a caveman and then Mario and Luigi have to save him. Then something about Christmas. I don’t know. This show was awful.

Super Mario Super Show, Koopa Clause

No. No, no, no. NEXT!

The Smurfs Christmas Special

The Smurfs Chirstmas Special is all about Gargamel trying to sell children to Satan. Well, he’s not called “Satan” specifically, but he’s a bearded dude in a red cloak with magical powers who makes people sign contracts. So, Satan. Essentially. Gargamel sells kids to Satan in exchange for anti-Smurf magic, and then the Smurfs have to somehow save the kids from the Lord of Darkenss and the Father of Lies. Satan makes a big ring of flames that would look totally badass at a metal show, but the Smurfs defeat him with the power of love. This one wasn’t “good” or “watchable” but I admired it for being downright weird.

The Claymation Christmas Special

For a moment there in the eighties it seemed like claymation was an unstoppable juggernaut. The California Raisins were everywhere and movies like The Adventures of Mark Twain seemed to be the next big thing in artsy, trippy animation. And then it just went out. Gone. There’s a little bit here and there, but nothing like the juggernaut that used to exist.

The Claymation Christmas special is essentially plotless and it’s badly written. Two dinosaurs evocative of Siskel and Ebert introduce Christmas songs, and then a music video happens. The visuals are amazing, though, and the energy and enthusiasm of the animation almost makes up for the utter lack of story, character, or jokes that are not horrible.

It was all surface. It’s great surface, but still, that’s it. Maybe that’s why claymation fizzled out in favor of CGI. That’s a lot of surface, too, and probably a bit less messy to animate.

The Real Ghostbusters, Xmas Marks the Spot

The 1980s were awash in cartoons based on hit movies (like Rambo!) and I think it’s safe to say that most of them were cynical cash-grabs. The Real Ghostbusters (as opposed to the other Ghostbusters) probably started out as one of those, but it somehow rose above the rest and became actually good. I was legitimately surprised as to how good X-Mas Marks the Spot was. The Ghostbusters go back in time and end up busting the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, and bad things ensue. The solution they come up with involve both dressing in drag and a 2001 style journey into a weird non-space populated by angry supernatural creatures. It’s amazing.

I want to actually watch more of this show now. It was funny, well-plotted, and legitimately entertaining. It was also written by a pre-Babylon 5 J. Michael Stracynski, which was kind of neat to see.

The He-Man and She-Ra Christmas Special

I freely acknowledge that The Masters of the Universe was badly animated crap designed to sell toys. Of all the badly animated crap designed to sell toys, though, it was the best. The creators probably just assumed that kids liked lasers and space and monsters and pegacorns rockets and swords and robots and everything so it just all goes in there. If it’s cool, if kids like it, it’s in there. Don’t worry about how it works. Don’t worry about how He-Man can breath in space. Don’t worry about how She-Ra’s pegacorn can travel between planets. Don’t worry about any of that. Just let it all coexist. That’s what kids do when they play pretend, after all.

I kind of admire that commitment to absurdity and awesomeness. It’s still dumb, but it’s dumb in a lovable, almost earnest way that’s impossible to deeply hate. The Christmas special (in which two kids from Earth teach Orco and Skeletor about Christmas) isn’t great  but it’s satisfying. The two main characters team up, share screen time, and defeat a slew of robot monsters, Hordak, and Skeletor. I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent with this bit of

She-Ra, by the way, is way cooler than He-Man. She has a better villain to contend with and (I cannot emphasize this enough) a pegacorn.

I hope that children’s television has improved, at least a little, since I was a kid. Most the junk that I and my friends beamed into our eyes this past Saturday was disposable tripe that had little to no respect for its audience, and I sort of hated the idea that any of this soulless crap ever worked on me. While some of the shows were definitely gems, they were hidden under the big pile of slag that comprises most of pop culture at any given time. For every bit of nostalgic wonder that we had, there were ten moments of hate and boredom, and I wondered what my parents must have thought when they saw me watching things that were so transparently bad decades ago.

Most of the media your remember from childhood was consumerist waste. Most of the stuff you liked as a kid and think fondly of is probably not anything that you’d want to affix your eyeballs to now. Most of it was made by people who probably didn’t have an iota of respect for the end-users, the kids who’d tune in every week. But, somehow, taking it in can be fun. It can be transporting. Against our better judgement we still spend time with things we know are not good, enriching, or valuable. That’s the devious power of nostalgia.

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