Well, it's that time of year again. The Thanksgiving turkey's all eaten, "Jingle Bell Rock" is now playing endlessly on the radio and in the malls, said malls are mobbed with people shopping for door-buster deals, and television has started filling the airwaves with Christmas specials. (Would it kill the networks to throw Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, (sometimes) Ramadan, and Festivus more bones for once?) We've all, no matter our respective faiths, grown up with a seemingly-bountiful supply of TV holiday specials--some sappy, some cheap n' cheesy, some genuinely heartwarming, and some just....Hallmark-y. Many are the work of Disney, some are Hanna-Barbera's handiwork, few of the greats are from the fine folks of Rankin/Bass. No doubt, someone out there's probably created a list of the greatest holiday specials ever aired--in fact, there's probably enough 'best/worst' lists on the subject of holiday specials to decorate the Christmas tree at New York's Rockefeller Center completely.
And yet, here I go, about to unveil to you all yet ANOTHER holiday specials list. But this one's a bit different--it's more, shall we say, personal. After doing a lot of thinking recently, I decided that instead of going with the flow of the usual holiday offerings of the networks, or the usual selection of movies aired on TCM (though I may make an exception or two should I want to see Miracle on 34th Street for the first time--hey, it took me till Thanksgiving to finally see The Rocky Horror Picture Show, cut me some slack), I'd come up with my own lineup of (mostly-)yuletide episodes from cartoons past to partially get me through the holiday season. I'm sure everyone has their own grouping, this is just mine. To paraphrase Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, "SomeTHING for comic geeks, someTHING for sci-fi nerds, someTHING for everyone, a commentary to-NITE!" Its makeup consists of cartoons I watched way back when they first aired, and ones I got into as I got older and discovered (sometimes re-discovered) them. (Additional criteria: all are 2-dimensional cartoons. No CGI.) In the words of Rainier Wolfcastle, it's "a mixture of action und comedy". Soooooo....
Ya better watch out, Ya better not cry, Ya better not pout, I'm tellin' ya why:
In three parts, I present to you "A Pop Culture Geek's Cartoon Holiday Block".
1. Dr. Suess' How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)
The oldest program in my lineup, and my favorite holiday special above the rest, this adaptation of the Dr. Suess story has it all: fantastic art and character designs by the legendary Chuck Jones, a very memorable song from the pipes of Burl Ives:
And of course, the vocal performance of the king of horror films himself, Boris Karloff, as the Grinch. (Also made for quite the narrator, too!) Sidebar: it just occurred to me how funny it was that 1966 saw Karloff lend his voice to two holiday specials in the same year (the other being Rankin/Bass's Halloween-themed Mad Monster Party).
2. "The Nutcracker Scoob" (1984), from The New Scooby-Doo Mysteries
An episode frequently shown on Cartoon Network around this time of year (along with many Hanna-Barbera and Ruby-Spears 'favorites'), the plot features a play on Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (with some of The Nutcracker thrown in) as Scooby and the gang bring Christmas cheer to a children's home threatened with both closure by its miserly owner and the snow-white Ghost of Christmas Never.
3. "Cobra Claws Are Coming to Town" (1985), from G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero
Probably one of many reasons fans of G.I. Joe find the Sunbow animated series either charming or odd. Cobra, using a shrink ray to sneak into GI Joe headquarters inside toys being donated to charity, take over the base, rewire the equipment, and use the Joes' vehicles to attack a city on Christmas to frame the Joe team.
4. "X-Mas Marks the Spot" (1986), from The Real Ghostbusters
A fine episode from the movie's cartoon spin-off, thanks to the writing of J. Michael Straczynski (yep, that Straczynski), the 'Busters wind up in a time-warp to Dickensian-era Britain, where they accidentally save Scrooge from the Three Ghosts, resulting in Christmas getting 'destroyed' in the present. Peter (dealing with his own 'Christmas Carol'), Ray, and Winston then must return to the past and stall Scrooge long enough while Egon frees the spirits from the containment unit so Scrooge's rehabilitation can go on as scheduled. (Fun fact: in addition to being the first season finale, during the 1987-88 season the episode was re-dubbed with Peter and Janine's then-new voices, Dave Coulier and Kath Soucie.)
5. A Garfield Christmas Special (1987)
Heh--whaddaya know, two times the Lorenzo Music in a row. Of all the comic strip characters, I am firmly in the Garfield camp. (And I can honestly say it's been ages since I've seen this.) In this Emmy-nominated special (with a title song from regular guest vocalist Lou Rawls), Garfield joins Jon and Odie in celebrating Christmas with Jon's family in the countryside, where, as is typical in most of these specials, Garfield comes to understand the true meaning of the holiday. (Hint: it's not the giving OR the getting...)
6. "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire" (1989), from The Simpsons
Now, what holiday-themed list would be complete without the very first episode of the longest-running animated sitcom in TV history? Another Emmy nominee, you all probably know the story, but for those who don't? Homer learns he won't be getting his Christmas bonus at work this year, and desperate to get money for his family's gifts, takes a job as a mall Santa, and then winds up at the dog-racing track with Bart.
7. "It's a Wonderful Tiny Toons Christmas Special", from Tiny Toon Adventures
Sooner or later, a parody of the Christmastime classic It's a Wonderful Life was going to pop up on this list--might as well be the series finale of Tiny Toons. The setup is simple: Buster Bunny, framed as a failure by Montana Max, considers quitting the show by literally jumping out of the picture, until his guardian toon angel stops him and shows him what the show would be like had he not been the star in the first place.
8. "Christmas with the Joker" (1992), from Batman: The Animated Series
Hoo-boy, the second-ever episode of probably everybody's favorite childhood cartoon, with the debut of Mark Hamill's iconic vocal take on the Clown Prince of Crime, as well as the one episode popularizing a certain spoofy song even more:
The skinny: Joker escapes Arkham Asylum and takes over Gotham City's airwaves with his own twisted Christmas special, challenging Batman and Robin to free his guests/hostages (Commissioner Gordon, reporter Summer Gleeson, and Detective Harvey Bullock) before midnight.
9. "'Twas the Day Before Christmas/Jingle Boo/The Great Wakkorotti: The Holiday Concert/Toy Shop Terror/Yakko's Universe" (1993), from Animaniacs Like The Simpsons, Animaniacs has had a number of Yuletide-themed episodes in its long run, and most of the time, you really can't top the first. In this alone, you have Slappy Squirrel's take on the Clement Clark Moore classic (or Henry Livingston Jr., if some folks are to be believed); Chicken Boo as a mall Santa; Wakko belching out 'Jingle Bells'; and Yakko, Wakko and Dot running rampant through a toy store. (The last segment's a rerun.)
10. "Doug's Christmas Story" (1993), from Doug
There's no doubt that Nickelodeon classic Doug was one of my favorite shows as a kid, and one I enjoy revisiting from time to time. (Not to mention that, years later, I find that Fred Newman, the sound effects guy from NPR's "A Prairie Home Companion", was the voice of Skeeter and Porkchop--no wonder I've been a longtime listener...) In this winter tale of Bluffington, Doug finds his Christmas plans in jeopardy when Porkchop is accused of attacking Beebe Bluff (when he was trying to save her from thin ice), and must defend his canine companion in court.
11. A Flintstones Christmas Carol (1994)
Like "The Nutcracker Scoob", another entry from the Hanna-Barbera library that frequently makes the rounds on Cartoon Network (or Boomerang) every holiday season, and one of three Flintstones-based shows. (On a sad note, it was also the final project where Jean Vander Pyl voiced Wilma before passing away in 1999.) The story is a bit of life imitating art: when the Bedrock Community Players put on a production of A Christmas Carol, Fred lands the leading role of Scrooge--which goes to his head. Consumed with rehearsal, he forgets about his job, his family, even holiday prep. It all comes to a head on the night of the play, where between performing on stage Fred must scramble to pick up Pebbles from 'cave care', get the Christmas gifts, and somehow find a way to make up for his actions.
12. "A Pinky and the Brain Christmas" (1995), from Pinky and the Brain
Ah, this I know I have seen the most times--I had it on video, to be exact. I have been, and always will be, a big Pinky and the Brain fan, and this episode no doubt is one of my top favorite holiday episodes. The premise is simple: Brain's latest world domination plot involves infiltrating Santa's workshop and adding to every Christmas list in the world his 'Noodle-Noggin' hypnotizing dolls, allowing him to take control of the globe. This episode also won the Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program the following year. Why? Maybe because of this touching scene in the climax:
So ends part 1--but in terms of a holiday feast, this is just the appetizer. Stay tuned for the main course, and later, dessert......