Throughout the years, there have been an array of Yuletide-themed programs that have tried to make your December merry and bright. The sad truth is that for every smile that watching the Peanuts gang dance around in A Charlie Brown Christmas brings comes countless tears caused by inferior holiday programming. This time of year is difficult enough to slog through without having to also endure lame specials injecting a bit of extra bah into your humbug. But which of these shows are the televisual equivalents of misfit toys? Let’s find out in this Scrooge of a list that reveals the 16 worst Christmas specials ever made. A word of advance warning though, just because some of these entries may feature characters you love doesn’t make them any less fa-la-la-la-lame.
Note: This list was co-written by Teague Bohlen and Chris Cummins, and originally ran on TR on December 24th, 2008. Hilariously, I still don’t have the ability to list two authors at once. –Rob
16) Elmo’s Christmas Countdown
Elmo is Grover for a new generation, although that generation is made up entirely of stupid children. Grover was ticklish first, and he was also the Monster at the End of this Book, so suck it, Elmo. Ahem. More to the point, this throwaway Sesame Street special follows in the long line of poor transfers of the classic kid’s show to a something more — everything from the big screen to specials on the small (I think we can all agree that Follow that Bird was no Muppet Movie). This 2007 Christmas special isn’t all that bad — the Sopranos’ take on Bert and Ernie is sort of funny, even if its pop-culture shelf-life will be something like five minutes — but Elmo’s sway over the whole scenario makes even the supreme and sublime Sesame Street sort of suck. Sad to say, but someone had to speak up (this criticism is brought to you by the letter S and the number 5.)
15) A Very Brady Christmas
The Rolling Stones weren’t referring to the Brady family when they sang about what a drag it is getting old, but they may have well as been because there’s something so depressing about seeing the Bunch all grown up. In this 1988 TV movie, the days of card house-building contests and pay phone antics have replaced by job and relationship woes for the Bradys. When they all gathered together for the holidays, the formerly fun-loving family faced their biggest crisis ever when Mike became trapped in a building collapse. Thanks to some well-timed flashbacks and an “O Come All Ye Faithful” sing-along, things turn out A-okay for Mike and his intensely permed head. It was CBS execs who really had the best Christmas of all, as the film got crazy huge ratings and ignited a new surge of interest in anything Brady-related. It also resulted in the downbeat 1990 series The Bradys, in which Marcia was a drunk and Bobby was paralyzed. Happy holidays! 14) Rudolph’s Shiny New Year
Despite some considerable assets (voice acting by some of the greats — Red Skelton, Morey Amsterdam, Frank Gorshin, and Paul Frees, to name a few; being produced by the legendary Rankin/Bass; being a continuation of the popular Rudolph storyline), this 1976 special is anything but “shiny.” Rather, it’s a pretty dull affair all around, referring to characters we don’t know and don’t care about, and de-aging Rudolph from the newly-adult stag that led Santa’s sleigh to the more bumbling young buck that couldn’t pronounce “independent”. And seriously people, a holiday show that sports Ben Franklin, a medieval knight, a caveman, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed reindeer in the same scene? Yeah, somethings desperately wrong with the wayback machine, Mr. Peabody. (On the other hand, this show could easily have been where the idea for Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure came from, so I guess that’s something.)
13) Voyage of the Damned
Obviously not learning a lesson from the disaster that was Douglas Adams’ Starship Titanic, this 2007 Doctor Who Christmas special is marred by a terrible villain (which you can read about here), Kylie Minogue’s forgettable companion, Astrid Peth, and a generally uninteresting plot. With a script that is self-indulgent at worst and derivative of The Poseidon Adventure at best, “Voyage of the Damned” fails to meet the high expectations raised by the previous holiday specials–while also setting the stage for the show’s disappointing fourth season. If you haven’t seen this yet, save yourself an hour and check out above fan made music video that hits all the high points and awesomely features Chicago’s “You’re the Inspiration.”
12) Larry the Cable Guy’s Christmas Spectacular/Larry the Cable Guy’s Star-Studded Christmas Extravaganza
For the past two holiday seasons, Larry the Cable Guy has been inflicting his sleeveless “comedy” upon audiences in Christmas specials for VH1 and CMT. This has led to many things, including the unholy union of Larry and Carrot Top. There may be a Santa, but clearly there is no god.
11) Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey
Rankin/Bass went back to the “what does not kill you makes you stronger” claymation well once more in ’77. Poor little Nestor the donkey is born with long ears, which makes him the butt of serious abuse (Rudolph, Dumbo, etc.) and leads to his mother dying in order to keep him warm one cold night (Bambi!). It’s all so pathetic that almost any ending would feel insufficient. Indeed, it makes kids want to see Nestor to go all Rambo, grab a scimitar, and start slicing himself up some helpings of sweet, sweet revenge. Which, of course, is sort of an awkward thing to try to fit into a story about the Nativity.
10) I Want a Dog for Christmas, Charlie Brown
Despite the lingering affection for Charlie Brown Christmas specials (this is the fourth, made in 2003, and each one is an increasingly thin attempt to recapture the magic of the original), this Peanuts special suffers from several issues. First, it barely has anything to do with the holiday itself — the show could just as easily have been c
alled I Want a Dog for My Wintertime Birthday, Charlie Brown, and it could air virtually unchanged. More importantly, it doesn’t involve Charlie Brown himself much at all. Instead, it revolves around Lucy and Linus’ little brother Rerun, who is essentially just a whinier version of Linus. It also doesn’t help
matters that his appearance is indistinguishable from that of his
blanket-clutching sibling. We realize that it’s unfair to compare this show to A Charlie Brown Christmas because they are so completely different in terms of tone and story. But judged purely on it’s own merits, I Want a Dog for Christmas, Charlie Brown is still a pretty dull affair.
9) ALF’s Special Christmas
8) Christmas Comes to Pac-Land
Pac-Man the videogame was pretty much just a circle eating dots in a maze while being chased by ghosts. Not much story there. So you can’t really complain too much when the ’82 Saturday morning cartoon–and the Christmas special made in conjunction with it–just don’t make much sense. In fact, Pac-Man only has to save Christmas because he sort of ruins it in the first place, bringing down Santa’s sleigh because the disembodied googly-eyes of chomped ghosts freaked him out. And who could blame him? To make things worse, it features Santa’s reindeer eating Pac-Man’s “power pellets” in order to get an instant energy boost. Considering that around this same time Nancy Reagan was putting on her “Just Say No to Drugs” campaign, telling kids that all they need are these little pill-like things that give you energy and strength seems like a bad idea. That’s right: Christmas Comes to Pac-Land isn’t just a crappy cartoon. It’s a holiday gateway drug.
7) He-Man and She-Ra: A Christmas Special
Aside from the always fun He-Man/She-Ra crossover, there’s not much that doesn’t feel completely forced in this giant toy commercial. Two kids from Earth get stuck in Eternia for the holidays, and their Christmas cheer attracts the bad guys, blah, blah, blah. Even Skeletor learns a valuable lesson about caring, which even at age 8, we knew was horrible bullshit. What a missed opportunity — it would have been much cooler if Santor had shown up with Elfo and Reindor in the Power-Sleigh and totally kicked Skeletor’s bony ass with his Ho-Ho-Crossbow. And then Teela could come in and explain the magic of Hanukkah (to avoid losing the Jewish toy-buying business), they serve roast Orko for dinner, and it’s time to deck Greyskull with boughs of holly. 6) Ziggy’s Gift
Does the above clip encourage children to befriend meth addicts posing as Santa Claus? That’s one of the disturbing questions raised by Ziggy’s Gift. The most critically acclaimed entry on this list, this 1982 Emmy winner follows Tom Wilson’s cartoon everyman as he tries to raise money for the less fortunate by working as a street corner Santa. With his dog Fuzz by his side, he witnesses how society has forgotten the true meaning of Christmas (it’s about robots, right?) as he teaches others about the inner peace that comes from giving. Yawn. There’s a lot that irritates about this special, from how the chatty Ziggy of the comics has suddenly been rendered mute to the insipid Harry Nilsson song that runs throughout the show. But the biggest problem is the show’s heavy handed morality and its portrayal of Ziggy as a Christlike figure. If I want preachiness my holiday cartoons, I’ll watch Linus’s soliloquy from A Charlie Brown Christmas, thank you very much. 5) A Chipmunk Christmas
Alvin learns the true meaning of Christmas… but does it really have to take a dying kid to do it? Especially a kid with cholera? Okay, so the kid gets better by the end of the show, thanks in part to the boost that Alvin’s harmonica gave him, but still… cholera. One of the most deadly diseases in human history, an infectious gastroenteritis that’s spread primarily through fecal matter contaminating drinking water. This does not make us want to sing carols along with small, sarcastic, sweatered rodents.
4) A Special Sesame Street Christmas
1978 gave us two Sesame Street holiday specials, the underrated Christmas Eve on Sesame Street, and this journey into despair. Originally airing on CBS, this is the only Sesame Street-related program not to be produced by Children’s Television Workshop/Sesame Workshop. It shows. Essentially a loose remake of “A Christmas Carol” with Oscar the Grouch taking on the role of Ebenezer Scrooge, the show features such guest stars as Leslie Uggams, Anne Murray, Dick Smothers, Michael Jackson (who has about 10 seconds of screen time) and Henry Fonda (ditto). On paper it doesn’t sound so bad, right? Well, check out what happens at the 8:36 mark in the following clip:
Terror, thy name is Ethel Merman. If kids weren’t scarred enough from how she casually calls Imogene Cocoa an idiot, they would be once she started belting out “Tomorrow” from Annie (in an act of Internet mercy, the above clip cuts off before Merman’s butchering of that Broadway chestnut begins). During all this merriment, you may have noticed a distinct lack of Muppets. That’s because the show’s producers only ponied up for the rights to feature Big Bird, Oscar and Barkley in the show — with the rest of the budget probably going to quaaludes for the writing staff.
3) The Smurfs Christmas Special
This one sets its tone early: two kids and their grandfather turn over their sleigh in the snow, and Grandpa dies. And later in the show, the suggested sacrifice of children. Smurfy Christmas! But the worst part has to be the song that the Smurfs sing, Who-ville-like, a few times over the course of the show: “Goodness makes the badness go away/Goodness makes you happy every day/Badness cannot start if there’s goodness in your heart/Goodness makes the badness go away.” That’s not just the chorus; that’s the whole damn song. Over and over again. I don’t care if it does magically rebuild your ruined Smurf village, that’s a little ditty that just makes you root for Gargamel.
2) The Year Without a Santa Claus
? One of the more soulless creative decisions in recent memory was the green-lighting of this 2006 remake of the Rankin-Bass classic. Completely devoid of the charm that made the original such a perrenial holiday favorite, this NBC telefilm stars John Goodman as a world-weary St. Nick who contemplates throwing in the towel on the whole Christmas thing. (Which is fitting, since you’ll feel the same way after watching five minutes of it). In an effort to save the holiday, his elves Jingle (Ethan Suplee) and Jangle (Eddie Griffin) go searching for folks who believe in the Christmas spirit, while a rival elf played by Chris Kattan tries to contemporize Santa’s workshop. Spoiler alert, it all works out in the end. But not before viewers have to endure this:
The only musical sequence from the original Year Without a Santa Claus to be included in the remake, this medley is so over the top that it makes Baz Luhrmann’s direction seem subtle. If you can get beyond how both of the famous Miser songs have been mashed up into a medley of pain, or how atrocious Harvey Fierstein and Michael McKean are as the Heat Miser and the Snow Miser, there’s still the fact that the rest of the show is completely lacking any soul or entertainment value. It’s a 90 minute lump of coal inserted rectally into good people everywhere.
1) The Star Wars Holiday Special
Could any other special have topped this list, other than this strange artifact of the Star Wars craze? Not on this website. And with good reason; this is the pinnacle of ludicrousness. Wookies talking in incomprehensible Wookese for long, long minutes at a stretch. Bea Arthur. Han Solo hugging pretty much everything in sight. Art Carney delivering Wookie Porn. An obviously high Princess Leia, who’s singing…something. And Luke Skywalker video-phoning in a performance in which he looks like he’s just had his car accident that morning. All this, and the first appearance of Boba Fett…sort of. And my god, it goes on. Just on and on. And on. Forget about the Life-Day plot, because it was laser-thin–this was just a terrible 70s variety special with Star Wars wrapping. Granted, nobody cared that it sucked when it first came out, because it was Star Wars after all–and no one really cares that it sucks now, seeing as how millions of fans own it on bootleg videotape. Love it, loathe it, or probably both–this is utter holiday ridiculousness that just can’t be ignored.
Robert Bricken is one of the original co-founders of the site formerly known as Topless Robot, and its first editor-in-chief, serving from 2008-12. He brought the site to prominence with “nerd news, humor and self-loathing” as its motto, raising it from total internet obscurity to a readership in the millions, with help from his savage “FAQ” movie reviews and Fan Fiction Fridays. Under his tenure Topless Robot was covered by Gawker, Wired, Defamer, New York magazine, ABC News, and others, and his articles have been praised by Roger Ebert, Avengers actor Clark Gregg, comedian and The Daily Show correspondent John Hodgman, the stars of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Rifftrax, and others. He is currently the managing editor of io9.com. Despite decades as both an amateur and professional nerd, he continues to be completely unprepared for either the zombie apocalypse or the robot uprising.