If you love television Christmas specials, your list of what’s great about them probably includes their shameless sentiment, their schmaltzy outfits, and their incongruous bills of comedic and musical fare. If, on the other hand, you think television Christmas specials exist mostly to be mocked, your list of what’s mockable about them — well, it’s probably the same list.
The earliest Christmas specials, more than half a century ago, set the template: A star like Perry Como or Bing Crosby would gather together guests off Hollywood’s A or, more often, B list and serve up an hour or more of songs and skits that seemed like Norman Rockwell’s idea of an idyllic holiday. Once the archetype had hardened, along came parodies, perpetuating the form while making fun of it. Let’s pull on a few threads and see where they take us.
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“The Judy Garland Christmas Show”
This 1963 episode of Garland’s troubled weekly variety show on CBS is both sweet and bittersweet. Garland, already looking haggard, had less than six years left before an overdose killed her at 47. But she made it a family show, which gave the public a good look at her children, Joey and Lorna Luft and Liza Minnelli.
Sartorial high point: The setting is supposed to be Garland’s home, and Minnelli, still a teenager, turns up with her “beau” (as Garland calls him), Tracy Everitt, who is wearing a dark sweater (the show is in black and white) with two broad white bands that start at each shoulder and converge in a V at the waist. Every time he’s on, your eye is drawn straight to his crotch.
Number that would fit in a present-day reality show: Minnelli and Everitt do a song-and-dance of “Steam Heat,” a startlingly suggestive tune that “Dancing With the Stars” would welcome.
Moment that nightmares are made of: Six dancing Santas burst through the door not once but twice, a sort of holiday home invasion. In their second appearance, they force Garland into a kick line.
Where to watch: The show can be found on YouTube. It is also one of a number of classic Christmas specials that GetTV has been broadcasting since Thanksgiving and will package in a 30-hour marathon beginning Christmas Eve.
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‘The Mitzi Gaynor Christmas Show’
Gaynor, a triple threat as a singer, dancer and actress, played Nellie in the 1959 film version of “South Pacific,” and in 1967 she was given a Christmas episode of “The Kraft Music Hall.” It was a dance-heavy show whose only name guest star, Ed McMahon, was barely recognizable in a Santa suit, but Gaynor infuses it with an energy that contrasts noticeably with specials headlined by bigger stars who seem to sleepwalk through them.
Sartorial high point: In a lengthy opening medley, Gaynor is wearing Christmas-ball earrings that look as if they could knock her out should her dance steps get too enthusiastic.
Number that would fit in a present-day reality show: Didn’t know Ed McMahon could sing? Dressed as Santa, he delivers a touching “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Some judge on “The Voice” would have hit that turnaround button.
Moment that nightmares are made of: Gaynor, dressed as Raggedy Ann, and four Raggedy Andys do a garish medley that, inexplicably, is built around “I Dig Rock and Roll Music,” a Peter, Paul, and Mary hit that had nothing to do with Christmas.
Where to watch: It’s a rarity but is one of GetTV’s offerings, next showing on Dec. 23.
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‘The “Star Wars” Holiday Special’
This one’s a bit off topic — it was a plotted tale, not a variety show — but given that the new “Star Wars” movie is about to be released, attention must be paid. Certainly it was historic: It may have been the most bizarre television broadcast of 1978, and possibly the most boring. Can Chewbacca get home for the Wookiee holiday called Life Day? Can a two-hour special in which the central characters communicate only in grunts and moans be entertaining?
Sartorial high point: Princess Leia famously called Chewbacca a walking carpet, but think of the Wookiees instead as wearing the shaggiest seasonal sweaters in history.
Number that would fit in a present-day reality show: Chewbacca’s father, Itchy, puts on a virtual-reality helmet that generates fantasies, and he experiences Diahann Carroll as Mermeia, every syllable she speaks or sings dripping pure sex. It could be a segment from “Sex On,” the HBO series about sex and pornography in the digital age.
Moment that nightmares are made of: Chewbacca’s wife, Malla, is watching a cooking show about preparing a dish called bantha surprise. The TV chef is using bantha loin. “But of course if your family has a hearty appetite,” the chef says, “I would suggest then that old popular holiday favorite, the bantha rump.”
Where to watch: YouTube is the best bet.
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‘Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special’
By 1988, when this show was broadcast, a full-out parody was the way to go, and Pee-wee, aka Paul Reubens, went there gleefully, bringing along a dizzying lineup of guest stars.
Sartorial high point: Charo. In red. Lot of leg showing. ‘Nuff said.
Number that would fit in a present-day reality show: When the Del Rubio Triplets, three of-a-certain-age women strumming guitars and wearing Christmas-colored short-shorts, or possibly miniskirts, sing “Winter Wonderland,” you might flash forward to “America’s Got Talent.”
Moment that nightmares are made of: Pee-wee does a gag that involves spritzing women with perfume. At one point, he calls the scent “Eau de Pee-wee.”
Where to watch: Currently on Netflix.
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‘A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All!’
What is it with the Peter, Paul, and Mary shout-outs in these shows? Stephen Colbert opened this 2008 parodic masterpiece with an explanation. “Don’t get me wrong,” he said. “I love ‘White Christmas’ and ‘Silver Bells’ and ‘Puff the Magic Dragon.’” But, he went on, he wrote all-new Christmas carols for the show so he could get the royalties.
Sartorial high point: Willie Nelson dressed as a biblical wise man.
Number that would fit in a present-day reality show: John Legend is miffed when Colbert offers him eggnog without nutmeg. “Serving eggnog without nutmeg is like serving turkey without a duck and a chicken inside it,” he says. It’s a debate worthy of “MasterChef.”
Moment that nightmares are made of: Colbert, answering a knock on his cabin door, opens it to find Toby Keith, in a red plaid coat and cap, carrying an assault rifle.
Where to watch: Download or buy the omnipresent disc on Amazon.