-Mike “McBeardo” McPadden
Holiday specials date back to the earliest days of network television, when Jackie Gleason donned Santa garb on The Honeymooners and Desi Arnaz pumped up traditional carols with Cuban conga beats on I Love Lucy. Each decade since then has generated examples of “very special” episodes and one-off variety hours that, in hindsight, perfectly, and often hilariously, embody their era.
Think of A Charlie Brown Christmas and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in the '60s; The Star Wars Holiday Special and The Donny and Marie Christmas Show in the ’70s; and Christmas Comes to Pac-Land and ’Tis the Season to Be Smurfy in the ’80s. The '90s, of course, kept the tradition going with its own unmistakable (multiply pierced) earmarks. The decade of alterna-culture, outrageous cartoon debuts that weren’t just for kids, and the early Internet also begat its share of unmistakably of-its-moment December broadcast fare.
Here are the "most ’90s" Christmas — and one Hannukah — TV specials of the decade.
Beavis and Butt-head Do Christmas (1995)
The '90s definitive brain-damaged cartoon duo substitute their trademark huh-huh-huhs for traditional ho-ho-hos and the result is high, hard hilarity. B&B bumble their way through a couple of uproarious Yuletide adventures between commenting on holiday song music videos such as “Jingle Bell Rock” by Hall and Oates (“Look! It’s Geraldo!”) and “White Christmas” by Tony Bennett (“Is he wearing a mask?”).
The boys also shield their eyes in horror over Bing Crosby and David Bowie’s “Little Drummer Boy” duet and bang their heads to “The Nutcracker Suite.” It all prompts Butt-head to ask, “How come Christmas music always sucks?,” to which Beavis pithily responds, “Because it’s not very good!”
Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo (1997)
South Park certainly came out swinging during its taboo-shattering debut season, and with its holiday episode, “Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo,” it became clear that there was more to the show than just crude animation and even (way) cruder humor. When Kyle, the Jewish member of the South Park gang, feels left out from Christmas, a singing and dancing turd introduces himself as Mr. Hankey and provides holiday comfort. What ensues is a brilliant send-up of every best-loved holiday cartoon, along with the first revelation with where South Park would go musically by way of the instant classic anthems “A Lonely Jew on Christmas” and “Kyle’s Mom Is a Big Fat Bitch.”
Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone also torch holiday season political correctness, as the town of South Park scrubs its public Christmas celebrations of any symbols that might be interpreted as being actually related to Christmas. Appropriately, the episode ends with a dejected Jesus singing “Happy Birthday” to himself in an empty broadcast studio.
Olive, the Other Reindeer (1999)
Drew Barrymore stars as Olive, a Jack Russell terrier who takes off for the North Pole upon hearing that Santa’s reindeer Blitzen won’t be able to make their annual Christmas Eve run. Packed with puns and looking like construction paper cutouts come to life, Olive charmingly embodies ’90s irony and self-awareness while delivering no dearth of straightforward holiday fun for kids. Adapted from a popular kids’ book and produced by Simpsons creator Matt Groening, it also boasts a cool voice cast that includes Joe Pantoliano as a conman penguin, REM’s Michael Stipe as the toughest reindeer in Santa’s stable, and Dan Castalanetta, aka Homer Simpson himself, as a cranky mailman.
The Adventures of Pete and Pete: O Christmas Pete (1995)
No show more perfectly captures ’90s childhood than Nickelodeon’s left-field hit, The Adventures of Pete and Pete, and “O Christmas Pete” is one of the touchstone’s most enduring and evocative episodes. Reveling in the holiday cheer that overtook his hometown of Wellesville leading up to Christmas, Little Pete (Danny Tamberelli) attempts to prolong the season afterward by asking local adults to just let every day remain as it as on December 25. Gumming up the festive works is Little Pete’s perpetual enemy Pit Stain (Eric Kushnick), as well as The Garbageman (Joseph McKenna), a holiday-hating grump whose only joy comes from collecting and destroying dead Christmas trees. The latter gets introduced “The Garbageman’s Ballad,” and a Western-style origin anthem perfectly performed by New York Dolls frontman David Johansen.
A Rugrats Chanukah (1996)
After the success of the previous year’s A Rugrats Passover, the Nickelodeon cartoon Rugrats kept kosher with a wintertime follow-up. Jewish toddler Chucky and his rugrat pals learn about Chanukah from his Grandma Minka, while lovably cantankerous Grandpa Boris battles rival Schlomo for the lead role in their synagogue’s holiday festival. A Rugrats Chanukah was all menorah-lighting fun and dreidel-spinning games until the Anti-Defamation claimed that, despite the special being produced by and starring proudly Jewish creative talents, Grandma Minka and Grandpa Boris resembled anti-Semitic drawings from Nazi propaganda. Way to poop the chocolate-covered matzo party, dudes.
The Online Adventures of Ozzie the Elf (1997)
Christmas 1997 marked the moment when pioneering ISP America Online reached critical mass and the public connected en masse via the World Wide Web — that is, when their modems weren’t constantly just coming up with busy signals.
Tapping into the mania, AOL itself produced the half-hour Claymation special The Online Adventures of Ozzie the Elf. The title character is Santa’s most tech-savvy apprentice, and he attempts to convince St. Nick to upgrade the North Pole workshop by creating web pages and setting up chat rooms. ABC aired Ozzie the Elf once, and the show quickly disappeared, as it immediately dated as well previous specials that might have been titled Bobby the Betamax Reindeer, It Came Upon an Atari Cartridge Clear, or Frosty and the Magic Fax Machine.
Opus and Bill in A Wish for Wings That Work (1991)
The satirical comic strip Bloom County was a staple of the '80s but, along with its funny-paper contemporary The Far Side, basing an animated special in its weird world could only have happened in the newly daring '90s (The Far Side got its own Halloween cartoon in ’94).
As Christmas looms, Bloom County’s philosophical penguin Opus dreams of being able to fly. After Santa Claus crash lands into a lake, Opus uses his unique abilities to save the jolly old elf and, by the end, he gets rewarded in a surprising and moving way that makes his dream come true… sort of.
Bill the drug-fried cat, meanwhile, provides brain-damaged slapstick.
A Pinky and the Brain Christmas (1995)
The cartoon world’s most celebrated dummy-and-smarty mouse duo plot to take over the world — as usual — but this time they (or one of them, at least) view Christmas as the perfect opportunity.
The Trojan horse that will enable the Brain to master humanity is, in fact, a Trojan version of himself in the form of a mind-control lookalike doll called the Noodle Noggin that the pair aim to sneak into every home on earth via Santa Claus delivery. The scheme leads the mice to dressing up as both elves and reindeer and, of course, spectacularly failing.
The Magic School Bus: The Family Holiday Special (1996)
Lest The Magic School Bus ever let anyone forget it’s a good-for-you series from Scholastic Entertainment, the show’s “Family Holiday Special” is a half-hour lesson in recycling your Christmas trash.
Still, The Magic School Bus was also always cool enough to have a theme song by Little Richard, so this edition is not only fun and informative, it also boasts guest star Dolly Parton as Murph, the down-home owner of a local recycling center.
An All Dogs Christmas Carol (1998)
All Dogs Go to Heaven was a hit animated Christmas movie from 1989 that later generated a TV cartoon and, finally, the NBC special An All Dogs Christmas Carol which wrapped up the franchise like a chew toy with a ribbon on it.
Pitbull tough guy Carface, voiced by Ernest Borgnine, gets the Scrooge treatment as the Charlie the German Shepherd and the gang act out the familiar Dickens scenario, making a lot of canine quips in the process.
[Photo Credit: MTV]