If you read our article on Monday on the best Christmas specials, you know how this works: To make things interesting this year, we decided to do something different from the usual “Muppet Christmas Carol is great, Mr. Willowby sux, am I right?” claptrap on this website. A bunch of TP contributors got together, and we were each randomly assigned two Christmas specials to write about. For the first special we were assigned, we had to explain why it’s The Best Muppet Christmas Special. It didn’t matter how we actually feel about it — we had to explain why it’s the best. And now we’ve arrived at today’s article, in which we have to explain why the other special we were assigned is The Worst Muppet Christmas Special.
As you’ll see, some specials made for a more challenging assignment than others. Of course, we left out a few of the most obvious choices like Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree and the Lady Gaga special, because that would be way too easy. Now let’s get to it: What is The Worst Muppet Christmas Special, everyone?
Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas
So, what makes Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas the worst Muppet Christmas special of them all? Well I’m glad you asked! First and foremost, it lacks any beloved, familiar Muppet characters. Correction: there was one Muppet character in it (Kermit) and he’s been cut out of almost all versions of Emmet Otter you can find nowadays. The songs, while charming, don’t really have that festive, Christmasy sound to them. I don’t know about you, but when I’m invigorated with the holiday spirit, the songs “Bar-B-Que” and “Riverbottom Nightmare Band” don’t exactly spring to mind. It’s also incredibly slow paced without much action or excitement throughout. It’s a Christmas special that definitely wouldn’t have held my attention as a child. Now, a much more fascinating watch is the Emmet Otter blooper reel… which is incredibly true, I’m not even trying to downplay how much I actually love Emmet Otter, because Frank Oz screaming “HUBBA WAH?” never gets old.
The Great Santa Claus Switch
Quick! Name the only things you know about The Great Santa Claus Switch? I’m willing to bet you said the same things I did; It was the first appearance of the puppet that would become Gonzo, and it was the first production to use Richard Hunt and Fran Brill.
Okay, now name the villain of the special. No? What about the names of the elves? Nothing, eh? Exactly. I watched The Great Santa Claus Switch last night and I couldn’t even tell you. That’s because Switch is forgettable. The lead humans phone it in, Ed Sullivan didn’t even bother to learn his lines, and even the puppeteers don’t seem to have that same passion they would exude in later productions. So if you want to watch a holiday classic this year, don’t make it this one. There’s a reason it’s never been released.
Christmas Eve on Sesame Street
The problem with Christmas Eve on Sesame Street is that it teaches children to simply accept received truth without question. Big Bird spends the whole special trying to figure out how Santa Claus gets down the chimney, orchestrating a complex research program. He tries some practical experiments, trying to wedge Mr. Snuffleupagus into a barrel. He asks Kermit to conduct a survey of New York’s children, hoping to crowdsource an answer.
By the end, Big Bird decides to spend the night on the roof so that he can observe the phenomenon first hand, risking his life in the name of scientific inquiry. Then Gordon drags him inside, and tells him that it doesn’t matter. It’s a miracle, apparently, and that’s supposed to be enough. Isn’t Gordon supposed to be a science teacher? For shame.
The Muppet Christmas Carol is the worst Christmas movie ever! It takes one of the most memorable stories of the season, written by one of the most prolific authors of the 19th century, and transforms it into a humorous mishmash where the message is lost amongst zany show tunes and Antron fleece. The Muppets can never be taken seriously, so why would any work they adapt follow suit? First off, this is a serious drama about becoming a better person and treating your fellow humans with charity and dignity, but the Muppets, as Sam the Eagle notes, lack dignity and repute. How could anyone respect Gonzo depicting Charles Dickens narrating the plot along with the Greek chorus that is Rizzo the Rat? Insert bad comedic timing, especially with his food obsession. It was funny once, but come on, after the fifth hunger joke we lose our laughter.
Also, having the famous Muppet crew take on the other roles of Bob Cratchit, Jacob Marley, and so on is a laughable offense. The Muppets can only play one character: themselves. Their true personalities always shine through, so you always see Miss Piggy, not Mrs. Cratchit, and Fozzie Bear, not Fezziwig. If they were going to go full blown Muppets, they should have left out Michael Caine. It’s understandable they had a human play Scrooge, but if they were using Muppets they should have gone all the way. Couldn’t you have seen Uncle Deadly, Sam the Eagle, or even Statler and Waldorf taking on the role? What probably happened is that the producers sent the script out to every well-known British actor available and took Michael Caine because he was the cheapest.
The absolute worst part about the movie are the songs! For over fifteen years, the chorus of “Marley and Marley” has been stuck in my head. It’s not fun having to listen to that ear worm in the middle of July, when you’re trying to relax. The opening number about how evil Mr. Scrooge is lacks all creativity. It just takes a common theme and uses less than perfect rhymes and Jerry Juhl humor to convey the meaning. The worst song is the “delightful” tune “The Love is Gone.” For a full five minutes in the middle of the movie, all Muppets are removed from the screen and we get a tone-deaf song sung by a British actress playing Belle about how Scrooge doesn’t love her any more. It goes on and on and on. It’s been removed from most TV airings of the movie, because it saves five minutes of expensive airtime. It hangs in the air thicker than the London smog.
The Muppet Christmas Carol only pays enough tribute to Dickens’s work for him to rise out of his grave as a zombie and snack on the creative team’s brains. He would then move onto using the Muppet characters for napkins to clean his chin before going back to his grave and rolling over.
Everyone knows that the worst Muppet Christmas special is “The Bells of Fraggle Rock.” In this episode of the otherwise much-beloved series, our hero Gobo Fraggle destroys the peaceful establishment of Fraggle Rock with his dangerous atheist beliefs and almost kills all of his friends in the process. I shouldn’t have to say that holiday specials should not make their audience feel existential dread at any moment, but I guess no one told that to the Fraggle Rock writers. Likewise, you’d think professional writers would know that having a group of whimsical characters freeze to death is generally bad form for a Christmas special, but hey, I guess they skipped that day in Screenwriting 101. Unless you like to shout “Weeba Weeba!” repeatedly, this isn’t much of a special. Well, except for the parts where Sprocket tries to hit a piñata. Even I can’t bring myself to insult those scenes.
Oscar the Grouch is my Christmas Spirit Animal. Why? Because I, like him, have been subjected to A Special Sesame Street Christmas. Like Oscar, I have been forced to endure Leslie Uggams’s incessant chirruping, and, like Oscar, I have had to listen to Ethel Merman bulldoze her way through an already cloying showtune, and, like Oscar, I have cringed with the indignity of Henry Fonda’s pointless walk-on musings about his bathrobe. Between the six guest stars on this special, they have won a combined three Emmys, three Tonys, seventeen Grammys (mostly thanks to the blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Michael Jackson), and an Oscar, but frankly they should all be revoked for their participation in this lump of holiday coal. So, I cheer you on, Oscar! Ruin their holiday mirth! You are our only hope in the face of 70’s yuletide mediocrity!
Much like last year’s special with Lady Gaga, this isn’t really a Muppet production. It’s an ad for a completely different singer that includes Muppets in an attempt to fool the audience into thinking it might be interesting. In this case, that singer is John Denver, best friend of insomniacs everywhere, so not much of interest happens.
If you read our discussion of the Lady Gaga special, you already know that I really hated it. So what makes this one even worse? It’s from 1979, so it really should be better. This is the same year as The Muppet Movie, smack in the middle of the Muppets’ Golden Age. A Muppet Christmas special from 1979 should be the greatest thing ever made. Instead we get a showcase for John Denver to dress up like a toy soldier and grin at the camera.
The Muppets get a few fun songs, but a lot of the best stuff from the accompanying album is nowhere to be found. Honestly, this special would be better if they’d cut the Muppets out completely and just called it John Denver: A Christmas. Because then I wouldn’t even know it existed, and I wouldn’t feel the need to watch it out of obligation every year.
Here’s a little back-story: when this special first aired in 2007, I made sure to set my TiVo to record it, but since the holiday season is overloaded with movies and specials, it eventually slipped from my mind, and later slipped from my TiVo. Seven years later, I realize that I wasn’t missing much. For those who don’t know the story, I’ll try to sum it up quickly: Stiller the Elf (voiced by Ben Stiller) gets to pick one person each year to do the Christmas Countdown (basically a glorified advent calendar) which counts down to Santa’s first delivery of the year, and his marketing research has led him to one person: Oscar the Grouch! To everyone’s shock, Oscar would rather roast on an open fire than have to count down to Christmas, so he breaks the official Christmas Counter-Downer (clever name, huh?), sending the numbered boxes hurtling towards the sky, and jeopardizing Christmas.
But Elmo and Abby Cadabby are there to help make things right. Elmo makes a Christmas wish on a Christmas star for a Christmas miracle (this is verbatim from the special), and lo and behold, the boxes start being returned one by one from various Sesame Street characters. When a box is put back in the countdown, we get to see a news report from Charles Blitzen (voiced by Charles Gibson), or a clip featuring a celebrity and Sesame Street characters that has absolutely no relevance to the plot. Naturally, all the boxes are found and Santa (played by Kevin James) makes his arrival. Pretty straightforward stuff.
I get that Sesame Street wanted to play homage to the Rankin-Bass specials of “the Christmas that almost didn’t happen,” but there are a few things that get on my nerves. First of all, Stiller narrates the special from the North Pole, but the main action takes place on this children’s book version of Sesame Street. Why not just use the usual set? Isn’t a New York City street interesting enough? Second, where are the human characters? This special (at least the parts with an overarching plot) is almost entirely populated with Muppets. Would having Bob or Maria around ruin the “magical” story of elves with poorly conceived marketing research? Third is the character of Stiller himself. There’s no reason for him to be a puppet. Having a non-Muppet performer dub the dialogue effectively robs any character from the puppet. If they already had Ben Stiller, they should have just had him play the elf.
But perhaps the most disturbing thing about this special is that for most of it, Stiller repeatedly says that he doesn’t believe in miracles. It’s nothing terribly out of the ordinary, but this is coming from one of Santa’s elves. I’d say delivering toys to children around the world in one night is pretty darn miraculous. Does he really think the big guy would ignore his annual duties just because a Christmas Counter-Downer broke? Does Stiller… dare I say it… not believe in Santa Claus? But I don’t mean that he thinks Santa doesn’t exist. Of course he exists! He’s big, he’s got the white beard and the red suit, and sometimes he sounds a little like Doc Hopper. But I think Stiller doesn’t have faith in Santa. It’s only after repeated prodding from Elmo and Abby that he begins to show some faith. To think that Santa is unreliable breaks my heart. And that’s where Elmo’s Christmas Countdown disappoints me. There was some great potential in the message of belief when all seems hopeless, but in the end, it’s buried under some strange nonsense.
Well well well, if it isn’t It’s A Very Merry Never Scary Holly Jolly Roly Poly Merry F@#%ing Muppet Christmas. We meet again. You, with your cage-dancing rave monkey Scooter and your way-too-long chase scene with a crappy, unfunny Crocodile Hunter wannabe and your references to Moulin Rouge and Ricky Martin that were already stale and outdated by 2002. And me, with my glass of eggnog and my bottle of rum and my remote control and my fast forward button and my zero patience to sit through you one more time. I hope you choke on your Christmas goose. Or your pacifier and glow sticks, I’m not picky.
Apparently, Jim Henson and the gang thought all they had to do to make a Christmas special was throw a bunch of recognizable characters on the screen together, and the audience would eat it up like so much figgy pudding. This despite the fact that there’s barely any plot or story to speak of, and what there is stretches plausibility. Fozzie never called his mom before surprising her to at least find out if she would be home? And when the “Sesame Street gang” shows up, nobody seems to be expecting them, yet it’s immediately assumed that they’re staying at the farmhouse? It makes no sense!
With so many characters running around, none of them get much time in the spotlight or anything resembling character development. Instead, they’re all reduced to a few jokes and a line in a song at most, and then they just blend in with the rest of the mob. The worst treatment is saved for the beloved Fraggles, who are all crammed into one little scene. Meanwhile, the Christmas turkey and the snowman — characters we’ve never seen before and have no affection for! — get plenty of screen time. And yet there’s no time for guest stars either, even though that’s an essential part of the Muppet tradition. Sure, it’s fine having Doc around, but did they even try to get any of 1987’s popular celebrities like Patrick Swayze, Bea Arthur, or the Pet Shop Boys?
Not to mention the group “carol sing” that closes out the special. How long does that go on — ten minutes? Fifteen? Twenty? And it’s nothing but a massive number of inter-franchise Muppet characters singing one holiday classic after another for what feels like forever. Muppet Family Christmas? More like Muppet Family Christ-mess!
Letters to Santa commits the cardinal Muppet sin: It’s boring. I had to re-watch it (in two installments, since the first half hour put me to sleep) to remind myself what even happened, and I know I’ve seen this thing at least twice (once when it aired and once when the DVD came out). All I recalled was Nathan Lane acting like Nathan Lane and Gonzo acting like a borderline-creepy sad guy. I even got the Sad Gonzo song in this movie mixed up with the Sad Gonzo song in It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie.
The whole thing feels forced and fake, and it isn’t even consistent with itself. Jane Krakowski’s character seems to know her weird Muppet neighbors really well at the beginning of the special, and then acts like she’s having a trippy home invasion near the “heartwarming” finale. Gonzo appears to be the only Muppet friend of the over-acting and saccharine Claire, but the entire crew is overjoyed to spend Christmas with her, like that’s where they always belonged (does anyone else do this with their neighbors’ children?). There’s no consistent lesson or message, and the epic, magical journey at the center of the special is nothing but a plane wing and some fake snow that barely moves the meager storyline forward. Every single character is under or wrongly utilized, and it really might as well star some dumb elves or talking dogs for how “Muppety” it feels. You know your Muppet Christmas special is in trouble when Nathan Lane is the best thing in it.
Merry Christmas, kids! All of your toys are alive, and you’re responsible for their untimely and unfair deaths! It’s bad enough that there’s some sort of terrifying “Elf on the Shelf” horror going on where you’re being watched as you sleep by your stuffed animals and Palisades action figures, but how often do you think you’ve entered your bedroom without making a lot of noise and caught your toys slightly out of place, thus inadvertently causing them to enter a permanent coma?
The Christmas Toy is not a special about the joy of Christmas or the bond between friends. It’s about a race of mysterious beings who hide in plain sight and are in constant fear of a death they have no actual control over. And it’s all your fault!
Keep an eye on the website for more Christmas fun coming up! And click here to bulldoze your way through a cloying showtune on the Tough Pigs forum!