Reading too deeply into these things since 1981
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Around this time last year, my girlfriend introduced me to the music of Carman. I’ve been…fascinated ever since. And, to be frank, I’m shocked that he hasn’t been pounced upon by the relentless mockery of the wider internet.

Let me be clear at the start: I’m not, by any means, suggesting that Carman Licciardello — who performs under the mononym Carman, the spelling of which makes him sound like a Mega Man villain — should be mocked. I’m certainly not calling upon people to gang up on him or anything along those lines. Period. But I am sort of surprised it hasn’t happened naturally.

Carman is a Christian musician. Not a musician who is Christian, but rather a Christian who preaches primarily through music. I’d be tempted to call him a Christian rocker or something, but the guy raps, funks, boogies, honky-tonks, and discos across so many genres that I feel I’d be doing the sheer variety of his output a disservice by calling it anything specific at all.

He’s also terrible.

Like…just…just bad.

No. I take that back. He’s not just bad. We’ve all heard bad musicians before. But Carman takes it further, because he doesn’t just record music; he records short films to go along with his music.

Here’s one in which he moseys into a wild west saloon and guns down Satan.

So…that happened. And this isn’t just some weird oddity of a music video from a strange point in his career. This is who Carman is. This is how he operates. Spiritual or not, you have to admit, this is terrible stuff. And yet…it’s kind of incredible.

I’m genuinely intrigued by Carman, and shocked that I’d never heard of him before. He’s exactly the blend of sincerity and absurdity that you’d think would have landed him on my radar at some point. Christ, this is exactly the sort of thing I look for every year when I curate material for the Xmas Bash!!!!!.

In fact, speaking of the Xmas Bash!!!!!, I was very tempted to include one of his specific videos this last time around. In the end I decided not to. Yeah, anything Jesus-y would fit, but if it’s not about the birth of Christ or Christmas in general, I tend to feel like it’s too much of a reach. So there was no Carman last year.

Fear not: for, behold, I bring you the video I would have shown, in which Carman parades around in lockstep and whacks on an incredibly sexy Satan with a big candy cane.

These are real. These are not supposed to be funny. And yet, when I watch them, I have to wonder if I’ve ever seen anything funnier in my life. In fact, they’re so funny that I try not to laugh, for fear of missing something even more incredible.

He’s creating these works of astounding comic genius without even realizing it. He’s the Jan Terri of Christian fundamentalism.

And while it’s tempting to assume he’s in on the joke, or at least being a bit tongue in cheek, he’s not. He’s deadly serious. He truly believes he’s saving souls, and that’s important to him. His website and any bit of promotional material I’ve seen ascribes specific figures to the number of souls he’s saved. (No clue how you’d tabulate that, personally…) The marketing materials all speak of his intensity. His passion. The great work he’s doing for God.

Not one of them ever mentions the guy’s sense of humor. Here’s why, I’m sure: he doesn’t have one.

This is just who Carman is.

Even when he accidentally channels the scene in which Homer brings Bart to a gay steel mill:

This is real life. I need you to remember that. This is real life. (Though I’ll give him credit for the groove in that one; it’s by far his best, and it deserves a much better song sitting on top of it.)

Carman’s first album was released in 1980. Since then, he’s released twenty-two more. The guy can’t stop.

And we watch.

And we shake our heads.

And we laugh.

But that’s not the extent of my fascination. Sure, some guy writes awful songs and films vanity music videos, and that’s a hoot.

That isn’t all, though. Because my girlfriend was there. And remembers this music from when it was released.

She wasn’t laughing. She was terrified.

She even got dragged to a live Carman concert. (And if you’ve ever wondered if there could be a Hell, please refer to the fact that I was able to string together the words “live Carman concert.”) It was horrifying. The imagery wasn’t silly or campy to a girl that age; it was frightening.

Looking back on it, she sees that it’s all a bit ropey. But at the time, it was scary stuff. She was young and impressionable. Carman had her ear. And he didn’t use it to speak of Christ’s love or God’s plan or eternal redemption.

No. He used it to speak of Satanists, evil, demons, witchcraft, torture, torment. As he does here, in what I can assure you is the least infectious song ever written:

Is that scary? Probably not. But to a child or young adult who has been primed to fear for the safety of his or her soul, Carman’s defiant adventure in the Satanist’s dayroom feels like it has real stakes. Listeners are made to feel like they’ll need to fight every day of their lives. It suggests that conversations with people who think or believe differently than you should be confrontations.

Carman knew, and knows, that. He embraces that. You and I can watch these and laugh, but he’s not making them for us. We’re lost, as far as he’s concerned, and good riddance to us. He makes these songs, these videos, these harrowing concert experiences for those who are already scared. He taps into those insecurities, and tells his listeners that they’re right to feel insecure. Carman ministers terror. He’s inept enough that you and I think he’s a harmless clown. But to those who don’t know better, he’s a source of spiritual anguish and actual nightmares.

That’s interesting to me. Carman is far from the only person to preach a gospel of fear, but he is the only one whose methods resemble a fantasy episode of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. See, for instance, this video, the CGI in which makes Rapsittie Street Kids look like Finding Nemo:

Legitimate kudos for the literal reading of “God is my co-pilot,” though.

Part of me wonders how spiritual Carman actually feels. Certainly Christianity is important to him, at the very least because it gave him a career and a platform for his awful, awful talents.

But then you learn that he sold his house to self-finance a film that he wrote, in which he plays a retired boxer who ministers to children.

I’m not kidding:

That’s all lovely. Then you actually watch the film, and see that there’s almost no ministry or even spirituality in it at all; it’s just Carman showing off his muscles, seducing a much younger Latina, and at one point blowing up a truck full of would-be assassins. It’s Carman the action hero, when he promised his audience Carman the man of God.

Of course, that’s just ancillary material. My girlfriend and I did watch that film — it’s called The Champion, if you hate yourself — and had a good laugh at just how accidentally immoral (and often non-sensical) it turned out to be. But Carman isn’t a filmmaker; he’s a musician. If you’re going to understand the contents of his heart, his music is what you’ll need to focus on.

And, even there, something about Carman just rings false. No, I don’t enjoy his tunes, but at the same time they don’t feel…genuine.

I think I’ve figured out why. There’s something missing: there’s no humility.

When you think of godly people or godly characters or even the godly humans you encounter in the Bible, you see humility. You see other things, of course, but humility is a pretty big aspect. It’s a bit of a running theme. Hell, it’s an example.

But Carman isn’t humble. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed this in the songs embedded above, but God and Jesus get some basic lip-service now and then. It’s Satan who really interests him. It’s Satan who keeps making cameos. It’s Satan who seems to inspire Carman more than God does. God gets a “yeah, thanks” every so often; Satan gets six verses and a chorus.

In fact, there’s a lot of Christian virtue that just isn’t…there. Like, all of it. Yes, we’ve seen that you’re willing to bitchslap Satan six ways from Sunday, Carman, but where are you helping the needy? Being there for someone in need? Standing up for the oppressed? Loving the neighbor who wronged you? Donating your time and money and energy to fight for the rights of your fellow man?

Why isn’t that stuff in these Christian songs? Why wouldn’t that stuff be in Christian songs?

I find this all to be both amusing and unnerving. Carman’s method of spreading the word of God is done in a way that honestly seems better suited to delivering the message of Satan. It’s prideful, defiant, unwilling to listen or engage, self-concerned, brutal. It’s all swagger and bravado and bluster. It’s full of spite and anger. It’s self-righteous. It’s mean.

I don’t know. I’ve never met the guy. I have nothing against him, and I find his output deeply funny. I hope you do, too.

But I also think of him a pretty amazing character. One I’d be proud of having written. Mainly because I think he’d make for a perfect protagonist in a cautionary tale.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

Merry Christmas, everyone!!!

Okay, okay, it’s a week late. I would have loved for this to run on Christmas week, but there wasn’t much I could do apart from either a) review the show out of order or b) review two episodes in a week so that this could run sooner.

In regards to A, I didn’t feel that would really be fair. I know continuity isn’t one of ALF‘s strongest points, but if I decided to jump all around and resequence the episodes, I couldn’t be sure that I wasn’t missing information that would have helped me to understand something better. ALF is a lousy show, but I want to make sure I’m appraising its actual lousiness, and not confusing myself into finding new issues that aren’t really there.

In regards to B no fucking way am I reviewing two episodes in a week.

What I decided to do, for those that missed it, is host a live stream of this episode the week of Christmas. I’m writing this review in advance of that, because I don’t want to accidentally include anything you guys might have said, or have my opinions colored by the immense outpouring of love and affection that I expect happened when we all watched this together. So, yeah. That was the best I could really do. If you don’t like it, go start your own ALF review project. And if you do, let me know, so I can stop mine.

Anyway it’s Christmas Eve in the Tanner house! Willie and Kate are laying in bed reading old Christmas cards, which shows just how desperate they are for any excuse to avoid having sex with each other. ALF comes in wearing his stocking on his head and waving a noise-maker around, announcing that he hid all the eggs.

Yes, it’s stupid. But, you know what? I’m always going on about how ALF should be getting Earth things wrong, and that’s what’s happening here. So, God help me, I actually like this. Granted, he should be misunderstanding much more than this…but while you could conceivably base an episode around ALF misunderstanding the concept of a museum, or how the bus lines work or something, Christmas is truly a goldmine.

It’s a more or less global event, after all. No matter where you are, within any culture that chooses to celebrate it, you’ll find it tangled up with all sorts of traditions and and connotations and iconography that make perfect sense to you, because you’ve lived with it all your life. To an interplanetary interloper, however, it would be absolutely baffling. And it would lead to literally countless ways for the creature to misunderstand what’s happening around him.

Birthdays, for instance, might seem a bit silly to an alien, but you could at least explain them pretty easily. “So-and-so was born on this day, however many years ago. Every time another year passes, we celebrate and give him presents.” That might sound silly to the alien, but there wouldn’t be too much room for confusion.

Think of everything attached to Christmas, though. The birth of Christ. Who wasn’t actually born anywhere near Christmas. The co-opting of a Pagan holiday so that Christians could avoid detection. Christmas lists. Carols. TV specials. A tree that you bring inside and decorate. Stockings hanging over a fireplace. Presents sneakily dropped off in the middle of the night. Eggnog. Santa Claus. The North Pole. Flying reindeer, elfin toymakers, milk and cookies…

The list goes on. And I’m just describing the stuff that would come to mind for me. An Englishman would probably add Christmas crackers to that list. A German would shout a lot. You get the picture.

So, yeah. This is the right thing to do. Especially since the fact that during the course of the conversation ALF confuses it with Easter, New Year’s and Halloween proves that he’s trying. He’s not being a dick, for once. He’s just lost. We Earthlings have an awful lot of holidays and they each come with their attendant traditions and mores and preparations. He’s mixing them up not because he wants to ruin things, but because there’s too much for an outsider to keep straight.

This is good. This is the right way to do it. Even ALF’s inevitable fit of destruction is well-intentioned:
ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

He chopped up the Christmas tree for firewood. For once, though, I’m on ALF’s side. Did Willie and Kate really wait until Christmas Eve to explain to him what the tree was for? It obviously wasn’t decorated yet, so unless somebody told him differently — and we see here that they did not — how would he know that this particular tree at this particular time of year is just supposed to sit inside covered in tinsel and baubles? He doesn’t know this shit. ALF is right and Willie and Kate are in the wrong here. If that’s not a Christmas miracle I don’t know what is.

It’s also justified by a funny exchange. (This early in the episode? Is this actually going to be a good one?)* ALF tells Willie that he has a surprise, and then Kate shouts from the next room for Willie to come quick, because ALF did something horrible to the tree. Willie asks ALF what he did, and ALF says, “I don’t want to spoil the surprise.”

See? This isn’t ground-breaking stuff, but it’s fully competent comedy. It’s really not that hard!

And look at that lighting through the window! They actually went through the trouble of making it look like that sort of dull, hazy, early-morning sunshine, and it’s even shining from a lower angle onto the set than it is normally. That’s some impressive detail for this show right there.

We’re off to a good start. Heck, by ALF standards it’s a great start. There’s enough potential absurdity in the idea of an alien celebrating his first Christmas that there really should be no problem filling out 21 minutes. Right?

…right?

…fuck you. You know that’s not right.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

The credits are just the normal sequence…no superimposed snowflakes or sleigh-bells or anything. Once they end we see everyone dressed up for Christmas, I guess. I don’t know what ALF is wearing. It looks like red suspenders, but then later he gets up and I can’t tell if it’s really a ribbon draped over his shoulders for some reason, or if the suspenders they made for the puppet are just horribly tailored.

Also Lynn is wearing what I assume is a Christmas sweater, but it’s hard to tell because it always looks like she dressed herself right after hitting her head in a car accident. I’m not even sure if it’s supposed to be an ugly sweater. I mean, it is, but it’s no worse than anything else she wears any other day of the year so who knows.

Damn, I’m catty. I’m like Joan Rivers, but with all of my original skin.

Lynn is sitting on the couch, disentangling Christmas lights. That’s absolutely something that folks do around the holidays, and it’s a nice touch. I’m actually pretty impressed that they would bother to give her something appropriate to do rather than sit her motionless on the couch, waiting in awkward silence until it’s her turn to talk.

At the table, though, ALF and Brian seem to be sorting branches into piles. I assume they’re the branches from the tree ALF chopped up, but what are they doing? Organizing them by size for later storage? Why not throw them out? I honestly have no idea what they’re meant to be doing there.

Willie is out getting a new tree, and ALF says that he hopes he makes it home before it starts snowing. Kate explains that it doesn’t snow in their part of the state, but ALF explains that it has to snow, because it’s Christmas; that’s what he learned from all the Christmas stuff he’s been seeing on TV.

Again, this is good. I like that ALF has no actual experience of Christmas, and so needs to piece things together from what he’s told and what he sees. Again, this is evidence that he’s trying, which is a lot funnier than having him be a dick all the time. Good intentions with unfortunate outcomes fuel great comedy. Rampaging dickitude is just tiring.

It might seem a little silly that ALF would believe weather patterns were dictated by a holiday, but compared to everything else we are expected to believe around Christmas — whether it’s that the Son of God showed up and saved us all from Hell or that an old man in a flying sleigh is watching our every move — isn’t “snow is guaranteed to fall” a relatively small absurdity? It works. It’s not a stretch. It’s organic.

ALF outlines all of the things that he learned from Christmas specials, and he concludes by folding in some imagery from that old commercial where Santa Claus rides a Norelco razor through the snow. Guys, this is getting dangerously close to funny. Was the writing staff visited by three spirits in the night or something?

While they decorate Lynn and Kate find some of the eggs that ALF hid, making for one of those very rare moments in this show where something that happens has anything to do with something else that happened.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

Willie comes home with a fake tree in a box, and the episode is still being good. I honestly don’t know what happened, but Willie gets a nice little speech here with actual character work as its punchline. He explains that he drove all over town to find another tree, but everybody was sold out. At one lot he found a tree, but it was being auctioned off to the highest bidder. Willie says he left when the bidding reached $100, because he has his pride.

That’s funny. Not almost funny, but actually funny and it got an actual laugh out of me. He then says that the tree came with a can of simulated snow, and ALF says he should have gotten a second can so that they could build a simulated snowman.

IT IS REALLY NOT THAT HARD TO WRITE COMEDY THIS IS NOT BAD

Anyway, ALF is disappointed that this is the replacement, because he wants a real tree. This might be the first sign of real weakness in the episode — why exactly does he care when he doesn’t have any experience with either type of tree yet? — but it’s certainly not the last.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

The family hears some carolers outside and they go to the window to watch them. I shouldn’t have been so quick to compliment the lighting crew earlier, because now for some reason it looks like they’re staring into the fiery ball of ultimate carnage that’s six seconds away from colliding with the Earth.

Kate, Lynn and Brian decide to go with the carolers, because they can see the writing on the wall and don’t want to be around when this episode inevitably falls apart.

There is one more good joke after they leave, though, when ALF says that on Melmac you would never let children go caroling. Willie asks him why, but ALF says he can’t explain, because “you’d have to know Carol.” Yeah, that’s Fozzie Bear level stuff, but there’s a reason we like Fozzie Bear. It’s not the quality of his material…it’s the charm behind it. For the first time since the Jodie episode, ALF has some charm behind it.

I know you guys don’t like it when I enjoy things, but I’ve got give credit where it’s due. Don’t worry; I start cursing later, so you can skip down to that if you want to.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

We jump ahead a little bit in time, and we can’t see the tree until Willie steps aside to reveal it. I don’t know if this bit of blocking was done on purpose, since there’s no laughter that wells up on the soundtrack, but it is pretty funny. It’s an effectively shitty prop, and a nice example of the show’s low budget actually working in its favor and strengthening the reality.

Willie hates the tree, and he and ALF decide to go chop down a real one from the same place he and Kate used to chop down trees years ago. It’s certainly a contrived premise, but it’s at least playing out in a reasonable, rational way: it’s a holiday, something went wrong, Willie wants to fix it before the family gets back.

Again, not groundbreaking, but it’s better than, say, having it be Willie’s birthday, and so he finds out his wife slept with Joe Namath, then he decides to jump out of a plane.

Seriously dudes, that one sucked.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

Willie and ALF sit in a fake car and pretend to drive while some stock footage of a forest plays behind them. They explain for our benefit that they can’t find the place Willie used to go to cut down trees, which I definitely buy if it’s been a long time and it’s dark out, but it is a little bit silly that he doesn’t just pull over and chop down one of the tens of millions of trees we’re watching him drive by right now.

ALF is navigating. He tells Willie to make a turn onto a road that’s not actually there, and they end up in a ditch. You know, there was a scene in the American version of The Office where Michael drove into a lake because his GPS told him to turn there.

I never had a problem with that because I thought it was a nice — though admittedly absurd — joke about the way we rely on instructions rather than trusting our common sense, but apparently a lot of people felt that that was “too stupid” for the show and were turned off by it. Maybe I just didn’t think that way because the show was already pretty fuckin’ stupid, but what do I know.

Either way, I bring that up because while it might be pretty dumb to drive into a lake because you’re used to trusting your GPS, what happens here is infinitely more moronic. Willie doesn’t see a road, but he takes ALF’s word for it that it exists…despite the fact that he can see there is not a road there and he is driving into a ditch. What’s more, ALF is an alien. He doesn’t know this area. How could he? How could he even know how to read a map properly?

Obeying a GPS makes some kind of sense because you’re deferring to what you assume is an authority on the subject. Here Willie is actively disregarding what he actually sees happening in order to defer to somebody who unquestionably knows nothing about what’s going on.

In a word, it’s bullshit.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

Anyway the family comes home from a night of caroling, and they find the tree unfinished. They read a note that Willie left, and start to worry because he left it a while ago and he’s still not home.

Then they hear somebody else singing outside, and their door opens to reveal…

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

Mr. Ochmonek! Holy shit! We haven’t seen this guy in…ten episodes! Jesus.

I was excited because I thought this meant we’d find out what happened to his wife, but…nope. We don’t even find out why he came over. It’s really bizarre.

He kisses Kate under the mistletoe, and there’s a funny enough moment when he passively demands some eggnog, but what, exactly, is the point of this scene?

When I first watched the episode I thought the payoff would be that he goes out to find Willie or something, but instead he just shows up for about a minute and we never see him again. What’s he doing on Christmas Eve without his wife? Why is he here? Nobody invited his ass.

It’s like ALF thought it would be nice for us to see a beloved character again, but that doesn’t work when we’ve only seen the guy once before, ten weeks ago, and didn’t even care about him then. “Hey, everybody! Remember your old pal Mr. Ochmonek?! No? Well, here he is! Merry Christmas!”

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

By this point the episode is almost totally off the rails. (In a very short time, it will be totally off the rails.) They sure did squander all the good-will the first act managed to build up.

ALF and Willie are still stuck in the car, which should be a promising enough situation. Especially as Willie starts to tell ALF about the Christmases he had as a kid, and the fact that they always had a real tree and so forth.

This should be nice. Maybe a bit maudlin, but so what? It’s Christmas Eve. Willie can reminisce and wish he was with his family. In fact, this moment would ideally tie right back into the first scene, with he and Kate reading the old Christmas cards. This speech should end with him realizing that somewhere along the way he lost sight of what made Christmas really great, or something, and got hung up on how things looked.

I don’t know. I’m not saying that would be good. But it would be sort of neutrally lame in a well-established way. Instead it’s Willie and ALF in a car and a story that literally gets abandoned because the writers don’t want to figure out a way to turn it into anything.

Stuff like this is why I feel as though we’re watching these characters act out the first draft of the script; they write the story up to a certain point, realize they’re no longer interested in doing what they planned to do, and then just skip over things or abandon them.

That’s okay. I’m a writer, too. Not only is it a given that you’ll end up following a different narrative path than you might have expected, but it’s a good thing as well. Your job, then, is to write this better story as it revealed itself to you, and then go back and fix things (if not completely rewrite them) so that this new story makes sense. What you don’t do is what this show does weekly: leave everything exactly as it is and hope to shit your audience isn’t paying attention.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

As if on cue, hey look, a dream sequence. Lucky us.

Willie drifts off and dreams about his family in the living room. Nothing is different except for their clothes, which, to be honest, change every day anyway and so this is no evidence of Willie having any creativity whatsoever.

Everything is pretty much as it really is back home, except that Mr. Ochmonek isn’t drunkenly fumbling around with Kate’s tits. Willie comes home, in the dream, with the same fake tree he had before, only this time the family loves it.

He says something about how glad he is that an alien doesn’t live here, which implies that things are happier in this fantasy without ALF. I’m glad that Willie’s awareness of the fact that ALF bends his life over and fucks it every chance he gets is manifesting itself in some way…but I do wish it was manifesting itself as a brutal screwdriver attack on the alien instead.

Kate says that she thinks the tree is leaning too far to the left, so she calls the tree repairman. When he shows up, it turns out to be ALF.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

I think it’s funny that in both of Willie’s unnecessary dream sequences so far, ALF shows up for even less necessary reasons. Did Fusco insist on being in every scene, even if his character had jack-shit to do with anything?

Willie panics because ALF is an alien or something. I don’t know. Neither do the writers; they’re just running out the clock. “Oh, Tannerbaum” started out just fine, but then nobody on the staff knew where to go from there and so we’re getting silly dream sequences with just a few minutes left in the episode because that’s easier than actually wrapping up anything that happened earlier.

Anyway ALF the tree repairman has to take the tree back to the shop to fix it, and Willie gets upset and tries to keep the tree. He and ALF tug on it for a while. I half expected the credits to come up at this point and make it abundantly clear that the people making this show literally stopped giving a shit at this precise moment.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

Willie wakes up only to find that there is a real tree in the car with them, because ALF went out and chopped it down while he was sleeping. Willie feels bad, and there you go. That’s your Christmas moral: don’t ever dream mean things about an alien, because while you are dreaming them that same alien might be doing nice things for you.

Amen.

It starts to snow, a park ranger comes up and gets mad at Willie for cutting down the tree without a permit, ALF hides under a blanket, and he and Willie whisper “Merry Christmas” to each other. Sweet holy barf did that episode fall apart.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

Fortunately it’s Christmas Eve, and as per tradition every adult male is allowed to commit one crime of their choice without there being any consequence, so the Tanners get to keep the tree.

Nah, I’m being wry. Willie does say that he had to pay a fine, but honestly I’m not sure why he still gets to keep the tree. If you caught me stealing the Scales of Justice from in front of the courthouse, I’d expect to be hit with a fine or something, sure. I wouldn’t expect that after I paid the fine I’d get to keep them, though.

It’s bizarre. I don’t know. Who cares. ALF gets a ViewMaster and the episode is over.

Merry Christmas you fucks.

——
* No.

On the eleventh day of Christmas, Zach Kaplan gave to us…

How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

Every nerd has something they collect. Some try to track down every issue of their favorite comic book, some relish rare video games, and others are simply satisfied with collecting themselves after a brutal de-pantsing. I collected the work of Dr. Seuss.

Growing up, my bookshelves were filled with all number of works by Seuss, both under his usual monicker and pseudonyms Theo LeSieg and Rosetta Stone. I had rare books like his risqué adult novel The Seven Lady Godivas, collections of his World War II-era comics and advertisements and a copy of his terrible movie, The 500 Fingers of Dr. T. My father would back-order out-of-print works for me, and my favorite place to visit was the book store. So, needless to say, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! was the only special that fully suited my youthful Christmas needs.

Like most of Seuss’s books, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! outlined an important message: Christmas doesn’t come from a store; it comes from the warm feelings of those we care about, and a sense of fun and togetherness. Christmas day is in our grasp, as long as we have hands to clasp (sorry, stump-o’s).

On its surface, it’s a sentiment that doesn’t look like much. Of course, with the wonderful rhyming patterns, made-up words like “chimbley” and winning illustrations, it wasn’t hard to make the message a more appealing one. But as a Seuss-o-phile, this resonated to me on a different level. Seuss’s stories were generally allegories for big, important things – Yertle the Turtle is Napoleon or Hitler, Horton Hears a Who is about the bombing and occupation of Japan (and dedicated to “My Great Friend, Mitsugi Nakamura of Kyoto, Japan”), The Butter Battle Book is about the Cold War. Why place the meaning of Christmas alongside such incisive analyses?

Religiously, I grew up in a household that none of my largely Christian schoolmates could fathom without a few questions. My mother was raised Episcopalian, but I don’t remember her ever being religious. My father is Jewish, but again, not very religious besides observing the high holy days and Hanukkah – though even the former practice began in my adolescence. Every year, we celebrated both Hanukkah and Christmas. I have fond memories of decorating our Christmas tree and lighting our menorah, illuminated as it was by an array of Christmas lights.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

I called myself a “reform Jew”, but I think all along I knew I was atheist. No matter how hard I tried to convince myself, I did not believe in God. Even without going to church every Sunday, God was assumed to exist by everyone around me – and, thus, that I believed as well. I sat by while friends called other friends “stupid” for not believing in Him before I was out of the atheist closet myself.

I was surrounded by Christianity in my suburban Texas town. Churches were everywhere. A girl that I liked was baffled by my disbelief in the miracles of Jesus. I uncomfortably sat through an assembly that was described as a talent show for teachers, where one instructor gave a brief but passionate Evangelical sermon. The Daily Show came to my hometown to interview members of a group who, in reaction to the building of a mosque, held pig races on Friday nights. A barbecue restaurant I drove past every day was in the news a few years ago for its refusal to take down a graphic image of an Iranian man being lynched. It wasn’t hard for me to develop some mixed feelings about religion, and subsequently about Christmas. Doctors told me that my heart was dangerously close to shrinking three sizes.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, the TV special, brought the wonderful world of Dr. Seuss straight to America’s sets every year, and that was a special thing for me. Without having something like that, I may have become a much more bitter person than I did. It brought the story to life, and it didn’t need Jim Carrey’s signature jumping and screaming to get it done.

It only expanded on the kernel of goodness that was the original novel, along with the memorable voice acting of Boris Karloff and the chasm-deep tones of singer Thurl Ravenscroft, also known for his famous portrayal of Tony the Tiger. It also gave color to the world of the Whos, whose existence in the book was originally limited to Seuss’s stylistic choice of only including the color red. For the budding literary geek I was, turns of phrase like “you’ve got termites in your smile,” “your heart’s a dead tomato splotched with moldy, purple spots” and “your soul is an appalling dump-heap overflowing with the most disgraceful assortment of deplorable rubbish imaginable, mangled-up in tangled-up knots,” stuck in my memory and inspired me to create fiction of my own.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

But let’s return to my original query – why would a Christmas special be written by Dr. Seuss, whose most accomplished pre-children’s work was his co-authorship of Design for Death, a 1947 Academy Award-winning documentary about World War II and the occupation of Japan? As a child, however, my reverence for Seuss assured me that I ought to trust him on this one, to enjoy Christmas in spite of my schoolmates’ bemused bafflement at what they considered a devastating personal flaw in me.

I was reminded to not get too annoyed by the constant barrage of carols every time I went to a store, and to remember that Christmas doesn’t have to be about religion – it can be about togetherness and love. And it reminded me that not everyone who had faith was the barbecue bigot down the street.

Today I fully identify as an atheist. And yet every year, my wife and I set up our Christmas tree, deck our halls and watch Christmas special after Christmas special. The Grinch may have tried to steal Christmas, but he gave me a very important gift – an understanding that even though the world isn’t perfect and that there will always be closed-minded people, Christmas should be a celebration of what we have in common, not a magnification of our differences.

Thank goodness I have hands to clasp.

Tomorrow: Spend Christmas Eve with Ebenezer. No, not that one.

On the eighth day of Christmas, David Black gave to us…

"Christmas Special," The League of Gentlemen

In the run up to Christmas in the year 2000, The League Of Gentlemen published A Local Book For Local People and I wanted it. I was pretty certain that I wouldn’t get it for Christmas as my mother was unlikely to buy me a book that purported to be wrapped in human skin. It’s a scrapbook collecting together newspaper articles, leaflets, postcards and letters about, to and from the people of Royston Vasey. It’s fantastic. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Comedy tie-in books are never this good. I bought it as a Christmas present to myself and pored over every page. Nestled towards the back of the book is an illustrated short story called “The Curse Of Karrit Poor,” which I skipped right over. I looked at the pictures, but I never read a word of it and I can’t explain why.

I eagerly awaited The League Of Gentlemen’s Christmas Special that year and when it finally arrived I was not disappointed. The opening sequence gives us Royston Vasey in the snow, a mutilated robin, yellow snow and a controversial Nietzsche quote on the church noticeboard. It’s a very cinematic sequence in a very cinematic episode of a very cinematic TV show and a step up from some of the other quick gags that opened earlier episodes.

It’s Christmas Eve in Royston Vasey and Bernice Woodall, the town’s vicar, is visited by three characters each seeking solace. Bernice is a fascinating choice to be our guide. The joke that the irreverent Reverend with lipstick on her teeth and a confessional full of cigarettes is presumably an Atheist and possibly the least charitable person in an uncharitable town is one that wouldn’t have sustained her for an hour. We see her character develop here as a result of each of her three Christmas encounters.

Charlie enters the church to deliver a very late and myrrhless nativity scene and takes the opportunity to tell Bernice about a recurring dream he’s been having. We cut to Charlie and Stella line dancing, putting up Christmas decorations and arguing. Charlie and Stella are among my favourite characters and I absolutely love that they get this first vignette. Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton gave their relationship such depth that it always deserved to be explored further. The initial idea of the earlier sketches of the couple arguing for the benefit of a third party grows into to a brilliant short story with a fantastic twist. Liza Tarbuck, the Eyes Wide Shut coven who do voodoo and Stella’s mask are all wonderful, while the slow hand clap is unremittingly bleak.

We return to the church for one of my favourite moments in the entirety of television history: Charlie’s pause and subsequent answer to Bernice asking “In your heart of hearts, do you love your wife?”

Charlie departs and is soon replaced by another storyteller. Andrew Melville is fantastic as the old Matthew Parker, but I must confess that for years I was convinced it was Mark Gatiss in heavy make-up. He takes us back to 1975 in Duisberg in Germany and into the home of Herr Lipp. This is another short tale with another brilliant twist that I certainly didn’t see coming and a raft of sexual innuendo and references to Vampire films. Gatiss and Shearsmith are wonderful as Frau Lipp and young Matthew Parker respectively, but the truly astonishing thing about this segment is that Pemberton manages to take a grotesque character, not to mention a sexual predator, like Herr Lipp and yet give him a genuine sense of pathos all the while being very funny into the bargain.

Herr Lipp: Sometimes the inside of something can be beautiful, even if the package isn’t…well…isn’t.

And later:

Matthew: Leave me alone.
Herr Lipp: I will try.

"Christmas Special," The League of Gentlemen

Out goes Parker and in comes a bloodied Chinnery for our third story as the vet tells the vicar about his great-grandfather.

Bernice: Oh God, it’s getting like bloody Jackanory in here.

The resulting tale is as rich and classy a slice of Victoriana as the BBC has ever produced. Frances Cox, Freddie Jones, Boothby’s bicycle,  “next door,” and seeing Chinnery as his own great-grandfather are all great.

Boothby: Now then, lad. Old Majolica sings your praises and that’s good enough for me. I can offer you a hundred a year, food, lodgings and unlimited use of a bicycle. What do you say?
Chinnery: I’d be delighted.
Boothby: Capital! I think we’ll get along well. There is only one other matter, my senior partner, Mr. Purblind, is an invalid. He occupies the last room on the third floor. He never stirs from his bed from dawn till dusk…save to go for a wee.
Chinnery: You wish me to visit him?
Boothby: On no account! Mr. Purblind is a very sick man. The slightest disturbance is abhorrent to him. Do you hear me?
Chinnery: Yes, sir.
Boothby: All my doors are open to you, Chinnery. Except the ones that are closed.

For their part, Shearsmith and Pemberton’s creations Boothby and Majolica are wonderful, with the former’s bicycle obsession and the latter’s evil echo of Series Three’s Dr. Carlton being particular highlights.

Purblind: Touch them and see!
Chinnery: No…no, I…I mustn’t!
Purblind: Feel them! Feel the knackers!

In spite of his warning (and probably because of it), Chinnery later finds himself in Purblind’s room where the old man tells him the story of how he came to be cursed to kill every animal he came into contact with. The effect of Purblind’s story builds through the brilliant use of shadow puppets to the surprising reveal of a unique necklace and via a gleeful moment of Freddie Jones swearing. Chinnery feels the knackers and unwittingly takes Purblind’s curse upon himself, but dismisses the possibility as “cheap mummery.” His return to his London practise and a simple surgical tap that is but “the work of moments” causes an animal massacre of epic proportions.

Majolica: Another vet has touched the monkey’s bollocks. And now you and all your descendants shall suffer the curse of Karrit Poor!

There’s that name again. Every time I watch this I mean to search out my copy of A Local Book For Local People to read about the curse of Karrit Poor in “The Curse Of Karrit Poor.” I never do. We return to the present day and Bernice convinces Chinnery to get back to work.

Throughout its first two series, the show referenced and alluded to a great many horror films, but uses its Christmas Special to pay tribute to an often overlooked subgenre: the portmanteau film. These are films made up of shorter stories united by framing device. It was a subgenre that I was previously unaware of, but examples include Dr. Terror’s House Of Horrors (1964), The House That Dripped Blood (1970), Tales From The Crypt (1972), New York Stories (1989) and Four Rooms (1995).

"Christmas Special," The League of Gentlemen

The absence of Tubbs and Edward really allows some of the other characters to flourish and the portmanteau sequences allow the Gentlemen to have their cake and eat it too. Did those events happen as described? Will Stella be framed for murder? Is Herr Lipp a Vampire now? Is Chinnery’s inability to keep a patient alive the result of the curse? Possibly, but would it really matter if the only thing that really happened were the sequences set in the church? I don’t think so, because they are arguably the most horrific of all.

The framing story of Bernice has given us flashbacks to her childhood and reveals that her mother was abducted at Christmas when she was eight years old. She is invited by three visitors to reassess her attitude to Christmas and she does mellow as the evening has wears on. To the point that she inspires Chinnery, plans to do nice things for her parishioners on Christmas Day and, potentially a first, she apologises to someone. Bernice’s childhood catches up with her as Santa Claus comes to town again and this time he takes her away with him. Papa Lazarou’s fleeting appearance here serves to cement him as one of the most horrifying television monsters. Not only does he steal Christmas, but he undermines everything that has happened to Bernice all night. Even after the life changing visits of Scrooge’s three ghosts, it would probably have brought his new demeanour to a brief conclusion if he had been kidnapped and inserted into an elephant on Christmas Day.

There was a definite shift in style as the series progressed. While the first series could be legitimately described as a sketch show, the second was more of a sitcom. Now with the benefit of hindsight it’s easy to see the Christmas special as the bridge between that and the more comedy drama style of Series Three. Not least because they dropped the laughter track and the funny thing is that you barely notice here

The three onscreen members of The League Of Gentlemen are rightly applauded for their acting abilities, indeed we can all be grateful that three of Britain’s best actors were on screen at the same time, but in complimenting that aspect of the show let’s not ignore the writing and the fourth Gent, Jeremy Dyson.

The genius of The League Of Gentlemen is their juxtaposition of highbrow and lowbrow. They can take a brilliantly intricate and rewarding story about voodoo revenge and dismiss it as a cheese dream. They can take a potentially one note character with pun for a name and single entendre dialogue and play him with complexity and honesty. They can make a sumptuous Victorian horror story full of intrigue and have the entire thing revolve around the cupping of a monkey’s lovespuds. They can take something as potentially sentimental and syrupy as a Christmas special, force its bitter central character through the wringer, make her learn a lesson and then ultimately prove her right all along. They take a central tenet of sitcom, that characters don’t develop, and then they earn it.

Here I am twelve years later and I’ve finally gotten around to reading “The Curse Of Karrit Poor” in A Local Book. I liked it. Not more than the TV version, but I liked it. The one thing I found most comforting and reassuring was that it also takes both the high road and the low road.

“A story so fantastic that it might seem to have sprung from the ravings of some brain fevered Eastern mystic. Or a twat.”
–From The Curse Of Karrit Poor, being the reminiscences of “Dr Edmund Chinnery R.C.V.S.”

Tomorrow: A very adult show for children reminds us of just how far apart these phases of our lives can be. (Not intentionally, obviously.)

On the sixth day of Christmas, Jacob Crites gave to us…

The Ending of LOST is still one of the more controversial television events of the past decade. Maybe you thought it was beautiful (like me), maybe you thought it was painfully heavy-handed (like most people), and maybe you thought they were dead the whole time (which they weren’t, you dope. Go watch it again). But if there’s one thing every LOST fan can agree on, it’s that “The Constant” marked a creative and emotionally resonant peak for the show, and is perhaps one of the finest hours of television ever produced. It also happens to be a sort-of-kind-of Christmas episode. But perhaps it’s fitting that LOST‘s only Christmas episode isn’t really a Christmas episode, because “The Constant” is a LOST episode that isn’t really a LOST episode, or perhaps it is the perfect example of what a LOST episode should be.

I really don’t know. LOST was always confusing like that.

Now, LOST was such a spectacular show in part because of how unpredictable it was, and not just from a plot-twist standpoint, but from a structural standpoint. Throughout its six season run, there were many wonderful episodes, several weak episodes, but never a formulaic one, in part because there was never a formula established in the first place. Just as we were settling into a groove with flash-backs, the series would throw in a clip episode, except with clips from another part of the island featuring new characters which we had not previously seen (“The Other 48 Days”), or an episode that takes place entirely in the past (“Flashes Before Your Eyes”), or introduce the concept of a flash-forward (“Through the Looking Glass” and all of season four), or a flash-sideways (most of season six…sort of). But what could always be predicted about an episode of LOST is that it could not be predicted, that the episode would not in the least be self-contained, and that characters would generally end up in a much worse place than when they started. And this is where “The Constant” becomes rather special.

The Constant is one of perhaps only two episodes of LOST that succeed as self-contained works (the other being the pilot, which remains one of the best pilots in the history of such things). One does not need to see the previous half-billion episodes and be up to date on their backgammon visual allusions and Dharma mythlogy to understand what is going on (though it helps); this is an episode with its own unique narrative structure, a single character arc, and one of the show’s most satisfying emotional resolutions. Also, it’s Christmas, and the episode’s lead character is often portrayed in the show as a Christ-like metaphor. So there’s that.

That Christ-like metaphor in question is Desmond Hume (to reveal why he’s Christ-like metaphor would spoil much of LOST, and also, who cares?) and Desmond Hume has become unstuck in time. Only not his body, so much, but his consciousness. Desmond has recently been exposed to an inordinate amount of electromagnetic energy, and in LOST, that generally means (as Daniel Faraday will tell us) “side effects.” The side effects in this case being consciousness-time-travel, which would not be all that bad were it his present consciousness doing the traveling, and not his 1996 consciousness. But it is the latter, and in 1996, Desmond is in the Queen’s Army. This is inconvenient.

And thus begins a great deal of madness. The episode follows Desmond’s consciousness as it jumps back and forth through time with increasing frequency. It is the sort of thing that would drive anyone crazy, and that, as we find, is the trouble. What Desmond needs to keep from losing his mind completely is a Constant—something that exists in both his present (1996) and the show’s present (2004) to help his mind from collapsing with disorienting confusion. The Constant, it would turn out, is his one true love. Penny.

To save himself (and, in effect, their relationship *BOOM*) he must find Penny in 1996 and get her to call him (he’s on a freighter off the Island with access to the phone…it’s a long story) eight years in the future to the day and hour. Which is 2004. Christmas Eve.

Now, I, like many other of the show’s characters, do not celebrate Christmas; but I also, like most people with a beating heart, do always enjoy a good “Christmas Episode.” The Christmas Spirit, in actuality, is more of a nice thought than a really nice thing; during Christmastime, people are generally quite stressed about the difficulty finding parking spaces, the annoyance of hanging elaborate decorations that are only really fashionable for about three weeks, and being forced to buy presents for people they may not very much like.

But in Christmas Episodes, The Christmas Spirit is a wonderful thing, wherein faith is rewarded, relationships are rekindled and true love is often found. This is why “The Constant” is sort-of-kind-of a Christmas Episode.

LOST was always a show that attracted people of all kinds of faiths and all levels of cynicism (which is why a good deal of people were put off by the fact that one of its final scenes took place in a Church), and this is why it does not beat its Christmas setting into the ground; but even non-Christmas-Celebrators usually are fond of the things that Christmas is supposed to bring (indeed very few people despise gifts and bright colors and good will among men), and this is why everyone, regardless of personal beliefs, loves “The Constant.”

I will not ruin the ending of the episode, because I think you should watch it, but suffice it to say it is a happy one. It is about losing your mind only to find it in a better place, about resparking relationships that were once doomed to fail, about finding true love when it is at its most needed, and being rewarded in the faith that sometimes people will do the right thing. Basically, it is an episode in which good things happen to good people, a thing for which LOST was not, until its final season, very well known. That it is a Christmas Episode is not important, or perhaps it is incredibly important. I really don’t know. LOST was always confusing like that.

Tomorrow: Come on, get merry!

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