For the next few weeks, we’ll be talking about the wonderful world of Christmas TV specials. From the tried and true classics to some lesser known treasures to the truly oddball offerings, I will bring you gifts of glad tidings and good news that can only come from a mix of Santa’s workshop, a lowly manger, and Madison Avenue.
This week, we will be looking at TV Christmas specials based on comic strips.
Comics in Newspapers aren’t really a thing anymore, mostly because newspapers aren’t really a thing anymore, but for years both the papers and the comic strips were huge. People turned to the “funny pages” daily to see what their favorite characters were up to. Sometimes the strips had continuous story lines, but mostly not. Many had repeating gags, and an overly formulaic pattern. Some were one panel, sometimes three-and were even longer on Sundays! Some strips were bizarre, and truly funny, others were barely humorous but we read them all and these characters felt like friends. Many newspapers no longer carry comics, or if they do they feature very few. However the artform lives on online.
It’s only logical, then, that film studios would want to make these features into full fledged animated cartoons to try and repeat the successes in another medium. This also had the advantage of gaining larger exposure for some characters that appeared only regionally, or were not carried by as many papers as other strips. The earliest example I am aware of was a series of cartoons from the 1940’s starring Nancy, but it would not surprise me to learn of an earlier attempt. Anyway, this practice has been going on for years, to varying degrees of success.
When it comes to Christmas specials, ground zero would have to be 1965’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas”, which was a gigantic hit that many popular strips have been trying to achieve yet never quite getting there. I’ve been watching a few of these shows this week in preperation for the blog. Let’s talk about some them.
A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
Well, there’s not much to say about this special that has not already been said, but when has that ever stopped me?
Back in 1965, somebody got the idea to adapt Charles M. Schultz’s adorable “Peanuts” gang to the television screen, and they actually let Schultz have a say in the proceedings. Every decision made seemed to be the wrong one, on paper anyway. These weirdos made a television special about kids that actually had kids doing the voices-not professional adult voice artists. They used groovy piano jazz as the soundtrack. There was a strong focus on the religious aspect of the holiday and practically nothing involving Santa. It should have been a disaster.
Yet that Christmas magic was definitely at work because it all worked beautifully, and has become the Gold Standard by which all other cartoon specials are measured. Even non religious types love it, as well as anyone who has ever pictured themselves as a Charlie Brown type-which is everybody. This is a stone cold classic, and if you don’t have a place in your heart for this one, you need help because you are dead inside.
Bill n’ Opus: A Wish For Wings That Work (1991)
This is the first, and to date only, screen adaptation of characters from Berke Breathed’s “Bloom County” and “Outland” strips (although a new series is in development for Fox). Bloom County was my favorite strip at the time, still is actually, because it was topical, goofy, and just plain bizarre, but it also had a tender heart underneath all that craziness. This special does its best to bring the whole loopy experience to the screen.
Okay, how do I summarize this? Opus the penguin is not happy with his lot in life as a flightless waterfowl. His biggest wish is for a pair of penguin wings that actually work. He is made fun of by a trio of ducks that are strongly reminiscent of the Three Stooges, and attends a therapy group with a chicken who thinks she’s a 747 and a kiwi who’s wife left him for an albatross. All along he is followed by his friend Bill The Cat (the anti-Garfield) who basically bungles everything up and barfs hairballs a lot. After a failed attempt at flight involving a corset and balloons, Opus decides his only recourse is to write a letter to Santa. It’s all up to the big guy from then on.
So, does this special succeed? Well, yes and no. If you are a fan, there’s enough here to keep you happy, although I think the filmmakers tried to include too much content into a short space. The jokes don’t quite land the way they ought to, and the heart so inherent in the story doesn’t transfer well to the final product. If you are new to Breathed’s world this will probably confuse more than delight. Still, if this kind of anarchic humor is your cup of tea, it’s worth a look. Also, there’s a cross-dressing cockroach, so there’s that.
A Garfield Christmas Special (1987)
If Peanuts was the most popular comic strip in America, Garfield was a close second. He was, and remans, America’s favorite fat cat who hates Mondays, loves lasagna, and tolerates those around him as he simultaneously disdains and loves them. He’s just like you and me-only in cat form. Formulaic? Sure, but in the 80’s, Garfield was everywhere and his TV specials (pre Saturday morning series) were beloved.
In this special, Garfield and his house mate Odie the dog spend Christmas with owner Jon’s family on the farm. Garfield is unhappy about it and being a total grump, while the others are annoyingly excited. The extended family is, of course, eccentric as they can be and yet it is through them that Garfield has that magic moment where he embraces the whole family and the spirit of Christmas.
This is simple stuff, but it actually does have a few decent jokes in it. The voice work is also top notch with Lorenzo Music as Garfield and David L. Lander as Jon’s brother Doc Boy (which I guess is a “Waltons” joke?). This is a nice bit of nostalgia that your kids can enjoy too. Give it a go.
B.C.: A Special Christmas (1981)
From the “WHAT?” file, comes this addition which I have just so many mixed feelings about.
For those who may not be familiar, the strip B.C. was not about British Columbia, but cavemen. You know, our ancestors who existed several millennia before the birth of Christ (even if you believe in a “young Earth” the timeline is still way off), and yet here we are with a Christmas special. So what gives? Spoilers ahead for a 40+ year old cartoon, I guess.
The storyline is as follows. Caveman Thor wakes up noticing that the morning star is a few degrees off that day, and goes cave to cave among his village looking for his calendar (which he invented) that has been loaned out to a neighbor. Once he finds it in Peter’s cave, we learn that it is Dec. 24th. After being kissed on the cheek by an attractive cave girl, he somehow gets the idea to make others feel good by conning them. I know. Stay with me. So he and his pal Wiley make up a myth about a man in a red suit who leaves presents on what they have decided to call Christmas Eve. It is written on the ancient slab that they “found and translated” (wrote) that all should carry on this tradition. The next step is, of course, to dupe their friends into buying the gifts from them the next morning, and making a quick buck.
During the night, however, the real Santa shows up to ruin their plans and bring real, awesome, actual Christmas to all. Oh, and he also almost gets eaten by true troglodyte Grog, but no one ever said this Santa gig was going to be easy. Anyway, after all this happens, Peter goes to bed Christmas night but is awakened by the sounds of travelers and sees some dudes on camels going past the cave, as he rushes out to see the star brightly shining in the East. End of show.
This is just a mess y’all. I mean, I grew up with the comic strip so this is high on the nostalgia scale for me. You also have to smile that the two main characters are played by legendary comedy team Bob and Ray. It’s just that the timeline is so messed up. I don’t mind there being a religious aspect to any Christmas themed show, but how awkward can you get? Speaking of awkward, the female characters are named “the fat broad” and “the cute chick” because sexism was alive and well back in the day. Those characters have since been renamed “Jane” and “Grace” respectively, but they still have the cringe names here. Otherwise, the quality of the animation and voice work is really good. So this one is a mixed bag at beat, worth a look as a curiosity or if you just really like cavemen.
Ziggy’s Gift (1982)
Remember Ziggy? Man, in the early 80’s he was like a pop culture icon. While the strip is still produced, you just don’t see ol’ Ziggy around much these days. For those who may not be familiar, Ziggy is a short, bald man with a rather large round nose, who lives in an apartment with his pets, works in some sort of office building, and never wears pants. His one panel comic strip mostly features him dealing with the inconveniences of life. He is a loveable loser who mostly manages to stay positive while everything around him goes wrong. He has been featured on many a poster/coffee mug/ t-shirt with a funny play on words or super positive heartfelt message. Which is how you live your life, I suppose, when you don’t own pants.
Anyway, Ziggy seems like an unlikely fit for a Christmas special but it actually works very well. Long story short: Ziggy becomes a street corner Santa, unknowingly working for a business that is defrauding the charities they claim to be working for and keeping all the dough for themselves. Ziggy, along with his loyal dog Fuzz, must contend with not only his crooked boss, but also other crooked Santas, a pickpocket who constantly follows him around, and a suspicious cop. Can Ziggy’s kindness and good nature save him from arrest? Will the Spirit of Christmas prevail? Will he freeze his little tucchus off in the snow? Probably.
This one is a little bit odd, because it actually deals with some shady goings on in a way that isn’t too broad or cartoonish. There is a bit of a harsh look to some of the city scenes and night time action, bringing an unexpected touch of realism. This just goes to set Ziggy’s inherent goodness off from the rest, and bring focus to the message. The animation is truly the best of the bunch, and the show won a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program. If you’re looking for a surprisingly sweet tale that isn’t too saccharine, you could do worse than to check out this underrated gem.
Okay, that’s the round up for this week. All of these features are available either on streaming services or YouTube, and some have a physical release as well. Check out the programs that appeal to you and I’ll be back next week with more fun stuff.