Bah Humbug! Why Are Most Christmas TV Specials So Bad? How the Grinch Stole Christmas airs tonight — and celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. It's one of a rare few watchable Christmas specials. Why is it so hard to make a good Christmas special?
NPR logo

Bah Humbug! Why Are Most Christmas TV Specials So Bad?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/503154072/503361367" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Bah Humbug! Why Are Most Christmas TV Specials So Bad?

Bah Humbug! Why Are Most Christmas TV Specials So Bad?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/503154072/503361367" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A TV holiday classic turns 50 this year - a real heart warmer about someone as cuddly as a cactus and as charming as an eel. Dr. Seuss' "How The Grinch Stole Christmas!" airs tonight on NBC. And NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says the cartoon's endurance only highlights how hard it is to make a truly excellent Christmas special.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: You know it from the first few notes of Thurl Ravenscroft's barrel-chested performance. This is a Christmas classic.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'RE A MEAN ONE, MR. GRINCH")

THURL RAVENSCROFT: (Singing) You're a mean one, Mr. Grinch.

DEGGANS: OK, so it might seem a little weird to call a 26-minute cartoon about a green guy who learns not to steal Christmas presents a holiday classic, but "The Grinch," which debuted on December 18, 1966, did everything right. It had a great pedigree. Seuss mastermind Theodor Geisel worked with legendary Warner Brothers animator Chuck Jones. It had a cheeky story that appealed to kids and grown-ups. And it had a kitschy narrator - horror movie king Boris Karloff.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS!")

BORIS KARLOFF: (As the Grinch) They're finding out now that no Christmas is coming. They're just waking up. I know just what they'll do.

DEGGANS: So why can't modern Christmas TV specials make this kind of magic happen, too? Yeah, there are animated specials with modern cartoon characters, like the "Toy Story" crew or a certain green ogre.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SHREK THE HALLS")

MIKE MYERS: (As Shrek) 'Twas the night before christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR SLAMMING)

MYERS: (As Shrek) What?

EDDIE MURPHY: (As Donkey) Merry Christmas, Shrek.

DEGGANS: But those bits come off more like crafting moments of corporate synergy than a special holiday treat. I was encouraged when I heard Disney had a new holiday special planned this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Disney lights up the most magical castles on earth in a new holiday tradition for the whole family...

DEGGANS: But then I heard this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And during the show, don't miss an exclusive look at "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story," in theaters December 16.

DEGGANS: That essentially turned the special into a giant commercial for a Disney-owned movie franchise. Even new Christmas specials that are supposed to be lame aren't quite lame in the way they intended, like Bill Murray's Netflix special "A Very Murray Christmas," which featured a character named Bill Murray trying to talk showbiz pal Chris Rock into doing a Christmas special with him.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A VERY MURRAY CHRISTMAS")

CHRIS ROCK: (As himself) So you're doing a live special in the middle of the biggest blizzard of the year? That is so you, Bill. That is so you.

BILL MURRAY: (As himself) But now you're here.

ROCK: (As himself) Yeah.

MURRAY: (As himself) And it's us.

MURRAY: (As himself) No.

DEGGANS: That's not lame in an ironic way. It's just kind of lame. At least "Empire" stars Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard had the good sense to bring on singers like Patti LaBelle and John Legend for their "White Hot Holidays" special last year on Fox.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TARAJI AND TERRENCE’S WHITE HOT HOLIDAYS")

JOHN LEGEND: (Singing) You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I'm telling you why. Santa Claus is coming to town...

DEGGANS: The singing helped distract from awkward dialogue between Howard and Henson. It kind of felt like an update of lines from an old Sonny and Cher special.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TARAJI AND TERRENCE’S WHITE HOT HOLIDAYS")

TARAJI HENSON: Why the long face, Terrence?

TERRENCE HOWARD: Because I never get what I want.

HENSON: Well, why not? What are you doing?

HOWARD: I was always a good kid, you know?

HENSON: Uh huh, that's impossible.

HOWARD: No, I was a good kid. I didn't say nothing about being a good adult. I was a good kid.

(LAUGHTER)

DEGGANS: Henson's doing the special by herself next month. Perhaps the holiday was a little too hot for two stars to share. As a critic, I've always been drawn to the Christmas specials that have a little unexpected absurdity. Whether it's David Bowie and Bing Crosby crooning a mash-up of "Peace On Earth" and "The Little Drummer Boy" on a Crosby TV special.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BING CROSBY'S MERRIE OLDE CHRISTMAS")

DAVIE BOWIE: (Singing) Peace on Earth, can it be? Years from now, perhaps we'll see.

DEGGANS: Or Hermey the toy-making elf who really wants to be a dentist in the stop-motion animation classic "Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV MOVIE, "RUDOLPH, THE RED-NOSED REINDEER")

PAUL SOLES: (As Hermey the elf) I just don't like to make toys.

CARL BANAS: (As Head Elf) Oh, well, if that's all - what? You don't want like to make toys?

SOLES: (As Hermey the elf) No.

DEGGANS: Ultimately, the best holiday specials have a unique balance of nostalgia, surprise, creativity and holiday spirit. Pulling all that off in a one-time TV event takes a Christmas miracle, which may explain why we see so few great ones on TV after all. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BING CROSBY'S MERRIE OLDE CHRISTMAS")

BING CROSBY AND DAVID BOWIE: (Singing) Our finest gifts we bring, pa-rum-pa-pum-pum, rum-pa-pum-pum, rum-pa-pum-pum...

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.