Phillip Morgan ‘18 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Just behind some kid ripping off the Mall Santa’s beard while on his lap as one of the major Christmas-related events that send children into a frenzy, the yearly offering of animated Christmas specials promises a diverse and enjoyable array of Yuletide TV sure to bring the jollies to viewers of all ages. While there are always the classic specials featuring a stop-motion reindeer struggling with birth defects and societal ostracism or a slightly-more-depressed-than-usual Charlie Brown, the regular TV shows’ yearly displays of Christmas cheer often go unnoticed, despite many earning recognition later as one of the best episodes in their show’s catalogue. Written with care and a seasonal message in mind, the best of these episodes evoke the holiday spirit but through the filter of their show’s own breed of weird antics, ringing in the holiday season completely and unapologetically on their own terms.
So, in the spirit of giving (recognition), here are some of the most entertaining holiday episodes from some of the best cartoons of the past decade or so. Some are tailored to adult sensibilities, others focus on the kids’ perspective, but all of them crafted holiday tales that can stand toe-to-toe with even the most famous of Christmas Specials, and are definitely worth the same level of endless re-watching year after year.
6. Adventure Time – “Holly Jolly Secrets”
Few cartoons ostensibly marketed to children can claim to navigate the same emotional depth and creative, intricate universe Adventure Time explores on a weekly basis, so a profound message based around the holiday season would seem pretty pedestrian by comparison. Fortunately, while “Holly Jolly Secrets” definitely boasts a Christmas-themed exterior, the story is much more focused on the “Secrets” part. Finn and Jake uncover a briefcase previously buried by Ice King full of video tapes that he claims harbor “evil secrets.” So, they watch the tapes at home on BMo’s built-in VHS in the name of deciphering the secrets of the Ice King. At first, they appear to just be a weird series of vlogs Ice King taped while playing with his penguin Gunther, but become increasingly more demented in nature as the trio progress, egging them to press on. Meanwhile, Ice King’s repeated attempts to enter the Tree House for the tapes prove a hilarious side story, even as he resorts to increasingly more drastic measures. The last tape indeed reveals Ice King’s “evil secrets,” showing for the first time in the show’s history a brief window into the Ice King’s origins and how he became so twisted. Touched by the revelation of Ice King’s tragic story, Finn and Jake return his tapes, and the Ice King gives them gifts in return, and they resolve to do this annually from then on while wearing weird sweaters with all their friends (Sound familiar?). Besides the heartwarming empathetic message, this episode stands out as the first in the series to portray Ice King in a more sympathetic light, as later episodes further explore his origins and the mythos around his terrible curse. A charming Christmas Special with plenty of Adventure Time’s absurd, surrealist comedy, as well as the first true in-depth gaze into Ice King’s complex persona, “Holly Jolly Secrets” has holiday surprises for hardcore fans and newcomers alike, and proof that even tragically demented wizards deserve friends on Christmas.
5. Futurama – “X-Mas Story”
If there’s one thing to learn from Futurama, it’s that you never know quite what the future holds, especially if that future is a millenium away. It’s Fry’s first Christm— err, X-Mas in the 31st Century, and he feels more behind the times than ever as he gradually learns most of the holiday traditions he grew up have been thrown by the wayside over the centuries. Leela too feels alienation during the holiday season as the only crew member of the Planet Express, and a series of events involving Fry venturing out on Christmas Eve to buy her a (ill-conceived) gift, Bender’s repeated exploitation of the homeless robots to get X-Mas booze, and Leela rushing outside to find Fry result in the trio all winding up on the streets of New New York on X-Mas Eve. This wouldn’t be so bad, except for the arrival of Robot Santa, a defective model of the original St. Nick who deems even the slightest infractions naughty, then sets out every X-Mas Eve to slaughter any “naughty” people caught outside (i.e. anyone). Naturally, he pursues them and the rest of the crew with murderous intent as the story comes to a head, but what makes this special so intriguing is how well Santa’s true purpose is concealed. The plethora of time-displaced humor throughout the first part of the episode masks any sinister aspects of the holiday season, and the idea that families gather for Christmas out of sheer terror than comfort is certainly head-turning. Between the dark, violent twist and the barrage of Christmas wordplay and time-sensitive jokes, this episodes wishes everyone a merry X-Mas the only way it knows how. By shooting lasers at you.
4. Bob’s Burgers – “Christmas in the Car”
Over the past few years, Bob’s Burgers has made a name for itself as one of the few currently running adult-centered cartoons that doesn’t completely rely on mean-spirited pop culture references or satirical takedowns for its humor. Instead, the show focuses on the character dynamics between the eccentric personalities of the Belcher Family and their (sometimes even more) bizarre friends and neighbors. Most of the show’s best episodes, however, are when the entire Belcher family is at odds with each other over something incredibly trivial, and “Christmas in the Car” is no exception. This time, Linda’s near-fanatic Christmas Spirit compelled her to buy a tree at Halloween, and then again at Thanksgiving, both of which died prematurely. So, the Belchers are forced to drive an hour out to the last open tree lot on Christmas Eve, and the presence of the whole family basically ensures they will be unable to just “get the tree and come home.” As per usual, each member of Bob’s family causes problems for Bob in their own special way: Linda’s compulsion to spread Christmas Cheer draws the attention of a seemingly homicidal candy cane truck driver, Gene drains Bob’s cell phone battery attempting to request the song “Jingle in the Jungle” on the radio, and Louise and Tina simply talk Bob to death for the whole trip. While demonstrating again and again that no one on Earth ever takes Bob seriously, the story squeezes in a subplot of Bob’s friend Teddy getting caught in one of Louise’s “Santa Traps” while housesitting, and his repeated attempts to escape from the fridge end up being some of the funniest scenes in the whole episode. Packed with real tension between Bob and his family and its hilarious repercussions, “Christmas in the Car” is Bob’s Burgers firing on all cylinders, and proof that if you can only spend the holidays with one family besides your own, you can’t go wrong with the Belchers.
3. Regular Show – “The Christmas Special”
The greatest strength by far of Regular Show’s universe is how easily it can introduce any surreal or unconventional elements without ever seeming excessive or forced. In a world where a park is maintained by a sentient gumball machine, an old-fashioned lollipop, an immortal yeti, a one-handed ghost, a blue jay, a raccoon, and whatever the hell Muscle Man is (Jewish goblin?), nothing is out of bounds. So, when the episode opens with a disgruntled elf hijacking Santa’s sleigh while St. Nick himself pursues him on a hoverboard, it feels like business as usual. Until Santa gets shot out of the sky and crashes through the Park’s garage, reluctantly charging Mordecai, Rigby, and their co-workers with the task of destroying a magical gift box with a terrible power so the disgruntled elf can’t use it to destroy Christmas. From there, the hilarious absurdity only grows (we’d be hard-pressed to think of a Christmas special involving polar bear wrestling, a deadly game of pinball, and Rudolph shooting laser beams from his nose), but what really makes “The Christmas Special” so unique is its tone. Here, the heartwarming, jovial atmosphere associated with most holiday episodes is thrown out the window in favor of one more befitting a James Bond film, and even Santa is updated to kick ass (he trades his traditional body fat and fluffy red suit for a trench coat, six pack, and a bitchin’ red scarf). Way closer to Die Hard than Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer on the spectrum of Christmas-themed action, “The Christmas Special” is widely considered to be one of the best episodes in Regular Show’s entire repertoire, and the merging of Christmas spirit, spy thriller action, and the quirky talents of all the Park Staffers certainly makes it more than worth the replay value.
2. South Park – “Woodland Critter Christmas”
As with nearly all things South Park, satire is the name of the game in this special, and “Woodland Critter Christmas” proves that no amount of holiday cheer can deter Trey Parker and Matt Stone in their quest to mock and/or playfully criticize everything in existence. Shamelessly copying the format of nearly every classic children’s holiday special, complete with Trey Parker himself narrating in silly rhymes, cheesy Christmas sing-a-longs, talking woodland critters who need help from the human protagonist, and of course, references to the birth of Christ. At first the story set itself up as pretty standard South Park, with Stan reluctantly helping the woodland critters prepare for Christmas in the hopes that they’ll leave him alone afterwards, going so far as killing a mother mountain lion threatening the critters when they tell him Porcupiny the Porcupine (yes, all the critters are named like that) is pregnant with “our Lord and Savior.” Then Stan learns the woodland critters are actually a cult of Satanists, Porcupiny is pregnant with the Antichrist, and the mountain lion was the only threat to their goal of raising 10,000 years of darkness until Stan came along. Horrified, Stan barely escapes the Satanic wrath of the woodland critters, and then shit gets really weird, even by South Park standards. It’s an intriguing twist on a classic holiday special paradigm, but the commitment to the classic Christmas special tropes in the face of cute little devil-worshipping animals and everything that follows is what drives the endless hilarity in “Woodland Critter Christmas.” So if you’re looking for more surreal, satirical humor in your holiday specials and/or have always wanted to see mountain lion cubs learn how to give abortions, this is your Christmas Special. Just don’t forget to make sure your star is on the right way.
1. Community – “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”
Ok. Fine. You got us. Community is a live-action sitcom. Congratulations. But “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” is done completely in stop-motion animation. So not only does it still count, but the homage to the traditional Christmas Special animation style melds perfectly with Community’s uniquely self-aware humor and narrative, resulting in quite possibly one of the best Christmas episodes ever conceived. It’s Christmastime at Greendale Community College, and for reasons left unknown until the episode’s end, Abed perceives his entire world in stop-motion animation, and his hope is that he will be able to discover the true meaning of Christmas by journeying through this world and committing to the format, cheesy songs and all. Meanwhile, the rest of the study group is still very much in reality and call him out on his insanity, to the degree that they feel the need to call in Psychology Professor Duncan (played by the great Jon Oliver) to pull Abed out of his fantasy world. Unfortunately all Duncan cares about is exploiting Abed’s psychosis for his own gain and uses “Christmas-nosis” to send the entire study group to “Planet Abed,” a Christmas-themed inside Abed’s dream world. Aside from being completely ridiculous and parodying every single claymation holiday special at once, this episode actually does carry considerable emotional weight regarding the real reasons everyone in the study group has for wanting Abed to snap out of it, as well as the true motive behind Abed retreating into his stop-motion fantasy. The constant clashing between Abed’s perception of the world and everyone else who is still in reality is also hilarious, especially because the audience sees it from Abed’s perspective for the entire episode, so we’re never entirely certain what’s really happening. Mix the insane premise with incredibly witty dialogue and Community stellar meta-humor, and you have one of most unwittingly brilliant Christmas Specials in years. Watch out for the Christmas Pterodactyl, though.