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December 20, 2017

Elmo’s Christmas Smackdown

Filed under: Commentary,Feature — Tags: , — ToughPigs Staff @ 11:52 am

Anthony Strand: Here at Tough Pigs, we like to look back at Christmases past, especially on their anniversaries. Since Elmo’s Christmas Countdown premiered ten years ago, we decided it was worth a second look. Or at least I decided that. Matthew, would it be fair to say that you have less than fond memories of this one?

Matthew Soberman: I think that would be fair to say. A few years ago, I was randomly assigned this special for our roundtable on the worst Muppet Christmas special. As it turned out, it wasn’t that hard an argument to make.

Anthony: I, meanwhile, have always found it to be pretty charming. It’s not my favorite Muppet Christmas production, but I definitely think of it as one of the good ones (the bad ones include A Special Sesame Street Christmas, Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree, It’s a Whoopity Davidy Kermit Time, and Letters to Santa).

Matthew: You see, I’d put Letters to Santa in the “Very Okay” pile, and Mr. Willowby and A Special Ethel Merman Hoopla in the “so bad it’s good” category. Elmo’s Christmas Countdown, on the other hand, is cringe-inducingly bad, and not in a fun way.

Anthony: I’m tempted to just say “On the contrary, it *is* fun” for my counterpoint, but this would be a very short article if we left it at that. So here’s what I like about: It’s a cheesy 70s-style variety special, but one with generally excellent performances from the guests. The framing device is a bunch of nonsense, but it’s mostly an excuse to showcase the sketches, so I’m okay with that.

Matthew: I’ll agree with you on one respect: the celebrity appearances are the best part of the special. It’s clear that everyone was very excited to appear on this special and were having a very fun time. But the framing device, which takes up a good three-quarters of the special, is gratingly annoying, particularly Stiller the Elf.

Anthony: I’m not sure it’s that much of the special, but I can see how I might feel that way. Stiller the Elf – for those who need a refresher, this is a Muppet elf voiced by Ben Stiller for some reason – is indeed a strange choice, but for me he works just fine. Most of his scenes involve actual Sesame Street characters like Elmo, Abby, Grover, and Oscar, so I’ll give him a pass. Besides, Ben Stiller sounds like he’s having fun.

Matthew: Y’see, I find the dubbed voice of Stiller to be way too jarring. It feels like the puppetry of Matt Vogel and the voice of Stiller (Ben, not The Elf) are juuuuuust off enough that it doesn’t feel, for lack of a better word, genuine.

Anthony: Yeah, that’s fair. Anyway, like I said, for me the plot is just an excuse for a bunch of sketches and songs, which are generally very good. A particular highlight for me is Jennifer Hudson’s soaring rendition of “Carol of the Bells” with a whole menagerie of Muppet woodland creatures. She raises the roof of the forest, which is very hard to do.

Matthew: Again, agreed. She brings a great energy to that performance (even though I did spend some of that time wondering why Hoots wasn’t being used more. I miss that owl).

Anthony: Yeah, that is strange. But I think that number and a few others are solid enough to make up for the special’s flaws. Anne Hathaway joins Big Bird and Snuffy for an adorable version of “I Want a Snuffleupagus for Christmas” that’s miles beyond the original Gayla Peevey recording. This is the only version of that song I ever want or need.

Matthew: Eh, it’s fine. It’s cute enough for me. But not enough to atone for the special’s sins.

Anthony: Another highlight for me should probably be one of the worst parts – Ty Pennington joins the Count for “I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In.” On the surface, this is a dumb ad for ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, but they make a fun sketch out of it, with Pennington frantically trying to build more ships as the Count keeps counting higher. It reminds me a little bit of the Muppet Show’s “Banana Boat Song.” Ty Pennington is no Harry Belafonte, of course, but it’s a funny premise executed well. (And what a joy to get a new Jerry Nelson song performance in 2007!)

Matthew: I think the “Banana Boat Song” performance works because Belafonte plays it straight. The song doesn’t change while all the antics happen behind him. Whereas with “I Saw Three Ships,” the song keeps changing as the boats are brought in. The point of the sketch is the antics. That’s where it falls flat for me. Besides, having the Count sing “I Saw Three Ships” is a joke in itself, one that they did TWENTY YEARS EARLIER in A Muppet Family Christmas.

Anthony: Ha, that’s fair, but I’m fine with a number-related carol being the Count’s signature Christmas tune.

Matthew: True, but there are enough carols with numbers in the title that they could mix it up every once in a while. “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” “We Three Kings”… okay, that’s all I can think of off the top of my head, but still, I haven’t seen the Count sing those in a Christmas special!

Anthony: You got me there! So let’s move on to some of the other numbers. I also really like Alicia Keys’s sweet, simple “Do You Hear What I Hear?” on the steps of 123 Sesame. She seems thrilled to be there and to share this really nice moment with Elmo. That’s something of an overdone song too, but she’s so terrific here that I’m happy to hear it again.

Matthew: It’s pleasant enough. We seem to agree that the celebrity bits are entertaining, but I think where we diverge is in the framework. Earlier, you called the special an homage to the old ‘70s variety specials. I see it more as an homage to the old Rankin/Bass specials where “Christmas isn’t coming this year, until it is,” but there’s not nearly enough affection for those specials to make it an obvious parody.

Anthony: I think you’re right that it’s a Rankin-Bass homage too. The content is Rankin-Bass, but the format is pure Crooner Christmas. So many of those old Christmas specials have a framing device that’s just an excuse for songs. Bing Crosby is watching his cousin’s house in England and, “What’s this, who’s at the door? Why it’s David Bowie! Let’s Sing the Little Drummer Boy!” This feels like that to me. The story is meaningless, because it’s just an excuse to welcome Oscar Winner Jamie Foxx doing a Nutcracker rap.

Matthew: Maybe, but it still doesn’t explain why Foxx makes that weird face.

Anthony: Ha, I think he’s making a rat face maybe? In any case, I think he’s great in this. His number is *odd* but in a memorable way. And according to the credits, he wrote it himself, which I love. He was just about at the peak of his stardom in 2007, and he invested real time in writing and performing a nutcracker song with Elmo (and dancer Tiffany Curl, who’s very charming here too and shouldn’t go unmentioned).

Also, I might be biased because after we watched this, my three-year-old daughter spent all afternoon running around yelling “Jamie Foxx in the box!” and it was *adorable.*

Matthew: I’ll give Foxx credit: it is probably the shortest interpretation of the Nutcracker story I’ve seen that still manages to hit all the major points, and it has a nice rhythm to it. But getting back to what you were saying before, then why have a framework at all? Why not just have Elmo count down to the holiday, and have all the boxes (minus the Charles Blitzen ones, as those are relevant to the overall story) open to the same bits? They work fine on their own!

Anthony: I’ll admit that that would be better. It would also have allowed for more songs and sketches, which are the good parts here. Speaking of sketches, the other big one is the “Ernie and Bert Christmas Special” featuring the actual Ernie and Bert directing Bobby and Paulie Walnuts from The Sopranos in Ernie and Bert cosplay. The actors are both miscast, but that seems to be the point, as we watch Ernie and Bert get increasingly frustrated with their poor performances. It’s bizarre, but it makes me laugh. I’d definitely have been happy if the Stiller stuff had been cut to make room for more weird sketches like this.

Matthew: While I like seeing Steve Schirripa and Tony Sirico playing such broad, jovial characters like Ernie and Bert, I think the bit over-explains the “banana in my ear” bit. But beyond that, yes, it’s quite funny. (And the two would reunite the following year for Letters to Santa, so they must work well with the Muppet performers.)

Anthony: Oh yeah, good call! They were Muppet Christmas special regulars for a little bit!

Matthew: But getting back to the framework, another thing I don’t understand is why they had to film on a storybook-style version of Sesame Street rather than on the genuine article. It just looks so artificial and forced, beyond the necessity of the story.

Anthony: Again, I think that’s an homage to those old specials I keep talking about, which often had abstract stages instead of real sets. Perry Como used to perform against painted backdrops in his Christmas specials all the time, and I think they’re going for a similar vibe here.

Matthew: You’re probably right, but I just don’t see it myself. Maybe I’m just judging it closer to the other Sesame Street Christmas specials. That street is a pretty fantastical place in itself!

Anthony: I definitely can’t argue with that! And really, if Elmo’s Christmas Countdown doesn’t work for you, obviously there’s a lot of other Sesame and Muppet Christmas stuff to watch. But for me, it’s a nice addition to the lineup. I watch it ever year, and it always brings a smile to my face.

Matthew: Did I mention that Steve Bannon has a credit?

Anthony: OH NO! Never mind, you’re right. Burn it to the ground.

Click here to be a rockin’ Santa Claus like Paul Blart on the Tough Pigs forum!

by Anthony Strand and Matthew Soberman



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