tis the season

The TV Christmas Special’s Evolution From Sappy to Self-Aware

Photo: NBC, CBS

If you believe NBC’s new holiday TV special A Legendary Christmas With John and Chrissy, singer John Legend and his model-author wife Chrissy Teigen live in a modest split-level suburban home with their two young children, where they occasionally throw parties for their family and their neighbors. Y’know, “their neighbors” — Stevie Wonder, Jane Lynch, Meghan Trainor, Awkwafina, Zach Galifianakis, Sam Richardson, and Retta.

Of course, you’re not really supposed to believe any of that. It’s the fantasy that makes this holiday special — like so many that have come before — so much fun.

There are a couple of sweet, off-the-cuff scenes in A Legendary Christmas where the couple interacts with fans: one where they go out caroling in an actual suburban neighborhood, and another whether they invite unsuspecting consumers to judge their macaroni and cheese recipes. But the bulk of this knowingly, disarmingly phony special alternates between big musical numbers and goofy comedy sketches, shot around the Legend/Teigen “house”… and with an ’80s-sitcom-style laugh track, no less.

If you’ve watched TV at all around Christmastime over the past 20 years or so, you’ll recognize what this special’s trying to do. Here are a couple of beloved celebrities, making their own old-fashioned Christmas show, but with a twist, a wink, and a healthy smattering of ironic quotation marks.

This has been the default mode for holiday variety extravaganzas for a while now: sincerity, interlaced with loving parody. But when did the tone start to shift? And why is this format of Christmas songs and broadly comic sketches still so popular, given that the people who star in these specials seem to feel obliged to acknowledge their corniness?

To answer those questions, let’s take a trip back through Christmases past, to see how yuletide shows evolved, decade by decade…

The 1950s: Hope for the Holidays

Two of the variety genre’s defining personalities first slipped on a Santa hat in the ’50s, with two very different approaches to the gig — establishing the yin and yang of TV Christmas, right from the start.

Perry Como hosted three different weekly television series between 1948 and 1962. A devout Catholic, Como tended to make a special fuss around the holiday season, singing hymns and carols in homey settings, often alongside special guest stars. Como codified the look and tone of “the Christmas show,” with his combination of the stagey and the earnest; and he became so identified with the form that even after he stepped away from the weekly grind, he kept pumping out specials, year after year.

Bob Hope, on the other hand, became a star thanks to snark and self-deprecation, poking fun at everything in contemporary popular culture — including himself. Even his annual NBC Christmas specials, begun in 1953, goofed on the whole idea that a guy like him would hang up ornaments and sing songs. In his pre-TV days Hope was the star of one classic Christmas movie, The Lemon Drop Kid, in which he introduced the perennial classic “Silver Bells.” His variety shows though, while respectful of holiday tradition, were always a little saucy — and remained so, all through the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s.

The 1960s: Gladsome Tidings, Now We … Bing

As the live-TV era started to fade and nearly every program was pre-taped or filmed, production values improved, and some of American showbiz’s brightest stars were lured to the small screen, paid handsomely to bring the Christmas spirit to millions of viewers. There’s a reason why so many of the specials from this era have been preserved and re-released on DVD in recent years. From Judy Garland in 1963 to Glen Campbell in 1969, the ’60s saw big names singing and joshing on lavish studio sets, putting on a real show, built to last.

Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra were two of the best at hosting the holidays, in part because they combined some of the hep sass of Bob Hope with the reverence — and the golden voice — of Perry Como. The duo appeared together in a classic 1957 special, trading jazzy slang and smoky ballads in one amazing-looking living room. Then they went their separate ways in the ’60s, often performing alongside their own children and chums as they tried to bridge the gap between post-WWII traditionalism and the burgeoning counterculture.

The 1970s: ’Round John Denver, Mother and Child

In the ’70s, seemingly anyone who achieved even a smidgen of fleeting fame got offered a variety special or an ongoing series: from musicians to comedians to mimes. (Yes, mimes.) This was the golden age of the Christmas special, because Hollywood had developed the machinery to crank out an hour of hokey, punny, plywood-flanked frivolity at a moment’s notice. Sonny and Cher? Donny and Marie? The Carpenters? So long as there was fake snow to stand under and a camera filter to make them look all dreamy, they were ready to sing about sleighs and reindeer and presents, for America.

The old guard also got extra-festive in the ’70s. Bob Hope shot a special with the troops in Vietnam. Dean Martin did a series of specials that showed how Christmas was different out in California. Bing Crosby even sang a duet with David Bowie.

The king of the ’70s Christmas variety show, though, was John Denver, who exemplified one of the decade’s core aesthetics: soft, hand-crafted, and folksy. Between 1975’s John Denver’s Rocky Mountain Christmas and 1979’s John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together, he set the standard for gentle humor, wintry winsomeness, and an especially pillowy take on the old holiday standards.

The 1980s: Pee-wee, Pee-wee, the Sounding Joy

The ’80s were something of a transition point in American TV, with variety series fading fast in popularity, and edgier entertainment like MTV and David Letterman’s Late Night adding more metatextuality to the mix. Letterman and his bandleader Paul Shaffer used to celebrate Christmas on their show by recalling one of Cher’s old holiday numbers: a gloriously cheesy rendition of “O Holy Night.” They spoke lovingly of the performance, while essentially admitting they thought it was all so very silly.

With a rising generation in full eye-rolling mode, producers of variety specials all but stopped trying to court a younger audience. Instead, veterans like Hope and Como kept plugging away (at least until the latter scrapped one of his scheduled shows in 1987, because he felt like ABC wasn’t giving it the prime spot it deserved). Their primary competition back then was older-skewing country music stars, like Barbara Mandrell, Dolly Parton, and Johnny Cash.

One key exception to the trend? The brilliant, influential 1988 Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special, in which performance artist and comedian Paul “Pee-wee Herman” Reubens (a frequent guest on Late Night With David Letterman, not coincidentally) converted leftover pieces of old ’70s variety shows and kiddie matinees into something excessively colorful and downright surreal. A new way of making Christmas specials — more conceptual, and self-referential — had arrived.

The 1990s: A Christmas Gifford

The variety special almost died completely in the ’90s — at least in terms of its cultural impact. While younger, hipper entertainers continued to spurn or to mock the genre, it was left up to unapologetically square singers and TV personalities like Kathie Lee Gifford to pick up the slack. Kathie Lee made five Christmas shows between 1994 and 1998. That pretty much tells the story of the decade. Straightforward and slick, these specials had a lot in common with the ’60s Christmas extravaganzas, but without the star-power or zing.

The 2000s and 2010s: A Lump of Colbert

In 2011, the Los Angeles Times ran an article suggesting that the tradition of the holiday variety special had fallen out of favor for good — now considered as unwelcome and as in poor taste as a sprig of mistletoe at an office Christmas party. Frankly, the paper missed the mark. It’s true we don’t have Andy Williams anymore, appearing on TV every December to unify the nation with a spirited performance of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” What’s happened instead is that a new generation of musicians and comedians who grew up in the ’70s — some of whom also remember Pee-wee Herman’s playful romp through holiday glitz — have been popping up periodically in odd places, with their own peculiar, personal, and post-modern takes on the televised holiday revel.

In 2002, for example, The Kids in the Hall’s Dave Foley wrote, directed, and starred in the CBC’s The True Meaning of Christmas Specials, playing a man who’d lost his faith in Christmas specials, before getting visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Specials Past, Present, and Yet to Come. (Fellow Canadian sketch comedy legends Joe Flaherty and Dave Thomas appear as Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, respectively. Also, champion figure skater Elvis Stojko has a cameo as himself.)

In 2008, Stephen Colbert brought back the fake living room sets of Crosby and Como in his A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All!, which saw him performing parody songs with the likes of Feist, Willie Nelson, and — yes — John Legend. In 2015, Sofia Coppola and Bill Murray deconstructed the holiday special with A Very Murray Christmas, making everything at once more visually gritty and more narratively contrived.

A Legendary Christmas with John and Chrissy (debuting at 10 p.m. ET Wednesday, November 28) belongs as much to this new form of through-the-looking-glass variety special as it does to the ’60s or ’70s. The couple may be on NBC and not basic cable or Netflix, but they’re still aiming to honor what’s become the new first rule of Christmas television: Keep it cool.

TV Christmas Specials’ Evolution From Sappy to Self-Aware