Dec. 23 – A Muppet Family Christmas

muppet-header2

A MUPPET FAMILY CHRISTMAS
Original Air Date: December 16, 1987

SYNOPSIS:
Nearly every Muppet ever created comes together under one roof for a very cliched Christmas.

muppet-title

BACKSTORY:
In case you didn’t already know, the word “Muppet” is a hybrid of the words “marionette” and “puppet,” and should instantly conjure images a man named Jim Henson, and the brightly-colored cloth creations he gave to the world.

muppet-back-2Early versions of Rowlf, Kermit, and Jim Henson

It’s hard to nail down when exactly what we now know as “The Muppets” first started. A barely-recognizable version of Kermit was seen on a Washington D.C. NBC affiliate as far back as 1955, on Henson’s first show Sam and Friends. However, Rowlf the piano-playing dog was the first to gain stardom, thanks to his popular appearances in Purina dog food commercials and on The Jimmy Dean Show in 1963. Sesame Street began airing in 1969, although without any of the characters, aside from Kermit, that we associate with The Muppet Show, which came seven years later.

muppet-back1See Gobo back there?

None of that’s important, anyway. The fact remains that A Muppet Family Christmas is the culmination of Henson’s unprecedented success. With at least four separate Muppeted shows airing on television simultaneously, this Christmas special is the one and only occasion when the stars of all of them came together in a single production.

muppet-header

Unfortunately, no official uncut version of the program is available for sale, and likely never will be. Several songs licensed only for television are presented, and The Jim Henson Company currently retains rights to only the Fraggles, with Sesame Street owned by The Children’s Television Workshop and The Muppets now being the property of Disney. Television is the only place you can hope to see the special in its entirety, yet the broadcast version, too, has seen many cuts over the years – due to remastering, added footage and extended commercial breaks.

BREAKDOWN:
You know those Christmas special parodies where celebrities find an excuse to stop by a snowed in cabin just to sing songs? I’m too young to be entirely sure of what exactly they’re sending up, aside from some vague notion of Dean Martin or Andy Williams doing something to that effect years before I was born.

muppet-truckFozzie, quite rudely, brings the entire cast of The Muppet Show over for Christmas at his mother’s without so much as calling ahead

Stephen Colbert did one last year. Shit, I just made one too, which is a pretty good indication that spoofing that Old-Timey Christmas special is no longer even remotely clever. If that’s the case, Jim Henson studios didn’t get the memo.

muppet-doc1Fraggle Rock’s Doc and Sprocket have rented a room in the hopes of finding some holiday peace and quiet

I know I’ve said the same about adapting A Christmas Carol, but as far as Christmas specials go, the singing-cameo formula is definitely the bare minimum you can do creatively. Especially when it’s done straight-faced, without a hint of irony. So keeping in mind that this came from the people responsible for some of the greatest Holiday specials ever made, yes, A Muppet Family Christmas is a bit of a letdown.

muppet-piggy1Miss Piggy is held up by a photo shoot

It wouldn’t say it flat-out sucks, mind you. But while I certainly remember looking forward to each and every airing as a kid, I also remember boredom setting in within minutes.

muppet-1Gonzo tips a turkey off about Swedish Chef’s plans to cook him

Of course, I have a slightly different appreciation for it now. I’d grown up with these colorful characters. Even my parents liked the Muppets, or at least had some history with them and found them more tolerable than the majority of the 80’s children’s entertainment cesspool.

muppet-20Fraggle Rock is located under Mama Fozzie’s house apparently…who knew?

That kind of universal appeal is a remarkable feat in and of itself, but the sheer number of shows Henson had concurrently running on television is nothing short of astounding.

muppet-3One of many momentous meetings

Sesame Street was still a revered standard. Fraggle Rock was popular enough in 1987 to receive a (horrible) animated spin-off series. Muppets Take Manhattan had been well received in theaters, and Ted Turner was about to launch TNT on a sturdy backbone of Muppet Show reruns. And Muppet Babies was in the middle of an outrageously popular six-year streak, having just been extended to 90 minutes on CBS Saturday mornings.

muppet-babies2The gang watches a home movie starring the live-action Muppet Babies from Muppets Take Manhattan, on which the cartoon series was based

And A Muppet Family Christmas was to be the instance where they’d all appear in the same place, at the same time, for the first time ever!!! “HOLY SHIT!” exclaimed my prepubescent brain, “Oh, man… I wonder what they’ll say to one another… what kind of adventures they’ll have?!”

muppet-2Electric Mayhem’s performance of “Jingle Bell Rock” is a triple-edged sword

Well… they’ll just be singing songs, apparently.

muppet-4Even more bad comedy would’ve been nice

Not that there’s anything wrong with a Holiday song showcase, even if it’s not my cup of tea. But when you look at the Christmas specials that have become Holiday standards, none of them revolve around the sole act of singing classic Christmas songs (fortunately).

muppet-5Gonzo and the Jive Turkey square off for the affections of Camilla

For example, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was based off of that titular Johnny Marks song, and Marks still wrote new songs for that special that would go on to become cherished standards. Even Henson’s other Christmas specials featured numerous original tunes, one of which is reprised here!

muppet-6The Sesame Street gang shows up a’Carolin’

It’s undeniable that by Emmet Otter and Christmas Toy standards, and so A Muppet Family Christmas is pretty damned dull and uninspired by comparison. It’s not that the songs are bad… they’re just way too abundant. There’s very little dialogue, almost no attempt at comedy, and as you can see, the whole shebang is easily summed up in screen shots alone.

muppet-7Doc is informed that his name starts with the letter ‘D’

I don’t mean to downplay the feat of assembling all the Muppets in a single room. That’s why I’m showcasing the special in the first place: I recognize that this gathering of epic proportions is truly a resplendent spectacle to behold.

muppet-10The Turkey convinces Chef to cook a bigger bird…

muppet-9The internets thought this joke was hilarious, even though Henson did it twenty years ago

I’m a giant Muppet dork and I can name at least a hundred characters who appear here just off the top of my head. So, I can only imagine a substantial part of the budget went into the feat of puppeteering all of these beloved creatures at once…

muppet-11Kings of refuse

Because it certainly didn’t go into the writing. That’s part of what pisses me off about the special to begin with…

muppet-12Snowed-in guests from Sesame Street perform “Twas the Night Before Christmas” as payment for their stay

Many notable characters never do, or say, anything. Granted, Elmo wasn’t yet the shining star of Sesame Street, but he’s completely silent in the two versions I’ve watched.

muppet-13TRIVIA! The Elmo puppet has been around since the early 70’s, although he was referred to as “Baby Monster” until 1980. Four years later, Elmo was given his distinctive voice by Kevin Clash, and he’s gone on to become one of the most prolific Muppets of all time. In A Muppet Family Christmas, he never says a word.

Multiple versions, you say? Oh yeah… I won’t fault Henson for the lack of foresight into licensing music rights for home video, but it infuriates me that the very element that brought down the entire special, is also what made a definitive version unattainable.

muppet-24Last Muppets Standing

Reportedly, no version of Muppet Family Christmas ever available for sale has been presented uncut.  Renewing the rights to many of the songs proved too expensive beyond television – the only place where the special can be shown in its entirety and still isn’t due to longer commercial breaks! – so there were almost literally dozens of truncated Muppet Family Christmas DVDs available in numerous territories with distinctly different edits.

muppet-babies1Almost the entire Muppet Babies sequence is cut from the DVD due to music rights

Not that this matters anymore anyway… A Muppet Family Christmas has been discontinued on DVD and will most likely never be available to own again in any capacity. So, while I actually do believe Sesame Street and The Muppets are in good hands with their respective new owners, I sense something a little shadier in afoot here…

muppet-group2Smoke ’em if ya got ’em

Given the time frame, Jim Henson was certainly in negotiations with Disney to acquire the Muppets at the time that A Muppet Family Christmas was created… And the special certainly reeks of something hastily assembled. So I’d speculate that it may have been made because many of the characters had a price tag on their heads and Henson knew this was probably his last chance to cash in on an epic crossover to end all crossovers.

muppet-eisnerCreepy: Kermit and Disney CEO Michael Eisner introduced A Muppet Family Christmas‘s rebroadcast on The Magical World of Disney in 1989

But with The Muppets’ recent YouTube resurgence, I can’t imagine A Muppet Family Christmas is something a fan would ever want to be without. And as I sat through the final third of the special – almost 15 minutes of uninterrupted singing – I couldn’t help but get a little irritated. The fact that it ends with a roomful of the greatest characters ever created wishing me a “Merry Christmas” for the fiftieth time was little consolation.

muppet-group4Christ, we get it! Stop singing already!

jesus-muppet

Cheating! But there’s one appearance by a life-giving bearded man whom I absolutely worship… and his final words are immensely touching.

muppet-hensonThey certainly look like they’re having a good time out there… I like it when they have a good time.” – H.

muppet-santa

Doc enters the house dressed as Santa briefly at the end (even though he was seen inside a second ago, during the previous scene, wearing plain clothes). Maybe my memory’s a little fuzzy, but now that I think of it, I can’t remember any Muppet Christmas specials featuring an appearance by the actual Santa Claus. Can you? Comment below!

muppet-santa-doc“Santa cares not for your earthly continuity!”

muppet-albert

How could I rate it any lower? There’s a shitload of Muppets here! That alone has to be worth something, if for no other reason than it’ll undoubtedly never happen again. While it can’t be denied that A Muppet Family Christmas is representative of a” warm seasonal feeling” under the strictest sense of the definition, this was never the program I wanted to see. Coming from a studio that brought us some of the the funniest, most heartwarming and most enduring Christmas specials known to man, the fact that such a monumental assemblage of its entire legacy failed to live up to its own standards is a sad one indeed.

It’s still worth checking out, though, and if you’re really in to Christmas songs, it could earn some repeated play on your television. Oh, wait! No it can’t, since you’re practically required to watch it in stolen internet bootlegs for the foreseeable future… *sigh*

PRODUCT INFORMATION (Support the Site!)

A Muppet Family Christmas has been discontinued on DVD the world over, due mostly to Disney’s acquisition of the majority of the characters.  However, you can find a used/new copy on Amazon for a substantial mark up, and I believe there’s a Google ad on the right side of this very page that links to a legitimate retailer selling off the old stock. Needless to say, if you see a copy out in the wild, snatch it up immediately: It will be worth hella money!

As far as Muppety Christmases go, you could do a helluva a lot worse than A Muppet Christmas Carol, which features all of the characters you know and love in a much better production, as well as a feature-length commentary from Jim Henson’s son, Brian. I haven’t seen the newer made-for-TV Muppet specials, so I’m just going to make a personal recommendation instead. I’d have to go with The Christmas Toy (which was incidentally included on the UK version of the  Muppet Family Christmas DVD as a bonus feature!) just slightly over Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas, but you could also save yourself a chunk of change and just buy both in a cheap-ass bundle!

22mickeyYesterday’s Christmas Special:
MICKEY’S CHRISTMAS CAROL

6 thoughts on “Dec. 23 – A Muppet Family Christmas

  1. Letdown? Ahem! Muppet Family Christmas is the best Christmas special ever! Thanks for giving it some well deserved space and recognition.
    I hope the powers that be

  2. Letdown? Ahem! Muppet Family Christmas is the best Christmas special ever! Thanks for giving it some well deserved space and recognition.
    I hope the powers that be have a change of heart and re-release it.

    Sorry for above truncated version, due to pop-ups!

  3. Aaaaah! I remember watching this when if first aired. I was about four, and even then, I was pretty sure that dirty old man was a pedophile…

    Merry Christmas Chris! You put the Chris in Christ!

  4. @anonymous
    I suppose that’s true, and I certainly don’t disagree that it’s somewhat enjoyable. However, I’m still more than a little disappointed that the first, only, and last time The Muppets will ever be able to team up with the characters from Fraggle Rock and Sesame Street… all we got were a couple of songs.

    What I wanted back then and what I wanted when I rewatched it last year was some kind of adventure all the characters could go on and interact together more. Sure, there are a few standout moments, just nothing all that memorable. Add to that, doing nothing but singing songs – an outdated formula even at the time – makes any foreseeable home release all the more impossible. I assure you, this is coming from a HUGE Muppet fan!

Leave a Comment