Yes, the desperate search for the table leaf that you chucked into the garage this time last year is over, the turkey that began so hopefully as a young bird just pecking its way out of its shell to greet the gentle breeze and cerulean blue sky is now a masticated mass working its way through your digestive system on its way to an ignominious end (yours!), and every available inch of table and counter space in your kitchen has disappeared under an avalanche of greasy plates and silverware.
My, that was fun, wasn’t it? And you know what that means, don’t you? — it’s almost Christmas!
In addition to the common cultural practices of the season (like sticking an actual tree in your living room, for goodness’ sake), every family has their own peculiar holiday rites and rituals. As I detailed for breathless Black Gate readers many years ago, one of mine is reading a classic ghost story aloud on Christmas Eve, a practice I heartily commend to anyone willing to give it a try. However, if that’s a bit too nineteenth century for you (the effect is largely lost if you’re reading off of an iPhone), I have another, more modern-feeling tradition that might interest you. The only thing is, I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. Around here we call it… Cruel Yule.
To Hell With It
Countless families look forward to the Christmas season because it provides an occasion for watching their favorite holiday movies, timeless films like Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life, and A Christmas Story. Heartwarming, uplifting, classic treats for all ages they truly are… and I say, the hell with ’em.
About twenty years ago, a cabal of like-minded friends and I decided that the ritual of watching the best-loved Christmas movies needed a counterweight; we decided to push back on this comfort and joy business, and so every year we gather to celebrate the season by watching the worst Christmas movies we can lay our hands on.
Two movies (actually both are television specials) quickly became the candy-striped centerpieces of our masochistic rite: the Star Wars Holiday Special and Rich Little’s Christmas Carol.
The fetid, festering mass of videotape known as the Star Wars Holiday Special oozed onto television screens across the nation on the evening of November 17th, 1978. The show runs for a little over an hour and a half and with commercials added, it took up a two-hour time slot back in the day. (The bootleg DVD that we watch includes the commercials, and we always look forward to the one with all the smiling textile workers singing about “looking for the union label” on the clothing you buy, blissfully unaware that the Globalization Death Star was about to vaporize them.)
If you’re reckless enough to watch the show, I guarantee that about half an hour in, someone in your viewing party will say (as someone always does in mine), “How long is this thing?” This is because watching the Star Wars Holiday Special is slow torture, real rack and thumbscrews stuff, and whether you watch it with or without the commercials, it feels like it’s four hours long.
Though it defies summary, it’s not quite fair to call the show plotless — it does have a kind of lobotomized story line, in which Han Solo and Chewbacca, one jump ahead of the Empire, join Chewie’s family on Kashyyyk to celebrate Life Day. (Think Festivus… in spaaaaace!) Questions about the intimate details of Chewbacca’s domestic life were surely weighing heavily on your mind as you first watched Star Wars during the salad days of the Carter administration, and now you can rest easy, knowing that the Wookie’s household consists of his wife Malla, his son Lumpy, and his father… Itchy.
Mark Hamil, Harrison Ford, Peter Mayhew, Anthony Daniels, and Carrie Fischer actually appear in the show, albeit briefly, but the bulk of the running time is given over to the really big names in the Star Wars saga, like Bea Arthur (as tavern keeper Ackmena), Art Carney (as trader Suan Dann, faithful friend of the resistance), and Harvey Korman (a triple threat as a schlub with an unrequited yen for Ackmena named Krelmann, some kind of malfunctioning teaching android, and most disturbingly, in purple makeup and futuristic drag as Chef Gormaanda, host of a video cooking show.)
These luminaries lurch, stagger and crawl through a series of disjointed episodes that have to be seen to be believed. Unfortunately, once seen, they can’t be forgotten, no matter how hard you try. Carney is the character most connected to the plot, as he helps our heroes avoid capture by misdirecting officials of the Empire, while Bea Arthur tends bar and growls her way through tuneless songs until the bad guys impose a curfew and shut her down. (That’s what you get for watering your drinks with bantha urine.)
Harvey Korman is perhaps the most memorable of the trio if only for his bizarre turn as Chef Gormaanda; halfway through the recipe (Mala is watching the Chef’s show and cooking right along with her) another pair of arms appears from behind ol’ Harve (Gormaanda is a four-armed alien, is the idea), leading to the inevitable question — where is the rest of this unfortunate person… especially his head? In a place far, far away, one hopes, although I don’t know how that could physically be managed in that pre-CGI era.
Along the way, there’s a weird animated sequence (as in the animation is really weird) involving Luke and his new friend, a helpful chap named Boba Fett. Other highlights include a screechy song by the Jefferson Starship (via a 3D video console that an Empire officer is fooling around with instead of doing his job) and a deeply disquieting song and dance routine by Diahann Carroll (“Not Leslie Uggams, but an amazing simulation!”) on a sort of salon hair-dryer looking virtual reality headset. What makes this part squirmy is that Itchy is the one watching Ms. Carroll, and he seems to get very… er, aroused by the cavortings of this woman of a different species. I really didn’t need to know what itch Itchy was scratching, thank you.
Eventually the whole incoherent mess comes to a heartwarming conclusion with the Empire thwarted and everyone gathered together for the big Life Day celebration, at which Carrie Fisher gives a speech so obscene that I will not repeat it here. (“No matter how different we appear, we’re all the same in our struggle against the powers of evil and darkness.” That much should let you know how foul it is.) Then she sings a song. At the Wookie’s Life Day celebration, the human princess grabs the spotlight by making a speech and singing a song. Sounds a little… imperialistic to me.
For forty-five years George Lucas has adamantly disclaimed all responsibility for this abomination, asserting that he just said “Yeah, OK” when the network suggested it and that they are to blame for everything. That’s a little like Hitler trying to dodge responsibility for World War Two by saying, “What? Poland? Really? I thought you guys knew I was joking!”
The second jewel in the Cruel Yule crown, Rich Little’s Christmas Carol, was originally broadcast on December 16th, 1979. God-awful as it is, decades of viewing Rich’s show have led to a grudging consensus among our group — this one isn’t quite as bad as the Star Wars special, for two reasons. First, it’s shorter, coming in at only fifty-five minutes. Would you rather be waterboarded for an hour or an hour and a half? Me too.
The second reason that Rich Little’s Christmas Carol is marginally less painful than Star Wars is simply because it actually has a story, the one Charles Dickens came up with one hundred and eighty years ago. Anything that can last that long has to have been built pretty solidly, so much so that even Rich Little can’t completely destroy it.
Nevertheless, Rich Little’s Christmas Carol is mostly terrible. The conceit is that everyone in the show is played by Rich Little as one of the many celebrities he did impressions of. So Scrooge is W.C. Fields, Marley is Richard Nixon (he shows up in Scrooge’s room entwined in reels of tape rather than chains, one of the show’s happier inspirations), Nephew Fred is Johnny Carson, Bob Cratchit is Paul Lynde, Fezziwig is Groucho Marx, the Ghost of Christmas Past is Humphrey Bogart… you get the idea.
It sounds like it might be kind of fun, but the premise is better than the product. Little was all over television in the 60’s and 70’s — you couldn’t get away from him, and if he wasn’t the best impressionist around, he was the most persistent. The problem with the show (and with Little in general) is that instead of focusing on the people he did best, he always insisted on doing anyone and everyone, and while some of his impressions were outstanding (he did a great Jimmy Stewart and his Johnny Carson was spot-on), many of them weren’t all that good.
When you’re trapped within his Christmas Carol, it’s impossible not to notice that Rich’s Groucho is about what “Your Uncle Bob Who Does Some Impressions” could do and his Peter Falk as Columbo and Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau (they’re the Ghosts of Christmas Present and Future, respectively) aren’t much better than that. His John Wayne (mercifully restricted to a brief appearance as one of the businessmen talking about Scrooge’s death) is frankly awful; watching it, Uncle Bobs all across the country felt better about themselves.
If the high variability of the impressions isn’t liability enough (when Mrs. Cratchit appears — Jean Stapleton as Edith Bunker — we find it necessary to post guards at all exits), Little was also never very good at writing his own material (along with that hack Dickens, he’s the show’s only credited writer), so even when the impressions are good, the jokes are often painfully lame.
Oh, there’s a lot of singing and dancing too; didn’t I tell you? Rich Little’s Christmas Carol is a musical! But — it is short.
We started by watching the Star Wars Holiday Special and Rich Little’s Christmas Carol together every year, but after five or six years of that someone said, “Why the hell are we doing this?!” and we switched to watching each one every other year. Then several years ago, we thought that we should give ourselves a break by putting a third show into the rotation, so we would have two years between Wookie smut and Rich Little cringe, a bit of breathing room between degradation and depression. Therefore, some idiot (I think it was me) selected perhaps the only Christmas movie that combines the aimlessness and torturous length of the Star Wars Holiday Special with the “Who thought this was funny? This isn’t funny!” agony of Rich Little’s Christmas Carol.
Yes, in a world of movies, I hit upon Ernest Saves Christmas.
Jim Varney certainly had some sort of talent, though I have no idea what it may have been. Just a minute or two in the company of the rubber-faced comedian is enough to convince even the most skeptical observer that this is not a normal person. Maybe he was nothing like his alter-ego, Ernest P. Worrell; maybe Varney spent his off hours sipping hundred-year-old brandy from a crystal snifter as he listened to Stravinsky and leafed through his collection of Balzac first editions. I don’t know. But I do know that Ernest Saves Christmas is the product of an utterly alien mind, the manifestation of a cold, cruel sensibility so far removed from ordinary life and decent human values that it can only be seen as a deadly threat to all we hold dear.
Do I really need to recount the plot? Fine. Late one December Santa Claus shows up in Orlando, Florida, where Ernest is making a precarious living as a taxi driver. (Precarious because he’s an imbecile.) Mr. Kringle has come to the Sunshine State because it’s time for him to retire and he has his eye on a possible replacement, a schlemiel named Joe Carruthers, who hosts a local children’s television show. It’s very important to get everything handled before Christmas because, you know, good little boys and girls all over the world blah blah blah.
Of course the utterly incompetent and dumb as a rock Ernest meets Santa and winds up playing a key role in this momentous changeover, chiefly by taking care of Santa’s magic sack (don’t you say it, don’t you dare say it) and springing the old fool from jail, where he lands after Carruthers’ Scroogish manager has him arrested. Ernest does this with the help of a teenage runaway named Harmony Starr (would I lie to you?), an underage, at-risk young woman he’s taken under his wing and who’s living with him and it’s not the least bit creepy or icky, I swear. I mean, it was 1988 and anyway, if there’s one thing we know about Jim Varney it’s that he was definitely not a human being like you or me, right, so nothing to see here.
Also, while Santa and Ernest are trying to convince Joe Carruthers to abandon life as he knows it and enter an unprecedented realm of metaphysical terror, there’s a whole subplot involving a couple of dimwitted warehouse workers who accidentally open some crates that turn out to contain flying reindeer; the critters are impossible to corral, as they fly up to the ceiling and walk around up there. (Whatever you do, don’t stand under them.) The two boneheads try, though, and while no actual hilarity ensues, you at least understand that hilarity is meant to ensue, and in this movie, you have to be satisfied with that. (As a founding member of our Circle of Pain always remarks, “What kind of comedy needs to have comic relief?”)
The movie ends as Ernest hooks up with the warehouse boys and a couple of elves who’ve shown up, and they get the reindeer and Santa’s sleigh to the airport, where they meet Kringle and Carruthers just in time to manage the switch. (Where did the sleigh come from? Ask me in 2025; this year is a Star Wars year.) As a reward for all of his help, Ernest gets to drive the sleigh for the night, explaining why 1988 was an exceptionally crappy year for Christmas presents. (Think back — you’ll see that I’m right.)
It’s a bad movie, folks, a very bad movie. It was successful at the box office, however; it made the most money of any of the five Ernest films. I don’t know what that means. I do know, though, that we will not be adding a fourth movie to our Cruel Yule rotation; Ernest Saves Christmas definitely scared me straight. (Clearly, I was already stupid.)
In addition to our main courses, we also usually have a side dish or two, appetizers like the Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special (we’ll definitely be watching that one this year), the He-Man and She-Ra Christmas Special (the moment when Skeletor realizes the true meaning of Christmas is sure to bring a tear to your eye) or one of countless Christmas episodes of various TV shows, many of them adaptations of A Christmas Carol, which is probably the most travestied story of all time.
One year we watched a Hallmark movie called A Carol Christmas, in which Grinchy talk-show host Tori Spelling has her heart softened by two spirits played by Gary Coleman and William Shatner, but it didn’t make the yearly rotation because, believe it or not, it wasn’t bad enough. Did you know that there is a Christmas episode of The Six Million Dollar Man? Well, there is. Steve Austin looks pretty good in a Santa suit, and he doesn’t need any magic reindeer to get up onto the roof either; he can jump up there.
Let me offer you one last bit of advice if you decide to try this twisted tradition yourself (and Star Wars, Rich Little, and Ernest are all on You Tube); I strongly suggest you institute a rule that my group put into effect over a decade ago, to wit: “Bathroom breaks will be strictly monitored, and anyone holing up in there for more than five minutes will be hauled out by main force.”
May you have a wonderful holiday season, and if that’s not to your taste, well… there’s always Cruel Yule. Ho, ho… oh, no, no, no.
Thomas Parker is a native Southern Californian and a lifelong science fiction, fantasy, and mystery fan. When not corrupting the next generation as a fourth grade teacher, he collects Roger Corman movies, Silver Age comic books, Ace doubles, and despairing looks from his wife. His last article for us was The Sorcerer and the Novelist: W. Somerset Maugham’s The Magician