I’m, admittedly, a sucker for a good Christmas special; this time of year is always quite enjoyable for precisely these types of events, things that wouldn’t be seen during a different time of year. Collecting together numerous recording artists and television personalities in a New York soundstage to create a Christmas special with humorously-themed songs isn’t something that happens every day, and that’s one of many things that I enjoy about this season.
What “A Colbert Christmas” does best is revel in its unique place within the pop cultural spectrum, one based on the duality of its star. Stephen Colbert (the character) is a conservative pundit who fights against the war on Christmas, while Stephen Colbert (the performer) is a hit amongst young liberals. What you get, then, is an entertaining cross-section: Toby Keith stops by the rebel against those who are trying to fight against this most sacred of holidays, while indie darling Feist is just as comfortable as an angelic switchboard operator.
When the special is at its most comfortable, it’s wonderfully entertaining; it never lets Colbert’s character go too far, and its use of its guest stars never drops below “mildly disinterested and awkward to be acting in front of a green screen.” Where it does go a little off the rails, with an overly obnoxious laugh track, feels like an honest enough error in judgment; I just wish they would have trusted us to insert our own laugh track, because I think they would have come out just fine.
That laugh track is in itself an attempt at relating to similar specials in this vein from years gone by, but the problem is its persistence. The cheesy entrance applause feels totally natural within the framework of the joke, whereas the recorded laughter meant to mimic a studio audience feels like an artificial attempt at recreating the usual boisterousness of Colbert’s crowd. In a special this humorous, and in many cases in a very subtle fashion, the laugh track feels off; it works during Colbert’s usual shows because of his interaction with them, but this special’s lack of that type of showmanship means that I think it would have been better off sticking with the intros.
Because the songs themselves were not entirely reliant on comedy, per se; they were quite musically interesting, and even when I’m not a big fan of country music Keith’s ditty was quite charming. Each song felt like it hit one of Colbert’s key messages (like the War on Christmas, or the relative lameness of other holidays like Hannukah in his duet with Jon Stewart) or was in and of itself a joke related to the holiday. And while some songs played out like the gags they were (John Legend’s, err, suggestive ode to Nutmeg was one of them), others were actually quite normal for a while and therefore when the laughs came in it felt off (this was especially true for Willie Nelson’s ode to Herb, the gift of the fourth wiseman). For songs that often went by without a laugh, having their points of seriousness, the laugh tracks made the other parts almost hard to hear or follow.
This isn’t to say that they ruined the special: the tale of Stephen Colbert trapped in his cabin by bears and unable to get to his studio to film a Christmas special with Elvis Costello, goats dressed as mice and reindeer, and the Jonas Brothers, was humorous and just the kind of storyline that suited this character. There is something very charming about Stephen Colbert and Feist screaming in horror while someone in a bear suit swallows Elvis Costello whole, I don’t know what else to tell you about that. And while the story pieces were very simple, they felt like they flowed nicely with the songs themselves; Colbert’s crisis of faith in his favourite holiday would logically lead him to consider new holidays, enjoy some holiday decisions, and eventually make out with a bear under the mistletoe after a rousing group rendition of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding.”
So at the end of the day, it’s exactly what you’d expect but done in the right way; the songs (done by the Broadway composers of “Cry Baby,” one of whom writes for the Daily Show) are catchy, and the guest performances are for the most part quite good. While I’d argue that Costello, Feist and Stewart get into the act a bit more than everyone else does (Legend’s acting feels a bit forced, Nelson’s contribution is more his willingness to self-deprecate than his performance, George Wendt doesn’t get much to do as Santa and Toby Keith looks downright bored singing what should have been a far more rousing battle cry from him), I don’t think that anything could detract from Colbert’s boundless enthusiasm for this type of thing. The man is an unstoppable force in this type of setting, and when he screams “I forgot – I’M DELICIOUS!” at the top of his lungs once the bear gets a taste for his saliva, I never once questioned his commitment to comedy.
So, for those who didn’t get a chance to see it, I’d take a gander; I don’t know if the DVD now available is going to offer it, but apparently there’s a version going around without a laugh track that might actually be included. If so, that would make the DVD version the definitive one: I have to presume that it would make a huge difference in some scenes, even if those who watched it live would have been fine as well. Regardless, a nice kickoff to the holiday season (even if Colbert would admonish me for using the term holiday, and if we Canadians don’t quite have this Thanksgiving Week insistence on beckoning the start of the holiday season with numerous parades and specials).
- I do love that Colbert’s attempt to embrace Hannukah was playing with a dradle against a potato pancake; and the pancake won.
- While the mistletoe bit felt a bit forced through most of the episode, especially with Keith who seemed really uncomfortable, the bear makeout session was totally worth it.
- Anyone else watch – if so, any favourite songs, moments, or appearances?