The guy who came on to SNL’s Writing staff in 1985, wrote a number of things that made the doomed Season 11 worth watching, then used that momentum to become one of the single most important off-screen figures of SNL’s “Silver Age” (The 2 years in the 90s when he was a featured player was icing on the cake). He then took his talents over to a fledgling late night TV show on NBC where a Tall, lanky Redhead with Virtually No on-air experience needed all the help he could get. Smigel (among other talented people) soon turned Conan O’Brien into a household name—partly because of the success Smigel found with a Dog hand puppet. Somewhere in between his head writing for “Late Night” and the moment “Triumph the insult comic Dog” wound up taking on a life of its own, Smigel never truly “Left” SNL. From 1996 to roughly 2008, Smigel & several others put together a series of cartoons to plug in somewhere in the middle of an episode. Don Pardo credited these shorts as “A Cartoon by Robert Smigel”, I personally like to call them “Smigeltoons”, but officially, these cartoons became known as…
Unofficially, “(Saturday) TV Funhouse” began as a segment on the short lived “Dana Carvey Show” in 1996. It was here where we met for the first time, the unquestionable “Mascots” of these shorts—Walt Disney had Mickey Mouse, Warner Bros had Bugs Bunny, Max Fleisher had Betty Boop……………Robert Smigel had Ace & Gary, AKA…
The short on the Carvey series wound up repeating on the 1996 Season Premiere of SNL—and to those who never got a chance to see it on Carvey’s show, it was a hit right out of the box. Counting the 2011 Live Action AGD short film, a total of 102 “TV Funhouse” shorts were produced for SNL (to say nothing of the Comedy Central spinoff of the same name). And while discussion of all the other ones is something to talk about another day, today we are zeroing in specifically on the “Most Wonderful Time of the Year”. Smigel’s Christmas cartoons arguably have the most effort compared to the other ones—partly because (as you’ll see) many of them tap in to a certain sense of Nostalgia; essentially taking something well established from long ago and giving it a “Modern” Twist—and this is despite the fact that there were only a few of these made that were “Holiday” specific. With that said, This list is gonna be structured a little differently. Yes, it’s still a countdown list; but because I have already mentioned two Very Great classics back in July, I don’t really want to go through the redundancy of talking about them again. (For the Record, I’d place “Narrator that Ruined Christmas” at #1 and “Charlie Brown 2002” at #2). So for this list, we are only going to count down from 8 to 3 this time; and please look up the entries from 7/23/2016 and 7/26/2016 to find out more about my top picks. Also, because there was actually a very small amount of “Holiday” related Smigeltoons over the years, I’m also going to include a few items that have “New Year/Year in Review” connotations as well. In the meantime, we’ve got some stockings to stuff…
- MILLENIUM FUN WITH REAL AUDIO (12/4/1999) – One note before we go further, there will be a Number of entries that will neither have Video or a Transcript (or a decent screen shot in this case) to back me up; so for the most part, you’re gonna have to take my word for it…especially on this first one, which I admit might be a bit of a stretch; it’s not “Christmas”, or even “New Years” per se–even though the mania of the Millennium is on full display here. This isn’t even particularly “Funny”, but I wanted to include this one because of the effort Smigel’s team put in over the apocalyptic imagery—some of which is downright disturbing—all while the cast of “Friends” go about their day (which actually reminds me just how Banal “Friends” truly was). Of course, all that Apocalypse stuff never wound up happening when this aired; but as the old saying goes, “There’s a First time for Everything”…Right?
- BLUE STATE CHRISTMAS (12/18/2004) – Speaking of which; Liberals getting upset that the person they wanted to be president isn’t going to be despite mounting evidence that the person who was elected did a lot of bad things and STILL gets in anyway…………Some things NEVER change, but at least Smigel knew how to take things in stride. Rankin-Bass is, was, and will always be low-hanging fruit when it comes to parody. Practically everybody has made fun of them at some point; from “That 70s Show” to Aflac commercials, to the very network that airs them, and yes…even Other sketch shows. Unfortunately, this being a semi-sequel to “Narrator that Ruined Christmas”, some of the jokes may have been a little too obvious (“Dumbfuckistan”), or mean-spirited (Moby & Gay Jokes), or Preachy (The ending, pretty much). Clearly, Smigel might’ve tried a little too hard to capture lightning in a bottle twice…either that, or they just needed to vent out some steam.
- THE HARLEM GLOBETROTTERS’ FIRST CHRISTMAS (12/12/1998) – Ever watch an old Hanna-Barbera cartoon show from the 60s? Doesn’t matter which one, just…any of them? If you have, then you already know what makes this one as endearing as it is—right down to the liberal use of the laugh track (Seriously, even “Futurama” wondered why would a Cartoon show need a laugh track?). To the rest of the people watching, a nuance or two might’ve been lost in Translation; you might’ve thought “Oh…the Globetrotters meet Baby Jesus…Neat!” It’s about as Corny as you expect it to be, but slightly more charming if you’re a fan of that era of animation.
- AGD – DON WE NOW…OR NEVER (12/14/1996) – Obviously, we HAVE to include this, not just because it’s Ace & Gary, but it’s also Smigel’s first Xmas Toon. This was the 3rd episode of AGD, and by this time we probably knew the rhythm by heart. Bad guys do evil-doings, they anticipate A&G, they question their ambiguous gayness, innuendo/dick jokes ensues, “What’s everybody looking at? NOTHING!” As formulaic as it sounds, however, part of the reason why people enjoy these particular cartoons so much is that they up the ante in envelope pushing every time; and as time went on, the ante was further raised. IMO, I’m Astonished they got “Roll Mode” past the censors when it first aired—but the further we got into Ace & Gary’s adventures, the more we realized that “Roll Mode” was just an appetizer. Throw in Santa, and the epic awkwardness is complete.
- CHRISTMASTIME FOR THE JEWS (12/17/2005) – When you think Christmas, you think of either “Rankin-Bass” TV specials, Claymation, or Darlene Love’s MANY appearances with David Letterman…but Never in a million years would you think they would all combine. Here, they do in a way that’s not only a catchy tune with decent eye candy; but as a Jewish man who tries to be non-denominational every year, I can honestly say that, Yes, it’s pretty much true that we go out to whatever places are open on Christmas Day and enjoy ourselves (I personally like to eat lunch at “Perkins’” [or “Marie Calendar’s”, depending on where you live], followed by a matinee of whatever the big Christmas movie is this year that isn’t sold out). This one hits home, and I love ‘em for it…now if only Ms. Love would perform “Merry Christmas (Please Come Home)” on another late night show, even though she promised Dave she wouldn’t.
- FUN WITH REAL AUDIO: JESUS & CHRISTMAS (12/13/1997) – No Video, No Transcript, No respect for the Holy…Thanks a lot, NBC! Simply put, Jesus is irritated by all the pandering that Televangelists do on a fairly regular basis and is trying to find genuine Goodwill in the 20th Century (To which John Oliver says “Get in Line, Jesus!”). Depressed & despondent, Jesus stops at a TV store and tries to look for something that embodies the spirit of Christmas without pandering to the audience—some examples try & fail, until he ultimately stops on (say it with me now) “A Charlie Brown Christmas”. As I mentioned on “Charlie Brown ‘02”, Smigel was clearly influenced by Charles Schultz as a kid—especially considering he wrote a Foreword for one of the many “Peanuts Treasury” books out there. So, it’s no surprise that this particular cartoon ended the way it did with Jesus being so moved by Linus’ words that he then decides to dance down the street in the style of that One Peanuts kid whose name we don’t know, but we still know him by the dance he does (If it helps, Mr. Burns danced that way once on The Simpsons). After Charles Schultz passed away in 2000, Smigel used a simple image of freaked-out Linus to pay tribute. A bumper that—incidentally–was first used in a “Mr. T” cartoon, but has since been used on various clip shows at the end of This cartoon with music co-director Cheryl Hardwick playing a few notes of “Christmas Time is Here” (Or as some of you may Now think of it, the “Sad song” on “Arrested Development”). As cliché as it sounds, Smigel’s cartoons made you Laugh, but sometimes they made you think as well—his Christmas Cartoons especially did a good job of that.
Since the clip supply was lacking a little, and a good chunk of the list was already pre-written ahead of time elsewhere; I have a feeling that this might not be quite enough to ring the holidays in with—so with that; NEXT WEEK we’re going to dive into Christmas Past for a Special Retro Review……one that, now that I’ve read it again for the first time in 16 years, I feel Personally ASHAMED to have written at the time (Because you can’t celebrate the holidays without shame). Until then, however, SNL’s Christmas Special airs Wednesday Night in Prime Time—so that means a BONUS sketch as well (and yes, I still owe you a sketch from the ’89 Harrelson ep.). Until then……(*LOOKS OVER AT SMALL DOG HOLDING A PIECE OF AN SNL BUMPER*)……L’eggo Lorne’s Show…L’EGGO…HIS…SHOW!!