?Do you like to fa-la-la-la-laugh this time of year? Of course you do! If for no other reason than to stop yourself from crying about the debt and disappointment that the season inevitably brings. TV executives realize that more than Christmas, right this very minute what we really need is laughter. As such, episodes of your favorite sitcoms have become a holiday staple throughout the decades. But for every inventive Yuletide installment of your favorite shows there are seemingly hundreds of clich?-ridden sitcom retreads of A Christmas Carol broadcast each December (as you’ll soon learn, even some of these can have their charms). So here’s an early Topless Robot holiday present, a look at the 10 best sitcom Christmas episodes from the past 30 years. You can easily find most of these available online for viewing, so read away and then spend some time visiting TV friends old and new. It won’t make it be January get here any quicker, but it might dull the pain for awhile.
10) Family Ties, “A Keaton Christmas Carol”
Questionable acting from Tina Yothers? Check. Raping a Charles Dickens literary classic so that it can be reworked for a 22-minute time slot? Yep. Lessons learned by characters and hugs given? You betcha. There’s so much that is wrong with this overly saccharine episode of Family Ties that I can’t help but love it. Nostalgia fucks with our heads. It makes us do irrational things like create webpages devoted to Silverhawks and troll eBay in the early morning hours hoping to find cheap Dynamite back issues. Yet it is so intoxicating that I find myself coming back every holiday season to watch Alex Keaton behave all Scroogelike before he is redeemed after visits from the Ghosts of Christmas Past (Jennifer) and Future (Mallory). Since Alex had only two sisters and the writers clearly didn’t give a shit about respecting source material, the Ghost of Christmas Present is nowhere to be found. So yeah, this episode is problematic to be sure. But you know the warm glow you get when you unbox your Christmas ornaments every year and old memories come flooding back? Same deal with this. Humbug it all you want, just remember that nostalgia is a very powerful thing. Sha-la-la-la.
9) 30 Rock, “Ludachristmas”
According to the Urban Dictionary, Ludachristmas is the “day before Christmas when you get crunk and rock out.” Awesome, right? Not so much for Liz Lemon and colleagues in this episode of 30 Rock. While Jack’s acerbic mother tries to prove that misery loves company by revealing the truth about Liz’s suburban nightmare of family (complete with Andy Richter as her trauma-stricken brother), Kenneth attempts to get the rest of the TGS staff to forget about their planned evening of Ludachristmas debauchery and rediscover the true meaning of the holiday season. Before you can say “blerg,” things get out of control and the episode’s moral becomes evident: Schadenfreude is the greatest gift of all.
8) Newsradio, “Christmas”
If you don’t want to be bummed out, I’d advise you to skip the above clip that features some Phil Hartman hilarity. Much as he was on Saturday Night Live, Hartman was the glue that held Newsradio together and seeing him in Christmas episodes stirs up the same kind of poignant sadness that hearing The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” does ever since the senseless death of Kirsty MacColl a decade ago. Anyways, the series did a number of great holiday episodes during its too-brief five series run, but this particular installment deserves special attention thanks to Dave Foley’s slow-burn performance as the only sane person working in the asylum that is WNYX.
7) Curb Your Enthusiasm, “Mary, Joseph and Larry”
On Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David is a lovable dick whose misguided intentions and an adherence to a nonsensical code of living constantly get him in hot water. This holiday episode marks a rare occurrence in the series — you actually relate to and feel bad for Larry. Wanting nothing more than to get through the season and have an errant pubic hair removed from his throat, he is forced to endure such relatable Yuletide stresses as handing out Christmas tips and dealing with meddlesome family members. After accidentally eating a manger scene made out of cookies baked by his wife and in-laws, he decides to make it up to them by hiring a local church group to bring their real-life Nativity scene to his house. But when Larry comments to the actor playing Joseph (a scene-stealing David Koechner) about how hot the Virgin Mary is, the stage is set for a biblical smackdown that marks the show’s funniest holiday moment so far.
6) Arrested Development, “In God We Trust”
Whether they are ruining public celebrations or singing incest-laced ’70s hits at the family’s holiday party, Christmas with the Bluths always proves to be a good time. “In God We Trust” manages to seamlessly fit a number of ongoing plot threads (Michael’s love for Gob’s girlfriend Marta, George Michael’s infatuation with his cousin Maeby, Buster’s secret romantic life, Tobias’ affliction as a “never-nude,” etc) into a holiday context that culminates with a “Living Classics” pageant in which George Sr. and his grandson bring to live Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” with the help of some padded muscle suits. The only reason George Michael agrees to be involved is that his faux foam physique attracts Maeby’s eye, and when he sees the cheese curl-sized penis he is supposed to wear as Adam in the performance he takes a cue from Tobias’ playbook and throws on some jean shorts instead. This coupled with George Sr.’s decision to make the most of his day pass from prison and flee the scene results in the Bluth family’s reputation getting yet another black eye. Fortunately for us, the ensuing awkwardness is a joy to watch. Surprisingly there are no clips from the episode available on YouTube, so instead I’ve imbedded a compilation of A Charlie Brown Christmas homages that were featured in the episode “Good Grief.” After all, Christmas time is here.
5) Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge, “Knowing Me, Knowing Yule”
After accidentally shooting a guest to death at the end of the previous episode, rude-but-lovable talk show host Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan) returned to the airwaves with this madcap Christmas special of the Britcom Knowing Me, Knowing You in which his streak of bad behavior continued undeterred. Over the course of the hour-long program, he exposes his rampant homophobia towards his musical director, insults a born-again Christian and a paralyzed golfer who are guests, nearly gets beaten up by a transvestite chef and repeatedly punches the BBC executive who can save or bury his show. In other words, just another typical evening of chat for Partridge. Although he’s come close to breaking through in the U.S. a few times (Hamlet 2 and a memorable guest spot on Curb Your Enthusiasm are amongst his career highlights on this side of the pond), American stardom still eludes Coogan. Perhaps that’s the reason he recently returned to Partridge for a series of web shorts called Mid Morning Matters that find the character as delightfully anti-social as ever. As great as it is to have Alan back, he still has never been funnier than he is in Knowing Me, Knowing You. If you haven’t had the chance to make his acquaintance, start with this Christmas special and marvel at its ability to jingle your bells.
4) Community, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”
Community continued to prove itself as the most subversive sitcom currently on network TV with this recent homage to both The Wizard of Oz and vintage Rankin/Bass holiday specials that has already become essential holiday viewing less than a month after its initial airing. It must have been a Herculean task to accomplish, but somehow writers Dan Harmon and Dino Stamatopoulos crafted a non-denominational holiday show that is equally cynical and sentimental (and that’s not even getting into the brilliance of the killer Lost joke that plays a key role in third act). The oddly uplifting finale about embracing the holiday and the bullshit that comes with would make Rudolph proud. “Music and liquor and trees, that what’s Christmas is for.” Amen to that, Pierce.
3) The Office, “The Office Special”
I previously sang the praises of this wrap-up of the UK’s original The Office in my list of the 10 Most Underrated Christmas Specials Ever and I’m mentioning it again here because with each successive viewing I become convinced that this two-part episode is the perfect way to wrap up a series. The final couple minutes of the show are featured above, and upon watching them again it’s difficult not to be won over by the humor — and unexpected heart — that Ricky Gervais and company pull off here. I know that you Michael Scott fanatics out there are probably bummed that I didn’t put one of the U.S. Office episodes on here. My apologies, but I guess I’m just too much of a David Brent man.
2) Seinfeld, “The Pick”
“The Pick” centers around Elaine’s infamous Christmas card nip slip and how a nose scratch can often be misinterpreted as a pick. Classic moments from the show for sure, but ones that have been overshadowed by a certain December event that features an aluminum pole and impromptu displays of strength. You see, these days the Festivus episode gets all of the Seinfeld holiday glory. In the tradition of that celebration I’m going to air my grievance that “The Strike” (featuring the debut of Festivus) isn’t nearly as funny as “The Pick.” Feel free to air your own grievances about my totally subjective decision in the comments…
1) It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, “A Very Sunny Christmas”
“A Very Sunny Christmas” could have easily had the It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia gang slumming their way through an uninspired holiday adventure. Instead, the episode — which debuted as a straight-to-DVD feature last year and is currently airing on FX — has Charlie, Mac, Sweet Dee, Dennis and Frank embarking on a hilarious search for the Christmas spirit. Of course given the characters we are dealing with here, it is a search that somehow involves references to obscure Phillies players and an assault on Santa Claus. Oddly enough, this episode also gives us the most insight yet into why the gang is so selfish and generally fucked up (Frank was a Christmas Grinch to Dennis and Dee, Charlie’s mom is a whore, Mac’s parents stole his presents from neighboring families, and so forth). Along with the unexpected character development comes a denouement in which everyone has to pay for their awful actions for once at the hands of the Big Lebowski himself, David Huddleston as Frank’s old partner, Eugene. The laughs here are bigger than just the shock value of seeing a nude Danny DeVito or hearing the word fuck casually bandied about. In fact, the funniest moments tend to be little character beats like Mac urging Charlie not to “get lost” in a game of Simon and Dennis’ continued exasperation towards everyone. Then there’s the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer-influenced segment in which Frank gets some stop-motion comeuppance. With so many winning bits crammed into such a brief running time, it’s little wonder why this has quickly become my favorite Christmas sitcom episode ever. Now if you’ll excuse you, I have to see if I can find an Omnibot somewhere to share my holidays with.