What are the best Christmas-themed sitcom episodes of all time? I change this list up every December. Since it’s been a strange year, I’m throwing a couple of strange choices into the mix. Here, in chronological order (and heavy on the ’60s) is my 2020 Twelve Sitcoms of Christmas list:
The Honeymooners (1955). In “T’was the Night Before Christmas.” The story is as stark and simple as the Kramden’s Brooklyn apartment: Ralph (Jackie Gleason) sells his beloved bowling ball to buy a present for his wife Alice (Audrey Meadows). By the end of the episode, you’ll marvel at how much—after 65 years–four people (including co-stars Art Carney and Joyce Randolph) in one room can make you laugh and cry.
The Andy Griffith Show (1960). A town Scrooge forces Sheriff Taylor (Griffith) and Deputy Barney Fife (Don Knotts) to keep a family locked up over the holidays. When Aunt Bee (Francis Bavier) and Opie (future director Ron Howard) bring Christmas to the jail, you’ll want to be locked up too. Griffith even gets to sing and play the guitar. You’ll watch this and say, “Why can’t they make TV shows like this anymore?”
Car 54 Where Are You? (1961). In the episode titled, “Christmas at the 53rd,” Capt. Block (Paul Reed) and officers Toody (Joe E. Ross) and Muldoon (Fred Gwynne) headline the precincts’ annual Christmas show, and Gilbert & Sullivan fans are in for a treat. Gruff Ross offers a shockingly moving song, especially considering some consider him the worst human being on Earth. Bewitched fans will recognize a young Alice Ghostley as Muldoon’s sort-of girlfriend. I love the energy of this episode which is like attending a live, holiday performance from the actors who make the show. If it seems as if the writers were taking the week off, they still had to pull together some terrific song parodys — and the actors had to be talented enough to put them over. As you’ll see below, this formula was tried, successfully, by others. Stream it now on-demand on Amazon Prime Video.
The Dick Van Dyke Show (1963). In “The Alan Brady Show Presents,” we finally get to see the variety TV show writers Rob and Buddy and Sally all work on: The Alan Brady Show. Brady appears as Santa in a sleigh pulled by June Taylor-ish dancers while his writers step on stage and perform various musical numbers. There’s Buddy (Morey Amsterdam) with his cello, Sally (Rose Marie) witrh her Jimmy Durante impression, Rob (Van Dyke) with his Laura (Mary Tyler Moore), adorable together in matching, hooped Santa suits. Even Mel (Richard Deacon) and Little Ritchie (Larry Matthews) gets into the act. CBS keeps colourizing Dick Van Dyke episodes — why haven’t they colourized this one yet? Stream it now on-demand on Amazon Prime Video.
That Girl (1966). The first colour episode on this list, “Christmas and the Hard-luck Kid” finds Ann Marie (Marlo Thomas) telling boyfriend Donald (Ted Bessell) about the time she slept over at a school with one of her students who was missing out on the holidays. It’s not as creepy as it sounds. The kid was played by Christopher Shea, better known as the voice of Linus from A Charlie Brown Christmas and other Peanuts specials. A very early effort from writer James L. Brooks.
Family Affair (1968). “Christmas Came a Little Early.” This is the strangest and saddest one on the list. A sickly child in Buffy’s class, Eve (played by future Brady Bunch daughter Eve Plumb) is too ill to attend school. The teacher is literally phoning it in. This year it would have been a zoom call. Anyway, Eve is very sick. Buffy (Anissa Jones) wants to cheer her up. Uncle Bill (Brian Keith) decides they’ll host a Christmas in July party. Mr. French (Sebastian Cabot) puts on a red suit. It all leads to a very sad scene between Keith and Jones. Weird and maudlin? Sure, but brave to deal with death and kids on a ’60s sitcom — and Jones and Keith make you feel the loss. Stream it on-demand on Amazon Prime Video.
The Bill Cosby Show (1969). Okay, stay with me. In “A Christmas Ballad,” substitute teacher Chet Kincaid (Cosby) inadvertently gets an old man (Rex Ingram) fired off a Christmas tree lot, so he hunts the man down and asks if he’ll play Santa at a local community centre. Cosby’s rapport with children comes to the fore here, and forgotten star Ingram gets a lovely late career showcase. This entire series was so understated and life-like, and — rare for the time — free of any laugh track. Stream it now on-demand on Amazon Prime Video.
Bewitched (1970). “Sisters at Heart” (1970). Young Tabitha does a little “wishcraft” to make her skin colour match her African American friend Lisa. The kids’ faces wind up polka dotted when something goes wrong. At turns awkward and astonishing, viewers today will wonder how so much blackface wound up on a network TV show in 1970. The sponsor was a little jittery, so star Elizabeth Montgomery taped an intro explaining this was “a very special episode” that was based on an idea submitted by a Grade 10 class at a Los Angeles school. Still, Larry Tate (played by, uh, David White) in blackface is as wrong and unsettling as Trudeau’s facial faux pas.
Laverne & Shirley (1976). “Oh Hear the Angels’ Voices” is another, “Let’s put on a show” episode. It’s co-written by Garry Marshall, who was a writer-producer on The Dick Van Dyke Show. The charm of it is seeing Penny Marshall, Cindy Williams and the rest of the regulars cut loose with Christmas songs and sketches, including recently departed David L. Lander as “Squiggy.” It is a tad iffy, however, that the show takes place in a “mental ward.” Look for future WKRP standout Howard Hesseman as a doctor — or is he?
Frasier, like Bewitched, did several Christmas episodes — eight in fact. My favourite is the first season gem, “Miracle on Third or Fourth Street,” (Dec., 1993). Crushed by the last-minute news that son Frederick will no longer be visiting for the holidays, Dr. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) volunteers to work Dec. 25th at the radio station. Features a stellar script by series co-creator Christopher Lloyd, the episode is funny, sad and moving and aggressively unsentimental. Listen for celebrity voices Mel Brooks, Ben Stiller and Rosemary Clooney among the depressed radio station callers who call the good doctor.
M*A*S*H (1972). The first season gem “Dear Dad,” written by Larry Gelbart, found Hawkeye (Alan Alda) writing a letter explaining Christmas at his medical unit in Korea. Later, dressed as Santa to distribute toys to orphans, he has to attend to choppers full of wounded soldiers.
Community (2010). Made in the style of those Rankin/Bass stop-motion Christmas specials, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” finds Abed (Danny Pudi) and his study-group pals in a weird fantasyland, searching for the true meaning of Christmas.