Tuned In

The True Demeaning of Christmas, Colbert-Style

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Early in Comedy Central’s A Colbert Christmas, airing Sunday night, flag-waving country singer Toby Keith stops by Colbert’s cabin in the snowy woods. They get to talking about what’s happened to Christmas in our society—you go to the mall and people say “Season’s Greetings,” you can’t put a Nativity scene in front of a courthouse. “I hear in San Francisco,” Colbert says, “it’s legal to marry your Christmas tree!” 

“Well, that ain’t right,” Keith replies, and launches into the catchiest, most addictive holiday song you will hear this season: “The War on Christmas.” “Separate / Church and state / That’s what some lawyer said,” Keith sings (as a picture of Thomas Jefferson appears in the background). “I think it’s time we separated him from his head!”

Like such Keith standards as “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue,” the song is catchy, it’s in your face—it’s positively jingle-oistic. (“If you say I can’t deck my halls / Well, I’ll deck you myself”) The surreal, hilarious Colbert Christmas may not be the most traditionally sentimental special you will see this holiday season. But if it can entice Keith to so cheerfully play a parody of Toby Keith—and defy you, really, to tell the difference—all in the name of holiday fun, why I daresay that’s the true spirit of Christmas! 

Of course, I’m half-Jewish, so what do I know? A Colbert Christmas is like that. In the mold of celebrity TV specials of the 1970s—which the makers seem to have spent a lot of time studying—there’s something for everyone, at least everyone who doesn’t take their Christmas too seriously.

There are celebrity cameos galore: Elvis Costello dressed as a nutcracker; Willie Nelson dressed as a Wise Man, singing of bringing a gift of ganja to the baby Jesus; John Legend, crooning a love song about nutmeg, the dirtiest song about a spice since Chef added cinnamon to his chocolate salty balls on South Park; Feist as an angel; and “late-night basic cable’s Jon Stewart”—offering a little somethin’ for the Jews—asking Colbert to “consider Hanukkah.” (“Eight days of presents / Which means one nice one and then a week of dreck”) And this being Colbert, there is a bear, which—also in the spirit of ’70s Xmas variety specials—provides the thin storyline. (Colbert needs to go to New York to tape his holiday special but is trapped inside by a bear.) 

The Christmas-special parody is impeccable, but as on Flight of the Conchords, what really sells the parody is how well written the music is. (Thanks to Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger, pairing again with lyricist / Daily Show producer David Javerbaum, with whom he worked on the musical Cry-Baby.) And in the special’s one stirring cover—Nick Lowe’s (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding, sung by the whole cast—do I detect a note of… sincerity? 

Well, maybe just a note. What this giddy, ingenious special really serves up is a kind of snarky but goodhearted alternative to Christmas cheer, capable of uniting Christian and Jew, man and bear, pothead and flag-waver alike—something that has the same relation to your standard sappy holiday sugarplum as truth does to truthiness. Call it Christmassiness. And I say fill up the punch bowl with it.