The Christmas Special Day 10: The Fat Albert Christmas Special (1977)
Note: Revelations about Bill Cosby himself have obviously tainted perceptions of much of his work, this special included. However, I have chosen to keep this article in its entirety as a sort of archival piece. Regardless of who Cosby himself turned out to be, I stand by my thoughts on the work itself as being valid.
Director: Hal Sutherland
Writer: Bill Danch & Jim Ryan
Cast: Bill Cosby, Jan Crawford, Gerald Edward, Eric Suter, Marshall Franklin, Eric Greene, Kim Hamiton, Julius Harris, Ty Henderson
Plot: Fat Albert (Bill Cosby, who did about 75 percent of the voices) and his gang are preparing for their Christmas pageant, when old “Tightwad” Tyrone – owner of the junkyard where they’ve built their clubhouse – shows up and declares he’s tearing down the clubhouse. While the gang tries to think of a way out of their predicament, they’re approached by a boy named Marshall (Marshall Franklin). His father is out of a job and their car broke down right outside. To make matters worse, his mother is about to have a baby. Fat Albert invites them in to warm up, and sends Bill to help Marshall’s father find a hospital. Fat Albert chases down Tyrone to try to convince him to leave the clubhouse alone, fearing it’ll be torn down with Mrs. Franklin inside. Tyrone agrees to leave the clubhouse standing if Fat Albert plays Santa Claus outside of his secondhand store to try to draw in customers. Bill and Mr. Franklin return, unable to get help at the local hospital without insurance. Mrs. Franklin stands up to go to the distant city charity hospital, but can’t go any farther. Bill and his brother, Russell, rush off to find help.
The rest of the gang finds Fat Albert outside Tyrone’s store and begin snatching his free samples, and an angry Tyrone fires Albert and promises to demolish the clubhouse. Old Mudfoot Brown arrives and snaps at Tyrone that he’s become a miserable old man since his wife died. Embarrassed, Tyrone asks how he can redeem himself, but Mudfoot simply tells him he wouldn’t know how to do a good deed. At the clubhouse, Marshall overhears his father say he’s afraid he can’t even afford to feed his first child, let alone the second, and Marshall decides to run away. When the gang returns with the promise of a doctor, they realize Marshall is missing and set out to look for him just as Mrs. Franklin begins to deliver. They find Marshall down at the docks, and the boy is trapped on an ice floe when he tries to flee. Fat Albert and the others manage to save him, but he slips away again. When they return to the clubhouse the baby has arrived. Mr. Franklin asks where Marshall is, but before Fat Albert can answer, Mr. Tyrone arrives – with Marshall. Hearing the Franklins’ story, he offers Mr. Franklin a job and says he can no longer tear down the clubhouse, since it’s a “landmark.” The gang and Tyrone give the Franklins a merry Christmas, and Tyrone looks to the sky to ask his wife how he’s doing now.
Thoughts: By 1977, we had reached the point where a Christmas episode of a popular cartoon wasn’t enough. We needed a full-blown Christmas special, and Bill Cosby and company delivered here. Although Tyrone definitely has a dash of Scrooge about him, the story isn’t just another Dickens rehash. If anything, the plot is more intent on echoing the nativity story, with a pregnant woman who has nowhere to go.
The plot is nicely layered, with the story of the Franklin family colliding with the Cosby Kids’ problem with Mr. Franklin. Not too many children’s cartoons today would have the wherewithal to take two entirely unrelated problems and intertwine them this way. The kids’ problem, furthermore, makes the Franklins’ dilemma even more dire. Sure, Mrs. Franklin is safe from the cold, but the viewer legitimately wonders if Mr. Tyrone will get over his anger long enough to realize there’s a pregnant woman inside the clubhouse, or if that would even matter to him before he demolishes it. Marshall has a pretty standard waif reaction to the situation – he’s causing a problem for his parents, so he decides to run away. Rather than one huge, overriding issue like a lot of these cartoons deal with, The Fat Albert Christmas Special deals with a lot of little things, and is the better for it.
Mr. Tyrone is an interesting villain. Like I said, he has elements of Scrooge, but not all of his actions make as much logical sense as Ebenezer’s. Evidently, the presence of a clubhouse somehow decreases the value of a junkyard. I know. I don’t get it either.
Like many of the half-hour Christmas specials, especially the ones that have a real villain, the climax seems to come a little too easily. It’s a bit more forgivable in this case, though… I’m not really sure where else they could have taken Mr. Tyrone’s story without dovetailing into a straight-up Dickens parody. As it is, Mudfoot plays the role of Jacob Marley and all three ghosts, delivering in 30 seconds the sort of realization that takes most films 90 minutes to do. I think it actually helps that we don’t see a traditional “moment of redemption” here. Tyrone’s change of heart happens largely off-camera, helping to drive in the idea that he isn’t really a bad man, just one who’s sad and angry, and who tries to make amends when he’s called on being sad and angry.
It’s hard to believe this cartoon is as old as I am. The story ages very well, the ideas are timeless and the backdrop is sadly relevant to modern times. Really, the only point that’s not completely current is the notion of kids playing in a clubhouse they made themselves, rather than sitting around with X-Box controllers. One can only hope, were the Franklins to break down today, they could still find a Fat Albert to bring them a little hope.