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Scrooge Month Day 16: Oscar the Grouch in A SESAME STREET CHRISTMAS CAROL (2006)

Sesame Street Christmas Carol 2006Directors: Victor DiNapoli, Ken Giego, Emily Squires, Jon Stone

Writers: Rickey Boyd, Jon Stone, Joseph A. Bailey, Christine Ferraro, Tony Geiss

Cast: Caroll Spinney, Kristin Chenoweth, Joey Mazzarino, Matt Vogel, Jim Martin, Tim Curry, Rickey Boyd, Kevin Clash, Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Pam Arciero, Fran Brill, Alice Dinnean, Eric Jacobson, Peter Linz, Noel MacNeal, Jerry Nelson, Carmen Osbahr, Martin P. Robinson, David Rudman, John Tartaglia, Steve Whitmire, Bryant Young, Carlo Alban, Alison Bartlett, Desiree Casado, Emilio Delgado, Will Lee, Loretta Long, Sonia Manzano, Bob McGrath, Roscoe Orman, Imani Patterson, David Langston Smyrl, Brian Gore

Notes: This is, of course, not the first time the Muppet characters have tackled A Christmas Carol, but  sadly the Muppet Show Muppets and the Sesame Street Muppets are so far removed from one another these days that it almost doesn’t even matter. At any rate, this (much toned down) version of the Dickens story casts Oscar the Grouch as the most natural Scrooge since McDuck. New characters – all computer animated rather than traditional puppets – appear as the three ghosts. My favorite bit of this, though, is that the special uses footage from classic Sesame Street Christmas shows, thus allowing us to see performances from the likes of the late Jim Henson and Will Lee and the mostly-retired Frank Oz, all right alongside the modern cast of the show.

Thoughts: Tim Curry starts us off in his usual role as The Best Narrator In the World Assuming You Can’t Afford Morgan Freeman, and introduces us to an Oscar the Grouch (Caroll Spinney) who’s looking forward to sleeping through Christmas entirely. His plan is wrecked, though, when a messenger named Joe Marley (Joey Mazzarino) shows up with news. Marley is there to deliver Oscar the first of three Ghost-O-Grams, beginning with a vintage 1843 baked beans can. (1843, in case you didn’t know, is the year A Christmas Carol was first published. Cute.)

It hardly seems necessary to critique Caroll Spinney as Oscar the Grouch – he’s played the character for over four decades and he’s made him one of the most enduring childhood icons in the history of the world. Let’s instead just agree that Oscar as Scrooge is such an obvious idea that one wonders why they didn’t try it before and move on, shall we?

Rickey Boyd provides the voice for the first “ghost” – Rhubarb, the Grouch of Christmas Past. Rhubarb and Oscar agree to watch the old films of previous Christmases, even as they agree not to enjoy them, and we see the “Gift of the Magi” segment from 1978’s Christmas Eve on Sesame Street, which I wrote about last year. It’s a clever use of the old footage, something very few other versions of A Christmas Carol could even imagine, but it does raise an important question: what’s the point of all this? There hasn’t been any talk of “redeeming” Oscar the way Scrooge usually needs to be redeemed, and even if there was, this clip doesn’t even include him. Why is Rhubarb being sent to show Oscar heartwarming clips? Even Oscar asks this question, and Rhubarb doesn’t have an answer.

But you know what? It’s Jim Henson, Frank Oz and Will Lee, all together. I’m not about to complain about that.

In the next segment, we have an old musical number with Big Bird (Spinney again) singing about how he misses his best friend, Mr. Snuffleupagus, who’s away for Christmas. It’s a cute song, one I don’t really remember, which probably suggests this clip came some time after I grew out of the prime Sesame Street demographic. There’s not really anything to hint as to just when it was made. Once it was over, we cut back to Rhubarb and Oscar, laughing about how bad the clips are. Call me a racist, but this is the kind of typical Grouch behavior that has caused people to have certain opinions about them for decades.

Marley returns with the next Ghost-O-Gram. This time Oscar gets a jack-in-the-box that releases Christmas Carol (Kristin Chenoweth), a woman in a Christmas tree outfit, who decides to dress up Oscar’s trash can with a little holiday makeover. It gets worse for Oscar when she pops a Santa Claus hat and beard on him. Carol presents a contemporary segment featuring Sesame Street’s current cash cow, Elmo (Kevin Clash), on a visit to Santa’s workshop. Santa sings Elmo a song which can be summarized as, “Boy, it’s nice that you’re not a selfish jerk,” and we then spin off into another clip. This time, Elmo has somehow caused it to be Christmas every day, because he’s never seen a Christmas special before, and he sings a song explaining that Christmas is only special because it’s once a year. Oscar sarcastically quips, “Christmas every day is a bad idea,” as if he didn’t know that already. For once, Oscar, I’m with you.

Then, to ensure that Sesame Workshop maintained its educational grant, we get a couple of Muppet-free segments about Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.

The last Ghost-O-Gram introduces us to a flying robot named i-SAM (Kevin Clash), who is there to show Oscar Christmas Future. Instead of a Sesame Street clip, though, we get an animated segment in which we “tour” a future where homes decorate themselves, giant holiday dinners are reduced to pills, and families are whisked around in oversized Christmas tree ornaments. It’s a silly, charming little cartoon that fulfills the “Future” requirement in a decidedly non-frightening way. Oscar suddenly wakes up and sees it’s Christmas morning, and he’s being visited by Joe Marley again – only this time he claims to be “Little Joey Dickens from Brooklyn,” who tells Oscar all he had was a bad dream. He gives Oscar a present, though – a sticky ball of used wrapping paper – and all seems well. Especially since tomorrow is the best time of the year for a Grouch – the longest possible time until it’s Christmas again.

I don’t usually like stories that end with the “it was all a dream” conceit, but in a way it’s the only thing that makes sense here. There’s no real reason for Oscar to be visited by these ghosts, nothing changes, nothing actually happens in this film. It’s just an excuse to use a classic framing device to show old clips of the show. It’s not the worst premise in the world, but it feels like there could have been more than a little lip service given to Dickens in the framework. It’s cute, and it’s perfectly acceptable as a Sesame Street special, but remembering just how special some of those specials have been, it seems it could have been better.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

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The Christmas Special Day 13: Christmas Eve on Sesame Street (1978)

christmas-eve-on-sesame-street-dvdDirector: Jon Stone

Writer: Jon Stone, Joseph A. Bailey

Cast: Caroll Spinney,Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, Linda Bove, Northern Calloway, Debbie Chen, Will Lee, Loretta Long, Sonia Manzano, Bob McGrath, Roscoe Orman, Alaina Reed

Plot: On Christmas Eve the gang on Sesame Street takes a trip to the local ice skating rink. While everyone else is having a good time, Oscar the Grouch (Carroll Spinney) decides to poke fun at the naive Big Bird (Spinney again), asking him how Santa Claus can possibly fit through the tiny chimneys the buildings on Sesame Street have. Dismayed at the thought that Santa may not be able to get in, Big Bird and his friend Patty (Debbie Chen) set out to solve the mystery. They turn to Kermit the Frog (Jim Henson, and if you didn’t know that stop reading my article right now, you heathen), who suggests turning to the Santa Claus experts – the children – to find the answer.

Meanwhile, Bert (Frank Oz) is stuck for a Christmas present for his best friend Ernie (Henson again, I mean it, stop reading if you didn’t know that already because I don’t want you here). When he comes across Ernie’s Rubber Duckie, he gets an idea. Ernie, facing a similar dilemma, stumbles across one of Bert’s prize paperclips and decides to get him a cigar box to keep his paperclip collection safe. Going to Mr. Hooper’s store, Ernie finds he doesn’t have enough money for the box, and offers Mr. Hooper (Will Lee) his Rubbier Duckie as a trade. As Ernie leaves, Bert enters with a similar offer: he wants to trade his paperclip collection for a soap dish where Ernie can keep Rubber Duckie. Mr. Hooper takes both deals, even though Bert and Ernie are both clearly distraught over surrendering their prized possessions.

When Kermit’s investigation proves fruitless, Big Bird and Patty recruit Mr. Snuffleupagus (Jerry Nelson) to try to test out a method for squeezing into a chimney. Snuffy, unfortunately, gets stuck. Outside, as Bob (Bob McGrath) and Mr. Hooper exchange holiday pleasantries, Oscar groans and launches into his own seasonal anthem: “I Hate Christmas.”

Bert and Ernie exchange gifts, and both are stunned to realize they’ve been given a gift intended specifically to compliment the very item they have sacrificed. Neither wants to confess to the other that his gift is now useless, and before either of them have to, there’s a knock at the door. Mr. Hooper is there with gifts for the boys – Ernie’s Rubber Duckie and Bert’s paperclips. Bert and Ernie are overjoyed at having their treasures back, but sadly say they haven’t a gift to give Mr. Hooper. The kind old man smiles and tells them they’ve already given him the best gift ever: the chance to see everyone get what they want for Christmas.

When the snow begins to fall that evening, Big Bird sends Patty home. As she leaves she tells him not to worry, she’s certain Santa will come, even if they don’t know how he’ll do it. Left alone, Big Bird decides to go to the roof and wait for him. Patty later turns up at Gordon and Susan’s apartment (Roscoe Orman and Loretta Long, respectively) to tell them she went back to Big Bird’s nest and he’s gone. Everyone on Sesame Street begins searching for him, while on the roof Big Bird watches them, wondering what all the fuss is about. With the temperature dropping and everyone worrying Maria (Sonia Manzano) confronts Oscar over upsetting Big Bird in the first place. Guilty, Oscar sets out to find him. On the roof, away from his safe, warm nest, Big Bird falls asleep, unaware of the figure that has joined him there. When he wakes up he sees nothing, not even footprints, and decides to go downstairs and warm up. He meets Gordon and Patty on the stairs, and Gordon refuses to let him go back outside. In Gordon and Susan’s apartment, he finds a beautiful Christmas tree and stockings loaded with presents for everyone – Santa must have passed while he slept. Gordon explains to Big Bird that it isn’t important to explain a miracle; the important thing is that they’re all together again. Oscar turns up and tells Big Bird he’s glad he’s back… but the Grouch can’t resist one last dig. “How do you think the Easter Bunny can hide all those eggs in one night?”

Thoughts: Jim Henson and company return, although this time he’s joined by some of the other great “J”s of his era – Jon Stone, the writer responsible for so many of the greatest Sesame Street moments of your youth; Jerry Nelson, who gave us the Count and Mr. Snuffleupagus (a word which, somehow, is not in my spellcheck); producer Joan Ganz Cooney, the woman who conceived of using entertaining television to educate children in what would become the Sesame Street style. Henson and his Muppets were integral to the success of this show, but he sure didn’t do it alone. Regardless, as fantastic as each of those creators are, the true magic of Christmas Eve on Sesame Street isn’t brought to you by the letter J, but rather by C and S: Carroll Spinney, the Muppeteer responsible for both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.

Unlike the regular daily episodes of the show, this prime time special didn’t have any of the cutaway educational segments, didn’t include lessons on counting or spelling… instead, the Children’s Television Workshop used the opportunity to teach a moral lesson or three. And like they did in all their finest moments, they did so without preaching, presenting the lesson in a way that would be easy for children to accept, understand, and internalize.

The A-plot of this special belongs to Oscar and Big Bird in a way that shows off their relationship for what it is: an older sibling (Oscar) who enjoys picking on the younger (Big Bird), but still feels guilty and tries to set things right when confronted with the consequences of his actions. Anyone who has a brother or sister can probably relate – it’s crafted in a very realistic, natural and believable way. Spinney plays their relationship with Oscar’s edge and Big Bird’s unrelenting sweetness clashing at every turn, allowing the kids to worry along with Big Bird until the obvious conclusion is reached at the end. Spinney is a master performer, and I only wish I could have been there to watch him rushing back and forth between the two characters as the camera cut away. Dude must have been exhausted.

The story reveals a depth of character I don’t think is obvious when you’re a child watching these specials. It’s telling to me that only Maria, out of all the adults on Sesame Street, is able to convince Oscar to go out and look for Big Bird and fix what he did wrong. That’s not an accident – Maria and Oscar have a surprisingly complex relationship, in which Maria plays both mother and big sister to the Muppets. It’s one of the few moments in Sesame Street history where I remember seeing one of the human characters get genuinely, justifiably angry, and Sonia Manzano pulls it off wonderfully. Oscar comes across as the problem child who reacts to a stern but loving hand when gentleness fails. (I also maintain that Oscar – at least in my formative years of watching Sesame Street – was written to harbor a forever-unspoken crush on Maria, but that’s neither here nor there.)

The B-plot, featuring Bert, Ernie, and Mr. Hooper, is surprisingly only the second story in our countdown to play with the “Gift of the Magi,” although this is a much more straightforward retelling than Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas. Bert and Ernie fill the roles nicely, with writer Jon Stone playing on their legendary friendship and slightly childlike outlook to create a story where you can naturally accept them sacrificing for one another. Seeing Mr. Hooper step in to save the day is a lovely moment, and one that still touches the heart all these years after actor Will Lee’s death. (A rare non-Christmas tangent: if you’ve never seen the Sesame Street episode where Big Bird learns that Mr. Hooper has died, watch it on YouTube. And if it doesn’t make you cry, stop reading my blog forever and go back to your day job strangling baby owls and selling their feathers to stuff pillows for Neo-Nazis.) Although this story was once copied almost as often as A Christmas Carol, it’s fallen a bit by the wayside in recent years. That may be a good thing. A child seeing this special now wouldn’t necessarily see the ending coming, and the message of the piece will more likely remain intact.

One thing I didn’t mention much in my synopsis of the episode are the musical numbers peppered throughout. In truth, most of these do little (or nothing) to advance the plot, so they didn’t really belong there, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t memorable in and of themselves. Bob McGrath and Linda Bove (playing Bob and Linda, respectively) lead the children of the cast in the haunting “Keep Christmas With You (All Through the Year),” and the whole cast joins in for “True Blue Miracle,” another one of those songs that has transcended the special that birthed it and become something you may well hear on the radio or in a shopping mall. It’s nice to have some traditional music in there as well – Bert and Ernie’s duet of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is lovely. Hardcore Muppet fans can probably hear just a bit of Frank and Jim’s friendship in the performance as well. And Oscar’s “I Hate Christmas” is just a joy whether you’re a true believer or an eternal humbug.

There are other moments that don’t actually contribute to either of the two main plots. Grover has a few scenes where he interviews children about Santa’s efforts to enter the chimney, similar to scenes in the regular episodes of the TV show. There’s a running gag about Cookie Monster trying to write a letter to Santa and eating his assorted writing implements as well. It’s a good bit, but there may be no moment of sheer comedy in the special as great as when he realizes the traditional Santa Claus exchange: when he leaves you a present, Gordon tells him, you should leave him a plate of cookies.

But as far as those moments that don’t go with the plot are concerned, the champion is the very first scene in the ice skating rink. As wonderful as the rest of the episode is, this opening scene is still bizarre, with ice skaters wearing full-size costumes of the Muppets skating on the ice. Seeing a six-foot Bert and Ernie or an adult-sized Count is just bizarre. And yes, I know they’ve been doing essentially the same thing with the Sesame Street Live shows for decades. I think it’s weird there, too.

This special won two Emmy awards, ironically beating out A Special Sesame Street Christmas, which aired in prime time on CBS. Both of these shows are now available on DVD, and a quick comparison makes it clear why Christmas Eve walked home with the awards. Out of the two, this special is far more special than Special.