The A.V. Club loves the holiday season, and we also love opening small doors in paintings of Santa Claus and pulling out stale chocolate the manufacturer couldn’t sell four years ago, then eating it and pretending we’re having a good time. We’ve found a way to combine those things with our love of television, and we’re hoping you’ll join us every day through December 25 to open one of our virtual doors and find out which holiday special or holiday-themed episode we’re covering that day. We’ve got the usual suspects, some of the worst specials, and some surprises for you, and we’re hoping you’ll join us every day to get in the holiday spirit.
Unfortunately, 30 Rock isn’t currently on the air to provide us with a new Christmas episode, leaving us instead to look back at the four great holiday episodes the show has given us over the years. What makes the 30 Rock Christmas episodes work so well is a double fakeout of holiday spirit. Typically, an episode begins with the saccharine TV merriment that accompanies the usual “Hey, guys, it’s our Christmas show!” episode. Next, the episode quickly heads for a cynical, dark space, often accompanied by drunkenness, family dysfunction, or even a brush with racial humor. But then the episode always ends on a truly sentimental note (usually with a song), which is what makes the episodes so legitimately heartwarming. We don’t need to pretend it’s the 1950s and everything is perfect in order to really enjoy the holidays; we can admit that we’re a bunch of messed-up sickos, but once a year, we’re capable of getting mushy and merry in our own way.
Let’s take a look at these episodes, which I’ve arranged in order of personal favorites from least favorite to most, a range that spans “That is fine holiday fun” to “This makes me yearn for Christmas even in the dead of summer.”
Season four’s “Secret Santa” isn’t my all-time favorite. For starters, it’s the lone Christmas episode that doesn’t feature Elaine Stritch as Jack Donaghy’s mother, Colleen. In addition, I was never a big fan of Julianne Moore’s guest-star turn as Nancy Donovan, thanks mainly to her atrocious Boston accent, and Nancy takes up too much time here. In the episode, Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon and Alec Baldwin’s Jack aim to give each other thoughtful presents without spending any money. Meanwhile, the writers try to get out of Kenneth’s (Jack McBrayer) Secret Santa Fun Swap by informing him that they celebrate a phony religion, which traumatizes Kenneth when he realizes that perhaps man made up God. But, true to form, there’s a merry, twisted ending, thanks to a bomb threat. Liz calls the threat in to Penn Station to keep Nancy from leaving New York (which is her present to Jack), and the writers get the blame for the threat, which is Kenneth’s holiday miracle.
30 Rock excels when it skips past extremely dark material. I’m always amazed (in a good way) when the writers put in jokes about terrorism, which would be edgy for any show (yes, still) but especially one that’s so New York-centric. Moreover, what could be less Christmasy than stumbling into a discussion about whether there’s no God? That’s pretty deep stuff, and the even sicker payoff is that Kenneth is delighted to see that there is an angry god after all, manifested by cops who hear the word “Verdukianism” and think “al-Qaeda.” I wonder how often al-Qaeda has been mentioned in other Christmas specials.
Then the special offers a big musical treat. To punish Jenna (Jane Krakowski) for failing to tip the cleaning ladies, Pete (Scott Adsit) gives Danny (Cheyenne Jackson) the solo in the Christmas episode of TGS, which drives Jenna to have a “rage stroke.” In the spirit of Christmas, Jackson purposely sings terribly to make Krakowski look good when the two duet on “The Christmas Waltz.” I love it when Krakowski or Jackson sings on the show, and I especially love when the Christmas episodes go musical, so this made for a delightful ending.
Season two’s “Ludachristmas” was the series’ first Christmas episode. (The show chose not to make one in its first season, perhaps fearing it wouldn’t even be on the air for Christmas.) It offered our first look at the Lemon family, with Anita Gillette, Buck Henry, and Andy Richter guest-starring as Liz’s annoyingly chipper and supportive family. (“It’s only positive reinforcement when they say it to you,” Jack says to Liz. “In my case, they’re just stating the facts. I do look like the Arrow shirt man, I did lace up my skates professionally, and I did do a fabulous job finishing my muffin.”)
An otherwise happy Christmas goes to pot when Kenneth prevents the TGS cast members from enjoying their annual Ludachristmas party by forcing them to focus on the meaning of Christmas, in a clever inversion of a typical TV Christmas episode. Here, learning what Christmas is all about is a punishment, not a reward, and Kenneth’s plan backfires when everyone tries to go outside to cut down the Rockefeller Plaza Christmas tree.
In the meantime, to prove that the Lemons aren’t so great, Colleen, thankfully here for this holiday, agitates the family into a screaming fight. Eventually, the TGS crew enjoys Ludachristmas after all and learns a lesson, while Colleen and Jack enjoy a darkly heartwarming moment to the background noise of the Lemons arguing, and Jenna singing “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” Kenneth and the cheesiness of the pre-fighting Lemons almost derail this episode, but Jack and Colleen wishing each other a Merry Christmas as Andy Richter moans “My life is ruined!” is what makes this a warmly perverse 30 Rock Christmas.
Initially, this episode seemed outstandingly cruel, given Colleen’s desire to tear away the veil of the Lemon family love. I understood wanting to illustrate to Jack that all families have their dysfunctions, but why ruin somebody else’s Christmas, especially if they’ve never done anything to you? (You’ll note in future holiday episodes from here on out that Liz refers to the drama of her family’s Christmases, which indicates that Colleen’s damage is permanent.) However, the more times I watched the episode, the more annoying I found the Lemons, so the Grinch in me does indeed like seeing Gillette ordering one tee many martoonis and Henry telling Richter that he’s going to send him to a cathouse (even though Richter complains that he doesn’t “like cats.”) Moreover, it’s always reassuring to remember that every family is messed up in its own way. Colleen’s message is dark, but it’s right-on.
Stritch returns to make merry in season five’s “Christmas Attack Zone,” this time with Alan Alda’s Milton—Jack’s real father—in tow. Colleen has come to visit, but there’s tension when she learns that Baldwin isn’t married to his pregnant fiancée, Avery (Elizabeth Banks). Milton’s appearance nets us one of my favorite lines from this show ever:
Milton: We have a tradition in my family where we let the child name itself.
Avery: Oh, yeah, that’s hippie nonsense.
Jack: Absolutely not.
Milton: Well, suit yourself, but my son Spider-Man turned out just fine.
Later on, Jack, in an echo from “Ludachristmas,” smiles as his parents yell at him in stereo.
Once again, though, Jane Krakowski steals the episode. She’s depressed after breaking up with her cross-dressing, Jenna-impersonating boyfriend Will Forte, especially since they’ll have to miss the New Queer’s Eve party in which guests dress up as a pop-culture phenomenon from the previous year. Separately, they come up with a fantastic idea and show up to the party to reunite as Black Swan: Forte in character from the film, and Jenna as former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Lynn Swann. The two sing a truly lovely version of “O Holy Night.” You could quibble as to whether the blackface is appropriate (it isn’t even the first time Krakowski was in blackface for the show), but it’s in the name of another unexpectedly heartwarming musical ending to a 30 Rock Christmas episode. This episode’s message is a slight riff on “Ludachristmas”: Jack is irritated by his mother’s judgment and histrionics, and increasingly annoyed by his father’s hippie-dippy war-on-Christmas take on the holidays, but in the end, the fact that they’re all together, albeit yelling, is what makes him smile.
Season three’s “Christmas Special” is my favorite of the 30 Rock Christmas episodes, one that makes me cry, even in the summertime.
The TGS staff members participate in a charity wherein they purchase items that kids request from Santa. Liz delivers her presents personally, but feels like she’s been scammed after two adult men answer the door. Hoping to get some help from the post office, Liz first misreads the postal employee’s nametag as “Treñe” (“It’s Irene,” the lady corrects crabbily), then appeals to Tracy Jordan for help:
Liz: Can you help me out with her?
Tracy: Oh really? We’re both black so we must know each other… Hey, Irene!
Irene: Hey, Tracy!
In the end, Liz finds out that she did indeed help two little boys, but first, she inadvertently reveals there to them that there is no Santa Claus. I always love it when the show mocks Liz’s inflated sense of cultural sensitivity, and this episode gives this gag a seasonal and yet universal angle. How many of us congratulate ourselves every year when we kick a few bucks to the Salvation Army or donate a couple of cans of God-knows-what to the food drive? We pat ourselves on the back for our good works when in reality, we’re just (metaphorical) special white ladies desperate to feel like we’re good people.
However, Jack and Colleen make the episode. Jack fumes about how his mother spent each Christmas getting drunk and hooking up with a man named Mr. Schwartz while Jack played the piano. At the end of the episode, however, he realizes that all along, his mother actually played “Mrs. Claus” by putting out for the owner of FAO Schwartz in order to secure Christmas presents for her son. Together, they sit at a piano during the TGS Christmas show and sing “A Christmas Song” together. I love how Jack seems so misty at the piano, and how his mom nails him with one final zinger (“You’re flat, Jack”) before the episode fades away. Once again, it’s that magic 30 Rock formula: latent racism, promiscuity, and elder abuse somehow end up making viewers feel warm and fuzzy.
It’s a tricky thing to make holiday entertainment that actually entertains. Certain specials and movies get you right in the soft stuff, but are they actually fun to watch? This is why the bite of A Christmas Story is preferable to something like A Charlie Brown Christmas, where I’ll cry, all right, but resent feeling like I’ve been forced into it. These 30 Rock episodes may not become traditional Yuletide viewing, but they mock traditional holiday entertainment while embracing with all the wit and absurdity we’ve come to expect from 30 Rock.
Tomorrow: Going out of the way to celebrate the holidays—and not just Christmas.