In the spirit of Christmas and democracy, A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift Of All offers viewers the option of watching with or without a studio audience. Without the eggnog-fueled guffaws of Colbert's acolytes, the special is much more satisfying; it makes Colbert and friends' antics feel instantly dated, yet strangely timeless, in the best/worst holiday-special tradition. The lively studio audience, meanwhile, unmistakably drags the special into the contemporary universe of The Colbert Report. For delightful comic effect, Christmas exaggerates the airless awkwardness and brazen artificiality of holiday specials. Everything about it is a little off: The musical guests stare conspicuously at cue cards or teleprompters placed at odd angles, in a very Paul Lynde Halloween fashion.
The special's appropriately skimpy plot finds Colbert stranded in his holiday cabin after a bear outside his front door keeps him from making it to his studio to shoot a Christmas special with special guest Elvis Costello. He's far from lonely, however; he's visited by friends like John Legend, Toby Keith, Feist, and Jon Stewart, who sings an ode to the crappy consolation prize that is Hanukkah. In the song, Stewart conveys that the "festival of lights" is the Jewish Christmas in the same way Joe Lieberman is the Jewish Abraham Lincoln: There's really no comparison.
But the real meat of the special is the eclectic batch of infectious original ditties (with lyrics by David Javerbaum and music by Fountains Of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger) that work spectacularly as songs and as sturdy joke vessels. Toby Keith declares a jihad on the War On Christmas in a shit-kicking redneck anthem that doubles as ballsy self-parody, Willie Nelson pops up as a stoned fourth wise man and sings a straight-faced ode to the deplorable practice of smoking marijuana, and Legend tickles the ivories and croons a filthy, double-entendre-laden homage to nutmeg. Colbert presides over the festivities with good cheer and shameless self-aggrandizement; the greatest gift of the title proves to be the Colbert Christmas DVD, with or without the purchase of the special's songs on iTunes. Don't be surprised if A Colbert Christmas and its opportunistic, crassly commercial carols become a smart-ass new Yuletide tradition.
Key features: The amusingly mean-spirited bonus song "A Cold Christmas," a strangely hypnotic book-burning Yule log, and a clever video advent calendar.