For the past three years, The A.V. Club has devoted the month of December to reflecting on our favorite holiday entertainments, and this year is no different. It’s a feature so nice, it’s never had the same name twice, and this year it’s the 12 Days Of Non-Denominational Winter Holidays. Today: the 1987 animated special A Garfield Christmas.
Garfield is a business. The comic strip’s creator, Jim Davis, makes no bones about this: His tubby orange tabby was conceived with marketing opportunities in mind, and the number of newspapers that still carry the strip (coupled with the tidal waves of merchandise licensed by Davis and his Paws, Inc. team) confirm the success of that effort. The only thing Garfield loves more than lasagna is capitalism, so it makes sense that the character’s animated Christmas special begins with a gaudy celebration of yuletide materialism. On December 21, 1987, Davis’ creation (voiced by Rhoda alum and Bob Newhart Show co-creator Lorenzo Music) taught the word “avarice” to his young viewers, shortly before prancing about to the first of the special’s six original songs, “Gimme Gimme Gimme.”
Twenty-two years after it gave the world A Charlie Brown Christmas, CBS brought TV viewers a comic-strip adaptation that, at first blush, wanted to bring more commercialization to the holidays. The Peanuts special and A Garfield Christmas were broadcast companions throughout the ’90s, and it was always a jarring experience to go from a children’s chorus singing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” to Lou Rawls purring “Just when you think all your presents are accounted for / That’s the time you gotta ask for more.” If Lucy, Linus, Schroeder, and friends hadn’t stripped the tinsel and lights from Snoopy’s doghouse and wrapped them around Charlie Brown’s sad little tree, they may as well have thrown them at Garfield, the literal fat cat who makes figurative fat cats look austere by comparison.
That’d be a valid criticism of A Garfield Christmas—if Davis’ success in circulation, licensing, and television wasn’t explicitly modeled after Charles Schulz’s. By the time both creations had worked their way to the top of the funny-pages food chain, both Peanuts and Garfield were nothing if not dependable cash cows, and dependable in general, working through daily and Sunday variations on small handfuls of themes. They were no longer funny, either, but that wasn’t exactly the point. “After 50 years, Snoopy was still laying in that dog house, and rather than getting old, it actually has the opposite effect,” Davis said at the time of his character’s 25th anniversary. “It says to all of us, some things in life can be counted on, they’re consistent.” And what could be more dependable and consistent than Christmas, that big orgy of rich foods, debt-incurring gifts, and endlessly repeated TV specials that comes at the end of every calendar year? (And also a relatively serious religious component.)
But despite the franchise’s crass aspirations, A Garfield Christmas is a big-hearted push for sincerity. It possesses the same comic imprecision as its source material, running Garfield, his canine pal Odie, and their owner Jon Arbuckle through wintry set pieces and minor farmhouse disasters that are little more than three-panel gags brought to life. But when the special steps back to take in the traditions and the atmosphere of the holiday, it’s much more effective—and affecting.
It comes down to the special’s inspiration. In the bonus features for the recently released DVD Garfield Holiday Collection, Davis tells of wanting to capture a Christmas like the ones he remembers from his childhood on an Indiana farm. The members of the Arbuckle family—Mom, Dad, Doc Boy, and Grandma, voiced by a team of TV ringers including former Squiggy David L. Lander and future Disney sea witch Pat Carroll—are based on real-life Davises. And unlike Garfield’s milquetoast owner, they behave like people you might run into on the street: For example, the grumbles from Jon’s dad (One Day At A Time’s Pat Harrington Jr.) about holiday customs his grown sons should’ve ditched a long time ago have a genuine authenticity to them. (The words “Why don’t we put the star on the top of the tree and then put the tree up?” surely come out of some father’s mouth every December.) Mom (Julie Payne) earns some of the half-hour’s biggest laughs with a recognizable, maternal generosity. Grandma brings the special’s requisite serving of treacle, but Carroll’s salty performance makes her a breakout presence—and the only Arbuckle who’d turn up for Davis’ next holiday special, 1989’s Garfield’s Thanksgiving.
Such heart, from such intimately observed characters, is an anomaly for Garfield, one of the funny pages’ most notoriously impersonal features. Unlike a Walt Kelly or a Stephan Pastis, Davis keeps himself and his personal views out of his strip. It’s an unintentional component of Garfield’s popularity: If anybody could be responsible for the comic, then anyone can relate to it. But A Garfield Christmas sets itself apart because this family could only exist on this farm, removed from the rest of society with their verbose dinner blessings, interpretations of when Christmas Eve becomes Christmas morning, and arguments over sausage gravy. Even the phrase “sausage gravy” gives the special a specificity that Garfield rarely achieves on newsprint.
On TV, Garfield was free to move away from lasagna and Mondays and punting Odie off of the kitchen table. In the half-hour format, the hollowness of the comic strip is filled in by necessity, yielding something warmer and weirder: The haunted-house sequence from Garfield’s Halloween Adventure, for instance, or the eccentric lyrics of Desirée Goyette and Ed Bogas’ A Garfield Christmas songs. The Rawls/Goyette duet “You Can Never Find An Elf When You Need One,” is surely the first and only Christmas song to ever feature the word “weirdoes” so prominently in its lyrics.
For Garfield, Christmas would be a time to change stripes, a move that was in line with the spirit of the season as well as the times. Davis and producer/director Phil Roman couldn’t have known it when they began planning the special, but A Garfield Christmas would debut at a time when the “greed is good” mentality of the go-go ’80s—a sentiment frozen in the public consciousness by a film that premiered 10 days before A Garfield Christmas—was finally winding down. And yet, the special represents a very late-’80s push against slick Gordon Gekko urbanites and their high-tech toys: Just like the Muppets, Garfield would spend Christmas 1987 on the family farm, away from the hustle and the bustle and the dreams of robotic Santas. The ads that aired around the 1989 broadcast of A Garfield Christmas would go a step further, with Kellogg’s commercials that take the company’s cereal mascots back to the land, then dispose of cartoons altogether, in favor of hearty farm folk and the “good things from the earth” that they render into Müeslix.
Garfield is a bit like the assembly-line processed foods at the beginning of that Müeslix ad: a product to be cranked out for mass consumption. A Garfield Christmas, meanwhile, is more like the cereal that’s “what breakfast was meant to be.” It’s still manufactured by a big, powerful company, but there’s an evident human footprint on it. The cat runs the show at Paws, Inc., but not everything created by Jim Davis and company follows Garfield’s greedy impulses.
Tomorrow: Noel Murray goes searching for the meaning of the season (and the ’60s) with A Doonesbury Special.