Judge Erich Asperschlager hopes you'll gather 'round this Yule Idealogue.
"Oh, hi! I didn't see you there along one full wall of my mountain cabin. I'm broadcasting legend Stephen Colbert, and this is my favorite time of year—Christmas."
Let's face it. The country is in a mess. The global economy is spinning out of control, consumer confidence is at an all-time low, and we're preparing for another brutal year of War—the War on Christmas, that is. But don't despair ye holiday faithful. There is a man with the strength to fight this yuletide of change: American hero and noted arctophobe Stephen Colbert. That's right, enemies of Christmas. He's here. He's cheer. Get used to it.
A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All! is the latest in a long line of Stephen Colbert Christmas specials that stretch back to November of 2008. In this year's installment, Colbert Report host Stephen Colbert is preparing to travel from his mountain cabin to New York City to tape his star-studded Christmas special, only to find himself trapped in his home by a ferocious bear. Unable to leave and worried that if he's not in his studio Santa won't be able to find him, Stephen is visited by a series of guests who try to ease his troubled holiday spirit, including Toby Keith, Jon Stewart, Willie Nelson, John Legend, Feist, and Elvis Costello. Will Stephen discover special meaning in his Christmas special? Will Santa be able to find him in his mountain retreat? And, most importantly, will he emerge victorious over his ursine foe?
Leading up to the presidential election, my wife and I got on a Colbert Report kick. I never would have guessed it when Colbert spun off from The Daily Show in 2005, but his show is now officially the funnier of the two. Don't get me wrong. I love The Daily Show. I've been watching it since Jon Stewart was just a gleam in Craig Kilborn's eye. But these days it seems to be more about taking positions than making jokes. Not only is Colbert's blustery right wing pundit character better positioned to weather a democrat-controlled government, he's just plain fun to watch.
Although A Colbert Christmas lacks the topical political edge of the TV show, it captures that faux conservative spirit by referencing that most traditional of all Christmas specials: the variety show. To be more specific, variety shows that take place on sets made to look like cozy mountain cabins. Stephen Colbert may not be Andy Williams, but it sure looks like he borrowed his clothes. He also borrowed the format of special guests and well-wishers stopping by to sing holiday carols—though none you'll recognize. You see, if you sing songs other people wrote you have to pay for them, but if you write your own songs and they catch on you get to ka-ching in the New Year. A Colbert Christmas is filled with soon-to-be-standard all new holiday songs like the bold, brassy, and "royalty-earning" opening number "Another Christmas Song," with its pleas to "make it a part of your holiday canon/make it the heart of my retirement planning," all the while mashing up holiday traditions thusly: "Santa Claus singin' on naughty snow/reindeer ringin' in the mistletoe/the manger's on fire, the holly's aglow/hear the baby Jesus cryin' 'Ho Ho Ho!'"
Credit for A Colbert Christmas's hilarious original songs goes to lyricist (and former Daily Show executive producer) David Javerbaum and composer Adam Schlesinger (of power pop band Fountains of Wayne). Javerbaum and Schlesinger recently joined musical forces to adapt the John Waters film Cry-Baby for Broadway, and their ability to create catchy-as-heck, lyrically clever songs is evident in the subversive array of carols written for Colbert Christmas guest artists as politically varied as Toby Keith and Willie Nelson. For Keith, a flag-waving anthem about the War on Christmas—a holiday "as American as apple pie/it's the late-December version of the Fourth of July"—and for Nelson, a reverent carol sung from the perspective of a dope-bearing wise man with the simple message, "let not mankind bogart love."
The special's other musical numbers include the hold music for heaven's prayer support line, sung by indie artist Feist, R&B crooner John Legend getting hot and heavy with nutmeg, a group acoustic rendition of Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love and Understanding," the touching Costello/Colbert duet "There Are Much Worse Things to Believe In," and "basic cable's Jon Stewart" soft-selling an alternative to Christmas in "Can I Interest You in Hannukah?" Stewart may not be the special's best singer, but his duet with Colbert has some of its most memorable exchanges, like this one: "Does Hanukah commemorate events profound and holy?/A king who came to save the world?/No, oil that burned quite slowly." Besides, we get to hear a hurt Stewart remind his friend that he had a mountain cabin first, one that's located "a half hour earlier from here."
Though much of A Colbert Christmas is dedicated to the music, there's plenty of room beneath the treeskirt for jokes that aren't sung. Colbert fans will get the references to killer bears and its Daily Show origins, but everyone can dig the goofy homages to Christmas specials of yore. The only problem with the special is that the first half is so hilarious the second can't quite deliver on the set-up. The difference in quality is slight, though, so don't let the wayward second-half narrative keep you from adding this to your Christmas list. That said, this isn't exactly a family special, unless your kids are in high school—in which case they probably won't want to watch it with you, especially when John Legend starts singing about wanting to "egg" someone's "nog" with his "spice supreme."
This DVD is the release of the TV special that aired last weekend on Comedy Central and will likely run through the end of December. So is there any reason to shell out for A Colbert Christmas's digital incarnation (besides part of the disc's proceeds going to help food bank charity Feeding America)? The good news is that Colbert and Comedy Central put some effort into making this an enhanced experience. They could just as easily have pumped out a barebones disc and claimed it was part of the joke. Sure, this stocking is hardly stuffed, but there are more than a few holiday goodies for fans to enjoy. The bonus country-style song "Cold, Cold Christmas" hearkens to depressing holiday songs like "Blue Christmas," while the three alternate endings are short but very sweet. A video advent calendar with a Colbert snippet for each day of December should help you prepare for the holidays, and if you're looking to add something special to Christmas Eve, why not put on the video Yule log—a roaring fire fueled by burning books; it's only in full screen, but it's toasty and lasts for nearly 20 minutes. The best extra, though, is the option to watch the special with and without the live audience track. The default setting is without, canned applause only, but do yourself a favor and watch it with the audience. Cutting out the live track means you can hear every joke and song in crystal clarity, but it's a lot more fun to feel like you're in a room full of people who are laughing and cheering. After all, isn't that what Christmas is all about?
Merry not guilty! Now what's all this about it being legal to marry your Christmas tree in San Francisco?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Comedy Central
• Book-burning Video Yule Log
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