Programming Note For Those With Taste

The David Letterman Christmas Spectacular — which isn’t the official title of the last new Letterman show before Christmas but absolutely ought to be — is airing this Friday night. Please check your calendar, set your DVR, wind your watches, block your hats, and nog any eggs whose palatability could be improved by such a procedure.

This show is a beloved holiday tradition in my house. For decades, the show’s followed this same template:

Paul Shaffer tells the story of a Cher Christmas special that aired in the 70s, and then does his impression of Cher singing “O Holy Night”:

Jay Thomas comes on and goes into what Dave has endorsed as The Greatest Talk Show Guest Story Ever Told:

And then Jay and Dave compete in the Late Show Holiday Quarterback Challenge. They take turns chucking footballs at the meatball on top of the Late Show Christmas tree until one of them knocks it off.

“Why is there a meatball on the top of the tree?” you may well ask. You may also ask why it’s on top of a souvenir Empire State Building that’s on top of a large cheese pizza. The original reason for it is no longer relevant because, like all family traditions, the correct answer is now “Because it’s Christmas. And at Christmastime, we always put a cheese pizza on top of the tree, and then cover the top spiky branch with a souvenir of the Empire State Building, and then plop a giant meatball on top of the whole thing.”

Then there’s a guest, and then there’s the moment the whole show has been building towards: Darlene Love sings “Christmas Baby (Please Come Home)”.

There’s such obvious joy on every square foot of that stage. Chorus, strings, extra horns, the blonde curly-haired keyboardist who supplements Paul in the keyboard pit every time an arrangement on the show calls for four hands (I can’t believe I couldn’t find her name on Google), the fake snow, the special lighting…it’s obvious that the whole show derives enormous pride and pleasure in these three or four minutes. As well they should!

[Edited to add: reader Tim Schwab suggests that the band’s second keyboardist is Bette Sussman. Yup.]

Am I spoiling it for you by embedding all of these clips? Of course not. Is it spoiling your family Christmas party to know in advance that your Aunt is going to play “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” on a concertina, that your grandfather will wear the same Santa tie that he wears every year, and that your Mom will be bringing those mini pecan pies that she bakes inside muffin tins? Of course not. I look forward to this for weeks for the same reason why I usually order the same sandwich at my favorite diner. I loved it the last time and I know I’m going to love it the next time.

I’m informed that Jay Thomas won’t be telling his story or hurling a pig product at a cow product this year. Dash it. Well, I’m sure that they’ll find a way to use that time that will provoke Letterman fans to say “Hey, remember that one Christmas when they…” for many years to come.

I’ve always felt some sympathy for the one “normal” guest booked for that show. Everyone else on that stage has an established, eagerly-anticipated part to play. The guest probably feels like they’re joining their boyfriend or girlfriend’s family Christmas dinner for the first party. Should they join in on the traditions, or wait until they feel entitled?

This year, they’ve got Kristen Wiig, who clearly knows how to make some funny in any situation. Actually, by this time in the “Anchorman 2” promotional campaign, I reckon she can make some funny and plug the movie in any situation up to and partially through the Biblical apocalypse. If Dave got raptured during the interview, she’d probably slide into the empty chair and use some of her anchordesk material, barely even noticing the angels as they cleave their way through the audience with swords of purifying fire.

(You have to admit: we’ve been hearing an awful lot about this movie for a very long time.)

When Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol” he intended to document and popularize ways to celebrate the holiday. It was like one of those Martha Stewart Christmas magazines, only the polar opposite of smug and insufferable. The sole downside of that book is that it’s probably guilted a lot of people into trying to honor the Dickens tradition instead of anticipating and enjoying events and celebrations that have some personal relevance.

I do not go caroling, I don’t cook a goose, and though I’ve attended lots of Christmas parties, I’ve never polished and buffed my calves in advance in hopes that they would “shine like moons”, as Old Mr. Fezziwig’s did.

But I do watch the David Letterman Christmas Show. I’m keeping Christmas my own way and am made quite glad of it.