Two Forgotten Christmas Classics Turn 30

A Garfield Christmas Special / christmastvhistory.com

According to IMDB, A Garfield Christmas Special and A Claymation Christmas Celebration both premiered on December 21, 1987, on CBS. They both turned 30 this week.

You can be forgiven for forgetting: Neither seems to have aired on a major network this year… or in the past several years, for that matter. But both used to be seasonal staples for CBS.

Christmas specials tend to fall into one of two broad categories: Either a grumpy killjoy learns the “true meaning of Christmas” (the myriad re-tellings of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” fall into this bucket) or a hero must “save Christmas” by making sure Santa Claus can make his rounds. (One might argue the existence of a third category about finding love for the holidays. I highly recommend the We Just Saw a Movie podcast, which has explored this odd genre in great detail over the past two Yuletides.)

A Garfield Christmas

A Garfield Christmas Special falls into the first category, inviting us to the Arbuckle family farm for a “good old-fashioned Christmas.” There are no human children characters, but thirty-something brothers Jon and Doc-Boy Arbuckle prefigure criticisms of today’s millennials by immediately reverting to childlike behaviors. (Also, we learn that Mr. Arbuckle paid for nearly a quarter century of piano lessons for Doc-boy. That’s… odd.) Garfield, for his part, plays the closest thing the episode has to a Scrooge; while not openly hostile toward the holiday, he welcomes Christmas with a shrug and a trademark, “big fat hairy deal.” He has a heart-to-heart with Grandma Arbuckle (a stereotypical 80’s “sassy old lady” in the mold of Sophia from the Golden Girls) about her late husband, then both gives and receives thoughtful gifts to inspire a change of heart.

As a media franchise, Garfield doesn’t get a lot of credit for its subtle, Letterman-esque sarcasm. There’s passive-aggressive friction between Grandma Arbuckle and her daughter-in-law. There’s Mr. Arbuckle, wondering aloud why he has to entertain his grown offspring with children’s stories, while his wife enables their sons. The family gawks at the Christmas tree that probably looks like every Christmas tree they have put up for decades. Doc-boy spends Christmas morning wearing a bunny rabbit onesie; Jon receives a horrible oversized sweater but seems fairly appreciative nonetheless.

The Arbuckle Family Christmas is at various time silly, ridiculous, tedious, immature… and ultimately perfect because it belongs to them. Garfield himself summarizes the message: “It’s not the giving, it’s not the getting, it’s the loving.”

A Claymation Christmas Celebration

Remember when the GEICO cavemen got their own sitcom? Decades before that debacle, the stop-motion animated California Raisins went from selling dried fruit to multi-media stardom.

The signing raisins were the grand finale of A Claymation Christmas Celebration. Claymation is the rare children’s Christmas program which doesn’t fit into the categories mentioned above; it has more in common with variety specials by the likes of Michael Bublé. Six short, unconnected, musical vignettes fit around the banter between Rex and Herb, a couple of dinosaurs trying to find the definition of the word “wassail.” (They eventually learn from a  band of leprechauns or elves who appear to be driving with open containers.)

Each song is a unique take on a classic. The Magi Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar sing the traditional verses of “We Three Kings,” while their camels provide jazzy, upbeat improvisational choruses. Walruses ice dance to “Angels We Have Heard on High” while inadvertently tormenting a waddle of penguins. The Carol of the Bells is played by an orchestra of anthropomorphic bells who whack themselves with mallets (including one who has apparently taken a few too many hits). And the California Raisins improvise after missing a bus by crafting their own magic sleigh to the tune of “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.”

There’s no story to be had here, but each vignette is funny in its own way.  And the music is fun. (There is also something to be said for true, stop-motion claymation. Imagine the painstaking process of sculpting the characters and bringing them to life.)

Why We Don’t See Them Anymore

In the late 1980s and into the 1990s, Garfield and Claymation were holiday television staples. They aren’t anymore. That’s probably fine.

Cynically, one might blame it all on merchandising. Suction cup Garfields don’t adorn every third car anymore, and dancing clay figures aren’t selling dried grapes. Why devote prime airtime to specials that advertise yesterday’s product when Olaf’s Frozen Adventure could start building excitement for the upcoming-but-still-far-away Frozen 2?

On the other hand, yesterday’s Christmases are yesterday’s Christmases. Today’s Christmases are the wholly owned domain of today’s kids.

Garfield hugging Odie might inspire misty-eyed memories for me, but I can buy Garfield on DVD or watch him on YouTube if I need a nostalgia fix.

Other people (like me) grew up watching this stuff, but my kids don’t know Garfield. They know Olaf the snowman. We watched his special this year, and we all liked it. It was an imaginative story which doesn’t fit into either the “grump finds Christmas Spirit” nor the “save Santa/save Christmas” categories, and that’s a bit refreshing. The music was catchy, and the messages about Christmas traditions and being with loving family were there.

The characters might be different, but the best Christmas stories run a little deeper than that. Maybe, 29 years from now, my kids will look at the calendar and think, “Wow, that Frozen special is 30? That reminds me of when I was a kid…”

 

 

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Six Years of Fantastic Frustration

When my twin daughters were born six years ago, my elders tried to warn me, in the midst of their congratulations, about what was ahead.

“It’s a challenge,” they said. “It’s hard work, but the rewards are tremendous,” they said.

In those hazy, sleep-deprived days of early parenthood, I only remember my grandfather using a certain word: “Frustrating.”

It stood out back then and has continued over the past six years. My grandfather – “Grampy” – is one of the wisest people I’ve known. He had ten kids of his own, including my Mom, and they all turned out pretty well. What his parenting advice lacks in recency, it more than makes up for in volume of experience.

Raising children can feel like watching a schlocky horror movie from the 1980s. You often know exactly what comes next, but the characters behave absent of logic or perspective. No matter how many times you yell, “Don’t go through there!” at the screen, you still wind up with Cheerios spilled all over the floor, or a bump on the noggin, or a scraped knee, or any number of the horrors which may befall a young child. (You then have to convince said child that their pain and fear is temporary and minor. Good luck with that.)

The thing is, you know the ending (or at least what the ending could be). You’ve watched your kid succeed, and you know they can climb whatever mountain is in front of them. Kids don’t always see it; the view over their shoulder isn’t so long.

The kids themselves aren’t the biggest source of frustration.

A young child’s schedule has a surprising density to it, including school, doctor’s appointments, activities, and parties. They become easy to get wrapped up in. Then one day, you’re walking your kid to the bus stop for their first day of kindergarten, and you grow acutely sensitive to the passage of time. You feel the moments ticking past like grains of sand flowing through an hourglass, and wonder if you’ve appreciated it all as much as you should have. Did you really savor the holidays, the vacations, and even the lazy, rainy Saturdays as much as possible? You try to collect as many details in your memory as best you can, but you can only grab so much. There are so many, and yet so few all at the same time.

It’s frustrating.

Now for the sweet to go along with all that bitter: There’s more time. It’s not an infinite amount, and no one can know how much, but it’s there. Which means instead of getting weepily nostalgic for the past, enjoy building memories in the present.

So long as there is more time, there are more moments to enjoy, to gather, and to treasure.

 

 

The First Black President

Here’s a real “check your privilege” moment. Did you know that, in 1971, Bill White became the first black play-by-play announcer in sports when he took to the mic for the New York Yankees? It took until 1971 for that to happen.

It makes sense when you think about it: Teams tend to hire former athletes as their sportscasters, and until 1947 there weren’t any black baseball players. So seeing a black sportscaster 24 years later seems right – except, of course, that neither of those lines should never have existed in the first place.

Still, I had no idea that White was so significant until I read this post on The Undefeated. (I just knew him as Phil Rizzuto’s former broadcast partner.) The piece uses White’s legacy to point out how the Barack Obama Presidency has changed the perception about further color barriers: Obama has made those barriers temporary. If a black person can be President, we assume will will be the “first black [INSERT ANYTHING HERE]” at some point. Time, more than prejudice, is the enemy now.

For whatever you think about now-ex-President Barack Obama (I have some opinions), that legacy alone means something. As a white guy, I can’t even fully appreciate it myself; just as I took for granted growing up hearing Joe Morgan and Ken Singleton call baseball games. When I was young, my parents told me that if I tried hard enough, I could do or be whatever I wanted. It’s hard to imagine a parent having to tell their child the opposite – that no matter how good you are, some doors will be closed. Whether it was always true or not, that was a legitimate feeling in communities of color.

Among the debates surrounding the legacy of our 44th President, this accomplishment is worth celebrating. It’s sad that there was once a color barrier on the baseball field, or in the broadcast booth, or any number of other places. Now, hopefully, we can know there will never be a time like that again.

 

Clinton lost the Obama coalition (and they should have seen it coming)

FiveThirtyEight’s analysis of the 2016 electorate shows that Hillary Clinton’s loss was indeed due to low voter turnout. Apparently, high numbers of Democrats and Independents (and even a good number of Republicans) didn’t feel it necessary to go out and make a choice between two horrible candidates.

Who could have predicted such a thing? Turns out, it was easy to spot as far back as June 2015. As (obviously) any dolt could see, Clinton’s strong numbers against a fractured Republican field belied real issues among key demographics. And the issue wouldn’t be losing votes to the eventual Republican nominee, but in losing raw voters period. Polling can offer people a chance to see preferences, but judging intensity of preference requires a deeper reading of the numbers.

Clinton’s people should have seen this. (If they did, they figured to correct it by scaring the bejesus out of people by telling them how bad Trump was. That strategy typically invites failure.)

On its face, FiveThirtyEight’s analysis gives Clinton supporters some cover: They can claim that if the turnout had only been higher, their team would have won. (If only it hadn’t been for James Comey/the Russians/fake news/okay maybe Comey again?) But such face-saving leaves unanswered questions about why turnout was so low. Refusing to vote is a vote, as well. People think of political campaigns as an effort to get a voter to choose candidate A over candidate B, but in reality the first challenge is getting voters to make the choice at all.

Trump’s answer on data is actually the right answer

Donald Trump says his Presidential campaign will be about personality, not data:

In his AP interview, Trump discounted the value of data: The “candidate is by far the most important thing,” he said. He said he plans a “limited” use of data in his general election campaign and suggested Obama’s victories — universally viewed by political professionals as groundbreaking in the way data steered the campaign to voters — are misunderstood.

“Obama got the votes much more so than his data processing machine, and I think the same is true with me,” Trump said, explaining that he will continue to focus on his signature rallies, free television exposure and his personal social media accounts to win voters over.

That’s exactly the wrong answer on an 8:00 a.m. conference call, but it’s exactly the right answer for an interview – which is something many political professionals miss. In the quest to sound smart to industry press, operatives can fall into the trap of talking too much about process. But voters don’t care.

Yes, the data-driven campaigns President Barack Obama ran in 2008 and 2012 were groundbreaking. But people voted for Obama’s message. The data elements helped them vote, but they made the choice, ultimately, based on the message.

In this cycle, polarizing figures with limited crossover appeal lead both major parties. Both presumptive nominees face divisions within their parties. Voter turnout could suffer, which could make the ground game vital. If the race is close, it will likely be the campaign with the better turnout operation that comes out ahead.

But a candidate has three jobs: 1) Ask for votes; 2) Ask for money; 3) Don’t mess up. Chatting about campaign tactics is not on the list.

Maybe Trump has a basement full of nerds chained to computers analyzing data sets to develop the winning turnout plan. Even if he does, it wouldn’t help him to brag about it. Even if the Trump campaign proved to be the most sophisticated data operation in the history of ones and zeros, it would only serve to amplify his message.

Campaign tactics may drive votes, but personality wins voters.

That mad world of blood, death, and fire

Each March, someone on Facebook posts a video of Liam Clancy singing “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” for St. Patrick’s Day. The song’s protagonist is an Australian World War I soldier and its writer is Scottish-born, but Irish singers seem to do it the most justice. Written in 1971, you’d be excused for categorizing it with the anti-war songs of its era. But give it a listen after you’ve spent about 24 total hours listening to Dan Carlin talk about World War I, or read any of the grisly accounts from the era, and the song takes on a much different tone.

World War I was called “The War to End All Wars” because of the near-universal realization that modern warfare sucks. As the song alludes, killing technology has been getting much more efficient in the past century and a half, and WWI was the first chance to observe that trend.

Since World War I, most long-term conflicts have had some sort of moral reasoning. World War II fought Adolph Hitler’s plan for world domination; the Cold War fought the Soviet plan for World world domination; the War on Terror fights jihadis who use radicalized Islam to justify their plan for world domination, and so forth. World War I was, in many ways, a local territorial war that expanded because of alliances and agreements among great powers. For example, if France and Russia didn’t have an “I Got Your Back If You Got Mine” treaty, Germany might not have invaded France – heck, maybe Great Britain wouldn’t have been in the war at all.

When you think about how much of that war was triggered by paper and handshakes, and then read or listen to how ill-prepared the military leaders and troops were for the shift from horses and swords to tanks and machine guns, “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” becomes that much more more sad.

Running independent? Better start now.

Donald Trump heads into March like a lion, leading polls and looking to emerge with a delegate count that may put the Republican nomination away. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are taking their whacks at him more aggressively than before – and even if they can’t nudge Trump out of the race, they can extend the nominating contest until it falls under the arcane rules of the party convention.

All these turning gears have the more speculative wondering about whether a serious third option could appear on the November ballot for the first time in 20 years. Trump supporters want their guy to have a spot if they feel the GOP finds some kind of black magic to nominate someone else; Republicans fear the Trumpocalypse and don’t want to have to write in Mickey Mouse against Hillary Clinton. These are both significant audiences, so an independent candidate seems like it could make some waves. Michael Bloomberg has been the biggest name to consider an independent run so far.

So could it happen?

The major problem is logistics, as Ballotpedia’s page on Presidential ballot access makes clear. While the major political parties pretty much have a free spot on each state ballot, running an independent bid means petitioning 50 separate state election authorities. Signature requirements range from 1,000 in Idaho to nearly 180,000 in California. (Thresholds for getting on primary ballots tend to be easier, and petition signatures can be supplanted by filing fees.)

Getting on all 50 ballots means collecting over 900,000 signatures. But wait, there’s more: As anyone who has handled ballot access can attest, fake and invalid signatures are a major problem. People who sign petitions may not be registered to vote, or they may use a fake name, or they may violate some other arcane rule (such as Nebraska, where a signatory must not have voted in either party’s primary). Campaigns generally try to capture at least twice as many signatures as needed for just this reason, so the real magic number is about 1.8 million signatures.

The first deadline for access is in Texas, where a candidate needs about 80,000 signatures by May 9. That’s significant, because an independent offshoot of the Republican primary would surely look to Texas as an opportunity to pull support. And though a smart operation might cherry pick friendly states to focus efforts there, such a plan requires much advance data work. Either way you slice it, a third party effort has to start almost immediately.

The candidate would almost have to be a self funder, or have access to a very generous fundraising network; they would also have to have a good amount of political savvy to build the organization necessary for the task. Most of the current candidates couldn’t pull off the optics of positioning for a third party run while also running for the nomination, but Trump could probably get away with it. If Trump is the nominee, Mitt Romney, Carly Fiorina, and Jeb Bush are in the sweet spot of the money/strategy Venn diagram, though it’s tough to imagine they would do more than split votes and toss some close states to Clinton (or Sanders).

Rick Perry has floated the idea that he’s open to a second crack at the nomination at a contested Republican convention, but he offers a compelling case as an independent candidate as well. Winning Texas and maybe a handful of southern, western, and midwestern states could disrupt Electoral College totals enough to push the race to the House of Representatives. Another, center-left independent (like Bloomberg or Jim Webb) would make that outcome even more likely.

It makes sense why the prospect of a candidate beyond the two major parties holds considerable sway this cycle. Yet, the election laws in place greatly discourage it. Beyond smaller third parties and failing an indictment, Americans are likely stuck choosing between the two candidates who emerge from the party conventions this summer.