Back in the days of the dinosaurs, before cable TV and remote controls, watching TV was simple. We’d heave ourselves off the couch and lumber across the room to change the channel and jiggle the rabbit ears, in order to catch our “choice” of shows on any one of the three major networks. Folks in big cities might have an additional independent channel or two, but TV was truly a mass medium — we huddled together as families, as communities, to watch an unimaginably limited number of shows.
Then, as now, Grandma’s taste was different from her grandchildren’s, so programmers catered to the range of tastes not with different shows for different demographics — there wasn’t the bandwidth for that — but with different segments within the same show: the variety show. The quintessential variety show of the ’50s and ’60s was The Ed Sullivan Show, which somehow managed to shoehorn major rock acts into the vaudeville-descended format.
Sullivan hosted the biggest of the variety shows, but it was far from the only one. Hollywood Palace brought glamour; family shows (the Osmonds, the King Family) emphasized close harmonies and corny humor. Other shows emphasized comedy but included music (Flip Wilson) or emphasized music but included comedy (Sonny and Cher).
All of these shows pulled out the stops for the Christmas episodes, which usually featured bigger guests and more surreal juxtapositions (like Bing Crosby and David Bowie singing “Little Drummer Boy”). Sometimes these episodes were framed as slice-of-life family gatherings, with famous friends stopping by; other shows created some overarching story that created the opportunities for guest turns and surprising cameos.
Reenacting Rat Pack patter
Bill Murray grew up, as I did, watching these shows, and he celebrates them in his Netflix special, A Very Murray Christmas. The title encapsulates the overall vibe of the show, which both recognizes the cheesiness of the genre he’s recreating and sincerely respects it. Murray’s deadpan persona manages, as it has for decades, to maintain both of these contradictory attitudes in perfect balance — there’s no hint of a wink, no hipster distance, even while he’s reenacting Rat Pack patter that he can’t possibly be taking seriously. His sidekick for the entire show is another performer whose career is based on aiming for that ambiguous sweet spot between satire and homage, Paul Shaffer — though Shaffer lacks the maestro’s balance, and always has a whiff of (self) mockery to him.
Shaffer, who travels from piano to piano to provide accompaniment as the action proceeds (resorting to a melodica during a transition scene in a stairway), also served as musical director for the project. He did a superb job of choosing the music, with lots of the chestnuts needed for the genre recreation, plus the chronologically appropriate ’60s classic “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” (a personal favorite of his — he famously brought Darlene Love onto Letterman’s show every year to belt it out). He also mixed in several wistful songs I didn’t recognize at all — one by Sammy Cahn, one by Mike Love, one by the Pogues — all of which served to both cut the schmaltz and acknowledge the modern truth that this isn’t necessarily a joyous season for everyone.
“Do you know me?”
The special’s premise is that Murray is scheduled to host a live TV broadcast from New York’s Carlyle Hotel on Christmas Eve, but the city has closed down because of a terrible blizzard and none of his costars can make it. Luckily, Chris Rock happens to be walking by, on his way home to assemble a Malibu Barbie Dreamhouse, and Murray grabs him to come in — just to sing a song or two, he says, maybe dance or rap or something. “Do you know me?” Rock asks incredulously. “Some. . . .” Murray replies.
This bit provides one of the delights of the Christmas specials being riffed on — the unexpected big-star cameo — but with a modern patina, a knowingness along with the love. Like the specials of yore, the show’s guests were booked to appeal to both the grandmas (of which age, if not reproductive status, I somehow now find myself) and the youngsters. I had immensely pleasurable “Holy shit, that’s ____” reactions to some of the guests but had to look up the identity of others; the groups would undoubtedly be reversed for the millennials.
The two biggest guest stars represent the two demographics, and their entrance together — in a sleigh drawn by prancing chorus girls — bridges them nicely. George Clooney’s suave charm has always had a touch of the retro to it, so it’s no surprise that he fits in tonally. Miley Cyrus, however, was a pleasant surprise to me: I know her almost exclusively through her tabloid enfant terrible persona, so had no idea that she’s actually a good singer. The “Sleigh Ride” of her entrance becomes a playful duet with Murray. He then lifts her onto a shiny white grand piano, from which perch she sings a reverent “Silent Night” — well, as reverent a “Silent Night” as can be sung by a tattooed young woman wearing a sexy Santa minidress, fishnet stockings, and marabou-trimmed stilettos.
A family affair
Many of the ’60s specials being riffed on featured family members — we practically saw Bing Crosby’s (second set of) kids growing up on his Hollywood Palace Christmas specials — and that tradition is honored here as well. Director Sofia Coppola lassoes her cousin Jason Schwartzman and her husband, Thomas Mars, who brings along his band, Phoenix. Friends are just as important to fulfilling the prototype; not only have the director and star worked together before (Lost in Translation), Clooney and Murray have as well (Monuments Men). The real-life relationships underline the sincerity of Murray’s homage — this is clearly a labor of love for all concerned.