This is the last example of a Simpsons episode I found difficult to watch as a kid, and in fact it’s the most extreme example – I could always at least get through “$pringfield”, “Marge Be Not Proud”, and “Scenes From The Class Struggle In Springfield” because whilst they had difficult scenes, these were generally contextualised by absurdist comedy, but this is one unbearably anxiety-inducing situation after another. I wondered, going in, whether or not my reaction would have changed; children tend to be very sensitive to specific anxious situations, and I figured that the anxiety of losing all your Christmas presents would have affected me less as a childless guy approaching thirty. But if anything, it was even more painful to watch, because I could name and clarify the anxiety I was feeling. This may be the most meanspirited episode of the show until “Homer vs Dignity”, where the family are wildly punished above and beyond their crimes and every scene simply turns the screws tighter, and the comedy just isn’t strong enough to carry me through it. I mean, it’s fascinating on multiple levels to me, because it calls a lot of my taste into question. I love mean comedy, and I tend to love a lot of comedies that other people describe as meanspirited. I love comedies about people who hate each other and constantly insult, abuse, or attempt to murder one another – Blackadder, 8 Bit Theater, Always Sunny, The Young Ones – and I always get a little frustrated with comedies that start out with that kind of meanness and soften over time – My Name Is Earl is a random one that kept softening and softening over the years, and the big flaw with Scrubs is that somehow the comedy kept getting meaner while the drama kept getting softer. It’s not that I don’t like ‘nice’ comedies, it’s that ‘mean’ comedies serve a very specific purpose for me. I value being empathetic and trying to understand other people’s points of view, and ‘mean’ comedy is like the chance to get to turn all of that off – it lets me vicariously experience the thrill of just being an asshole without any of the personal consequences.
(I have my limits. Family Guy is horribly, actively cruel in a way that Blackadder isn’t.)
I also love comedies where bad things happen to people for no good reason. The closest to home would be the way the universe craps on Zoidberg in Futurama, though 8 Bit Theater and the Lutz jokes on 30 Rock were also great for that. To me, these kind of comedies take the feeling that the world is deliberately conspiring against you and makes it funny – I can recognise the feeling that I’m the least important person in the world and the one upon whom all the unpleasantness must be dumped, and I can laugh at it. I really don’t want to spend all this time moaning about Mike Scully’s run, but he’s making it easy for me (fun, too); it’s often hard to tell how much of it comes down to it not being done well and how much it comes down to it not fitting within the universe of The Simpsons, but in this case it’s genuinely just not that funny. On a micro level, there’s few gags here on the level of “As for me, I design mansions, then live in them” or Black Mage cheerfully commenting “Man, I love the use of my legs!” before getting them horribly mangled by a door or Ted throwing rocks at old people because “Why should they get to be happy?!” These jokes aren’t just funny because they’re cruel, they’re funny because they’re absurd images, and this episode lacks any of that absurdity. On a macro level, the story feels less like the universe crapping on the family and more like pouring misery on them totally unfairly. Everyone is moving through this story with the best of intentions – even Bart’s goals are fairly innocuous and outstripped by the consequences of his behaviour. A common refrain in social justice circles is that intentions don’t matter and it’s the consequences of your behaviour that count, and while I get where that’s coming from – if you do something racist, you’ve done something racist, and there’s no real justification for it – it’s not a phrase I can agree with 100% of the time, because there are situations where it feels right to extend some forgiveness to someone because their intentions weren’t actively malicious, and this feels like one of those situations. So it just feels like twenty minutes of unbearable cruelty and anxiety for little comedic or thematic benefit, and even the kind ending doesn’t make up for it.
Chalkboard Gag: Rudolph’s red nose is not alcohol-related.
Couch Gag: The family turns out to be in a snow globe. Somebody shakes it, and Homer ‘ooh’s.
This episode was written by Ron Hauge and directed by Bob Anderson. Hauge was inspired by a radio broadcast about an orphanage that was ripped off. Alex Trebek guest stars as himself.
In my family, situations like Bart’s were avoided by the rule that we couldn’t open any presents until everyone had had breakfast, though we were allowed to go through our stockings. I will concede that I love the brilliant creativity of Bart’s water scheme, both in idea and in the execution of his dream.
Old Jewish Man shows up with the wrong voice entirely!
Krusty referring to the money as “fifteen thousand Missoulians” is a reference to the city of Missoula, Montana, where Hauge is from. The Simpson’s car saying “I’ll keel you!” is a reference to a wiffleball bat in the writer’s office that said that. The title is a riff on Miracle On 34th Street. Plot points riff on It’s A Wonderful Life and Homer telling Lisa to knock off the piano practice is a parody of a specific scene. The senior citizen dancing is a reference to A Charlie Brown Christmas. Marge appears on Jeopardy!. One of the stuffed animals Chief Wiggum is holding is Binky from Life In Hell.
Iconic Moments: “It’s craptacular.” | “Strong words. Strong, bewildering words.”