Futurama, Season Three, Episode Three, “A Tale Of Two Santas”

Written by: Bill Odenkirk
Directed by: Ron Hughart
DN’s Ranking: Bad / Nonessential / ESSENTIAL

This is the show’s second attempt to do an ironic Christmas episode, and I find it far more successful than the first. It’s very much in the spirit of “A Big Piece Of Garbage” in how it delivers all the beats of a conventional genre exercise but in a funny way; ironic takes on Christmas are a dime a dozen, but I don’t think any of them are nearly as funny as this. Interestingly, I would describe this as split between a conventional Futurama episode with a Christmas theme in its first half and a twisted Christmas tale in its second. The first half moves along like a straightforward adventure story, much as “Xmas Story” did; starting with the Elves’s Song, it turns into a list of the scenes you’re supposed to see in a Christmas special, only twisted into something ridiculous. Cynical spins on Christmas have become as cliche as the sentimental drivel it’s parodying – many of them are the product of people who are imitating, if not this exact episode, then the overall idea of it for half the effect. You can tell the difference between the imitators and the real McCoy in that the cynicism of this is more honest. The cynical Christmas satire of The Simpsons comes from it accurately diagnosing the intentions behind actual Christmas specials; the crass commercialism that pretends to have spiritual and emotional significance. The cynical Christmas satire here comes from deliberately warping the cliches in the funniest possible way.

The Elves’s Song is the absolute peak of these jokes in the episode; right from the opening line, the lyrics are written in a way that feels both precisely as funny as it could be and tossed off (“We are free and barely sober” giving us not just that they’re drunk, but that they’re a specific level of drunk). The effect to me is as if the song was written and performed in a hurry with the whole thing becoming more slapdash as it goes along; by the third verse, it feels like the elves are rambling on with their panicked excuses, and Fry and Leela’s lines barely fit into the meter (Billy West jams “toy soldiers” together into one word to get it to fit). But it doesn’t feel like the writers are halfassing it – rather, that this was genuinely the funniest way they could have written the song. The lyrics are funny because they feel like an honest reflection of the character’s state of mind (weak attempts at maintaining good cheer), and honestly, I’m always a sucker for comedy songs that manage to imitate the patter of casual conversation. I think it helps, as well, that we heard the legitimately great “Robot Hell” song so that the mediocrity of the songwriting here comes off as a deliberate aesthetic choice. This is the same place that the other gags on Christmas specials come from; not in diagnosing the reason behind them, but in taking their superficial details and warping them to be awful.

Title Card: This episode performed entirely by sock puppets
Cartoon Billboard: “Box Car Blues”, 1930

John Goodman doesn’t return as Santa – John DiMaggio takes his place, and will continue to do so for the rest of the show’s run. Coolio guest stars as Kwanzabot, and he makes the most of his tiny role, injecting genuine weary sadness into the character. This is also the first appearance of Judge Whitey, probably the most cutting and effective satire the show ever did. Annoyingly, Leela’s ‘paradox’ actually isn’t a paradox. 

“Professor! Don’t you remember what I told you?!”

The title is a reference to A Tale Of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Leela’s attempt to kill Santa with a paradox is a reference to “The Return Of The Archons” of Star Trek. Leela turns the factory control speeds to “Lucy” levels, a reference to a famous I Love Lucy scene. The “I’m Santa” scene is a reference to the movie Spartacus.

Iconic Moments: 3. “I’m sorry, I thought you was corn.” | “How dare you lie in front of Jesus!” | “Get ‘em, Jesus!” / “I help those who help themselves!”
Biggest Laugh: There’s a lot to love here – the opening gag about people diving into liquid ammonia sent me to space. Ultimately, I have to go with the same gag everyone else thinks of from this episode.

Next Week: “The Luck Of The Fryish”. “No fair! You changed the outcome by measuring it!”