Thursday, December 20, 2012

#47 The Christmas Show

Every television show nowadays is essentially required to do something about Christmas.

Contrast this 1967 episode with other holiday TV standards in the immediately preceding years. "Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer", the famous stop motion animation tv special from 1964.  Generations were raised on the premise that being different can pay off, it just takes a matter of belief, persistence,luck and friends.  Coming out of the highly conformist 1950's and early 1960's,  it offers a wholesome version of the James Dean, "Rebel Without A Cause" character.  Apparently, if you can rebel with a clear purpose in mind, one that preferably benefits society, you can redeem yourself.  Even "A Charlie Brown Christmas" (1965) accepts the existence of commercialism but includes moments of religious sincerity.

Getting back to the Monkees' episode, the main trope is about reversing the viewpoints.  Instead of buying into the cynicism of the age, it is the responsibility of adults to gain the perspective of children. That's what the plot is loosely based on anyway; the boys babysit while the emotionally distant aunt goes off on a cruise (although all the family wants in reality is to be together during the holidays).  The goofiness of the 4 guys is rejected at first by the humorless child, but through their charm (and selflessness which ends up costing them their entire salary) they break through the emotional wall of the kid and make him cry and even SMILE.

The most prominent and best thing about the casting of this episode is the use of Eddie Munster; Butch Patrick, who played the werewolf/vampire boy from 1964 to 1966.  The Munsters totalled 70 episodes (vs the Monkees' 58), he already had more experience in front of the camera than The 4 Boys.  In a departure, here he embodies a "cool, calculating machine"; an adult psyche in a child's body which is essentially the opposite of the band.  Child-like playfulness embodied in physically mature adults.  Old enough to kill and barely able to vote; even the idea that they might not need supervision (a landlord, an agent, an adult figure) remained in question during the pilot.

(On a personal note of opposite-land, I first experienced the series as a summertime perk in Boston.  The Xmas show always seemed odd after a swim in Walden Pond.  L.A. was a land of Christmas in July, where all the snow was made out of white flakes of plastic.  I could accept all other incongruities, but the weirdest was not being able to have the show during an actual Christmas season.  As an adult, it is now slightly absurd for me to actually watch it in December.  But I have long since reconciled myself to being surprised by the show in ways I can never suspect.)

This surprise attack is taken to another level in the one musical number of the show. Instead of the typical romp of the latest Monkee single, the audience is teased by a medley of familiar tunes, sung by the "FairyTale Singers" (uncredited!) who will return for that next episode.  As a special gift to the audience they harmonize on an obscure (yet astoundingly beautiful) Spanish song (a Villancico written in 1553), called "Riu Chiu".  It is possible they got it from their producer, Chip Douglas, who had been in the Modern Folk Quartet (which also featured their on-set photog, Henry Diltz).  Or from another folk source, The Kingston Trio's 1961 album, "Goin' Places", on which it is attributed to a musicologist and is called "Guardo el Lobo".  (Note that John Stewart, writer of "Daydream Believer" had been a member of the Trio) Peter had been an NYC Village folk singer himself, so he was probably aware of it, if not the one to propose it.

Regardless, it is an example of preservation, popularization and the generosity of stepping outside of the circumscribed role of "pre-fab product".  If the phantom 3rd season had actually been realized, in the "Laugh-In" like format proposed, this might have been typical of the band (& brand's) evolution.  The final episodes included Frank Zappa and Tim Buckley. Their opening act on tour was Jimi Hendrix.  If they had managed to steer the ship away from the likes of the Don Kirschners and into the uncharted territory of the rock music of the late 1960's, they might have been able to cultivate & spotlight a whole generation of lesser known artists.

The final "gift" and act of generosity within this episode is a very simple, yet highly emotional sequence.  They allow the camera to run for the extra few minutes they have at the end, to allow the behind the scenes personnel to appear in front of the national audience.  Most of the crew seem to be a mixture of the old guard and the new.  The cameraman who worked on "Circus Boy" when Micky was 10 is the same one now; he's known afectionately as "Lippy" and used to take Davy home to dinner  The makeup man is a treasured elder. But most seem to be young (mostly male) and clown around, as if they are the less glamorous dopplegangers of the band.  Literal and figurative stand-ins.

This is not a matter of just breaking the fourth wall, it is a matter of removing it entirely.  In my entire personal history of television watching, I have never seen a similar scene.   Especially not WITHIN the context of the actual show.  Documentaries showing the "backstage reveal", are commonplace.  Where else in American television has the very simple (and heartwrenchingly human) desire to say, "Hi Mom!" actually happened in front of the camera?  Never an entire crew, never introduced by name by the performers, never thanked in full, never as part of the actual show, never a matter of "Look, there is nobody behind the camera now!" because even the cameraman has abandoned his post to join the ruckus.  Like an airplane flying without a pilot. It's extremely unprofessional, and completely riveting.

Watch the show on Youtube here, or right here on this page, you know you want to!!

1 comment:

  1. Just discovered the Spanish Christmas song tonight. Beautiful Thank you.

    From a Monkees (esp. Tork, who looks so cute and so stoned here) lover.



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