It’s that time of year again, when we gather round the electronic hearth and listen to tales, both old and new, that remind us at once of the coming of the new year and the passage of time, as well as what is was to once be young. A TV christmas special, at its finest, is at once poignant and invigorating; funny and thoughtful, spectacular, but with the humblest of intentions. At their best, they define for their audience what Christmas truly means in the broadcast media age.
Alf’s Special Christmas… is not that.
Look, here’s the thing: I’ve gotten more random comments about my write-up of Andy Williams and the NBC Kids Search For Santa Claus than I ever would have expected. I seem to have lit a fire in the minds of America’s 30-somethings, all now reminded of this truly bizarre combination of homespun warmth and Hollywood shamelessness. Now, everyone wants a copy of it, and it’s nowhere to be found. Call it Andy978 and the Grown-Ups Who Used To Sort Of Wish They Were NBC Kids Search For Andy Williams and the NBC Kids Search For Santa Claus. On second thought, don’t call it that. That’s a crappy title.
So, when I found yet another obscure NBC Christmas special on Hulu last week, I thought the stars were aligning. I thought the Christmas Gods were smilin’ down on ol’ Andy. There it was – Alf’s Special Christmas – starring good old Alf. Always good for a laugh, that Alf. I’d never seen the thing myself, but maybe – just maybe – someone out there had fond memories of it. Even better, it was on Hulu. It was on the internet legally. Meaning: it wasn’t going to mysteriously disappear in a week after NBC/Universal discovered we were having fun with it.
“Hark!” I said. “Here is where our Christmas season truly begins! We shall watch this Alf’s Special Christmas, and yea verily, we shall make fun of it, and lo, our snark shalt bring us together in great joy.” And so, with pen in hand, ready to
take notes, I pushed play.
Hoooo-boy. That was the most depressing 47 minutes of my life, and I’m a Red Sox fan.
For those who do not recall ALF, it was a program on NBC that ran from 1986 to 1990 starring a wise-cracking extra-terrestrial from the planet Melmac who crashed in the backyard of the Tanners, the country’s most boring family. The
government was after him, E.T.-style, so the Tanners had to hide his existence, which led to all sorts of wacky situations I can’t remember because the show wasn’t nearly as good as you think it was. It only lasted four years. The difficult technical aspects of the show – making it look like Alf was actually walking around the Tanner’s house, for instance, required a special set full of trap doors the puppeteers could use – made shooting the show hell, and if you ever thought the actors playing Alf’s adopted family seemed a little edgy at times, now you know why. No one was happy on that set. But, hey, the show was a success. Alf was quite an icon in his day – I personally had an Alf puppet and an Alf t-shirt. The latter was too big for me, but my grandmother gave it to me, so I loved it anyway.
In this Very Special Episode – and dear lord I do not use that expression lightly – Alf and the Tanners are on their way to the same cabin Willie Tanner spent Christmas at as a boy. See, back in the olden days, Willie’s dad lost his job,
and then the house, around Christmas-time, but kind old Mr. Foley let the family stay at his old cabin in the woods, and it was the best Christmas ever. Now, Willie has the chance to take his family to the same place. The same no-electricity, no-running water, no-heat place. On Christmas. Yay, Dad.
Understandably, the kids are bummed. Alf himself doesn’t understand the whole Christmas thing, and winds up accidentally ruining everyone’s gifts by opening them up the day before Christmas. Oops. Then he changed all the tags to say “From Alf,” because – get this – when was he going to have time to go shopping? Oh, the jokes you could make before eBay.
Did I mention that Alf was always trying to eat the Tanner’s cat? This has nothing to do with the Christmas special, I just always thought that was kind of funny. On Melmac, they eat cats. Funny story – my folks used to take me to see
Bill Staines, the writer and performer of “All God’s Critters Got A Place In The Choir.” During the song, my parents and their hippy friends would wave puppets around in the air. One time, I wanted to bring my Alf puppet. They wouldn’t let me, on account of the cat eating. Or something. I never could quite figure out their reasons for things.
So, Mr. Foley shows up, and he’s a kindly old sort, but there’s something amiss. He heads off to the hospital to deliver toys to dying kids dressed as Santa, and wouldn’t you know it, Alf accidentally stows away in the truck. Alf winds up on
Santa’s sleigh, being pushed through the hospital, and of course winds up as a gift to some little girl who thinks he’s a doll.
(Boston music fans, take note: In this scene, in order to not get caught, Alf is sitting very, very still, like a living statue, pretending to be a doll. He already shares a passing resemblance with Edward Gorey’s doubtful guest. He’s in a
medical facility. Later, the famous “Yes, Virginia” letter is read. And, before Alf reveals himself to be real, what does the little girl name him? She names him Amanda. Someone is obviously messing with our heads here, and that someone has a time machine and a Dresden Dolls t-shirt.)
The first thing you notice about the kids in the hospital, lining up for gifts, is that none of them seem very sick. Couldn’t they have gotten one of the kids to shave their head or draw measles on their face or catch leprosy? The kid
who seems the least sick is Tiffany, the girl who chooses Alf from Mr. Foley’s sleigh. And, of course, this being a Very Special Episode and this being the 1980s and this being a major holiday and her being an adorable, spunky tyke in a hospital, she’s totally dying. Doesn’t seem that sick to me, but she does bear a striking resemblance to the little girl in The Sixth Sense whose Mom was poisoning her for the attention, so you never know.
Alf reveals himself to be alive and they become super-friends. Good thing, too, because she seems very alone and her parents aren’t even around. Maybe they’re off working double-shifts, to pay the medical bills to keep little Tiffany
alive for just one more Christmas, even if they’re working so hard they can’t be there with her because GOD BLESS AMERICA!!! Tiffany shows Alf a drawing she did of them where Alf is Alf and Tiffany’s an angel because she’s totally dying.
God, this is depressing. I mean, did NBC and the Alf team really think that this was an awesome idea for a Christmas special? Dying kids and depressed old people and – I hate to ruin the ending, but things probably don’t go so well for ol’
Tiffany there, at least based on the ominous “In Memory Of… Our Friend Tiffany, 1979-1987” thing at the end. This is the least Christmas-ish thing in the history of ever. Schindler’s List was more holly-jolly.
Oh, now Alf’s stuck in an elevator with a lady who’s about to give birth. Of course he is. And, despite knowing nothing about human anatomy he didn’t learn from the opening sequence when he spied on Mrs. Tanner in the shower, he manages to deliver the child. He suggests the new Mom name her kid…. wait for it… Tiffany. Glurg.
Mr. Foley, still dressed as Santa, fixes the elevator. He then heads off to the old trestle bridge to throw himself off of it, George Bailey style. Turns out Mrs. Foley passed away not long ago, and Mr. Foley doesn’t know if he can handle
life without her. Yay, Christmas! Luckilly, Alf stowed away in the car again, and there he is, dressed as St. Nick and haloed in Christmas snow, ready to talk Mr. Foley down, because Alf’s finally figured out the true meaning of Christmas.
Actually, I’ll give this special points for something Alf says here, about how Santa can’t do his job alone and that there’s lots of Santa Claus’s and Mr. Foley’s one, too, because it’s pretty much what my Mama always told me about the
spirit of Christmas and the importance of being Santa Claus for someone. Anyway, Mr. Foley comes down from the bridge because he realises people still need him, and that’s nice, and Alf goes home to the Tanners. Remember them? They’re the boring ass people Alf lives with. Anyway… Alf comes down the chimney in his Santa outfit, which gives them something funny to put in the trailer.
But, seriously. I know, I know, the best American christmas stories have always been total bummers, from the ode to Seasonal Depression that is A Charlie Brown Christmas to the suicide anthem It’s A Wonderful Life to the “life’s just one
big reflexive property of bullshit, ain’t it?” message of The Gift of the Magi. But this is like… dying kids and pregnant women in elevators and widowers throwing themselves off bridges, all saved by a goddamned alien muppet? That’s the meaning of Christmas?!?!? How exactly did something like this get made?
I’m sure people liked it at the time. Heck, I’m sure some people might like it now. But I guarantee you that no one who sat down to watch this on December 14, 1987 knew what they were in for. Alf’s Special Christmas isn’t quite Star Wars
Christmas Special bad – it’s shorter, for one, and has some nice moments – but it’s definitely not good either.
However, you can watch it legally on Hulu. So there’s that.