BOOTLEG FILES 563: “A Family Circus Christmas” (1979 animated TV special).
LAST SEEN: It is on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: There was a VHS video release.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: An elusive bit of 70s madness.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Oh, please, Santa, yes!
Most comic strips, admittedly, are not particularly funny. But few comic strips generate rage and discomfort with the intensity that Bil Keane’s “The Family Circus” has brought forth.
What is it about “The Family Circus” that people love to hate? Maybe it is the endless skein humorless one-liners that the strip’s child characters dribble out when they are caught in moments of fear, confusion or backfired mischief. Or maybe it is the sense of icky wholesomeness that permeates a medium that is best served by nihilism or idiosyncratic buffoonery. Or maybe there is the misery in knowing the foibles of a bland suburban family will never create anything except tiresome situations and quotidian jokes.
To his credit, Keane – who created “The Family Circus” in 1960 – spent years keeping his work from being adapted into made-for-television animated specials. Perhaps he realized that a formula designed for a single-frame daily comic strip would be stretched beyond fraying in the realm of a half-hour production. But Keane eventually caved in and enabled a 1978’s special centered around Valentine’s Day. The ratings for this special were strong enough to encourage another television endeavor, so “A Family Circus Christmas” was made for the 1979 holiday season.
Keane had no direct participation in “A Family Circus Christmas,” which may explain why the production bore little resemblance to the personality of his comic strip. But thanks to Joseph Cavella’s screenplay and Al Kouzel’s direction, “A Family Circus Christmas” bears no resemblance to anything within the clearly defined tenets of sanity. This is, hands down, the most bizarre and uncomfortable Christmas special aimed at a kiddie audience, with situations and visuals that turn the happiest of holidays into an intellectual nightmare.
“A Family Circus Christmas” opens with the siblings Dolly and Jeffy breaking a household taboo by peeking into Mommy closet at the gift-wrapped goodies put aside for Christmas. Despite the irrefutable evidence of a store-bought bounty, the children insist that Santa Claus is coming on December 25 to give them different presents.
Then, Mommy appears, sporting the largest breasts this side of Chesty Morgan. One might expect Mommy’s mammaries in a Ralph Bakshi animated film, but their appearance here creates a genuine shock. Mommy scares the kids out of the closet by insisting that Santa Claus will be aware of their naughty behavior and punish them accordingly. Jeffy is terrified and spots an invisible Santa sitting on the toy chest in his bedroom. Santa is very angry with Jeffy, scolding him with an extended index finger. The child, as you can imagine, is on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Later that day, Daddy arrives home from work. (We never know what Daddy does for a living, but the man is such a bore that we really don’t care.) Dolly and Jeffy are joined by their older brother
Jeffy Billy and their baby brother P.J., and the quartet start nagging their bedraggled father to decorate the Christmas tree. The kids fish the holiday decorations from a basement that is so dark and dreary that you’d half expect to find Buffalo Bill gloating over his female victims. Jeffy disrupts the decorations by licking the candy canes that were intended for display – he claims he was cleaning them because they were dusty. But the family bonding event is ruined because the glass star that is supposed to top the tree – an ornament created by Daddy’s late father – is missing and no one can locate it.
That night, Jeffy shares a Yuletide idea with Billy: they should invite their deceased grandfather (called “Granddad” by the boys) to come down from Heaven for Christmas with the family. Billy reacts to the idea violently. “Don’t you know anything, Jeffy?” he screams. “He’s dead!”
Jeffy falls asleep and dreams that he is a passenger in Santa Claus’ sled. The production then abruptly assaults the viewer with astonishing imagery that is closer in spirit to Salvador Dali than Bil Keane: a celestial paradise where candy canes grow in clouds, Christmas ornaments hang in the heavens, the Holy Family (or a Greek Orthodox-inspired icon version of them) floats by and gigantic angels allow Jeffy to slide down their trumpets. While this lunacy plays out, the soundtrack is flushed with Sarah Vaughan (of all people) singing a tune called “The Dreamer.” Jeffy asks Santa if he can deliver Granddad from Heaven for Christmas. Santa happily responds that he can. “After all, Jeffy, I’m Santa Claus,” he boasts.
Billy begins to fear that Jeffy is cracking up, but he is unable to get Dolly to share his apprehension. In any event, the whole family turns up at a department store, where Jeffy reminds the faux-Santa of his dream Santa’s promise to deliver dead Granddad on the 25th. Billy and Dolly give abrupt orders to this temporary Kris Kringle for their holiday goodies, while P.J. screams in horror and run away from the store’s St. Nick.
Back home, Jeffy’s fear of the invisible Santa causes Billy and Dolly to put on some temporary good behavior in exchange for Christmas presents. The kids then try to get Daddy to read “The Night Before Christmas” to them, but they constantly interrupt him with inane requests. (At one point, he is asked to follow up the holiday classic with some of his favorite Army stories!) Dolly cues Mommy to Jeffy’s strange fixation with Granddad, but Mommy is unable to convince the boy that the dead don’t make guest appearances for the holidays.
Ah, but Jeffy gets the last laugh – Granddad returns in a silent and invisible form, and he shows Jeffy where that missing Christmas ornament is located. (It was in a box in an upper shelf of the hallway closet.) Jeffy builds a ladder from a table, chair and toy xylophone and retrieves the ornament, but his ladder falls apart beneath him. Luckily, Daddy hears the ruckus and catches Jeffy before the child breaks any bones in his descent. The glass star is put on top of the tree and the family enjoys the holidays – the kids play with their toys while Daddy lays on the couch and admires Mommy’s extraordinary breasts.
“A Family Circus Christmas” debuted on NBC in December 1979. Needless to say, audiences were not quite expecting this thing to show up, and three years would pass before another TV special based on Keane’s comic strip was allowed on the air – an Easter special, also the last made-for-television adaptation of the comic strip. Lions Gate released “A Family Circus Christmas” on VHS in 1992, but there was never a DVD release. A few Keane-loving bootleggers have shared unauthorized online postings of the production on YouTube.
In fairness, “A Family Circus Christmas” is certainly unique – after all, how many holiday shows feature children that see dead people, a Santa Claus who can resurrect the dead, a mother with ridiculously tremendous breasts and a dream sequence where Santa and Baby Jesus share the galaxy to Sarah Vaughan’s music? Try to top that, Rankin-Bass!
IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.