Part of me is glad just to see that How Murray Saved Christmas even exists, just because it means another new Christmas special made this year. For a long time, it seemed like there weren’t any being made at all, so any indication that networks are starting to get back into it is welcome. Of course, one possible reason for the apparent drop off may be because of how hard it is to create a new special that will go on to become a classic. While “Murray” isn’t bad, it’s also probably not going to buck that trend. But then, it has a strongly subversive side to it, so its creators may not have had that entirely in mind anyway.
The special is directed by Peter Avanzino, who has worked extensively on Futurama and The Simpsons, and before that on Ren and Stimpy. There’s a definite influence of these shows in the humor and animation, though thankfully it owes more the former two shows than the latter. The story is set in the northern town of Stinky Cigars, so named in order to keep people from prying into the lives of its citizens. The town is populated by the personifications of all the holidays, both great and small. The Easter Bunny lives there, as do the Groundhog and the April Fool, and even Abraham Lincoln and George Washington live once again as the embodiments of President’s Day. (I will note with some irritation that when including Columbus Day, the show perpetuates the myth of Christopher Columbus proving the world was round. I know historical accuracy isn’t a big point for a Christmas special, but come on. Additionally, it gets Groundhog Day folklore backwards.)
And, of course, the town’s citizenry includes Santa Claus (voiced by Kevin Michael Richardson). And, just as naturally, something bad has to befall Santa on Christmas Eve. Young inventor Edison Elf (Sean Hayes) has created a boxing glove jack-in-the-box, and inevitably Claus is concussed. It’s up to Edison to get everything organized to keep Christmas going this year, and he finds his substitute Santa in the town’s grouchy diner operator, Murray Weiner (voiced, complete with Yiddish idioms, by Jerry Stiller). The rest of the town’s eclectic inhabitants also all pitch in to help.
Well, almost all.
The special’s pedigree shows through in its offbeat and slightly dark sense of humor, but while many of the jokes will go over the heads of children, there’s little that a parent would likely find objectionable. It’s seldom vulgar or crude, and when it is, it’s on about the same level as a typical second grader, such as when Jason Alexander’s Doc Holiday repeatedly diagnoses some of the town’s more infantile inhabitants with diaper rash. There aren’t any gross-out moments. The one bit that is questionably in poor taste is at the very end where a newly cheerful Murray sings a song about how gay he is, and then explains he means happy, not “that way”. Both the happy/gay joke and the following “that way’s OK” joke are both older than the typical college student at this point, so even if they weren’t in dubious taste, they’re tired enough to be retired. The only people in the audience who haven’t already heard it are the ones who won’t understand it.
While most of the jokes aren’t even mildly offensive, they also aren’t much more than mildly amusing. There are a few moments that get genuine laughs, and it certainly makes a lot of attempts, but there’s a sense that most of the humor is familiar and a tad predictable. What is impressive, though, is the effort put into the narration from Dennis Haysbert and the dialogue. With the exception of a few dramatic moments and a few more one-liner gags, just about everything is in rhyme and meter. A few lines don’t quite scan perfectly, but the effort has to be applauded.
It’s not going to become an all-time classic, or an annual tradition for most families. I honestly doubt I’ll ever watch it a second time, personally. But it was entertaining enough that I didn’t mind watching it once.