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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Nurturing a Yuletide obsession: An interview with Joanna Wilson, author of "The Christmas TV Companion"


When I was a kid, I would plop myself down in front of the TV around this time of year, just waiting for the Christmas specials to start. I couldn't get enough of them. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." "Frosty The Snowman." "A Charlie Brown Christmas." "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." Well, actually, that last one always kind of freaked me out. But you get the idea. I loved me some Christmas specials.
Joanna Wilson is a woman after my own heart. The pop culture expert and Ohio resident has literally watched thousands of hours of Christmas programming over the past seven years, attempting to view every piece of holiday TV out there, from variety specials to movies to Christmas episodes and beyond. She's writing summaries on all these masterworks for an encyclopedia she hopes to finish by next year.
In the meantime, Wilson has written a much shorter volume, "The Christmas TV Companion," released last month, in which she discusses a sliver of the holiday programs she's viewed over the years. These include everything from a Judy Garland Christmas special to a MADtv sketch that re-imagines Rudolph as a hooved Don Corelone.
So what drove Wilson to digest all this Yuletide TV?
"It became a project of passion for me," said Wilson during a recent phone interview with I Screen You Screen. "It just got bigger and bigger. It's really a full-time job."
Like most people, Wilson got hooked on Christmas TV via classic fare, such as "Charlie Brown" and Rankin/Bass specials, like "Rudolph." She declares that she was "like everybody else. We sort of grow up with these Christmas specials and become obsessed with them."
Wilson's obsession grew over the years, and she eventually decided to try to get her hands on as much holiday fare as possible. What Wilson has discovered in her years of research is that there are some truly outrageous -- and truly wonderful -- Christmas specials out there that most of us have never heard of. "Christmas TV Companion," is broken into chapters, including "Macabre," "Variety," and "Sci-Fi." There are also listings for family-friendly offerings and hidden gems. There are even sections that allow readers to "Make Your Own Marathon." Each of these sections lists a group of shows linked by a certain theme (for instance, "cool" actors -- like Steve McQueen -- who have made holiday-centered show).
Some of the works mentioned in the book are movies, but most are TV movies, episodes and specials.
By and large, "Christmas TV Companion" refrains from discussing popular, traditional shows -- like the Muppet Specials or "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" -- in favor of unearthing more oddball fare. In addition to the Garland special and the MADtv sketch, Wilson's book makes mention of such offbeat stuff as the "Rebel with a Claus" episode of the animated series "Squidbillies." In that episode, the show's protagonists -- a family of hillbilly squids -- kidnap the man in red, setting off an odd series of events that involve Ninja elves and an homage to the Quentin Tarantino film "Reservoir Dogs."
"I've seen it a million times," Wilson said. "There are many things that try to be offensive, but this is really cleverly offensive."
Of course, Wilson isn't immune to holiday sentimentality and the book includes many classic holiday tearjerkers, including "The Littlest Angel" and "The House Without a Christmas Tree." Oh, and no book on Christmas specials would be complete without infamous cult classic "The Star Wars Holiday Special."
But "Christmas TV Companion" also makes room for some high-end fare, such as "The Hard Nut," a highly stylized and modernized take on the classic ballet "The Nutcracker." Wilson said the special, choreographed by Mark Morris for the Mark Morris Dance Group and with production design by acclaimed illustrator/comics artist Charles Burns, is one of the real gems she's unearthed in her odyssey.
"I certainly didn't know about that before," Wilson said.
However, the material discussed in "Companion" is just a fraction of what Wilson's watched, and she said she had to leave many worthy entries out. What didn't make the cut? For starters, the conventional-sounding "Elmo's Christmas Countdown," featuring the perpetually cheerful red Muppet. What makes this worthy of Wilson's attention? Turns out, it features Tony Sirico and Steve Schirripa of "The Sopranos" playing puppet icons Bert and Ernie.
"To see these two famous 'Sopranos' people pretending to be Bert and Ernie -- it just blew my mind," Wilson said. (Note: You can watch the clip here. It's really something.)
Wilson said, as she continues her quest to watch all the holiday programming that's out there, she's still amazed at how much festive material there. "There's such a wide variety," she said. "I find surprises all the time."

For more information on "The Christmas TV Companion," visit www.christmastvcompanion.com. Also, if you want to know when some of the specials in Wilson's book are airing, visit Wilson's blog, here.

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