"Kelly Clarkson's Cautionary Christmas Music Tale"? Just the name of the singer's Wednesday 10 p.m. NBC hour illustrates the way stars' holiday TV specials have always crammed in oodles of everything. Title words. Guest stars. Seasonal songs/ sketches/ sentiment.
Clarkson's new conglomeration features Blake Shelton, Reba McEntire, Robin Williams, William Shatner, Whoopi Goldberg and a half-dozen other names. Last week's "Lady Gaga & the Muppets Holiday Spectacular" on ABC was busy, too. NBC's upcoming "Michael Bublé's 3rd Annual Christmas Special" (Dec. 18) promises Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige and even Cookie Monster.
These celeb specials are much less pervasive than in their '60s-'80s heyday, when rampant merrymaking annually featured stars both established (Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Andy Williams) and emerging (Sonny & Cher, The Carpenters, John Denver). Old-time shows' sheer numbers meant that along with the family warmth and yule music, we were also gifted with meta-clever faves and inexplicable anomalies.
Here are some of the most memorable, leaning toward the latter.
PEE-WEE'S PLAYHOUSE CHRISTMAS SPECIAL (1988) Cher, Oprah, Whoopi, Dinah, Annette and Frankie, and Zsa Zsa. And Charo! For sheer first-name star power, it's hard to beat CBS' prime-time pastiche with its cult kiddie-show host (played by Paul Reubens) welcoming celebs to his title hideaway for holiday games. Still a mind-boggling hour of pop culture kitsch. (Available on DVD)
A COLBERT CHRISTMAS: THE GREATEST GIFT OF ALL (2008) Another fictional figure does it his way. "Conservative pundit" Colbert is herein trapped in his cabin by a killer bear. He is nonetheless joined by Elvis Costello, John Legend, Feist, Toby Keith, Willie Nelson and Jon Stewart's equal-time salute to Hanukkah. (DVD)
DONNY & MARIE (1976-1980) OK, some of these Osmond family extravaganzas are variety series episodes. But boy, are they all special. Glitter sweaters. Disco numbers. Ice skaters. Snickering closet comic Paul Lynde. Tie-dye magic man Doug Henning. "Comedy" sketches! Ski-lodge "locations"! Count the Osmonds! (YouTube)
MR. T AND EMMANUEL LEWIS IN "A CHRISTMAS DREAM" (1984) NBC paired two then-big TV names in this plot-driven oddity, as gold-chained Santa T ("The A-Team") works to persuade young scoffer Lewis ("Webster") to believe in the season. Also on hand: Mayor Ed Koch, magician David Copperfield, ventriloquist Willie Tyler, the Rockettes, various Manhattan seeing-sights. (YouTube clip)
THE STAR WARS HOLIDAY SPECIAL (1978) George Lucas has worked hard to bury this since its single CBS airing. Here's why: It's an even bigger mess than you might imagine. Harrison Ford helps Chewbacca visit his home planet/family, thereby encountering Bea Arthur, Art Carney, Harvey Korman and other lost guests in ludicrous getups. Carrie Fisher sings! (Widely pirated)