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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

“You will be visited by 69 spirits”: 23 TV episodes based on “A Christmas Carol”

Illustration for article titled “You will be visited by 69 spirits”: 23 TV episodes based on “A Christmas Carol”

1. Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962)
Often cited as the first animated Christmas special, Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol is also one of the first TV shows to place an existing character within the rough outline of Charles Dickens’ classic novella about an elderly miser named Ebenezer Scrooge and the series of ghosts who provide him with some historical perspective on his life. In this hourlong special, the nearsighted bumbler Mr. Magoo (voiced as always by Jim Backus) appears on Broadway in a musical version of Dickens’ tale, with songs by famed composers Jule Styne and Bob Merrill. After the “this is just a play” framework is established, Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol serves up a shortened but still potent take on the story, with Styne/Merrill numbers like “Alone In The World” charting Scrooge’s gradual emotional softening. The show was such a hit that it opened the floodgates for Christmas cartoons on TV, and also inspired the short-lived NBC series The Famous Adventures Of Mr. Magoo, which stuck Quincy Magoo in different literary/historical adventures each week.

2. Bewitched, “Humbug Not to Be Spoken Here” (1967)
On Christmas Eve, ad man Darrin Stephens gets waylaid by a grumpy old client who thinks Christmas is “crass commercial nonsense.” (“Try ‘humbug,’” Darrin quips.) Thank the pagan gods that Darrin is married to a witch, Samantha, who literally works her magic on the misanthropic Mr. Mortimer, appearing at his bedside and conjuring a candy-cane broom to whisk him to the North Pole to meet Santa Claus. It isn’t a conventional version of “A Christmas Carol,” but hey…  that’s what happens to holiday traditions in mixed marriages.

3. The Odd Couple, “Scrooge Gets An Oscar” (1970)
Slobby, divorced sportswriter Oscar Madison is in such a bad mood at Christmas that he refuses to take part in his roommate’s stage production of “A Christmas Carol.” (The last straw comes when Oscar’s ex-wife sends him a reminder about his late alimony, via singing telegram.) But then Oscar’s dinner of meatloaf, chili, and liverwurst begins to agitate his ulcer, so he lies down on the couch for a long winter’s nap and has a nightmare in which the fussy roommate, Felix Unger, plays a Christmas ghost, while Oscar plays Scrooge. The Odd Couple writers then do almost a Mad-magazine-style parody of Dickens, played out on a bare stage with cartoony sets and minimal props. When Oscar wakes up, he has a heartburn-induced change of heart, telling Felix that he’ll gladly be in Felix’s play, and will be a less grumpy person from now on. “This is the real you,” Felix enthuses, “that’s underneath the other real you.”

4. Sanford And Son, “Ebenezer Sanford” (1975)
Since junk-dealer Fred Sanford is already a raging misanthrope, it doesn’t take any special circumstances to make him into a Christmas crank. “We ain’t got no money to be spending on no foolishness,” he says when his son Lamont talks about decorating the tree. Fred irritates Lamont even more when he pays a poor local kid a pittance to do backbreaking odd jobs around the lot wile Fred sleeps. But then Fred has a crazy dream, in which a Lamont-like ghost takes him back to his boyhood in St. Louis (“You’re the spirit of St. Louis!” Fred gasps), to a family Christmas party in the present, and to a future where Fred has no friends. He wakes up in a more generous mood, and goes to Aunt Esther’s party, where he sings a jazzy rendition of “The Christmas Song” and even avoids making a joke about how ugly she is.

5. The Six Million Dollar Man, “A Bionic Christmas Carol” (1976)
Mustachioed cyborg Steve Austin gets beset by two Scrooges in this extremely loose Dickens adaptation, in which Steve’s boss forces him to work during the holidays, investigating crotchety electronics manufacturer Horton Budge. Steve learns that Budge’s products are failing space-program inspections because his workers have become disgruntled—none more so than Budge’s nephew Bob Crandall, who embezzled money from his uncle to help pay his bills, and now is working off his debt at slave wages. So Steve dresses up as Santa Claus and takes the doped-up Budge on a little Christmas tour, showing him how bad the Crandall family has it. When Budge emerges from his chemically induced fog, he still shows no interest in helping the Crandalls, but then he sees a book of Christmas carols from the previous night’s adventure and realizes it wasn’t all a dream. And The Bionic Man did it all in one night!

6. Rich Little’s A Christmas Carol (1978)
For years, master impressionist Rich Little did a bit in his stand-up act that imagined “A Christmas Carol” with different celebrities playing the major parts. In 1978, Little expanded the routine to an hourlong special, which aired on the CBC and on HBO. Here, Little makes Scrooge into W.C. Fields and Bob Cratchit into Paul Lynde, and portrays the ghosts as Richard Nixon, Humphrey Bogart, Peter Falk, and Peter Sellers. Little doesn’t look for any deeper connection between his choice of celebs and the original story, but anyone who’s ever wanted to see Johnny Carson play Scrooge’s warm-hearted nephew and Truman Capote as Tiny Tim will be well-served by this version.

7. WKRP In Cincinnati, “Bah Humbug” (1980)
When radio-station manager Arthur Carlson eats a Christmas brownie made by perpetually stoned morning DJ Johnny Fever, he slips into a reverie and is visited by the usual procession of time-traveling ghosts, who convince him he should give Christmas bonuses to the staff. (When the first ghost arrives, Carlson asks if this is going to be the complete Dickens experience, and is told that yes, it will.) Today, the “Bah Humbug” episode of WKRP is noteworthy primarily for its eerily prescient vision of the radio industry, which shifts from a happy family business to a cold, automated operation in the future. These are the shadows of the things that will be.



8. Family Ties, “A Keaton Christmas Carol” (1983)
As a staunch Republican raised by two bleeding-heart ex-hippies, Alex P. Keaton thinks the only thing worth celebrating about Christmas is mass consumption. But then Alex has a dream in which his sisters—playing the “Christmas Carol” ghosts of past and future—show him how much he loved Christmas when he was a little boy, and how in the future, he’s destined to become a bald fat cat while his family lives in squalor. There’s nothing too out of the ordinary in this adaptation, which hits the usual Dickens beats in blandly cartoony Family Ties fashion, but the sweetness of the scenes where Alex watches Young Alex recalls the nostalgic poignancy of the original (and the Mr. Magoo version, for that matter).

9. Highway To Heaven, “Another Song For Christmas” (1984)
As part of his mission on earth, “angel on probation” Jonathan Smith and his mortal sidekick Mark Gordon have to use their divine magic to help ruthless used-car dealer “Honest” Eddy stop bilking money from the poor slobs who can only afford the down payments on his vehicles. Jonathan comes to Eddy at night and takes him on a trip through his personal history, reminding him of his humble roots on an Arkansas farm, showing him that the people he’s swindling are no different than he used to be. Thus the “no money down” deal was born.

10. The Jetsons, “A Jetsons Christmas Carol” (1985)
Twenty-two years after The Jetsons wrapped its first season, it came back for a second, now in syndication instead of network prime time. And so fans finally got a glimpse of Christmas Future, which turned out not to be too different from Christmas Past. Even in a world with flying rocket-cars and robot maids, there will always be mean old bosses like Mr. Spacely, who orders George Jetson to work late on Christmas Eve, keeping him away from his family just when they’re worried about the health of their dog Astro (who has swallowed a Spacely Sprocket). In an unexpected twist on Dickens, though, Mr. Spacely’s inevitable visit from three ghosts reveals he’s pretty unchanging: He was a jerk when he was a kid, he’s a jerk now, and he’ll be a jerk in the future. But he’ll be a poor jerk, because after Astro dies, The Jetsons will sue him for all he’s got. So Spacely saves Christmas for The Jetsons after all, if only for the sake of his space-pocketbook.

11. George Burns Comedy Week, “Christmas Carol II: The Sequel” (1985)
In 1985, CBS tried (and failed once again) to revive the anthology series with George Burns Comedy Week, in which the 89-year-old comedian served as the host for a different story each week. The series (which was executive produced by Steve Martin and his The Jerk co-writer Carl Gottlieb) only ran for 13 weeks, but lasted long enough to turn out a Christmas episode, imagining what might’ve become of Ebenezer Scrooge one year after his holiday epiphany. In short: Scrooge turns into a total sap, giving away so much of his fortune that the townsfolk come to take his gifts for granted, to the point of outright cheating him. So the ghosts return to teach Scrooge that while the Christmas spirit is all well and good, there’s no reason to be a sucker.

12. The Real Ghostbusters, “Xmas Marks The Spot” (1986)
Given their job description, it’s no real surprise what the animated stars of The Real Ghostbusters do when they travel through time to Victorian England and happen upon Scrooge’s Christmas ghosts. They bust ’em! But the deed has dire repercussions. When Peter, Egon, Winston, and Ray return to the present, they discover that by preventing Scrooge from having his Christmas change of heart, they’ve accidentally created a culture in which no one likes Christmas. So while Egon tries to retrieve the ghosts from their containment unit, the rest of the gang heads back in time and plays the part of the ghosts for Scrooge, using 20th-century devices like magnesium flares and a View-Master to stand in for actual ghostly sorcery. “Xmas Marks The Spot” (written by J. Michael Straczynski) even has its own Christmas message, as the whole experience serves to soften Peter’s yuletide skepticism. Now he ain’t afraid of no… mistletoe? Holly? Is there a good Christmas word that rhymes with “ghosts?”

13. Blackadder, “Blackadder’s Christmas Carol” (1988)
In another clever inversion of the Dickens classic (this one written by Richard Curtis and Ben Elton), Ebenezer Blackadder is a kindly soul who can’t conceive of what wickedness must be like, even though he’s surrounded by it in the form of all the people who take advantage of him. When a Christmas ghost passes through Blackadder’s dreams on the way to reform some bad folks, Ebenezer tags along, and gets to see how some of his ancestors and descendants behave. The lesson learned? That mean people get all the breaks, while the good people get used and discarded. And as for poor cripple “Tiny Tom” Scratchit? After Blackadder gets back from the past and the future, he suggests to Mrs. Scratchit that she “scoop him out and use him as a houseboat.”

14. A Different World, “For Whom The Jingle Bell Tolls” (1989)
The basics of A Different World’s spin on Dickens are straight from the sitcom-adaptation playbook. Spoiled rich college girl Whitley Gilbert lashes out at her dorm-mates because Christmas is proving to be a total hassle, and then she’s visited by three ghosts who show Whitley the ultimate end to her rudeness: She will live and die alone, while the friend she shunned will marry the boy Whitley likes. The real twist here is that the initial ghost—the Jacob Marley figure who explains the Christmas Eve itinerary—takes the form of Whitley’s mother, played by Diahann Carroll in a flowing gown and a necklace made of credit cards. She’s trying to teach her daughter not to be shallow and materialistic, lest she end up hurting the ones she love—though Mrs. Gilbert’s warning doesn’t prevent her from whispering that the ghosts on the way are “not really our kind of people.”

15. The Famous Teddy Z, “Season’s Greetings From Al Floss” (1989)
WKRP In Cincinnati creator Hugh Wilson got a second crack at “A Christmas Carol” with his critically acclaimed, dismally rated sitcom The Famous Teddy Z, a show about a Hollywood flunky (played by Jon Cryer) who becomes the agent for a famous actor, much to the chagrin of his boss Al Floss (played by Alex Rocco). “Season’s Greetings From Al Floss” is practically a direct rewrite of WKRP’s “Bah Humbug,” as the mean boss takes a look at how his business has changed—via a Dickensian plot that he approves of because it’s in the public domain—and comes to the conclusion that even in the cutthroat world of show business, a little compassion and a personal connection go a long way. (That was the message of the entire series as well; too bad not enough viewers were moved or amused by it.)


16. Quantum Leap, “A Little Miracle” (1990)
Following the lead of The Six Million Dollar Man and Highway To Heaven, the Quantum Leap version of “A Christmas Carol” takes place in a world where the heroes are fully aware of Dickens, and decide to use the methods in the book to get their jobs done. In this case, when Sam jumps into the body of the valet to miserable millionaire Michael Blake, his sidekick Al notes that Mr. Blake is a “real Scrooge” and Sam gets the bright idea to “Scrooge him.” But they can only use what’s on hand, so they rely on a trip to Blake’s old neighborhood and visits from his old friends to get him thinking about where he’s come from and where he’s headed. The end result is the same, even if the process is less supernatural—aside from the whole leaping-through-time-and-space-and-entering-people’s-bodies thing, of course.


17. Roseanne, “Halloween IV” (1992)
Like The Simpsons, the sitcom Roseanne always made as much of a to-do over Halloween as it did over Christmas, and in the series’ fourth big Halloween episode, the writers gave “A Christmas Carol” a spooky twist. In a foul mood because her oldest daughter has to work on Halloween, Roseanne decides to forego the Conner family tradition of pranks and hijinks, and instead mope around the living room, passing out fun-size Snickers to the kiddies. But then one of those kiddies turns out to be an actual ghost, who takes Roseanne back through her life so she can remember just how much Halloween means to her. The ghosts of present and future follow, showing her that if she doesn’t hang onto the Halloween spirit, she’ll forfeit her “cool mom” status and become as big of a square as her own mother.

18. Northern Exposure, “Shofar, So Good” (1994)
Staying in the non-Christmas “Christmas Carol” vein, Northern Exposure transfers Dickens to Yom Kippur in Alaska, and makes grumbly Jewish doctor Joel Fleishman the designated Scrooge. After Joel fires his assistant Marilyn (because she takes a vacation during a hay-fever epidemic) and refuses to help local homeless man Hayden Keyes rebuild his house (because it burned down when he was smoking in bed), he’s visited by the spirit of Rabbi Schulman, who shows him scenes from earlier Northern Exposure episodes as a reminder of all the lessons in becoming a better person that he’s ignored over the previous five seasons. Joel then takes a look at the present, where he sees how Marilyn and Hayden are suffering, and then to at the future, where he leaves Cicely and nobody misses him. He wakes up on Yom Kippur determined to do right by everybody—which wasn’t so hard, really, since this was the show’s last year.


19. A Flintstones Christmas Carol (1994)
Borrowing and extending the framing device of Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol, this near-feature-length Flintstones holiday special has a swellheaded Fred Flintstone playing Scrooge in a community theater production while dealing with the anger his friends and family are feeling toward him for his self-absorption. The conceit of having Fred’s spirit be changed along with Scrooge’s is admirably meta, and A Flintstones Christmas Carol squeezes in a lot more of the Dickens original than most non-TV-movie adaptations. But a weird running gag that has various characters puking their guts out because of “The Bedrock Bug” makes this special feel almost like a fever-dream, concocted by a writer who’d eaten a bad Bronto Burger.

20. Beavis & Butt-head, “Huh-Huh-Humbug” (1995)
Stuck working the grill at Burger World on a dead Christmas Eve, Beavis dozes off and dreams of being the boss, with his school principal as his employee. Then, while Dream Beavis is settling in to watch some porn, the spirits arrive, one by one, to show him he’s wasted his life on the couch and will die without ever having scored. But Beavis gets distracted by the funny vision of Principal McVicker’s family being so poor that they have to divide up a stolen burger and some temporary tattoos for their Christmas celebration, and he gets annoyed that the future doesn’t have enough killer robots. The thought of never scoring is almost enough to scare Beavis straight, but when Butt-head wakes him up, all Beavis can remember about his dream is that he was the boss, and that he got to watch porn. “That’s cool,” says Butt-head. That’s cool, every one.

21. Xena: Warrior Princess, “A Solstice Carol” (1996)
Riffing freely on the origins of holiday myths and traditions, Xena: Warrior Princess’ pre-Christ Christmas episode throws a bunch of ideas onto the screen: a town that’s banned Winter Solstice celebrations, a toymaker named Senticles who puts on a red suit and a fake beard to sneak goodies down chimneys, an epilogue in which a young couple and their glowing baby wander the road looking for shelter, and so on. But the centerpiece of the episode is a lengthy sequence in which Xena and Gabrielle pretend to be The Fates and appear before an embittered king in the dead of night to show him that his life has veered way off-course. “A Solstice Carol” pulls off a nifty trick: stealing from the classics while making it seem like these stories pre-date the ones we all know.


22. Popular, “Fall On Your Knees” (1999)
Long before Glee, writer-producer Ryan Murphy explored high-school cliques and clichés in the WB dramedy Popular, about a cheerleader and a geeky girl forced to live together when their respective father and mother get engaged. In the first-season Christmas episode “Fall On Your Knees,” an even bitchier cheerleader, Nicole, spends the first third of the episode sniping at everyone for their holiday cheer, saying that Christmas is all about an elevated suicide rate and credit-card debt. But then she’s visited by the ghosts, who show her how her alcoholic mother never held her, how she used to be a pudgy little kid that other children picked on, and how the unpopular kids now all fear her, but still drink a toast to her at Christmas. Nicole wakes up in tears, a changed woman, and gives some of her most prized possessions to the geeks. Then Christmas passes and she goes right back to being a villain again. Hey, this was a Ryan Murphy show, after all.

23. Aqua Teen Hunger Force, “Cybernetic Ghost Of Christmas Past From The Future” (2002)
Leave it to the creators of Adult Swim’s dopey non-sequitur-rama Aqua Teen Hunger Force to start out making a “Christmas Carol” episode and then get restless and bored and do something else. “Cybernetic Ghost Of Christmas Past From The Future” opens with the title character visiting the Aqua Teens’ neighbor Carl to remind him of a Christmas back in 1968 when Carl’s father gave him a square of burba carpet that Carl intended to play with—“I’m flyin’ around in Egypt-land!”—but that his dad meant for them to boil and eat for supper. But since it’s February, the ghost-robot disappears for a bit, only to come back and claim responsibility when Carl’s swimming pool fills with elf blood. Then Glenn Danzig shows up. Merry Christmas?