I can vividly remember growing up and watching those Rankin/Bass holiday specials every year. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Year Without a Santa Claus, Rudolph’s Shiny New Year. The New Year’s one I recall best, because I had, shall we say, “prominent” ears as a child, so I felt the Baby New Year’s pain when everyone cried “Those EARS!!” It was still a great program. And who can forget the Heat Miser and the Snow Miser from The Year Without a Santa Claus?
In Silver Screen Fiend, his forthcoming follow-up to his 2011 memoir Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, comedian and actor Patton Oswalt discusses in great detail his twentysomething years as an addict of cinema, and part of the tale involves his stint as a writer on MADtv in the mid-1990s. Oswalt excoriates himself for being a terrible employee of Rupert Murdoch, pitching abstruse sketch ideas and then not bothering to try to execute them properly and sneering at anyone in his orbit who didn’t happen to be swooning over Sam Peckinpah that very minute. He’s very hard on himself, but I suspect he threw in more useful writing ideas and was easier to get along with than he remembers—there’s a reason he stayed there for roughly two years, after all, and a reason The King of Queens wanted him as a featured player even though his acting chops were still being honed.
In any case, one of his cinephile pitches was to do a version of Francis Ford Coppola’s fractured 1979 masterpiece Apocalypse Now in the form of a Rankin/Bass Christmas special. It turns out they did it, but only after Oswalt was no longer on staff. Here’s a brief excerpt from Silver Screen Fiend on the subject in which he spreads the credit around as widely as possible:
There I was … at MADtv, struggling to explain to a network suit what Apocalypse Now was, and how it could be funny if done through the prism of a Rankin Bass special.*
* They eventually shot my idea—a year after I left the show. Well, I really didn’t leave. They didn’t have me back. And with good fucking reason. I was a judgmental, sour asshole of a writer. Quick with a criticism and never with a fix. A comedy and film snob who rolled his eyes half the time and turned in typo-filled scripts. But they shot it. And put my name in the credits. Misspelled. Revenge? They were entitled. The sketch was called “A Pack of Gifts Now,” and it was lovingly animated by a stop-motion genius named Corky Quakenbush. An elf [actually a reindeer—Editor] is sent by toy makers to the North Pole to terminate “the Kringle” and his cultlike operation of toy makers “with extreme prejudice.” And, ironically enough, one of the producers I clashed with, Fax Bahr—who codirected the documentary Hearts of Darkness, about the making of … Apocalypse Now—shepherded the sketch through, with all of my visual jokes and references intact, and plenty of his own, which made the sketch even better. Even got a mention in TV Guide. Thanks, Fax. Sorry I was such a dick. Part of being in your twenties is not knowing an ally when you see one.
Not too surprisingly, given Oswalt’s status as a passionate consumer of comic books, movies, and TV shows, the details of the sketch, also executed to perfection, are what make it work—the use of eggnog as a substitute for scotch, the substitution of “Saskatchewan” for “Saigon” and “the Kringle” for “the colonel.”
For more on those early Rankin/Bass TV specials as well as “A Pack of Lies Now,” check out The Enchanted World of Rankin/Bass by Rick Goldschmidt.