Published on December 5th, 2016 | by Clint Davis
10 reasons ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ is still the ultimate holiday TV special
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer aired on television for the 52nd-straight year this month and in the pantheon of holiday TV specials, it’s still number one with a bullet.
Going head-to-head with new episodes of popular shows like NBC’s The Voice, CW’s The Flash, ABC’s American Housewife and Fox’s New Girl, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer aired on CBS and crushed them all in the coveted target demographics of viewers ages 18-34 and 18-49. Nearly 10 million people tuned in to watch a cartoon from 1964. That’s like if A Hard Day’s Night were the most-played album on Spotify this week.
But why do people of all ages keep tuning in to watch Rudolph half-a-century after it first aired? I’ll give you 10 reasons.
When Rudolph is driven from the North Pole by the bullies who make fun of his badass nose, he meets up with Hermey the Elf and Yukon Cornelius, forming the most ragtag gang of outlaws ever to roam the frozen tundra. Forget Taylor, Selena and all those rich twits, these guys are the Squad of the century. Along the way to making the world accept them for who they are, Rudolph, Hermey and Yukon liberate the entire Island of Misfit Toys and do battle with a yeti. Let’s see Lorde dispatch a yeti.
Every crew needs a wild card. Yukon Cornelius is Walter to Rudolph’s Dude and Hermey’s Donnie. This dude is big, loud and is always down for whatever when shit is about to pop off. Around his waist at all times are: A pearl-gripped revolver (á la Gen. Patton), a knife, a hammer and a pickax that he likes to lick. This dude straight-up licks the blade every time he sticks his ax in the dirt, to check what he’s struck. In the original edit of the show, it’s revealed Yukon is looking for a peppermint mine, which explains the ax licking, but I prefer to think he’s just a hulking, slightly disturbed man who can taste gold and silver. The bottom line is, Yukon keeps it 100 at all times.
OK so “Jingle, Jingle, Jingle” kind of sucks but … “Silver and Gold,” “There’s Always Tomorrow,” “A Holly Jolly Christmas”: Take your pick. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer crams eight musical numbers into its tight 55-minute package, and every one of the songs was written by Johnny Marks (aka the Bob Dylan of Christmas songs). Marks was a Hall-of-Fame songwriter who, in addition to penning the songs from Rudolph, wrote “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” (Brenda Lee) and “Run Rudolph Run” (Chuck Berry). Marks was a genius and perhaps the best part is, he was a Jewish guy from New York. Christmas meant absolutely dick to this guy and he made his career writing some of the best Christmas songs ever.
Rudolph’s right-hand man Hermey the Elf is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. For instance, you probably thought his name was Herbie, just like we all did — but nope, it’s Hermey. And this kid is sick of making toys. He spends all his free time and energy dreaming of becoming a dentist. Yep, a freaking dentist. All this guy wants to do is work on teeth and everyone at the North Pole gives him shit. Only in a place as desolate, cold and shitty as the North Pole would dentistry be considered a pipe-dream job. Instead of letting the haters kill his dream, Hermey quits the toy factory and eventually uses his knowledge to yank the abominable snow monster’s teeth, saving countless lives. Hermey is proof that even if your dream is lame as hell, you should never give up on it.
Everyone paints Santa Claus as this jolly old do-gooder, but Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer gives us a more accurate portrait of Saint Nick. This is a guy who works one day a year, who uses slave labor, who keeps a running list of all the bad things every child on Earth has committed in an entire year and who then goes around the world and either rewards the kids or gives them a piece of coal on the day they’ve been eagerly awaiting for 365 days. He’s a vindictive asshole and that’s the way Rudolph presents him. Santa reveals himself as a bigot by openly showing his prejudice against Rudolph’s red nose. And in perhaps his most brutal act, he half-listens to the elves (aka his slaves) as they perform their song “We Are Santa’s Elves” exclusively for the enjoyment of himself and Mrs. Claus, only reacting to say, “Hmm. Well, it needs work. I have to go.” WHAT A DICK.
At the heart of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is a message about self-acceptance and the joys of telling bullies to shove it. The yeti — a bully who kidnaps people — gets hit over the head with a rock and then hurled off a cliff. The reindeer — bullies who segregate Rudolph because of the color of his nose — have to sit and watch while Rudolph leads Santa’s sleigh. Santa — a bully who publicly criticizes Rudolph’s nose and embarrasses him in front of his girlfriend — has to nix his bitch-fit about the weather when Rudolph steps up to save Christmas. This show is the ultimate anti-bullying fantasy. Poetic justice is served all around.
OK so Burl Ives sucks because he was one of the asshat celebrities who named names to Joe McCarthy’s HUAC during the Red Scare, but his Rudolph character, Sam the Snowman, is an integral part to the greatness of this TV special. He pops in every few minutes and sprinkles some exposition on top of a little singin’ and banjo pickin’. Sam gets to sing pretty much all the best songs from the show, including “Silver and Gold” and “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” because Ives had by far the best voice in the cast … even if he did hamper the careers of hundreds of people who considered him a friend in the 1950s. Too soon?
A Charlie Brown Christmas is another one of my favorite holiday specials, but it will never surpass Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer simply because of that one scene where Linus spends five minutes reading Bible passages to the audience. That one scene knocks Charlie Brown down a few pegs in the holiday TV rankings in my book. Rudolph is a show that everyone can enjoy. It doesn’t exclude anyone from the fun of the holidays, which fits perfectly with its theme of inclusion. Whether you’re an atheist, Jew, Muslim or whatever, you can watch Rudolph for an hour with your family and fall in love with it. But Christians will probably complain because Yukon Cornelius doesn’t once break the fouth wall to talk about Jesus.
How many children’s TV shows can say they were written by a Peabody Award-winning scribe? Well, none because children’s TV shows can’t speak for themselves, but you know what I mean. Romeo Muller, the guy who wrote Rudolph, was a master of animated screenwriting. Following Rudolph, he wrote other classics like 1969’s Frosty the Snowman, 1968’s The Little Drummer Boy and 1977’s The Hobbit. This guy was a badass with a typewriter. He was the go-to writer for Rankin/Bass Productions for more than 20 years for a reason.
The animation style of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is straight 1960s magic. The jerky stop-frame motions of the characters, the mouth movements that in no way correspond with the words being spoken, the hand-drawn snow falling over every scene. It’s all signature Rankin/Bass and it still makes me smile every time the show starts. Stop-frame has been done to death at this point and it’s certainly been done in cleaner ways since this special premiered in 1964, but for my money, Rudolph is still the pinnacle of the style. RIP Rankin/Bass.