This is going to be a bit of an experiment. These recaps the last few years have basically focused on cartoons or live-action shows in which a story is told over some duration. I have so far avoided sketch shows, not purposely, but it’s definitely been in the back of my mind that doing a write-up in this style is a bit more challenging with a sketch show. It’s like reviewing or recapping several micro episodes of a TV show.
And when it comes to micro-sized entertainment, Robot Chicken should be the first show that comes to mind. Each episode is about 11 minutes long and contains an irregular number of sketches within that 11 minutes, some of which are literally just a few seconds long. Most of these are animated using stop-motion techniques with action figures in place of true puppets. Often these action figures require modification to animate in a more desirable fashion and when that is needed clay appears to be the medium of choice.
Robot Chicken is the brain child of Seth Green and Matthew Senreich. Green, as the most visible star associated with the brand, often handles a lot of the voicing duties and appears to get a lot of help from his Family Guy co-stars as well. Senreich, along with writers Douglas Goldstein and Tom Root, are veterans of ToyFare magazine which would often contain a comic in its pages called Twisted ToyFare Theater that is basically Robot Chicken in print form. Those sequences were popular, so it’s not that surprising to see the concept was taken to television where Robot Chicken has had a presence on Adult Swim since 2005.
Robot Chicken has been an ally to Christmas from almost day one. There have been several holiday editions of the show and some themes have sprung up. Santa Claus is a reoccurring character in these shorts and he is, I believe, always voiced by Seth MacFarlane. The show will often poke fun at classic holiday specials or just do something nerdy and goofy like pit Goku from Dragon Ball against a Christmas villain. There’s elements of shock humor to go along with the mostly nerd humor and shorts often get pretty violent for comedic purposes. It’s not a show for everyone, but it’s certainly aided by its brief runtime so when an episode misses the mark it’s usually not around long enough to truly stink up the place.
In 2012 Robot Chicken debuted its ATM Christmas Special, which I assume stands for Ass to Mouth because that’s the sort of humor the show goes for. Even though the show is on Adult Swim, it may have been difficult to actually get that phrase into the episode title and it’s a bit cheeky to make it an acronym anyway.
The special opens in festive fashion with a parody of the old CBS Special logo that leads into a story about Santa (MacFarlane). It seems Santa forgot to schedule a wake-up call as he wakes up late for Christmas. It’s a scramble to the work shop where a ranting Santa takes his anger out on the poor elves. Santa is done as a doll, while most of the elves look like claymation and doll parts or something. The scramble continues to the sleigh and the reindeer are all messed up prompting Santa to fire the elf attendant, who cries, as Santa leaves.
From the skies Santa and his assistant chuck presents rather than do the usual infiltration thing. They’re depicted more like bombs as they cause all kinds of destruction, including claiming the life of a poor homeless man. A satellite image from space shows Earth with little tiny explosions dotting the surface. Santa makes it back to the North Pole relieved he pulled it off until he finds a lone present he missed. He vows to make the delivery and races to the home where it apparently belongs. I guess because time’s a factor, he opts to use the front door rather than the chimney, but it’s locked. As Santa pulls and wrestles with the door knob, the scene changed to reveal this is all a nightmare and Santa is at home in bed choking his wife. Some elves race in and use a cattle prod on him to subdue him, causing Mrs. Claus (Elizabeth Banks) to declare she hates Christmas.
We then smash cut to the real opening credits, which largely depict the short we just watched, but everything is in red. There’s also some clips of shorts still to come as we head into our next skit.
A Chinese man is shown on the phone at a restaurant. He’s talking to his wife, but we only hear his side of the conversation. He’s bemoaning that he can’t come home and celebrate Christmas because a Jewish family is there and is just hanging out after their meal. We can see them at a table in the background. The man then declares he hates Jews, which is apparently the punchline of the skit.
We then jump to a living room setting on Christmas. A delighted Christmas tree (Henry Winkler) is busy declaring how lucky it is to have been adopted by this family. It’s a happy, warm, Christmas setting that ends with a little girl hugging the tree. Then we cut to a woman dragging the browning tree out the front door. It is completely unaware of what is about to happen and the woman tells the tree they’re going on vacation. It’s pretty excited and remains so as she leaves it on the curb for the garbage man to collect. As the tree is tossed into the truck, it insists it’s not garbage, but then it sees the father and daughter watching from a window as they close the curtains.
The tree is taken to a toilet paper factory, and several weeks later we see what became of it. It’s toilet paper and sitting on a shelf in a grocery store. The image of the tree on the packaging is capable of talking and narrating the thoughts of the still sentient plant as it openly hopes it mostly gets used for boogers or urine. Then it recognizes something offscreen, and it’s the mom and daughter of the family who threw it away. It’s actually happy to see them, until the mother declares they’re having Indian food for dinner.
We then get a brief skit of some kids looking at the stockings over the fireplace. One is huge, and they declare “No fair,” as the camera pans to reveal it belongs to Big Foot Danny, a kid with a really big foot.
Back to Santa, who is seated in a lounge chair with an apparent broken leg. Mrs. Claus comes in to give him his Christmas present: a candy cane (get it?). Santa is excited and he stands up to test it out and, finding it’s an actual oversized candy cane, collapses to the ground as the cane snaps apart. He then scolds the woman for making a cane out of candy and expecting it to work. The skit ends with Santa wondering if he broke his tibia while I worry for the well-being of Mrs. Claus.
In a warmly lit den by the fire decorated for Christmas, Justine Bieber (Lucas Grabeel) prepares to play us a song. He’s joined by Santa on guitar and a snowman on drums. He then rips into the song, which is probably titled “Fuck Christmas” because that’s what he mostly says. It’s an aggressive, angry, tune that gets its point across. The scene ends with two executives watching this unfold. One remarks they should have just stuck with David Cassidy, while the other enthusiastically declares that Bieber is a true artist.
We’re then taken to a more desolate location. It’s Jason Bourne, a convincing looking doll, and he turns his head dramatically to spot someone closing in from behind. It’s Santa Claus, and there are no words spoken as Santa pulls a sharpened candy cane from his coat. The two fight, and the choreography is actually pretty intense. Bourne gets the better of the Kringle though, ending the fight by stabbing Santa with his own candy cane.
Santa is then shown laying on the ground coughing up blood. He remarks that Jason is a hard man to find and pulls out a Christmas present. Okay. Bourne takes it as Santa bleeds out and dies and seems to react enthusiastically to receiving a copy of the board game Parcheesi.
A quick skit of a Lego family at Christmas runs. The kid seems unhappy to have received another block for Christmas and reacts with mock enthusiasm. That’s it.
At G.I. Joe headquarters, some of the Joes are sitting around trying to figure out what to get Snake Eyes for Christmas. These appear to be actual toys from the toy line. They don’t know what to get him because he never tells them what he wants (he’s mute, in case you were unaware) and we see a cut-away to last Christmas when they just gave him a coffee mug that says “I Heart Ninjas.”
Scarlett (Banks) declares she knows what Snake Eyes really wants, and we cut to the Joes surrounding a building in a snowy environment. They enter and it’s revealed to be the home of Storm Shadow, Snake Eyes’ rival. He’s in his usual white ninja suit, but also is sporting a pink bath robe. The Joes attack, but they get their asses handed to them.
On Christmas morning, Duke (Skeet Ulrich) approaches a seated Snake Eyes and tosses his present at him. It’s another mug. Meanwhile, we can see the rest of the Joes have all been beaten up pretty bad and look rather miserable. Snake Eyes, even though he’s wearing a mask, seems perplexed by the hostile treatment.
We’re whisked away to a store where a woman is in the embarrassing position of having her credit card declined. The clerk can’t do anything about it as she bemoans how tough life has been for her and her two boys since their father passed away. The man behind her overhears the clerk say her name, Mrs. Cage, and it causes him to remember. The man is Kano, of Mortal Kombat fame, and a thought bubble appears over his head showing him rip the heart out of Johnny Cage post match.
Feeling guilty, Kano helps the woman to her car and accepts an offer to join them for Christmas dinner. At the Cage residence, he uses his somersault maneuver to hang Christmas lights, and when saying “Grace,” he puts on a yamaka as a joke and everyone has a good laugh. As he helps Mrs. Cage put the kids to bed, he confesses he can’t hide from her anymore. He apologizes for what happened to Johnny and gives the widow a gift. She opens the box and is confused. Kano claims it’s Johnny’s heart, but Mrs. Cage informs him it’s not a heart. We then smash cut to Johnny Cage on a beach in a tropical environment relaying how Kano ripped out his appendix by mistake to a group of bikini-clad women. He then grabs one and the skit ends before the orgy can commence.
In our next sketch it’s Christmas morning at The Nerd’s (Green) home. He awakens excitedly in a festive red onesie and races downstairs only to find that Christmas has been stolen. His parents give him the bad news, but he takes it fairly well. That is until his mom reveals during “Pretend Christmas” what the thief made off with: a 1985 AFA Graded Snake Eyes action figure.
Despondent, The Nerd takes to the streets to find the whole neighborhood has been victimized. He finds a group of people forming a circle and one man explains it’s a vengeance circle as they’re asking The Spirit of Vengeance to violently punish the asshole who stole their stuff. He’s then told by another that he’s mistaken and this is the wrong circle, the vengeance one is nearby. This forces things to click inside The Nerd’s brain. What Christmas story involves a burglary followed by the victims holding hands and singing? He then turns around to gaze at a nearby mountain where the thief is still in the process of getting away!
The Nerd heads off after him, and as he climbs the mountain he bemoans his choice in clothing. As he ponders giving up, he looks to Snake Eyes for help. Since Snake Eyes is mute, he doesn’t offer anything encouraging when he appears in a cloud above The Nerd’s head. Larry Hama appears though in a similar vision to encourage him to continue. The line he feeds The Nerd is corny and unoriginal and The Nerd calls him out on it. In a bit of self-deprecation, Hama remarks how he spent his career writing comics that were essentially toy commercials and is able to spur The Nerd along by threatening to read him an excerpt from his unfinished novel.
The Nerd makes it to the summit where he confronts the thief – The Grinch! He moans when he sees it’s not even the good Grinch from the cartoon, but the Jim Carrey Grinch. Grinch (Green) tells him it doesn’t matter, but then The Nerd uses his anger over the film ruining the “greatest cartoon ever” to motivate him to kill this Grinch. Declaring he doesn’t care about his presents, he simply kicks the sleigh (with Grinch in it) off the mountain. He then turns around to see Max whom he refers to him as the little Stockholm Syndrome dog. Max has something for The Nerd, his precious Snake Eyes toy! Only now it has teeth marks which are sure to affect the grading.
Back at street level, one of the neighborhood men drags the Grinch’s corpse over and happily displays it. The same man from earlier rejoices that The Spirit of Vengeance answered their prayers. Another man then questions if The Spirit of Vengeance would like them to rape the corpse. The first man declares why not? – it’s Christmas! And that’s how our special ends; with a rape joke.
Robot Chicken’s ATM Christmas Special is certainly a sight to behold. The animation is pretty great, even when the source “puppets” are old G.I. Joe toys. I like the little through-lines with reappearing Santa throughout and the G.I. Joe sketch being sort of referenced further in the finale. The big Grinch parody was saved for last and it feels like the right spot for it. I like the self-realization of The Nerd becoming aware that he’s in a Christmas special, and even though internet nerd anger is pretty stupid, I did take some joy in this character hating on the Jim Carrey/Ron Howard Grinch while praising the superior Chuck Jones cartoon.
Some of the other stuff hasn’t aged super well. The “I Hate Jews” sketch, in particular, doesn’t play so well. It’s brushed off because a lot of the folks involved with this show are Jewish, and I suppose someone in a similar situation could empathize to a point, but it still felt like poor taste and just shock humor. And rape jokes are just kind of “meh” at this point. It’s another line that’s supposed to create a laugh out of shock, but the show is often so crass that it loses the ability to be shocking. I expected those people to want to desecrate the corpse of The Grinch thus negating the punch of the remark.
This special is loaded with guest stars who all do a pretty nice job. MacFarlane is involved with the show so often that it hardly feels right to even consider him a guest star at this point. Elizabeth Banks plays a few characters, and I was surprised to hear the voice of Henry Winkler. Larry Hama’s part isn’t acted all that well, and it was clearly shot on the cheap (maybe even wth a cell phone or something), but his willingness to basically poke fun at his own career helped to sell the moment.
The stuff with Santa was mostly enjoyable, though the Bourne sketch wasn’t particularly funny (even though it looked great). I’m not much of a fan of G.I. Joe so that sketch fell a little flat for me. I did find the Mortal Kombat one pretty amusing, if a tad predictable, and the Christmas Tree was tragically funny as well. Overall, there were some laughs found in this tidy little Christmas special and they mostly outweigh the duds. It doesn’t stick around long enough to suck, and by positioning the best short at the end it actually does leave you wanting more. Had it ended on G.I. Joe or the stupid Bieber song I probably would feel different.
If you want to catch this special this year just keep an eye out on Adult Swim. They’re practically guaranteed to air this and the many other Robot Chicken Christmas episodes at some point this month, often even reserving some for Christmas Eve.