When the Fox Network launched in the late 80s it had an uphill battle in front of it to gain relevance. The network seemed to know from the start that it couldn’t just jump right in and start doing what networks like ABC and CBS had already done and instead chose to focus on under-served aspects of entertainment. Sketch comedy, edgy sitcoms, live sports, and adult animation helped propel the network to eventual heights, but also helping along the way was good old Saturday morning. Fox would craft its own block of children’s programming and source material from admittedly odd places. And one such work was Bobby’s World.
Bobby’s World is largely credited to comedian Howie Mandel, who at the time was best known for his stand-up routines and a role on the series St. Elsewhere. The real credit though belongs to a pair of Jims: Jim Fisher and Jim Staahl. Both knew Mandel and once worked at the famed Second City. The pair were contracted by Fox to create a kid’s show and the two thought of their friend Howie and his character Bobby. Bobby was part of Mandel’s stand-up routine and was basically just a vessel for Mandel’s funny voice which at that point had also appeared in Gremlins and Muppet Babies. Mandel was onboard and did contribute story ideas and such, but it’s a stretch to say he created the show. He was definitely the face of it though, as he would voice Bobby and Bobby’s father, Howard, who was basically just a cartoon version of himself. He also appeared in live-action segments to open and close each episode. Was his “star power” really needed? Probably not, as the target audience of children probably could not have cared less who Howie Mandel was, but it probably helped the show get some added coverage.
Bobby’s World was one of the first hits for what would become Fox Kids. It premiered in 1990 and would run for 8 seasons totaling 81 episodes. Each episode basically revolved around Bobby, who was a young boy of about 4 with huge feet and an ill-fitting shirt who possessed an overactive imagination. The show is rather interesting for its use of change. Bobby actually ages throughout the life of the show. He begins the series as the youngest of the family, but by Season 3 he has twin infant brothers. By the time the show ended he was considered to be around age 7 or 8 though he was just as imaginative as always. It’s not a particularly original concept, a kid escaping reality via his own imagination, but the Bobby character wasn’t without charm so it’s not hard to see why the show worked in the long run.
In Season 6 the show decided to do a Christmas episode. This might seem a bit puzzling to some reading this since Bobby is a Howie Mandel character and Bobby’s dad in the show is basically Howie who is very Jewish. As was covered already, Mandel wasn’t the one writing the show and apparently he didn’t care that Bobby was going to canonically be Christian. Or he did, but didn’t make a big fuss about it. Considering that Fox was willing to be different, it’s a bit surprising that they didn’t do a Hanukkah episode instead, but network folks might have been pushing for Christmas. The episode could have stuck that in its back pocket for another holiday episode since the Generics (yes, the family name is literally Generic) celebrate Christmas with their mother’s parents, but Howard’s cousin also joins them so that muddies things a bit.
The episode begins with Mandel alongside Bobby to introduce the story. Mandel talks about his love of Christmas (maybe his family celebrated both?) and his fondness for the scents of the season. This opens up a joke for Bobby recalling the smell Uncle Ted makes when he pulls his finger causing Mandel to stop him there and get on with the episode.
The episode begins with the Generics arriving home following a Christmas gathering. It’s dark and everyone’s asleep in the car as Howard scoops Bobby up out of the back seat. I see palm trees in the background and they’re returning from a place where it snows so this has been one hell of a car ride. He and wife Martha (Gail Matthius) seem proud of their young son as Howard remarks this will be a Christmas Bobby tells his own grand kids about some day. Bobby, half awake, mumbles the same back to himself which sets up another introduction for this plot. Bobby imagines himself an old man recalling the events of the evening to his young grand kids, a boy and a girl who more or less look exactly like him. And despite being old, Bobby also appears to possess the same body only he’s wrinkly and has white hair. This is the imagination of a kid, after all.
Elder Bobby then starts to tell the grand kids what happened that day and the story is finally allowed to begin. It starts at the Generic home with Bobby recalling the smell of his mother’s Christmas cookies. We will soon find out these cookies shouldn’t smell great as she refers to them as frosted whole wheat fiber holiday nuggets. They look about as appetizing as the dough is gray and reminds me of the gruel from Kamp Krusty. This is also the time for Bobby to setup his transformation as he’s obsessed with getting a Captain Squash Game Master for Christmas. His mom asks him if he knows what Christmas is all about and he gives the predictable kid answer: presents. She doesn’t correct him though and instead reprimands him for eating raw dough.
The family then piles into the station wagon to head to the home of their grandparents. It’s a long ride, long enough that everyone in the car is sick of hearing Christmas songs on the radio before they get there. This prompts Martha to encourage her bored kids Kelly (Charity James), Derek (Kevin Michaels), and Bobby to come up with their own Christmas carol. They basically just start throwing shit against the wall as they want to incorporate basically everything they love about Christmas into one song: jingle bells, Frosty, Santa, a “knight” before Christmas, snow, etc. It’s sort of cute as it’s done by presenting an idyllic Christmas setting and then images of all of the suggestions just start cluttering the screen. It does end on a fruit cake joke though, and I hate fruit cake jokes. Plus Bobby breaks the fourth wall to reference Barry Manilow which certainly dates this one.
Eventually the family finally arrives at the home of Martha’s parents. Martha’s father is apparently Swedish? Or else the mid-western accent is just being taken to strange, new, places. Either way, Bobby once more breaks the fourth wall to request we not make fun of his family and we should respect the young boy’s wishes. We cut back to elder Bobby telling his story in which he sets up how he wants to tell his grandpa and grandma about the game he wants for Christmas only to find that his grandpa only wants to talk about one thing: directions. He even pulls down a shade in the living room which has a map on it as he interrogates Howard about the route he took to get there. Martha basically narcs on her own husband to confess they got lost while Bobby is allowed to display his aptitude for observational humor by questioning why kids always ask “are we there yet?” while adults ask “how did you get here?”
Kelly then walks into the living room to question where a foul odor is coming from. Derek blames Bobby, but elder Bobby is returned just to tell us his grandmother’s house apparently always smelled like shit. The smell theme will continue. The doorbell rings and it’s Uncle Ted (Tino Insana) with his sister, Aunt Ruth (Susan Tolsky), the baker of really awful fruit cake. Ted dispenses with Christmas noogies and even has some mistletoe to sneak a smooch with…Howard? Meanwhile, Ruth practically tares Bobby’s face off while pinching his cheeks. Bobby though is delighted to see his uncle which is actually really sweet. He’s also happy because they brought the tree which they soon drag into the house. They put it up and then all have a good smell.
We then pivot back to elder Bobby as his grand kids want him to get to the part where they open presents. Bobby tells them they’re not there yet, for first he has to tell them about his dad’s cousins from Philadelphia. They’re different and we see they dress quite formally. The father’s name is Sydney and he is clearly voiced by Rob Paulsen. He has a wife named Maive? Mame? Either way, she looks a lot older than him. They also have two teen aged kids in Jeffrey (Paulsen) and Brianna. None of the credits detail who voices who, so let’s just pile a bunch of names right here: Jim Fisher, Pat Fraley, Andrea Martin, Jim Staahl, and we might as well mention Frank Welker, who voices the family dog, Roger.
The Philly Generics are pretty condescending and their kids are just big jerks. It’s really quite puzzling that they would drive all the way out there from Philadelphia to be some place they clearly do not wish to be. Bobby is not at all bothered by the hostility as he just assumes with this many people in the house he’s sure to get what he wants for Christmas! He then declares that’s what Christmas is all about so they can really drive home the true meaning of Christmas later.
The families then decorate the tree, and no one can agree on anything. Sydney thinks they need more lights while Ted insists on more tinsel. Ruth and the other lady argue about ornament placement, and everyone eventually just starts shouting. Bobby remarks it’s nice that Christmas gives families a chance to talk. His dad then asks him for the star, and Bobby daydreams about himself as a star. He has an odd idea for what a star should be as he imagines himself as a Phantom of the Opera-like character in front of a gigantic, synth, organ. He eventually snaps out of it and hands his dad the star who places it atop a well-decorated tree. Ted plugs the lights into a clearly overloaded socket A Christmas Story style, and the whole family gathers around to bask in the festive glow of the tree. Okay, now I want it to be Christmas in my house.
Next on the agenda is dinner. What’s on the menu? A traditional Christmas turkey. Howard first brings the bird to the kid’s table and Bobby remarks that it stinks. Howard gets mad at his son’s rudeness, while his sister informs him he’s just smelling their brother’s socks which were left to dry on a nearby radiator. Bobby is then tasked with saying “Grace,” so he literally just says “Grace.” The family shares a short, awkward, pause then Ted decides that’s good enough and digs in. The family then resumes its bickering as they can’t even agree on which direction to pass the sides. Sydney also feels the need to correct Ted on his use of the term “cranberry sauce” as the gelatin stuff doesn’t meet his definition. Seriously, who invited this guy?! Jeffrey then starts an argument about stuffing, and only the ringing of the doorbell can save this meal. Bobby is the only one to get up and answer it. He finds a group of carolers, and promptly shuts the door on them and returns to his seat. When his dad asks who was there, he says “I don’t know,” which just prompts his mother to ask “Well, what did they say?” “Fa-la-la-la-la-la…”
The interrogation is interrupted when Bobby notices another odd smell, and this time it isn’t socks. There’s smoke filling the room and Bobby is the only one to get up and run over to the source to find the Christmas tree in flames. I mean, really people, you let the five-year-old investigate the source of a fire?!
The family is forced to exit the house and Bobby then wonders aloud how Santa will get him his toys with the house on fire? We then see some of Bobby’s imagination at work as Santa (Welker) lands on the roof of the house (with the proper amount of reindeer) and tries to go down the chimney with Bobby’s coveted Captain Squash Game Master. When he tries to descend the chimney he’s set on fire and rocketed into the night sky. Surprisingly, he doesn’t pass in front of the moon.
As Bobby laments the loss of a toy he never had, two firemen decide to reprimand the five-year-old about proper fire safety. Maybe lecture the adults? They also push their artificial tree agenda on Bobby which is so distasteful! The family then just sort of stands there and surveys the damage to the house. They soon start arguing as Ted blames Sydney’s lights for causing the whole thing. As Martha tries to speak, she can’t be heard over the arguing and Bobby is forced to yell to get everyone to be quiet so his mom can talk, which is rather sweet of him. Martha just scolds everyone finishing on the tried and true line of “Can’t we all just get along?” Grandpa then suggests to Bobby they head inside to see what’s worth saving. For a guy who basically just lost his house, he’s in a rather cheery mood.
The inside of the house is pretty much wrecked. The fire tore through the living room and left a rather large hole in the roof. Bobby’s mom calls everyone over to the carcass of the once fine-looking Christmas tree to announce one present survived the fire: Bobby’s present. He unwraps it eagerly to find his Squash game. He’s overjoyed, until he sees his cousin Jeffrey crying because he wanted one of those for Christmas, but it was under the tree and burned up. He then mournfully remarks he’ll have to wait until his birthday in July to get one. Bobby falls for this obvious con and hands over his present to Jeffrey. He perks up and accepts the gift, while Bobby’s mom tells him she’s so proud of him. Bobby says he feels good to do it, while I sit here in disbelief that the adults in the room allowed a teenager to take a kindergartners only Christmas gift! Jeffrey sucks!
The rest of the family take a moment to praise Bobby, who now understands the true meaning of Christmas. Ted also forces them to confront how shitty they’ve been acting, and he even breaks out the mistletoe to smooch Philadelphia Lady. Ruth comes in with her fruit cake, which apparently survived the fire as well. At first, no one wants any, but an elbow to the belly from his wife causes Howard to volunteer, followed by Ted. It starts snowing again, which in a house with no roof means it’s also snowing inside. Grandpa suggests they move the gathering to the barn, along with anything still worth saving.
In the barn, the family huddles around the twins in an obvious manger scene setup. Bobby, seated by the piano, remarks “What’s that smell?” as we’re apparently still doing this. Of course, they’re in a barn so it stinks. Bobby then decides to share his new Christmas carol with the family, which his siblings wrote down for him. Aunt Ruth plays the piano as Bobby sings. It’s basically “Deck the Halls,” but with Bobby’s favorite Christmas things. The melody also keeps changing as Bobby introduces new things, most of which were mentioned back when this bit first surfaced. His inability to remember the names of Santa’s reindeer is cute. It ends on the notion of “The spirit of giving is what we should do the whole year round,” and the entire family sings the line.
The festivities then come to an end and everyone heads home. Old man Bobby comes in to tell his grand kids that was the year he learned what Christmas is really about. We then see Howard carrying Bobby to bed as he remarks he hopes Bobby will remember the lesson from this Christmas. He asks, “Remember what?” and his dad just laughs softly and rubs his head. Bobby then laughs himself and remarks that it’s always fun to tease your parents. Live-action Howie then pops in, crying, telling us how he enjoyed the story. Bobby thinks it’s odd he’s crying, and asks for some meat. He always gets hungry around the holidays apparently. This one is over!
The Bobby’s World Christmas special with the stupidly long episode title is okay. It’s so concerned with setting up the moral of the episode that it practically beats the audience over the head with it. It’s too telegraphed, and Bobby giving his lone gift to a spoiled, rich, teen, just doesn’t land in the feels. Maybe if he had given it to an orphan or something, or was just forced to go without, the scene could have had more impact. Instead it just feels too wooden to even be confused with corn. I also dislike how the episode writes Santa off. If I were watching this as a kid, and surely I did at some point, I’d just wonder why Bobby thinks Santa can’t go to his house with his present? Santa doesn’t go to your grandmother’s house, unless you’re sleeping there on Christmas Eve!
The one thing this episode does have going for it is the likability of Bobby himself. He’s cute, and some of his observations about the world around him are genuinely amusing, though a bunch aren’t as witty as the writing would like you to believe. Most of the other characters are a bit under-served, but this is also one episode out of 81 in which most of these characters have a chance to develop. The family from Philadelphia definitely sucks though, I hope they didn’t return in a future episode.
If you wish to spend Christmas with Bobby and his family the entire series is available on DVD. It was released as a manufacture on demand title so it’s not the easiest thing to acquire now. It is available via Prime and if you have a subscription it’s included. You can also purchase digital versions of the episode. Bobby’s World also isn’t a well-protected piece of intellectual property so you can also stream it for free. As I write this, it’s available on YouTube so go for it if you wish. This is definitely more of a nostalgia view, if you liked the show as a kid then you’ll probably have fun revisiting it. Otherwise, I give it just a tepid recommend. Watch it if you just feel like experiencing something different from your regular Christmas viewing habits, assuming it isn’t already a part of it.
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