Dec. 6 – Christmas in Tattertown

Original air date December 21, 1988.

Nickelodeon in the late 1980s was a network on the rise. Cable was expanding to more and more households each and every day and Nick was able to seize the youth market almost from the get-go. Prior to that, broadcast networks dominated children’s programming, but restricted it to certain parts of the broadcast schedule. And they were basically the same from channel to channel as the networks battled over the youth market while confining it to just a small portion of the schedule. Nickelodeon basically ditched all of that as it would aim its programming at children from 6AM to 8PM every single day. The problem though, was there just wasn’t much programming out there that wasn’t already locked into an exclusive deal on broadcast. That’s why, in the early days, Nickelodeon relied a lot on syndicated and outdated shows like Lassie, Dennis the Menace, and Flipper. The network didn’t have the resources to produce it’s own content or compete with the broadcast networks for the latest and greatest, but as it’s profile grew so did its coffers.

In the late 1980s, Nickelodeon explored the idea of doing animation. And when it did so, it decided to go after a guy who knows an awful lot about animation: Ralph Bakshi. Bakshi had established himself as a director of feature-length animation in the 60s and 70s with an adult audience in mind and was probably best known for Fritz the Cat, the first X-rated animated film. An X rating back in the 1970s didn’t mean what it does today as Fritz the Cat is actually more like an R-rated film, but that fact didn’t stop some of his detractors from calling him a “pornographer.” He directed several other features and had basically established himself as the anti-Disney of animation.

What you were originally supposed to see alongside a Nicktoons logo.

In the late 80s, Bakshi was overseeing the animated series Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures, and it was likely his work there that caught Nickelodeon’s eye. Nickelodeon had been acquired by Viacom in 1986, which itself had been spun-off from CBS as part of a mandate from the FCC banning networks from owning syndication companies, but it’s probably no coincidence that Mighty Mouse was a CBS show and likely helped get Bakshi into talks with Nickelodeon. Bakshi pitched Junktown, later changed to Tattertown, which was an idea he had been sitting on since he was a kid. The network liked it enough to commission a pilot and would from there offer him a deal for 39 more episodes. Then Bakshi got into trouble with Mighty Mouse as a sequence in an episode where Mighty Mouse snorts a flower was accused of being a reference to cocaine use. It made enough noise that it’s alleged Nickelodeon got cold feet and backed out of the deal and the pilot for Tattertown, which was re-titled Christmas in Tattertown, is the only remnant of the deal.

Tattertown was supposed to be about a girl who gets sucked into another world inhabited by garbage that walks and talks.

Tattertown should have been the first Nicktoon and would have launched in either late 1989 or sometime in 1990, which would have been before the eventual launch of Nicktoons in 1991. The irony in all of this, is that the sequence in Mighty Mouse that caused so much trouble can be traced back to a director on Bakshi’s staff: John Kricfalusi. Kricfalusi was adamant the sequence not be cut from the cartoon and Bakshi eventually sided with his decision. That decision obviously backfired, and Mighty Mouse ended up getting cancelled eventually. Kricfalusi would then go on to found Spumco, and his first major project would become one of the original three Nicktoons: The Ren and Stimpy Show. Obviously, Kricfalusi couldn’t have known at the time how lucrative a decision that would be for him to defend that one scene in a cartoon, but it sure did work out pretty well for him in the end. Now lets never speak of him again.

Likely what would have been the show’s logo.

Christmas in Tattertown aired in December of 1988 and was re-broadcast around the holidays into the 90s. Despite Nickelodeon having the broadcast rights to the pilot of its would-be Nicktoon, it doesn’t own the production outright. Bakshi retained ownership of it and either had a deal in place each year with Nick for it to air, or their original agreement provided the rights for a time that likely no longer is in place. Because it is a single, not particularly well-remembered, holiday special, it hasn’t been officially made available. The only way to see it is either via an original tape or via someone’s own recording made with a VCR. Geoffrey Darby, who was a screenwriter at Nick on You Can’t Do That On Television and the original host of Double Dare, has a YouTube channel with just five videos. One of those five though, is Christmas in Tattertown. It sounds like, based on his write-up with the video, he just found a copy of the special in his home or office and put it up for people to see. It has a counter running at the top of the screen for the entire duration and there are even blank spots in the video, presumably for commercials. There is also, on occasion, tracking info from the VCR he likely used to upload this thing which just makes it a really interesting viewing experience. There are other versions on YouTube that are of better quality, some even with commercial bumpers, but there’s a certain time capsule aspect to the one uploaded by Darby.

Miles the sax, voiced by the always awesome Keith David.

Christmas in Tattertown begins with an introduction. Keith David is our narrator and he introduces us to Debbie (Sherry Lynn), a little girl who found a strange book in her attic and got sucked into Tattertown along with her stuffed dog and dolly Muffet (Jennifer Darling). This either would have been the intro for all of the Tattertown shows, or it would have been livened up a bit, maybe with a true theme song or something. The origin is told through stills during the opening credits, and if you’re into animation you may see some familiar names in the credits here and at the end. When Debbie gets pulled into her book is when the actual animation kicks in. Tattertown is an animated world full of discarded items. Once an inanimate object is brought to Tattertown, it becomes sentient and personified. Most of the designs have a very classic, animated, style to them. We’re talking noodle limbs, big eyes, and constant motion. The jazzy soundtrack befits that style as well and this is a world where Bosko would fit right in.

Muffet is a character with some unexpected complexity.

Once Debbie arrives in this new place, she is dismayed to find her dolly has run away. Muffet is a baby doll that bizarrely seems to have a five-o-clock shadow. She basically has a Homer Simpson mouth. She’s also the bad guy of our tale as we find out she basically hates everything that has to do with being the doll of a young girl and Tattertown is a world of new beginnings for Muffet. Upon realizing she’s alive, she begins to cry with joy which is a nice touch to add some sympathy to this character who will be a bad guy, in the end. Debbie chases after her, and some puppet characters welcome us to Tattertown as a title card drops down.

After all of that, we officially meet David’s character, Miles, a saxophone. He gives us a rundown on Tattertown and we get to see some of the occupants until Muffet and Debbie go racing by. Muffet wants nothing to do with Debbie now that she’s alive, but Debbie still wants her to be her dolly. Muffet tries to clear a plank fence, but can’t leap over it allowing Debbie to grab her by the ankles. She pulls, causing Muffet’s legs to stretch and the fence to bend until Debbie eventually loses her grip. Since this is a rubbery, cartoon, world, Muffet behaves like a rubber band that was stretched and released and goes soaring through the night sky towards a far off city.

There’s something suggestive about that look Debbie is giving Harvey here. This is a Bakshi cartoon, after all.

Debbie takes a seat on the sidewalk to lament how Muffet “got away again,” which serves to remind us that this was a pilot and we’re probably to assume that Debbie has been in Tattertown awhile. Or has been here before. She scolds her dog companion and then sees her friend Harvey (Adrian Arnold) picking a fight with someone much bigger than he. Harvey is basically one of those non-descript animal characters from the 1920s the Warners from Animaniacs would be based on. Is he a bear? A dog? I don’t know. He’s mostly black with a red nose and big eyes. He also has a busted arm as he shadow boxes until one rips off. Debbie calls him over so she can sew it back on and he chats her up about Muffet. This leads to a story from Debbie about how she got Muffet for Christmas, or it would have gone into a story if Harvey knew what Christmas was. Debbie is shocked to find out this fact as she assumes there must be some Christmas stuff amongst the denizens of Tattertown. With Harvey’s limb re-attached, the trio set out to see if they can round up some old Christmas junk.

This spider probably makes people much younger than me think of Cuphead.

Elsewhere, Muffet is enjoying herself and going a little nuts until a stray alarm clock smashes her in the face. She looks over to a nearby building where a bunch of characters are just throwing stuff around. A spider named Sidney (Charlie Adler) is descending from the ceiling with another dolly in his clutches. Strangely, he only seems to have six limbs, but I bet he’s based on some cartoon from the 30s that looked the same. He apparently intends to eat this other dolly and that’s why the other creatures are throwing stuff. Muffet enters and screams for them to stop and to let the spider do his business. When they ask who she is, Muffet refers to herself as Muffet the Merciless and declares that she’s taking over Tattertown. She’s pretty convincing too as all of the other characters flee, except Sidney who seems to take a liking to Muffet. He drops his prey and follows Muffet out the door, while the dolly that was to be eaten is able to dust herself off and blow a defiant raspberry at his back.

Does Muffet symbolize America or something? Interesting framing device.

Outside, Sidney expresses interest in Muffet as he’s always wanted to take over Tattertown. Muffet asks for more clarity on just what this place is, and Sidney suggests he take her to The Deadster Zone. Miles chimes in to tell us that the Deadster Zone is a place for war toys and televisions, basically unsafe stuff, and it’s represented as a giant drummer soldier with other toys zipping around it. Sidney introduces Muffet to “the guys” and asks her what she thinks, seemingly proud of himself. She is unimpressed and declares she’s seen gelatin with more backbone than these guys. Most of the stuff appears to be discarded ammo, there are personified rockets or something, as well as Frankenstein-like devices that appear to be a mish-mash of various appliances. Muffet goes into a speech/slash rant about taking over Tattertown and finds herself on a stage in front of an American flag. The other beings are shown cheering for her, some falling apart as they do, while Sidney literally melts onstage he’s so impressed.

Back in Tattertown, Debbie has everyone searching high and low for Christmas stuff. Harvey runs across an individual that looks a lot like a Christmas wreath and is hawking cigars on a street corner. Harvey takes exception to someone selling cigars in his town and is ready to throw down, but Debbie sees the wreath-guy and snatches him up in a hug, accidentally separating Harvey’s head from his body. She runs off overjoyed to have found a Christmas item, while Harvey pops his head back on and does a stylish pose to show everyone he’s okay.

She found some Christmas.

Debbie takes a seat and remembers how at Christmas her family would hang a wreath on the door and how the snow would flutter off of it whenever they opened and closed the door. She gets a little emotional, which confuses Harvey. He then asks her to tell him just what Christmas is and Debbie soon has an audience to listen to her tale. She explains the gist of the holiday, mostly as a kid interprets it, which means she mostly talks about presents. The other characters like this story (who wouldn’t?) causing Debbie to declare that they’ll have a Christmas of their own!

I wish there was more from this pair in this cartoon.

Nearby though, a fly spy for Muffet is watching and he takes off back to the Deadster Zone to inform his new boss of this development. Muffet is shocked and enraged at the idea of Christmas coming to Tattertown and throws a mini temper tantrum over the idea. She then summons two of her lackeys, Tad and Wendell, to spy on Tattertown. Tad is voiced by someone doing a John Wayne impression and he is some sort of device with a machine gun for a nose. Wendell is voiced by Charley Adler doing an effeminate voice. He looks like a blue desk lamp attached to a car battery and he’s plugged into Tad so they have some kind of co-dependent relationship. Is this Nickelodeon’s first unofficial gay relationship? I suppose these things technically lack a gender, but they sure seem like a couple.

This guy may not be much of a tree, but he’s still better than Christopher.

Harvey is shown leading Debbie to a comic and book store in search of some old geezer named Tannenbaum. Once inside, they’re accosted by a book of the 1930s, with NRA emblazoned on the cover, that opens up and a bunch of 30s era gags are allowed to jump out. They soon find Tannenbaum, who is a pathetic looking, potted, evergreen tree with a bowler hat and the voice of an old Jewish man. It’s pretty weird to give such a voice to a Christmas tree, but Bakshi or someone must have though it was a funny thing to do. Debbie wants him to be their Christmas tree, but he wants no part of it, until Debbie mentions there will be no competition so he’ll essentially be the best tree in town. That’s apparently all it takes to get the tree interested, which is a bit odd since he was ranting about needing to run his store. It makes me wonder if she was supposed to whisper something to him about compensation, which would fit the mouth flaps just as well as competition, and someone nixed it since that would be a bad look for this seemingly Jewish character to want to get paid.

Wreath boy here is acting like he doesn’t want in on this, but you know he does.

Tad and Wendell are making their way through Tattertown when Tad is forced to stop abruptly because Wendell stopped to admire a flower. He declares it beautiful, while Tad is annoyed and accuses Wendell of somehow blowing their cover before annihilating the flower with his machine gun nose. Wendell sheds a few quiet tears and then simply places a new flower in its place. They then come upon Debbie instructing the townsfolk on how to decorate a tree. Tad tells Wendell he’s going to waste them right here and now, but Wendell gets one look at Tannenbaum with the wreath guy attached to him and falls in love. He starts running towards the tree while Tad warns him he’s going to overload him since he’s apparently gushing with power now. He does indeed overload, causing the two to go spinning into the tree where they become entangled alongside the wreath. They provide a warm glow though and the townsfolk are transfixed. Meanwhile, the wreath hopes the other tough guys don’t see him like this further implying my suspicion that Tad and Wendell are to be read as gay.

Gross.

Muffet is then showing getting ready to enjoy her favorite dish: tobacco pie. She retrieves it from a safe, and it’s disgusting looking. It’s basically a pie slice with brown filling and cigarettes poking out of it. She gets startled by her fly lackey though and drops it near some creature that looks like a pellet stove. He eats the pie, then squirts out a gray liquid, as Muffet looks ready to cry. The fly comes baring bad news, which only fuels Muffet’s rage and sadness. The news is presented in the form of a Christmas card from Tad and Wendell showing them on the tree. Muffet needs a minute to pout and despair about how exhausting it is to be surrounded by all of these “lower lifeforms.”

Muffit Claus.

Sidney sees and hears Muffet’s tantrum and scoffs at it privately. He decides he would be a better ruler of the riff raff and puts on a crown and robe that apparently belongs to Muffet. She sees him, and suddenly he’s not so confident any longer. She shoves him into a bathtub full of…yellow water…and speaks down to him in a threatening manner. She then pulls him aside and slaps a new outfit on him. It’s clearly a reindeer outfit, though Sidney doesn’t know that, and when Muffet disappears behind a sack of clothes she’s reaching into there’s no surprise when she emerges as Santa Claus. Muffet intends to bring destruction to Tattertown disguised as Santa, and Sidney shall be her mount. She rides him off the roof, and thanks to the fly character holding onto his costume, he floats! Then he does not as flies are not known for their strength, and the trio plummet towards the ground as Sidney screams and Muffet appears delirious. She rounds up the other junk and beckons them to join them on their flight to Tattertown, as Sidney seems to fly just fine now, declaring that Muffet Claus is coming to town!

There’s a dark side to Debbie.

In town, Debbie is trying to teach the others about Christmas carols when some lumberjack robot walks up to their tree intending to chop it down. Debbie stops him, much to the relief of the old tree, and laments how they still don’t understand what Christmas is all about. Through tears, she describes Christmas as a day when people basically stop working and being bad, and set everything aside for the good of the day. The robot somehow sheds a few tears himself, and then when Debbie finishes resumes the cutting down of the tree causing her to smash him with a fist!

She may be new to playing Santa, but she knows what’s expected of her.

The townsfolk then see all of the commotion up in the sky. Debbie, naturally, thinks it must be Santa, but Muffet soon corrects her. As Muffet launches her attack, the beings of Tattertown are actually excited and Debbie is so happy to see her dolly coming back to her. This just makes Muffet even angrier, and as she directs her forces to rain destruction upon Tattertown a red blur crosses her path. It’s the real Santa! He doesn’t appear to be showing up with any purpose in mind, except to wish everyone “Merry Christmas,” but Muffet takes it as a challenge. She turns around and instructs her minions to target Santa, but when one dumb missile smashes into another, a plane assumes that Muffet wants them to attack each other! They’re not very bright, so that’s what they do essentially putting on a fireworks show for all of the onlookers. Everyone loves it, including Santa, but he has work to do and tells Muffet he can’t stay and play with her and takes off leaving Muffet alone with Sidney. She decides she doesn’t need any help and plans to resume her assault on Tattertown solo.

I’m not really sure why the big guy showed up.

On the ground, Harvey is really impressed with the dogfighting he just witnessed above. He tells Debbie that Christmas is quite a show, and then asks when they can eat? Debbie, frustrated that she can’t convey what Christmas is all about, channels her inner Charlie Brown when she declares “It’s all wrong!” She marches over to a big phonograph and makes a last ditch effort by playing “White Christmas” as sung by Bing Crosby. It’s a bit shocking they had enough money in the budget to license this recording, but it has the desired effect Debbie was looking for. Characters are shown crying and embracing as Crosby’s gentle croon fills the air. It even gets to Sidney, who puts on the “brakes” causing Muffet to go crashing through the roof of a nearby jail. He pulls out boxes of soap flakes and starts spreading them from up in the sky mimicking snowfall.

It may not be real snow, but it gets the job done.

In the jai cell, Muffet angrily sits. She pulls out a stocking and empties its contents on the ground, it doesn’t appear to have anything good in it, but when she holds it up it soon magically fills with presents. A tear comes to her eye as she appears close to breaking, until Debbie looks in on her from outside the cell and declares she can be her dolly again! This makes the grumpy expression return as we freeze on this moment for a beat. Miles then comes in to wrap things up as a literal curtain closes on the special with Muffet’s curses ringing loudly in the background.

And that’s how Christmas came to Tattertown. It’s a special that certainly has style and is very evocative in both looks and sound with classic animation. The actual sound quality isn’t great, but that likely has at least something to do with how this special has been preserved these past 30+ years. It would have been interesting to see how this series would have looked once it moved past the pilot. I imagine it would have had to have become a bit more static than what is presented here, but I assume it would have been able to keep enough of the charm it was going for. I also assume Nick would have made Bakshi drop the tobacco references. They’re a bit weird to see, and even though it’s only the bad guys who glorify it, I doubt the censors at Nick would have left it in. It’s the type of thing they won’t pay to have removed from a pilot, which is likely why it’s here.

Muffet left feeling miserable on Christmas.

The actual story and characters though leave a lot to be desired. The pacing of this thing is just odd. It’s trying to hit conventional Christmas special beats, but with little or no setup or transition. It’s just one thing after another and comes across as very disjointed. Debbie is quite bland and most of the scenes featuring her were pretty dull. There’s a little something to Harvey at least, but his character isn’t explored enough in this one pilot episode to leave a mark. Muffet certainly dominates to both the benefit, and detriment, of the episode. She’s very over-the-top, and Jennifer Darling’s performance is part of that. I think she does a good job developing Muffet, it’s just that there’s too much of her and by the end the character has been stretched way too thin. The character is turned up to 10 too often, so the final few rants have no impact and the character becomes annoying. It’s also just a weirdly imagined character – a doll that doesn’t want to be a toy and just wants its own autonomy. That sounds like a noble cause, but the special needs the character to be a villain so it then just makes her evil thus destroying any sympathy the audience could have felt for her. Muffet should be the protagonist, but Bakshi apparently wanted to just toss a curveball at us for the sake of doing so, or he’s just a bad story teller.

At least we got to listen to Keith David.

Christmas in Tattertown is definitely an interesting relic and a fun exercise in “what could have been?” Being the first Nicktoon would have been huge for Tattertown, regardless of how successful the actual series ended up being, but apparently it wasn’t meant to be. As a Christmas special, it’s not very good. It’s interesting to look at, but hardly remarkable. It’s story is nothing new and no one ends up learning anything about Christmas in the end. As mentioned earlier, the only way to see this is to find it on YouTube or in other places online. There’s no official release and there likely never will be at this point. I suppose it’s a shame there isn’t a high quality version readily accessible, but it’s also not a great loss either.


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