If it's true that the best comedy comes from pain, it would only make sense that there are big laughs to be mined from the holiday season. There's a wellspring of comedy in the pursed-lipped smiles that belie the frustration of traffic jams, mobbed department stores, culinary disasters, and familial donnybrooks. That's why the Christmas episode has become such a staple of the sitcom; when it's done well, it can lead to hilarious and sweet moments. But since the Christmas episode has become as perfunctory as the celebration itself can be, the shows can end up resembling something like a steaming lump of coal. Rare missteps for otherwise winning series can happen when a Christmas episode is attempted. The following, though, are the Christmas episodes that made our nice list.
Often, holiday-themed episodes are cloying, forcing their characters, no matter how curmudgeonly, to display uncharacteristic flashes of warmth. The best examples of the Christmas sitcom deal with how maddeningly obligatory it is, and how intermittently our Christmas spirit spikes and plummets through the season. It's no wonder the Seinfeld episode "The Strike" became so culturally resonant. It gave rise to the Festivus holiday, as introduced by George Costanza (Jason Alexander), with its austere aluminum Festivus pole and a dinner including the annual Airing of the Grievances.
Another example of delightful Scrooginess is a story from this season five episode. Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow), usually the group's beacon of light, taps into her mean when she becomes a Salvation Army bell ringer and has to defend her donation bucket from public urinators. Better still, it deals with the holidays tangentially, rather than bringing everything to a narrative halt to celebrate. The main plot deals with Rachel's relationship with a guy whose relationship with his sister is playful to a fault.
Christmas episodes are tricky for workplace comedies, since it's a holiday most people want to spend with their families, not with co-workers. But when you spend as much time at work as Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) does, your co-workers become your family, so you do the best you can. In this terrific episode, Liz juggles work while entertaining her real family, which is jolly and harmonious in a way that confounds crotchety Jack (Alec Baldwin.) In addition to being a great example of a Christmas episode, it contains one of the dirtiest jokes ever slipped past network censors.
It's easy to forget, after 14 deranged seasons of the show, that it got its start as a short called "The Spirit of Christmas," in which Jesus and Santa Claus square off in a bloody battle to determine whose holiday it is once and for all. Since then, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have attempted to top each other every year, beginning with "Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo," about an anthropomorphic (and jolly) hunk of feces and peaking in absurdity with "Woodland Critter Christmas," when a collection of adorable, doe-eyed group of animals turns out to be a Satanic cult.
It's not completely necessary to ignore or defame Christmas to deliver a solid Christmas episode. (Though it helps.) It's a more ambitious goal to incorporate the holiday in a way that's sweet without being saccharine and allows its characters to get into the spirit without changing fundamentally. The Office has always excelled at this, never more than in the episode "A Benihana Christmas," which deals with the fallout of Michael's breakup with his girlfriend after he sends out a Christmas card featuring his face Photoshopped into a picture of her with her ex-husband and children. In addition to being hilarious, that's exactly what Michael would do at the holidays.