Tune in Tonight: "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer"
Despite my occasionally grumbling, griping nature, I love Christmas. I love all aspects of Christmas, from shopping to movies to cookie baking. I even love Christmas music, and don’t care if stores start playing it on October 15th. The inevitable angry ranting about it on social media is more delicious to me than a grande peppermint mocha.
However, there are limits to my peace and goodwill to all men. There is one Christmas song that turns my heart to a sliver of coal, and that is “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” There are two kinds of people in the world—those who hate “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” and those who claim they love it just to annoy the first group (there is a third, much smaller group who genuinely likes it, but those are lizard people and should be avoided at all costs). I’d rather listen to “The Christmas Shoes” at prisoner torture level than “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” I’d prefer to hear Faith Hill’s suicide inducing “Where Are You, Christmas” every day from November 25th to December 24th than listen to “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” once. Like receiving a candle or a picture frame from that one relative you only see during the holidays, though, it’s inevitable—nay, inescapable. Grit your teeth and give in to the discomfort, we’re all in this together.
If you think that Ross Bagdasarian, the creator of Alvin and the Chipmunks, rode the tiniest of gravy trains to success, then you haven’t heard the story of Elmo Shropshire. Shropshire didn’t even write “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” he simply heard a version of it played by the composer, then began performing it live with his then wife, billed as “Elmo ‘n’ Patsy.” After recording the song, it became an unexpected (and polarizing) hit, and Shropshire has coasted on it ever since, rerecording the track in 1992 and 2000, and performing it year-round with a bluegrass band. Because ones of people demanded a backstory to this regrettable holiday classic, Shropshire co-wrote and narrated a TV special based on it, which inexplicably aired on Halloween in 2000.
Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer is the perfect holiday special for people who unironically share memes about the “good ol’ days” of riding in cars without seatbelts, and who believe anything “modern” should be met with suspicion and hostility. We’re less than fifty seconds into it when we hear the titular song, while Shropshire introduces the story of what happens both before and after that tragic accident, and somehow this thing is an hour long. Grandma’s family’s name is, implausibly, Spankenheimer, and they run the kind of only in Hollywood small town general store that somehow manages to stay open even though nobody ever has to pay for anything. Only Cousin Mel complains about this questionable business practice. It’s unclear how Cousin Mel is related to the Spankenheimers, as she doesn’t look like any of them and even Grandma refers to her as “Cousin Mel,” but we know she’s the villain immediately because she has a vague Southern accent, big red hair, and cleavage prominently on display.
It’s not the fact that Grandma doesn’t understand how a business works that’s causing the store to struggle, mind you, but that no one in town except her and grandson Jake really cares about Christmas anymore. Even Jake’s parents are indifferent to it, with his dad bringing home an inflatable Christmas tree, manufactured by the sinister sounding OwnAll Corp. When Jake expresses shock, his sister rolls her eyes and proclaims “Nobody gets a Christmas tree anymore, it’s not cool.”
OwnAll Corp is run by Austin Bucks, who wants to buy Grandma’s store. His plan is to automate and monetize Christmas as much as possible, because people are too distracted these days “by their cellular phones and fax machines” to care about such things as Santa Claus anymore. Grandma, who would prefer continuing to pay the bills with cookies and kindness, refuses to sell. Cousin Mel, however, who carries on like a combination of Blanche DuBois and Alexis Carrington, wants her piece of the action, and goes about it by poisoning the batter for Grandma’s famous fruitcake, in a scene that seemingly goes nowhere, but shows up again in a nonsensical plot twist during the last five minutes of the show.
Twelve minutes in and we get a reprise of the title song, but this time it’s suggesting that Grandma is forced to go out late at night to deliver fruitcake to a homeless shelter after the rest of the family refuses to so much as put up a single bough of holly, putting her in the path of Santa’s sleigh, rather than staggering out of the house drunk on eggnog, as the song originally implies. Only Jake and his grandfather see Grandma get hit by the sleigh, however, and she disappears. A few months pass, and nobody other than Jake and Grandpa seem particularly sad that Grandma is gone. The townspeople stop coming to the family store, which, considering they probably owed hundreds of dollars to this presumably deceased woman, is kind of a shitty, cowardly thing to do when you think about it. Cousin Mel tricks the clearly senile Grandpa into signing away his rights to the store so she can sell it to Austin Bucks, but not before Grandpa sings a song about how Grandma died and is standing under the mistletoe with Elvis in Heaven. There are several “new and original” songs written for the special, all of which sound at least slightly like “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” and all of which mention either Christmas, Santa Claus, or both, even though the second half of the show takes place in September.
After a last minute plea from Jake, Austin Bucks agrees to give him time to find Grandma before closing the deal to buy the store. Now, you’d expect that the rest of the show will involve Jake going on an adventure to get to the North Pole and ask for Santa Claus’s help. But no, he simply emails Santa, who bitches that everyone else in Jake’s town is “too busy with their prefabricated, mass produced lives to need me anymore.” Thank goodness there’s the other billions of people around the world who still celebrate Christmas, right, Santa? No? Okay, anyway. Quincy, one of Santa’s elves, brings Jake to the North Pole, where we find out that Grandma’s just been chillin’ there the whole time, having lost her memory. Now, you’d think that Santa maybe would have just gone to the house Grandma got run over in front of to let them know what happened, but no, he just leaves a note, which we earlier saw Cousin Mel take and hide.
Santa Claus agrees to help bring back Grandma and stop the sale of her store. When Grandma returns to town, Cousin Mel’s lawyer (who’s named, I kid you not, I.M. Slime) kidnaps her, and Cousin Mel has Santa Claus arrested and put on trial for kidnapping and “sleighicular negligence.” They take it one step further and decide that after the trial they’re going to sue Santa Claus, assuming that, because he gives out so many Christmas gifts, he must be worth billions. Because all lawyers are smarmy, craven creeps out to make a quick buck, the town District Attorney takes an almost orgasmic glee in prosecuting Santa Claus, telling the jury “If the beard fits, you must convict.” Because the one thing this family holiday special really needed was a fucking O.J. Simpson joke.
Given that the jury looks at the District Attorney with black hatred in their eyes, you’d think that Santa’s going to walk, but, alas, things look bleak for our hero. Luckily, Jake tracks Grandma down to the cabin where she’s being held captive, and finds the evidence he needs pointing to Cousin Mel’s involvement in the plot, conveniently left out in the open for everyone to see. Jake has somehow deduced, during the scenes edited out in favor of Cousin Mel and her lawyer wearing Carmen Miranda fruit hats and singing “Grandpa’s Gonna Sue the Pants Off of Santa,” that all Grandma needs is a bite of her homemade fruitcake, and her memory will be instantly restored.
With Grandma now back to normal, Jake is allowed to submit both her fruitcake, and a tainted fruitcake (really, this show is just one extended fruitcake joke) as evidence in Santa’s trial. Santa appears to be acting as his own counsel, which, as we learned from Ted Bundy, is never a good idea. Jake tells the judge that whatever Cousin Mel put in the tainted fruitcake acted as “reindeer nip,” driving Rudolph, et. al. crazy and causing Santa to lose control of the sleigh and hit Grandma. Faced with mounting evidence, Cousin Mel admits her misdeeds, but claims it wasn’t because she wanted to get her hands on Grandma’s store, but because she hates kindness, and “all that sharin’ and carin’.” Now, you might think that, given how much Grandma and Jake are fighting for the side of goodness and caring, they might forgive Cousin Mel. Nope, she’s arrested for “almost ruining Christmas” (a little-known felony in sixteen states), while Santa is set free. Austin Bucks reveals himself to be a good guy after all, offering to franchise Grandma’s store, making the family rich beyond their wildest dreams, except for Cousin Mel, who will presumably spend the rest of her life in prison with only those gross pfeffernusse cookies for sustenance.
A free imaginary being again, Santa Claus returns to the North Pole. On his way out, however, he runs over Grandma again, and, without bothering to make sure she’s okay, flies off with a bellowed “Feliz navidad!”
Okay, admittedly it’s all too easy to dunk on a TV special made for children, albeit one with a questionable amount of exposed cleavage and an O.J. joke. Still, there’s just something hilariously hypocritical about someone who earned a fortune with a novelty song played largely in shopping malls and stores during the holiday season writing a show in which people wanting to capitalize on Christmas for financial gain are the villains. Elmo Shropshire has, as of this writing, issued nine different versions of “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” since its original recording. So, you see, the idea of him shaking his old timey homespun values finger at people for daring to choose convenience over tradition sticks in the throat, like a half-swallowed chunk of fruitcake.
Without the titular song, Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer is typical C-grade holiday special fare, lamenting the days of chestnuts roasting over an open fire and sleigh rides in the snow Christmases for an audience too young to ever experience them in the first place. It seems to exist mostly so Shropshire could both make yet more money off a tune he didn’t even write, and work out his issues with both lawyers and Southerners (the eviler she gets, the more Southern Cousin Mel sounds). With the song, it becomes the longest, most excruciating hour of your life, a lump of coal for the eyes and ears, a gaily wrapped lump of reindeer poop left under your tree.
Original airdate: October 31, 2000