Catching up with Author and Christmas Pop Culture observer, Joanna Wilson
Way back in 1997, anyone with a little Christmas spirit and a basic cable subscription suddenly had a new option for setting the mood. Rather than having the sounds of Bing Crosby or Tony Bennet playing in the background, viewers could tune in to TNT’s 24-hour marathon airing of the 1983 movie, A Christmas Story. And in the two decades that followed, households everywhere have made it a continually looping backdrop to their holiday gatherings. The key word being: backdrop.
Sure, maybe you pause to pay attention to the famous flagpole scene. Or join a chorus or two of “you’ll shoot your eye out.” But nobody’s crazy enough to sit down to actually watch the entire 24-hour marathon, right? Well, don’t tell that to Joanna Wilson, the author and pop culture observer to did exactly that, and wrote about the experience in her 2016 book, The Triple Dog Dare: Watching & Surviving the 24-Hour Marathon of A Christmas Story.
If the name sounds familiar, you may be remembering episode 16 of the podcast, where Joanna talked about the golden age of Christmas TV specials. You may have also caught her talking about Christmas entertainment on The History Channel and the TV Guide Network.
Christmas Past recently caught up with Joanna to discuss Christmas entertainment, pop culture, and of course that now-famous TV viewing experiment.
You have a background in film studies. What made you want to focus on Christmas entertainment, specifically?
I knew the world didn’t need one more Alfred Hitchcock or Martin Scorsese scholar. I’ve always been the biggest pop culture junkie so I was open to writing about television as well. In the early 2000s, I found myself passionate about a personal project: re-watching old Christmas animated TV specials. While looking for these cartoons on the shelves in the library and at video rental stores, I also found an abundance of holiday episodes from TV series and Christmas TV movies. Going back and re-watching these Christmas programs filled me a sense of nostalgia, and the sense that these stories were precious and rare because they were watched only once a year. I began to look into what had been written about them and found very little. Early on, I could tell that Christmas entertainment was its own industry, and one that viewers felt a powerful emotional connection. I felt a slice of pop culture as important as this deserved examination, so I decided to turn my personal project into a professional endeavor and began documenting Christmas episodes, TV special and movies in what would become the encyclopedia Tis the Season TV.
Christmas entertainment continues to hold my attention because of the extreme variety of pleasures it offers. Christmas entertainment is old black-and-white Hollywood movies from the 1940s. It is musical TV variety specials featuring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Andy Williams, and Bob Hope. Christmas entertainment is the nostalgic animated TV specials Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Christmas entertainment is 50 years of made-for-TV movies, from melodrama, to horror, to the contemporary romances of the Hallmark Channel. And, Christmas entertainment is the highest cultural moments, such as Baryshnikov dancing in The Nutcracker, to the lowest cultural depths, including saccharine stories aimed at children merely to sell toys for under the tree.
What gave you the idea to watch the entire 24-hour movie marathon of A Christmas Story?
Throughout the holiday season each year, I’m busy with speaking engagements, book readings, and sometimes talking with journalists. I’m frequently asked the question if I watch the 24-hour marathon of A Christmas Story—a movie which has aired on a Turner cable network each Christmas Eve for the past twenty years. It’s a reasonable question and I always respond that I, in fact, do watch it. Most years, I watch it the way I assume most other people do. I watch the movie once, maybe twice in full, and then I rest my TV upon the channel for the remainder of Christmas day as the movie marathon runs in the background of my family’s celebration as we go about eating, exchanging gifts, talking, catching up, and sharing memories.
Every once in a while, a scene in the movie or a snippet of dialogue will catch our attention and we’ll all laugh or quote the dialogue along with the characters. But then we go back to ignoring it as it fades once again into the background of our Christmas celebration. No one watches the the whole thing, right? In 2015, I was casually talking with my editor, explaining that I was recently asked for the umpteenth time if I watched the 24-hour marathon of A Christmas Story, and we were puzzled by the sort of person that would watch the whole thing. I began to wonder what experiences one would have to endure in watching the comedy movie twelve times in a row.
And then, I couldn’t help but begin to speculate about what sort of perspective I would bring to that experience, being someone who has written the encyclopedia of Christmas entertainment and has knowledge about that movie’s context within the larger field of movies. My mind was filled with all the potential for commentary and discussions on the impact of the movie on our culture over the past thirty five years. I found I really wanted to do it, and thought it might make a good book. My editor gave me the go-ahead, and so I re-created the 24-hour marathon, watching the 1983 movie twelve times in a row, commercials and all, without stopping. I documented the experience and added my commentary and perspective for the book entitled Triple Dog Dare. It turned out to be an exciting and powerful experience.
Pop culture is, by definition, fleeting, but some things do manage to endure. What makes for an enduring piece of Christmas pop culture?
In television and film, I think heartwarming stories endure when they touch viewers of all ages. When we think of some of the most enduring Christmas movies and programs, the examples are ones that children connect with but adults are able to enjoy and find new meaning in as well. Christmas entertainment is unique because viewers will return to watch the same programs year after year, each holiday season. It becomes a tradition for many people to watch their favorite Christmas movies, episodes and specials, much like other yuletide traditions such as baking cookies, decorating the tree, and hanging stockings. Access is an important factor as well. Viewers can’t establish and maintain the tradition of watching their favorite Christmas programs if they can no longer find them airing, own them on home video, or have streaming access.
What things do you watch every year?
I return to watch the yuletide programs that I grew up watching, the ones that once again inspire the Christmas spirit inside me. It’s not Christmas each year until I watch A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Rudolph. Music is such a big part of Christmas for me that I usually look forward to watching the annual live concert onChristmas in Rockefeller Center, which ends with the tree lighting ceremony. I always have my TV resting on the 24-hour marathon of A Christmas Story each Christmas Eve too. It wouldn’t feel like Christmas with it!
During the golden age of radio, many horror and crime shows did Christmas episodes. And you write about macabre and sci-fi Christmas entertainment. Do you think these combinations work?
Yes, I’ve written specifically about some of the more unusual Christmas programs, in my book The Christmas TV Companion. I think the combinations you mention can work quite well. It really depends on the cleverness of the writers and their storytelling abilities. Don’t forget: Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol includes several scary ghosts, time travel, and all kinds of frightening imagery including the death of a child. Yet this story is a cornerstone of Christmas entertainment, with emotional highs and lows, and it continues to entertain us year after year, through all manner of adaptation.
I think Christmas entertainment continues to be relevant because writers are appealing to such a wide variety of viewers’ tastes, from adults, teenagers, to even youngsters.