I swear I ain’t got nothing against Christmas, but I do have a lot of animosity toward Christmas entertainment. It’s not just the saccharine yet vague moralizing, although that is part of it (especially when I’m subjected to traditional Christmas music), but how all the things that really define most people’s Christmases are ignored or at least whitewashed with a sugary paste. You know, things like the orgy of consumerism in the name of a holiday supposedly commemorating the birth of a man who urged his followers to give away all of their possessions, or being forced to spend your time off work or school with people you’re connected to only through accidents of biology.
That’s not to say I can’t enjoy a Christmas special that is more on the puppies and rainbows side, like A Charlie Brown Christmas (although even that dealt with Christmas-time consumerism), but…I have to say, my own favorite Christmas special of all time was from Married…with Children, an epic two-parter titled “It’s a Bundyful Life.”
At least it does start off happy, with eternally cursed working man Al Bundy achieving a rare victory where, thanks to setting up a special Christmas club account at the bank, he can actually adequately provide for his family. “So in addition to our annual Christmas feast at Denny’s, this year we’re getting presents,” he gloats. Maybe in the United States’ current economy such jokes have a little too much bite in them, but I always liked the North Korean-style level of poverty that became more and more part of the show’s humor. It just helps the image of the Bundys’ existence as the Dark Mirror Universe version of pretty much every late 20th century happy middle-class family sitcom. Helping that image is that neighbor Marcy, distressed that her husband has ditched her for the entire holiday for his overnurturing mother, comes to the Bundys for sympathy. When Al mocks her as always, Peg expresses some…less than shining sympathy. “Do you know how many people with lives a lot better than hers commit suicide this time of year?” Peg asks Al. Indeed, this is what my loved ones have to remind themselves of.
Peg advises her to have fun at her office party, which happens to be at Al’s bank, even without her husband around. Unfortunately, when Al is late, Marcy had already taken Peg’s advice too far and we end up with Evidence #7818 as to why Married…with Children’s Marcy Rhodes deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest characters in American sitcom history.
More than just an obvious take on It’s a Wonderful Life, “It’s a Bundyful Life” is a riff on the age-old sitcom trope of where the beleaguered patriarch of the family just can’t fulfill the materialistic desires of his family, but the family get their presents at the end regardless, or they discover “the true meaning of Christmas” (hint: it actually isn’t Jesus), or they find something else that gives them perspective like a stray dog or a homeless family. It is, after all, what The Simpsons did with their first televised episode, and they were more straightforward about it than you might expect. What I love about this special is that it doesn’t even hint at the slightest possibility that sentimentalism could win out over materialism. As Kelly wisely puts it, “Christmas without presents is like Thanksgiving without pizza.” The closest the Bundy family comes to a kind moment is when they decide to reciprocate Al’s upcoming gift-giving by “regifting” his own possessions (in a rare moment of mental clarity, Kelly decides to wrap up Al’s toothbrush, since he never uses it). Meanwhile Al is either genuinely terrified of how his wife and children might retaliate, or afraid of failing even the smallest crumb of responsibility as the Bundys’ breadwinner, or both. “Daddy is not stupid enough to really believe that you love him,” Peg admonishes her children when they try to curry gift-giving favor with Al.
Of course, the situation does call for a whacky sitcom plan. This being Married…With Children, Al’s zany scheme involves starting a fake day care business and keeping the children imprisoned. It does make you ponder Bud and Kelly’s upbringing.
Of course, like almost all money-making sitcom schemes it doesn’t work , but the whole episode is just a stretched-out set up to Part 2 – blatantly so, which is the big flaw with the special. This does,, however, allow the second part to jump right to business. Al shocks himself while trying to fix some Christmas lights (the eternal bane of clumsy American dads) and meets his reluctant, and indeed outright horrified, guardian angel, played by Sam Kinison.
For those of you who were not culturally conditioned in the ’90s, Sam Kinison was a Pentecostal preacher-turned-comedian who, tragically, died of a car accident in 1992. He tends to get confused with Bobcat Goldthwait, because…well, they have similar heights and builds, and their distinctiveness comes from voice quirks, I guess. Detractors to Sam Kenniston might say that his style was his enraged shouting and screeching, but honestly he had a working class aura that perfectly fits the gritty and militantly anti-suburbanite feel of Married…With Children to a ‘T’ standing for ‘trash.’
From this point on, the show is actually surprisingly faithful if succinct in its retelling of It’s A Wonderful Life. Al was never born and Peg married a businessman named Norman Jablonski, but (okay, they just didn’t want to or couldn’t build a new set, what do you expect) they live in the same house and Bud and Kelly were still conceived the way they are in reality – more or less. Actually, everything is reversed. Peg is a strict but loving mother who actually enjoys cooking, Kelly is a chaste poet and college student, and Bud is old-fashioned and chivalric. They don’t demand anything for Christmas, but Norman does promise that they will be moving into a mansion. Hey, it’s still the ’90s, so upgrading from a two-floor house in the Chicago suburbs to a mansion isn’t completely unbelievable.
And maybe I’m reading way too much into what is just an episode of a notoriously crass sitcom, the lowest of all entertainment genres (at least until reality TV became commonplace), but I don’t think the joke is completely that this is a mirror universe of the Bundys (or the Bundys are the mirror universe version of the Jablonskis). Peg Wanker Jablonski is chained to her stove and her kids’ schedules in a way Peg Bundy would find disgusting. Kelly is (she’ll admit) “frigid” and completely unwilling to indulge in the pleasures of the life limiting how much even as a poet she can be said to truly live. Finally, Bud, instead of futilely objectifying women, now holds them up as fragile beings whose honor has to be constantly defended, which subjects them to as much objectification but precludes Bud from perhaps ever having a sexual relationship with them even more than his original peeping tom ways. In sum, the Jablonskis are far more successful and more loving toward each other than the Bundys, but they’re also much less free in the purest, most libertine sense.
Hey, if by chance you’re writing your PhD dissertation on Married…with Children, feel free to cite me!
Anyway, Al comes to a slightly more simple conclusion than I did. “Look at them. They’re happy. Not a care in the world. You think I want that to happen after all they put me through? I want to live!” he tells Sam. Thus we see Al deciding to choose life out of spite.
I don’t know about you all, but that’s a far more valuable moral than even anything the original It’s a Wonderful Life had to offer.