TV

An Oral History Of SNL’s ‘Christmastime For The Jews’

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“You grow up Jewish and you can’t help it, it’s a big part of your life being the person who’s not celebrating Christmas,” TV Funhouse creator and former Saturday Night Live writer Robert Smigel told us recently. (Smigel, by the way, is also the mad genius behind Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.)

The accuracy of this remark is not lost on me as someone who was raised half-Jewish and half-Catholic and kept on the outside looking in at Christmas revelry during part of my childhood (before my parents eventually relented and started celebrating both — which is its own weird thing). That’s why Smigel’s “Christmastime For The Jews” means so much. Born on the December 17, 2005 episode of Saturday Night Live and inspired by a love of claymation Christmas specials, Wall of Sound music, and the desire to merge them with Jewish and pop culture references that swing from clever to delightfully absurd, this lovingly crafted sketch/song exists as something Jews (and half-Jews) can call our very own.

The weight of what “Christmastime For The Jews” means to people who share an annual laugh, let the song dance around in their head for a few days, and feel utterly seen by its timeless jokes about the Jewish experience is not lost on the people who created it. Partly because they feel it too and partly because, as you’ll see, an immense amount of time, effort, and heart went into making it and getting it as close to perfect as possible. And since you’re reading this, you likely love the sketch and feel like they got pretty close. In the off chance you’ve not seen it, or just want to relive it again, here it is below.

To better appreciate the story of “Christmastime For The Jews,” you have to go back to Smigel’s past tinkerings with the themes that came to life in the sketch. Here’s the short(ish) version: In 1987, Smigel wrote a sketch called “The Assimilated Jew’s Christmas” that was, by his account, a much earlier (and direct) attempt at speaking to the dearth of Jewish holiday standards, at least in contrast to those orbiting Christmas. Smigel acknowledges that the sketch didn’t quite “hit” in the same way that others like “Hanukkah Harry,” Adam Sandler’s “Hanukkah Song,” and “Christmastime For The Jews” did among SNL‘s best-remembered contributions to Jewish holiday pop culture (which are basically the only contributions to Jewish holiday pop culture over the last 30 years). It features Al Franken as Henry Kissinger selling an album of Jewish Christmas songs that were “acceptable for Jewish people to hear, because all Jews love Christmas carols,” says Smigel. “Christmas carols are so much better than Hanukkah songs,” he (accurately) adds before offering a reminder that many great Christmas carols were actually written by Jews.

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“The Assimilated Jew’s Christmas” and “Christmastime For The Jews” were far from Smigel’s only attempts at holiday parody. “I did two that involved a Charlie Brown Christmas, which is my favorite half-hour of television ever, probably,” he says. “I did a big one after 9/11 that was a Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer parody.”

Smigel also has an affinity for crafting what he calls “silly musical stuff” that goes back to the late ’80s, as well. He authored a jingle for the first “Mister Short-Term Memory” sketch in 1988. More jingles followed before they became so common on the show that Smigel says they were mocked by The Simpsons.

Smigel left SNL in the early ’90s to work as head writer for Conan O’Brien during his foray into late-night before joining The Dana Carvey Show, where he debuted “The Ambiguously Gay Duo.” Cartoons had also been an interest of Smigel’s going back to his time on SNL with “Cluckin Chicken” (where he worked, for the first time, with animator and eventual TV Funhouse cohort J.J. Sedelmaier). He was eager to continue playing in that space, conjuring up ideas for “Fun With Real Audio” and “The X-Presidents” before pitching SNL producer Lorne Michaels on an idea for a unique path back to the show after The Dana Carvey Show got canceled. That idea eventually became the TV Funhouse so many of us came to know and love.

“I was aware of how much fun I was having reaching back into what made me laugh as a child,” says Smigel. “It felt very pure and very exciting.”

Which brings us back around to “Christmastime for the Jews.” The stories we collected about its creation, from Smigel and the creative team involved — contributing writers Julie Klausner (Difficult People), Eric Drysdale (Full Frontal With Samantha Bee), Scott Jacobson (Bob’s Burgers), musical director Steven Gold, director David Brooks, producer Samantha Scharff, and legendary singer Darlene Love — shed some light on the mixture of insanity, brilliance, stubbornness, and catharsis that ran through the entire three-week production in addition to the irony of launching the same night that internet-culture game changer “Lazy Sunday” launched.

A Second Lorne

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There was a clear level of trust and respect in the relationship between Smigel and SNL creator and producer Lorne Michaels, affording Smigel a level of creative freedom that doubtlessly appealed to him with ‘TV Funhouse’ — a sort of pop-up shop within SNL where, Smigel says, he became his own version of Michaels.

Samantha Scharff (producer): My sense was always that Lorne really respected Robert and believed in what he was doing.

Smigel: I started off with some very strong cartoons: “Ace And Gary” and “Fun With Real Audio,” which felt very fresh and new. Lorne was buoyed by that success. It got to the point fairly quickly where he just said, “I just want to be surprised on Saturday.” It was like a unique pleasure for him to just watch something with no preparation. Most of the time, he enjoyed them. We usually agreed on any changes that the cartoon needed. He rarely gave me notes. Even if he didn’t love a cartoon that much sometimes he would just put it on a little later in the rundown.

Scharff: Lorne actually fought for a lot of the things that Robert wanted to do but that the standards department thought we shouldn’t do.

Smigel: Once Lorne gave me that much control I became my own Lorne. My name was going to be on these things and I knew that Lorne was giving me pretty much carte blanche so I became my harshest critic.

Scharff: We would watch the cartoon inside the studio when it was playing on the screens for the dress rehearsal audience. They had a live audience. Robert always wanted the jokes to go over. Sometimes, if certain jokes didn’t go over we would cut them out or we would rework them in between dress and air. That sounds really simple to do but often times it was very complicated. That’s why we would be editing up until midnight and then the cartoon would air at like 12:15.

Smigel: One of the reasons I was attracted to doing animation after all those years was because I liked the idea of getting every detail right. Animators, in general, are very nerdy about details themselves.

Scharff: When we first started, we would have two months leeway. Then, it started to be that Robert would have an idea three weeks before and we would hit the ground running to try and make it on time.

Smigel: My timeline got shorter and shorter because I was more interested in doing topical stuff. Especially from 2000 on because Will Ferrell did George W. Bush on the show brilliantly, but then once he got elected, that was around the time Will Ferrell left. The show kind of actively wasn’t doing as much political humor in the early 2000s. I actually thought Will Forte was a very funny George W. Bush. But people had different opinions on it. Will Ferrell was an impossible act to follow. I was very interested in keeping political comedy on SNL. I think I got a little more political and started doing sketches in shorter amounts of time. That also led to me pushing the animators more and leaning on people like Rich (Blomquist) and Scott (Jacobson) to help more often.

Scott Jacobson (writer): Robert was doing a lot of Triumph The Insult Comic Dog events and TV Funhouse cartoons. And both of those were just kind of bottomless pits that constantly needed jokes shoveled into them. I was used to the routine of… Smigel would have something going and he would reach out to a few writers over email and we would send ideas. Robert has always been extremely generous when it comes to helping out young writers.

Eric Drysdale (writer): Robert’s process was to get a bunch of people together on an email list and have people throw 300,456 jokes at something. And then he would look at them and worry and worry and worry and worry about it. And change his mind and change his mind. Eventually, when everybody on the production couldn’t stand it anymore, he finally decides what will be in the piece and everybody’s happy because it ends up being brilliant.

Smigel: I did like to collaborate. I was used to it. I was on a deadline. Some sketches, I was able to write all at once. Like “The All New Adventures Of Mr. T” or early Ace And Gary sketches, but I got into the habit of, “Okay, I have an idea. I really like it.” Like I said, I’d be my own Lorne and create my own little group of people that I’d run ideas by.

The Words

SNL

The assembled writers on ‘Christmastime For The Jews’ have gone on to do a lot of work over the last 13 years, but each still (kind of) recalls their contributions to the piece and their favorite lines.

Smigel: [Songs] always started with the comedy idea. This one, I had the tune and I didn’t have the idea. I sat on it for a while and I had something about “Christmas all over the world” and “let’s not be assholes on Christmas.” Then I just hit the cliche of Jewish people eating Chinese food. So, first came the music, then I had the idea, and I started to write a rough draft of the song.

Jacobson: I wrote a bunch of ideas based on the song that he sent and emailed them. I think I have two, maybe three lines in the whole thing. Smigel thought I had something to do with the Seinfeld nativity scene — which sounds possible. And the other thing that seemed kinda familiar was the Lakers line.

Julie Klausner (writer): I don’t think I wrote The Daily Show one. It was the Fiddler On The Roof one. I’m sure my jokes were all crap. I’m sure Robert picked a good one. It’s also so hard when you’re writing a song. I feel like it’s the ultimate crossword puzzle, like you know what you want to say but it doesn’t have enough syllables so it doesn’t rhyme. And the thing that does rhyme, you’re like, “Is that what I want to say?”

Drysdale: Maybe I wrote The Daily Show joke?

Smigel: The circumcising grateful squirrels one — I don’t know why I had that. That’s like my favorite joke because it’s just nonsensical. It’s a very sweet moment.

Scharff: When Robert wrote the song I was on the floor laughing. Hysterical. “This is great! I feel this! We need this!”

Gold: I laughed out loud when I first read the script. I had nothing to do with punching up the lyrics. Maybe in a couple of places where it musically would work if you get rid of a “the” or an “is,” or things like that that would help make it into more of a song.

The Music

Phillies Records

Though he’s a pariah and convicted murderer now, Phil Spector’s long-ago impact on music, and specifically Christmas music, endures and stands as an obvious influence for ‘Christmastime For The Jews.’

Smigel: I love the A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector album so much. I saw Darlene Love sing at The Bottom Line, this club down by NYU in Manhattan. I think this was the early ’80s. Every year, Paul Shaffer, I think, would set it up. They would do that album, which is just all Wall Of Sound versions of Christmas classics as well as the song “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home),” which was written for that album and which Darlene Love did on the Letterman show for 25 years.

Drysdale: I actually don’t know if I was singled out [to submit jokes] because I had worked with him before or because he knew that I have a very special interest in ’60s girl group music. I can tell you the difference between a Crystal song and a Blossoms song and a Blue Jeans song. I was so excited when I got the call because, you know, it was the Phil Spector Christmas album in college that really turned me on to that kind of music. It became a huge obsession of mine.

Smigel: “Christmastime For The Jews” sounds amazingly like the songs on that album in terms of production and… Phil Spector used 100 musicians, layering instruments on top of each other to create that echo, kind of walled sound effect. Steve Gold did it with… you can ask him how many musicians he used, but it’s really amazing how close he came to approximating that sound. My cartoons had a nice budget, but we couldn’t afford to hire as many musicians as Phil Spector hired.

Gold: We had Jimmy Vivino playing guitar and Rich Pagano on drums. Vivino worked with Smigel for many years and he’s really good at any era or genre. He’ll know which guitar to use or which amp to use. He was very helpful in producing his guitar parts where they were doubled and tripled. Pagano was great. He really nailed it. I played a lot of the instruments. I played the piano and I played the other keyboards and the sleigh bell and we did strings, but they were all samples. We didn’t really have a string section. Of course, it’s all because of budget. I’ve been doing that for years for SNL. I would be able to deliver something under budget without having 30 musicians playing by using modern technology of samples and synthesizers and all that.

The Darlene Love Sound

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There’s no approximating the Darlene Love sound but while the fates demanded (and Smigel and Gold hoped) that they could lock the legendary singer in, producers had to rely on word of mouth to find her and they had to navigate scheduling issues to make it happen.

Darlene Love (singer): First they can’t find me and then they start calling singers to find me. This happened because one of my background singers, Elaine Caswell, works with Saturday Night Live most of the time and they happened to ask her if she might get in touch with me. She called me and asked me if she could give them my number.

Scharff: They were trying to find a soundalike because they didn’t think we could get her and then she said she would do it but her schedule… she couldn’t record the week that we needed to record. Which is why we used a scratch track [for the animators].

Gold: When she walked into the studio I said, “We’re looking for a Darlene Love kind of sound. I wonder if you can help us out with that.” She’s one of a kind and the fact that she did this is amazing.

Love: I really did enjoy it when they were teaching me that stuff.

Smigel: I was obviously excited to work with Darlene Love. You can tell by the end credits — the font is enormous. Her credit is gigantic. I remember Lorne Michaels making fun of me for that. I just wanted people to know we really got Darlene Love to sing it.

The Look And The Chaos

Robert Smigel

The pursuit of a specific sound carried over into the visuals and both the production and post-production process with a drive to perfect things and an uncommonly tight turnaround time necessitating a round-the-clock blitz that saw Brooks (and presumably others) sleeping in the studio.

Smigel: Because it was a Phil Spector thing, I thought, let’s make it from that era. It’s not only meant to be evocative of Rudolph, it goes even further back to these little things that were made in the ’50s that were claymation or stop-motion. One was called Suzy Snowflake and one was called Hardrock, Coco, and Joe. They were more famous in the Midwest than they were on the East Coast. They were also really before my time. I only discovered them when I lived in Chicago in the ’80s before I got SNL.

David Brooks (director): [Suzy Snowflake] was one of the big inspirations for the look of the characters. The celebrity sculpts [like Jon Stewart, whose model is above] ended up being a little bit more detailed but we kind had to just move so we set a really simple look for the majority of the characters and then worked consistent with it and with the short timeline.

Scharff: There was never enough time for big ideas like this.

Brooks: Traditionally, we’d spend some time designing the characters on paper and getting them approved by everybody. They’re kind of in love with it and say “yeah, let’s move forward.” Then we spend anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months building the stop-motion puppets. It’s the same thing with the sets and the props. All that stuff gets designed on paper and we kinda just build it all ahead of time and then we go into production and we’re animating to a locked sort of boardamatic or animatic. And that’s cut to storyboards and then we spend however long it takes to shoot it and then move into post-production. With this, you can imagine that it was completely compressed.

Smigel: David Brooks was a great guy, by the way. He kept a positive attitude through the craziness.

Brooks: When Robert reached out initially, I think it was evident that this was gonna be something special so I think because of the pace of production, we probably were like, “let’s get this made,” but we were laughing while we were making it. We knew it was something great and probably didn’t fully acknowledge it until a couple of weeks later.

Scharff: We would edit on 54th and 10th and have to get them to 30 Rock. And for this, it was during the holidays. There are people everywhere and cars everywhere. David and Robert got into a taxi and they were running out of time to [to make it to dress rehearsal with the tape] so they had to get out of the taxi and run through the crowded streets with all the children around Rockefeller Center. Which is, by the way, something we would often have to do. It would usually be either Robert or me, in heels, running through the city and running to the eighth floor.

Smigel: That’s the closest I’ve come to dying. It’s really the only exercise I got.

Scharff: Because visuals were so complicated and it was animated to a scratch track it just was a lot of work. It was also stop motion so it just took a lot more time. I don’t think we cut anything out between dress and air. We may have added more graining onto the film. That was the other thing that took so much time. We were still mixing the song all the way up until air. We did a test mix, a temporary mix for dress rehearsal to run it. I was still at the studio mixing it and playing around with it to get it to the final version. Everything was down to the wire. It was insanity.

Smigel: Lorne actually emailed me a day or two after “Christmastime For The Jews” aired just wanting to tell me how much he loved it and how special it was. That was great.

That Other Sketch

NBC

While “Christmastime For The Jews” has a legacy that endures and always features in rotation around the holiday season, one can’t deny the cross-cultural impact of “Lazy Sunday” by The Lonely Island. The pipeline linking SNL and late night (among countless other things) to the eager masses broke ground on December 17, 2005.

Jacobson: “Lazy Sunday” was funny in its own way. It wasn’t really what Smigel was trying to do. It was just kind of another color on Saturday Night Live that was good in its own way.

Smigel: Here’s the thing that’s so funny about it: Lorne was very excited for my cartoon and everybody was complimenting me after dress rehearsal. They were very happy with it. And all I kept telling people was, “Yeah, but that Chronicles Of Narnia thing…” I couldn’t remember that it was called “Lazy Sunday.” I told the boys — Akiva (Schaffer), (Andy) Samberg, and Jorma (Taccone) — that their sketch was unbelievable and that it was way better. I was just excited, because it was something the show desperately needed. I didn’t realize how much until they kept doing more of them. I mean, “Lazy Sunday” changed the show forever. It put YouTube on the map. It really did. Nobody had written about YouTube until those two things kind of exploded together that week.

Klausner: The idea that it would hit YouTube and then become viral was like, I don’t even know if that had occurred to me that that was a thing that things could do. But as bitter and jealous as I am as a human being I’m sure I found a way to be mad.

Brooks: It probably did [overshadow “Christmastime For The Jews”], to be honest with you. That’s probably what everybody was talking about the next week. Monday morning at the water cooler. Unless you were really keyed into the holiday thing, you probably weren’t talking too much about this one.

Scharff: It’s interesting because I think if TV Funhouse was happening now it would be getting jillions of views. The only place you could see TV Funhouse was if you watched Saturday Night Live. That was it.

Smigel: I mean, it’s just like any SNL sketch. They get views in the millions routinely so I assume that would be the case, certainly, with the funniest of the cartoons. But, I mean, I don’t feel any frustration about that at all. I really had frustration with the Triumph sketches because when I did Triumph at the Star Wars line, the reason that became such a well-known popular sketch was because of the web. This was before YouTube. There was something called iFilm, I believe. I think there were a couple of other websites at the time that were streaming, uploading things from television. For whatever reason, the Star Wars one was able to stay under the radar, even though it had millions of viewers over a few years. But then, in 2005, I believe, I went to Michael Jackson’s trial and harassed all the people who were there to support him. It was very compelling and very funny. It was running away with this iFilm website and then it was suddenly taken down.

Scharff: NBC, at that time, was not okay with digital media and they were… Robert and I, we couldn’t understand it. We would be psyched when [sketches] appeared online because then people could watch them again. The more people that could watch them the better.

Smigel: NBC couldn’t wrap their heads around it. All they saw was their intellectual property being utilized somewhere else and they weren’t getting a dime for it. So, they took it down. Then, six months later, the night “Christmastime For The Jews” happened, “Lazy Sunday” got picked up on YouTube and everything changed. Because it was such a phenomenon it got written up in the New York Times literally a day or two later. That whiff of positive publicity was the first ripple. That’s a giant, slow-moving corporate machine. They were like, “Yes, we should definitely do this. Now let’s put 300 lawyers on it and figure out how we’re going to do it.” 300 lawyers later, it happened. It probably took a year or two before it was a regular, integrated part of YouTube. As you see now, a lot of these shows just live for YouTube.

More Than A Sketch

David Brooks

Brooks, Scharff, Smigel at SNL.

Like any great holiday song, “Christmastime For The Jews” sparks nostalgia and joy. But there’s something more: that sense of unity and Christmas magic that Jewish people can feel when it seems like everyone else is celebrating Christmas. And, to paraphrase the great Darlene Love, it’s a chance for people to stop being so serious.

Drysdale: Honestly, it was just a good angle for a good comedy bit. It was something that I have really experienced.

Brooks: Obviously, in the last 40 or 50 years, Christmas has become way more commercialized and prolific and my parents loved this because it’s like, “Oh, this is what we do with our kids.”

Jacobson: I personally have a soft spot for Christmas specials. My wife is Jewish now, and we talk about how she felt it was kind of alienating that there was just this huge mountain of holiday stuff that was directed at people who celebrated Christmas, but she never had anything like that growing up.

Klausner: It’s beyond clever and funny and smart. Like, it really is a moving piece and her voice and the claymation. It really does go above and beyond just how funny it is. I’m just excited that I’m a part of a legacy. It’s nice to see my name at the end of something great.

Scharff: I love this cartoon. It’s one of the cartoons I’m most proud of doing.

Drysdale: I got to meet Darlene Love later. She was a guest on (Stephen) Colbert’s show when I was working there. I was thrilled and introduced myself and she grabbed my hand and she said, “I love ‘Christmastime For The Jews’.” So that was the cherry on top.

Love: It’s always a lot of fun to do those kinds of songs. Come down out of the clouds and let’s stop being so serious. That’s the great thing about this song; people take themselves so seriously about certain things. They can listen to this song and laugh at themselves.

Smigel: Of everything that I’ve written or produced, this is the one I’ve watched the most. It just makes you happy. Just listening to it, watching it. It’s hard to feel anything but joy from it after all these years. A lot of my experience with a lot of cartoons is… the difficult part of the effort melts away over time when you just enjoy the final product. This is an extreme version of that because it’s just a perfect confection.

Up until recently, this song has not been available to download or stream on iTunes or Spotify. But NBC released it this week, just in time to crank it on the streets you cruise during “Christmastime For The Jews.”

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