Netflix Wishes You A 'Murray Christmas' In A Cheerful, Irony-Free Holiday Special

Dec 3, 2015
Originally published on December 4, 2015 8:13 am

A Very Murray Christmas is directed and co-written by Sofia Coppola, who also worked with Bill Murray on the movie Lost in Translation. In that film, Murray played an actor in Japan, reluctantly doing a series of commercials there, and not at all happy.

In A Very Murray Christmas, Murray starts out in much the same mood — he's in his room at New York's Carlyle Hotel, killing time with old friend Paul Shaffer, who's noodling at the piano. Outside, a snowstorm is raging. Inside, Bill Murray is pouting and singing a somber Christmas song.

When I heard that Bill Murray was doing a Christmas special for Netflix, my first thought, I'll admit, was: "Why?" Is that something he'd really want to do? And, as it turns out, that's the way A Very Murray Christmas begins. He's playing a version of himself who's accepted a booking for a TV Christmas special, live from the Cafe Carlyle. And now that the day has arrived, the scheduled guests have not — because of a winter storm that has stopped the city in its tracks.

That's the basic premise. But it expands from there, in a way that's clever and enjoyable enough not to spoil by describing it in advance. Before the one-hour special is over, though, A Very Murray Christmas does indeed find a way to make room for more than its share of special guest stars, including George Clooney, Chris Rock and Miley Cyrus.

What I do want to reveal about this special in advance is its overall tone — which, quite appropriately, takes a cue from the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol. Murray, who long ago starred in the movie Scrooged, once again starts out here as a curmudgeon but eventually finds a way to get caught up in the holiday spirit.

TV holiday specials used to be all over the tube, back when there were TV tubes, and they didn't require much: a few stars, a few Christmas carols, and maybe a production number or two. That's the very formula followed by A Very Murray Christmas — but with a twist. And, most important, without irony.

This isn't Bill Murray in the guise of his smug nightclub crooner from Saturday Night Live. This is Bill Murray in the guise of Bill Murray, enjoying himself with friends like musician Schaffer, who first worked with Murray back in the '70s. And with Clooney, who gets to join with Murray on a playful duet, and sing the title refrain of a little ditty called "Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'."

They're having fun, but they're not being sarcastic here, or making fun of the holiday special itself. When Stephen Colbert did a Comedy Central holiday special, it was wonderful, but it was part homage, part satire. Murray, in this special, essentially is playing it straight, even when he's clowning around, and asking his guests to do likewise.

Even the comedy bits are performed at face value — and sometimes, when you might be expecting some sort of ironic subtext from a musical performance, you get full-out sincerity instead, as when Cyrus sings "Silent Night," accompanied only by Shaffer at the piano.

The surprise way this holiday special shifts, and changes in both tone and setting, is actually very sweet — and so is this entire special. A Very Murray Christmas is an unexpectedly tender little TV jewel from the man who built his early career on being a wisecracking cynic.

If you remember the holiday specials of old with any sort of fondness, you'll like what Murray is up to on Netflix this season. And even if you don't have any twinges of nostalgia for those TV specials from the '60s and '70s, or if you're too young to remember them, I suspect you'll enjoy A Very Murray Christmas anyway. I can be a pretty cynical guy myself — and even I had a good time watching it.

Copyright 2015 Fresh Air. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/programs/fresh-air/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Netflix has provided original hour-long dramas like "House Of Cards" and "Orange Is The New Black" and half-hour comedies like "The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" and "Master Of None." Tomorrow, it takes a stab at another once-pervasive TV genre - the TV holiday special. It's called "A Very Murray Christmas" and stars Bill Murray. Our TV critic David Bianculli has a review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: "A Very Murray Christmas" is directed and co-written by Sofia Coppola, who also worked with Bill Murray on the movie "Lost In Translation." In that film, Murray played an actor in Japan reluctantly doing a series of commercials there and not at all happy. In "A Very Murray Christmas," Murray starts out in much the same mood. He's in his room at New York's Carlyle Hotel, killing time with old friend print Paul Shaffer, who's noodling at the piano. Outside, a snowstorm is raging. Inside, Bill Murray is pouting and singing a Christmas song, but it's not a cheerful one.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A VERY MURRAY CHRISTMAS")

BILL MURRAY: (As himself, singing) When somebody wants you, somebody needs you, Christmas is a joy of joys. But friends, when you're lonely, you'll find that it's only a thing for little girls and little boys.

BIANCULLI: When I heard that Bill Murray was doing a Christmas special for Netflix, my first thought, I'll admit, was why? Is that something he'd really want to do? And as it turns out, that's the way "A Very Murray Christmas" begins. He's playing a version of himself who's accepted a booking for a TV Christmas special "Live From The Cafe Carlyle." And now that the day has arrived, the scheduled guests have not because of a winter storm that stopped the city in its tracks. That's the basic premise, but it expands from there in a way that's clever and enjoyable enough not to spoil by describing it in advance. Before the one-hour special is over though, "A Very Murray Christmas" does indeed find a way to make room for more than its share of special guest stars, including George Clooney, Chris Rock and Miley Cyrus. What I do want to reveal about this special in advance is its overall tone, which, quite appropriately, takes a cue from the Charles Dickens classic "A Christmas Carol." Murray, who long ago starred in the movie "Scrooged," once again starts out here as a curmudgeon, but eventually finds a way to get caught up in the holiday spirit. TV holiday specials used to be all over the tube back when there were TV tubes, and they didn't require much - a few stars, a few Christmas carols and maybe a production number or two. That's the very formula followed by "A Very Murray Christmas" but with a twist - and most important, without irony. This isn't Bill Murray and the guys of his smug nightclub crooner from "Saturday Night Live." This is Bill Murray in the guise of Bill Murray, enjoying himself with friends like musician Paul Shaffer, who first worked with Murray back in the '70s, and with George Clooney, who gets to join with Murray on a playful duet and sing the title refrain of a little ditty called "Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A VERY MURRAY CHRISTMAS")

MURRAY: (As himself, singing) Now mama's in the kitchen cooking, the children all fast asleep. It's time for Santa Claus to make his midnight creep 'cause...

GEORGE CLOONEY: (As himself, singing) Santa Claus wants some lovin'. Santa Claus wants some lovin' yeah.

MURRAY: (As himself, singing) Yeah, I know there's something real pretty underneath the Christmas tree. But I ain't had no lovin' all week. It's beginning to worry me because...

CLOONEY: (As himself, singing) Santa Claus wants some lovin'. Santa Claus wants some lovin'.

MURRAY: (As himself, singing) I've been trying to find...

BIANCULLI: They're having fun, but they're not being sarcastic here or making fun of the holiday special itself. When Stephen Colbert did a Comedy Central holiday special, it was wonderful, but it was part homage, part satire. Bill Murray in this special essentially is playing it straight, even when he's clowning around and asking his guests to do likewise. Even the comedy bits are performed at face value. And sometimes, when you might be expecting some sort of ironic subtext from a musical performance, you get full out sincerity instead. Here's Miley Cyrus, accompanied only by Paul Shaffer at the piano, singing one of the season's most familiar standards and taking it very seriously.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A VERY MURRAY CHRISTMAS")

MILEY CYRUS: (As herself, singing) Silent night. Holy night. All is calm, all is bright round yon virgin, mother and child. Holy infant, tender and mild, sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace. Silent...

BIANCULLI: The surprise way this holiday special shifts and changes in both tone and setting is actually very sweet. And so is this entire special. "A Very Murray Christmas" is an unexpectedly tender little TV jewel from the man who built his early career on being a wisecracking cynic. If you remember the holiday specials of old with any sort of fondness, you'll like what Bill Murray is up to on Netflix this season. And even if you don't have any twinges of nostalgia for those TV specials from the '60s and '70s or if you're too young to remember them, I suspect you'll enjoy "A Very Murray Christmas" anyway. I can be a pretty cynical guy myself, and even I had a good time watching it.

GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. He reviewed the new Netflix special "A Very Murray Christmas," which is available starting tomorrow. If you'd like to catch up on interviews you missed, like yesterday's interview with the co-creators of the HBO series "The Leftovers," Tom Perrotta and Damon Lindelof, who also created "Lost," check out our podcast, where you'll find that and many other FRESH AIR interviews. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.