Ho ho howdy folkses! Welcome to Day Four of our Twelve Days of Shitmas celebration for 2023. In our last article we provided a carefully crafted disquisition on how to squander all the goodwill you've accrued from having created of one of the most beloved television programs of all time by offering a feeble follow-up that's equal parts pointless and condescending. Today we bring you an example of a pre-emptive failure, with an early, obscure effort by a writer/performer who would later find his fleeting fifteen minutes (plus a few rancid revivals) with a character and a program most folks today would prefer not to admit they ever even watched. Times change, tastes change and underpants change, but one thing that will never change is our deep and abiding love for cringeworthy Christmas media, especially when it's got really ugly puppets with voices like sheet metal scraping cement.

A festive fistula of fragrant effluvia.

We're posting a brand-new review of a Christmas special every other day beginning December 3rd, and culminating in what we consider the worst of the bunch on Christmas morning. It's amongst our most cherished holiday traditions here at Million Monkey Towers, along with mulling wine, baking sugar cookies and digging up the corpses of our ancestors to display on the battlements of the enceinte as a warning to overzealous carolers. Some people like to festoon their homes with holly branches, pine wreathes or sprigs of mistletoe, but we prefer charnel bones and teeth, preferably still attached to recognizably human gristle. It's just our own, special way of saying Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and if somebody starts singing "The Little Drummer Boy" they're gonna get fucking hurt.

Today's special is an especially special special. Not because it's a particularly good or interesting special, but because it shares an especially special connection with another special that's especially special not because it's a particularly good or interesting special, but because it has an especially special connection the origins of Shitmas itself. Santa's Magic Toy Bag is the red-headed brainchild of Paul Fusco, the actor and puppeteer who brought us the cat-eating alien wiseacre ALF (1986-1990 and various spinoffs). Some of you may recall that dim and distant December 3rd back in 2019 when our inaugural First Day of Shitmas featured ALF's Special Christmas (1987), a shockingly depressing holiday offering wherein the titular maggot-faced spaceman is mistaken for a rather repulsive toy by a suicidal Santa, gets stuck in an elevator with a pregnant woman who's about to pop a people puppy, and befriends a terminally ill little girl who will almost certainly be dead before New Years', all of which is meant to be tender and uplifting in some dubious and deeply misguided way.

Some of you may also recall how much I loathe both Alf and Alf's Special Christmas.

Today's offering was the fourth of a tetralogy of holiday specials Paul Fusco made between 1981 and 1983, along with the Halloween program The Crown of Bog (1981), The Valentine's Day That Almost Wasn't (1982) (it's not just the tentpole holidays that experience existential crises) and A Thanksgiving Tale (1983). All feature Fusco's patented one-two punch to the cerebral cortex: lumpy, unattractive puppets spewing stale, jejune humor. As may be just barely discernable, I am not a fan of Mr. Fusco's ouvre, but I nevertheless made a conscious and concerted effort to set my biases aside and try to judge Santa's Magic Toy Bag on its own merits.

I'll give you three guesses how that turned out...but I'll bet you'll only need one.

At Santa's North Pole workshop on the day before Christmas Eve all of the elves are abuzz with preparations for the big day, which apparently includes singing random songs wishing Christmas Cheer to some group-hallucinated audience just beyond the scope of their gaze. The brash, gaudy production number gives us a panoramic tour of the brightly colored and nicely detailed toy factory, which is unfortunately populated by puppets with uncomfortably misshapen heads and stiff, lumbering limbs. There aren't that many of them, thank heavens, but what few are there have oddly proportioned faces with narrow, sloping brows and cheeks swollen out to the sides, as if an epidemic of mumps with a 100% infection rate has recently decimated the population. The worst of it, though, are the glazed, sleepy eyes, which have the far-away, wake-and-baked look of a 1960's San Francisco psych band that's been spending way too much time at Owlsley Stanley's place.

You and I can see colors, but they can hear and smell them, too.

They're all just as cheerful as a bunch of lysergically-enhanced elves can be, but they still can't hide from the fact that they've got a big problem on their tiny hands. There's a well-meaning but aggressively inept apprentice elf named Sherman who's been throwing wrenches in their well-oiled holiday works everywhere he goes. In fact, he's been screwing things up so badly and been kicked around between departments so frequently they've just about run out of places to stick him. He's friendly and enthusiastic, but graceless, gawky and a little slow and his toy designs are weird, incomprehensible fever-dreams. I've never taken acid myself (though I do admit to a mild dependency on high-quality English tea) but it seems to me if you run a candy-colored toy factory and you regularly crank up your workers with hallucinogens, weird, incomprehensible fever-dreams are probably what you're going to get.

As the Christmas crunch is now reaching its own kind of fever, they make a last-ditch effort to get him out from under their tiny elf feet by transferring him to the mail room in the hope that the work there is so simple, mindless and straightforward that even he can't fuck it up.

Sherman, ten minutes into his morning dose.

As usual, Sherman is chipper and eager, but proves to be just as clumsy and clueless in his new role as he's been in every other. They tell him to file the mail, but he piles the mail instead, so the mail room Manager explains to him for probably the tenth or fifteenth time the two very simple steps to the very simple task he's being asked to perform: just read the letters then place them in the file matching the gift the child is requesting. As Sherman slow-processes this information, one of the other elves reports that they haven't yet received a letter from a child named Paul in New Haven, Connecticut, which is not only a plot point we'll revisit later, but an ego-onanistic in-joke, as this happens to be where Paul Fusco is originally from. Sherman asks about Paul and the Manager explains that he's "a kid with a very active imagination" who each year presents them with a unique challenge in fulfilling his gift request.

"I hear he wants to become a puppeteer and make shitty TV shows when he grows up."

The talk turns to Santa's magic toy bag, a velvety-soft, expandable sack sparkling with the mystic power of children's true and earnest belief in Christmas. It's such an important part of their operation, they tell Sherman, that Santa personally puts every single toy in it himself just before his departure on Christmas Eve.

When the whistle blows for lunch (laced with dose #2), Sherman tosses a newly delivered load of letters into the nearest bin and runs off. Unfortunately, he doesn't see that on the side facing away from him the bin is marked "trash."

During the break, Sherman heads back to the elves' bunkhouse to have a chat with his only friend, a creepy, dead-eyed jack-in-the-box he calls by the name Danny. Either Danny is possessed by some sinister Yuletide demon, or the LSD is really starting to pop, because when Sherman gets called back to the Mailroom he closes the lid of the box and says "you're welcome," as if he just heard the toy thanking him.

Pennywise? Pazuzu? That creepy clown from Poltergeist (1982)? You decide!

Back in the mailroom the Manager is giving Sherman a bad trip, grilling him as to how he could possibly throw away all those letters to Santa. This draws the attention of the Head Elf who comes over to inquire what's happening. The Manager explains if it wasn't for the eagle-eyed elves running the incinerator, the Christmas dreams of all five hundred children would have been crushed like chickpeas in a nutcracker. Still, the Head Elf decides that since Sherman is such a mensch, he deserves yet another chance, and sends him over to the bakery to help Mrs. Claus make the cookies and candy they use to hide the taste of the mind-altering chemicals they surreptitiously feed to the staff.

Sherman schleps over to the bakery. Mrs. Claus says she's heard all about him and asks if it's true that he's only been there two weeks but has already worked in every other department. All but one, he replies sadly. He got transferred to the candle factory but they rejected him because they didn't have enough fire insurance...yet here he is about to use an industrial oven. I'd appreciate some goddamn consistency, here.

"Whatever you do don't upset this mixing bowl full of whipped cream precariously perched on a hidden fulcrum!"

Sure enough, Sherman slaps his hand down and upsets the mixing bowl full of whipped cream precariously perched on a perfect fulcrum, which flies in an arc and lands on a baker's head. Regardless of this inauspicious start, Sherman ploughs ahead, and in just a few hours he's baked candy canes, made barber pole-striped gingerbread men and melted all the gumdrops into sticky-tac.

"It's a living!"

Finally, Mrs. Claus gets the shits of Sherman's hijinks and sends him back to the bunkhouse to "rest up" for the next day's baking. As night creeps in Sherman laments to Danny about how hard he tries at everything, how in his heart he just wants to help make Christmas special, but he just can't seem to find the magic. He asks Danny what it is that he's missing, and suddenly the key on the side of the box starts turning, providing a tinkling little tune that Sherman ruins by singing a big stupid song over it.

Actually, it's rather sweet, but I don't want to tarnish my reputation as a cynical asshole.

The outcome of Sherman's navel gazing is that he decides he should pack his shit and scarper rather than suffer the humiliation of being fired. As he pulls out his suitcase he laments "Mrs. Santa is probably telling Santa all about me right now."

As it turns out, he's right, but Santa, who looks like a hairy lump of rheumatic marzipan that's been left out in the sun and who sounds suspiciously just like ALF, just laughs off all of Sherman's troublesome hijinks and all the frustration, consternation and delay they've caused. As he sits there smug and amused by his workers' misery the Head Elf arrives to discuss...what else? Sherman! He's brought with him one of Sherman's weird-ass toys they found in the factory after he'd been reassigned. It's an "electric kite," complete with a fan attached and a two-mile extension cord. Santa finds it "ingenious," but I find it "impossible." Even setting aside the physics of the weight of the fan and the ever-increasing drag of the cord against the limited lift afforded by such a tiny surface area of fabric, the fan itself is attached to the wrong side, and would blow on what's supposed to be the top of the kite rather than the framed underside. Even if the fan and the cord weighed absolutely nothing the thing still wouldn't fly.

I'd like to think my middle school physics teacher Mr. Benson would be proud of me right now.

Head Elf assures Santa that Sherman is a good guy who tries with all his might, but he's just not getting it, and it's hard enough to make this whole Christmas thing happen without a bottomless gaffe machine stumbling around and gumming up the works. Santa reminds him that he was a clumsy, awkward apprentice elf himself, once, and in fact his very first toy was a weird-looking purple teddy bear with three eyes. Santa found it so absurd and amusing that he's kept in his own private toy chest ever since.

As Head Elf considers what to do next, since he's clearly not getting through to his own boss the gravity of the situation, Santa reads aloud a letter from a little girl named Linda in Ohio, who says she doesn't want anything for herself, but her dad is unemployed, and they can't afford a winter coat for her mom. Santa tells head Elf to make sure the mom gets a coat, that Linda gets one of their new deluxe dollhouses and to speak with his contacts in Ohio about getting the dad a job. If only it were that easy, I'd be writing to Santa myself right now asking for a million dollars and a machine that makes pan-fried vegetable pot-stickers at the push of a button rather than watching this dumb special and working on this dumb review.

Obviously, the conversation serves the narrative function of re-centering Head Elf's concerns on the good work they do rather than the sideshow distraction of a problem he can't immediately fix, but it also serves as another auto-wanking in-joke, as Linda is the name of Paul Fusco's wife and collaborator.

"One self-indulgent in-joke I can forgive...two puts them on the Naughty List."

Santa sends Head Elf away to deal with the all-important Linda situation but asks him to stop by the bunkhouse first and send Sherman over for a chat. Sherman, meanwhile, is packing his suitcase and talking to his imaginary pal, admitting that whatever the true magic of Christmas is, he sure hasn't got any of it. He announces his intention to sneak away from the North Pole quietly so he can save Santa the trouble of sending him away himself, but before he can make good on his plan, Head Elf comes in and informs him that the boss is awaiting his presence in his private jingle-den.

Sherman timidly knocks on Santa's door and the Jolly Old Elf calls him in. Mrs. Claus is there, too, and as she shuffles away to leave him alone with Santa, she kindly mentions that his weird striped gingerbread men were actually very tasty. Sherman immediately goes into a humble, stumbly spiel about what an honor it's been to work there, how he enjoyed the drugs and all, but as he's all packed and ready he might as well get gone while the getting gone's good.

While you're under Santa's roof, however you do as Santa says, and Santa says each year on the night before Christmas eve he chooses an elf to keep watch over that most important of North Pole artifacts, his magic toy bag, charging them to keep it safe and sound and ready for use when he needs it. This year, against all logic, reason, sanity and the advice of his lawyers, he's chosen Sherman for the task.

"Dude! Are you out of your fucking mind?"

Sherman tries to talk his way out of it, justifiably worried that his penchant for near-disasters might ruin Christmas for everyone, but Santa isn't having it. He's decreed that Sherman is gonna guard the bag, so Sherman is gonna guard the goddamn bag.

Back in the bunkhouse the following morning, Sherman is admiring the bag in question, and bitching a little, too at how dull the job of looking after it is, which to me just smacks of ingratitude. I'd just be happy not to have a packet of sleigh bells sticking out my ass like a half-pulled string of jangly brass Ben-Wa balls, but whatever. As he "oohs" and "aahs" at the thing, it sparkles with Christmas magic. He remarks to Danny how beautiful and perfect it is...except for a tiny smudge of black on the one side where it must have gotten a little muck on it from the inside of a poorly maintained chimney. Sherman decides he's going to go the extra mile to repay Santa for his kindness and leniency by washing the bag and making it just as bright and perfect as a velvety sack can be.

What could possibly go wrong?

Back in their cozy Christmas love-den Santa and Mrs. Claus are going over their final lists (and no doubt checking them twice) and she mentions again how they still haven't received that pesky letter from Paul in Connecticut. Mrs. Claus says she hopes nothing's happened to the poor kid, but Santa assures her they would have been informed by one of their Northeastern Sector operatives if he'd met with some kind of mischief or accident. No, he muses, he must simply have mailed it a little bit later than usual, and they'll most assuredly receive it just in time for his sleigh ride...which is as clear a setup as I've ever heard for an end-of-special zinger.

Their talk turns back, as it so often does, to sad-sack Sherman, with Mrs. Claus concerned that maybe Santa's judgement may have been impaired by the mulled wine and rum cake when he entrusted his important toy bag to such a hapless schlemiel. Santa, as seems to be a pattern with him when he's being challenged in even the most gentle, non-confrontational way, calmly and condescendingly swats away her concerns with a laugh and offers, "I'm sure I did the right thing. What could he do to it?"


So, yes...the titular and vitally important magic toy bag shrunk in the wash and is now the size of the little bag the old-school wooden Scrabble letters used to come in...or, if you're of the Dungeons & Dragons Nerd persuasion as once I was at the tender age of eleven, a decorative satchel for your larcenously overpriced set of role-play dies. Sherman panics and appeals to Danny to provide a solution, which the manifest-delusion demon-clown provides via a Sherman's-ears-exclusive auditory hallucination to the effect that he should make a whole new toy bag himself, from scratch, using whatever materials he can beg, borrow or steal from around the complex. Also, now that Sherman has been given what he wants, he must give up something in return.

"What's that Danny? You want me to sign a contract? In blood?"

Sherman hightails it out of the bunkhouse and runs desperately from department to department picking up a bit of cloth here, a bit of ribbon or some scissors there, a discarded mailbag and whatever other gimcracks and gewgaws he thinks he might need to make a bag as special as the one he screwed the pooch on. He drags it all back to his little bunk and starts frantically sewing, racing against the clock to complete his project by the time Santa is ready to load up the sleigh. After working all day and into the evening, he finally unveils his creation to a deeply unimpressed Danny, who says in his inimitable and impenetrably silent way that it's an okay toy bag and all, but sorry to tell ya kid, it ain't got no magic, so it ain't gonna work. Also, you just sold your soul for a whole lotta nothin', sucker.

"Now that's what I call 'irony!'"

Santa comes down to the warehouse for a final inspection and finds everything in order, complimenting the elves for completing all their many duties with a few hours still to spare. Head Elf thanks Santa for the compliment and wisecracks about all the "unforeseen obstacles" they'd encountered that year, and the mailroom Manager adds bluntly, "Yeah where is Sherman, anyway?" Santa says he's far away from any potential trouble, back at the bunkhouse guarding the toy bag, the simplest thing an elf could be asked to do. Still, Santa figures they might as well get a jump on loading up the sleigh. So off he shleps to the bunkhouse, followed by all and sundry elves, only to find Sherman dejectedly babbling about his abject failure as caretaker of the toy bag, as an elf, as an employee, and indeed as a sentient being of any kind.

"You seem troubled. May we come in and talk to you about the Book of Mormon?"

And so, the moment of judgement arrives, and Sherman has to fess up in front of everyone that he fucked up even this, the most idiot-proof task he'd ever been assigned, all because he's a hopeless dumbass without a single redeeming feature or quality, and he probably doesn't even smell too good, either. He pours out his agonized, breathless tale of woe, detailing how he wanted the toy bag to be perfect and clean so he washed it, how it quickly shrunk to ridiculous and uselessly minute proportions, and how he then put every ounce of every hope he had into making a brand-new toy bag even better than the original so that Santa would be proud of him, and so that Christmas would be saved.

Instead of flaying Sherman alive and feeding his succulent elf-skin, strip by bloody strip, to the insatiable maw of Demon Danny, Santa comments with genuine warmth on how beautifully crafted his new toy bag is. He takes Sherman aside and explains that the magic he thought was missing in everything else he'd done at the North Pole that year was already inside of him, waiting fart-in-an-elevator-like to emerge at the appropriate place and time. Santa adds that he has now found that magic through this most important task. Suddenly the new toy bag begins to twinkle and sparkle from Sherman's fervid and heartfelt belief in Christmas.

Or maybe it's still just the LSD.

Then they all sing another song about trying your best and finding magic in your heart and shit like that there. Once again, I must grudgingly admit it's quite nice.

It's got a warm, soothing "Pete Seeger slurping eggnog" vibe to it.

Just as the song ends a frantic elf runs in clutching a letter from the elusive Paul from Connecticut that just came in by the late delivery. The Elf is distraught, thinking they'll never have time to make whatever wild, wacky and impractical thing the little boy with the big imagination and burning ambition for soulless puppetry has in mind, but Santa reads the letter and gives one of his heartily patronizing bowl-full-of-jelly laughs...and would you believe it, people? The kid wants an electric kite!

"How fucking convenient!"

Santa sends Head Elf out to grab the electric kite from his private toy chest and tells Sherman to grab his parka and meet him on the sleigh, 'cause he's going to join him on his global sleigh ride, yo! As everyone piles out the door to make their final preparations, Sherman, tranquil in the knowledge that Christmas is saved but fearing the eternal torment he foolishly agreed to endure, shuffles sheepishly over to Danny to beg him for his soul back.

"Sorry, kid! All sales are final!"

I'll go on record here to say Santa's Magic Toy Bag isn't half bad...but it isn't half good, either. It's a decent story with an uplifting message about being different but still finding your place in the world, and as a third party-certified and broadly despised social outcast I can fully identify with that. Parts of it brought to mind The Adventures of Candy Claus, (1987), which I covered as Day Ten last year. It's not what I'd call a healthy association. Toy Bag admittedly does a better job exploring some of the same themes, but that's vanishingly faint praise since Candy Claus didn't do a good job of anything beyond being creepy and awful. My two fatal hurdles to fully enjoying this special are that Fusco's style of humor simply doesn't resonate with me and I find his puppets to be aesthetically repulsive. It's hard to be objective about anything else when the characters look like a theme and variations on an elephant's scrotum. Still, if Fusco ever made a sequel called Santa's Tragic Nutsack? Yeah, I'd watch the hell out of that.

Merry Christmas, folkses.

Next Installment: December 11th!

As always, Cheers and thanks for reading!

Written by Bradley Lyndon in December, 2023.

Questions? Comments? Expressions of disgust? Why not skip the middleman and complain to me directly?


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