I recently learned that suicide rates don't peak during the holidays, but in the spring. This was a surprise to me for two reasons — 1) I presumed the bleakness of winter combined with the inevitable disappointment that accompanies any major joyous event would be the most major inspiration for people to kill themselves, and 2) the fucking ALF Christmas Special.
If the ALF Christmas Special were still regularly aired during the holidays, I'm not sure any of us would be around today. It's less a TV show than an avatar of pure despair, turned into light waves, broadcasting the terrifyingly sad Christmas adventure of a mildly crass aardvark puppet. I swear to god, it was like the automated laughtrack couldn't convince itself to pretend the show was funny — it's muted but anxious, like people being commanded to laugh at gunpoint. I swear I heard a few muffled sobs in there.
The story begins with the Tanner family heading to the cabin that patriarch Willie Tanner used to have his holidays at as a kid. Alf sings a variation of "The 12 Days of Christmas," where he starts at 82 and all the items are different ways to cook/kill cats (ALF's favorite food and a long-running "joke," for those too blessedly young to remember the show). The cabin of course sucks, has no running water, no toilet, and no electricity except for the dozens of lights being used to illuminate the stage.
The reason Willie loves this cabin is — and I am not making this up — as a kid his dad lost his job, his parents couldn't pay the mortgage, they were kicked out of their home in December, and young Willie and his family were literally left out in the cold, homeless, until a kind man let them stay at the utility-less cabin he owned (while he presumably stayed in his much better, heated home with his family). We know all this because Willie tells everybody this as if it's some kind of heart-warming Christmas tale, instead of a really fucking depressing anecdote that explains a great deal about himself. Willie says, and I quote, "That Christmas, we had nothing. We had absolutely nothing. No presents, no toys… nothing. But I think that was the best Christmas I can remember." "INCLUDING ALL THE ONES I'VE SPENT WITH YOU ALL, MY WIFE AND MY TWO CHILDREN, LYNN AND BRIAN" remains unspoken, but is clearly implied.
ALF comes in wearing a sweater that Willie's wife Kate had bought her husband for Christmas... and had wrapped. Yes, ALF has opened everybody's Christmas presents! He tells everybody what they're getting, because ALF doesn't understand Christmas! He also changed all the tags on the presents to say "From ALF" because actually ALF does kind of understand Christmas, and he's just a monumental asshole. On the plus side, ALF has brought in some festive holly from outside to decorate the cabin, but of course young cub scout Brian recognizes it as poison oak, but only after Willie carries it around for four minutes.
That's about when Mr. Foley, the elderly owner of the cabin who can't possibly be more than 10 years older than Willie stops by to see how they are! He's driving a truck full of toys to the hospital for the sick kids there! What's more, he finds toys kids have thrown away, and fixes them up, and delivers them to Santa to give to the kids! And he let a homeless family stay in his cabin all those years ago! He gives them a sealed envelope as a present, and tells them not to open it until Christmas morning! What a paragon of virtue and selflessness! What an embodiment of the Christmas spirit!
Now, let's pretend you take me at my word when I say the ALF Christmas Special is a dark parade of suffering and misery. Imagine, then, what might happen next to Mr. Foley. You guessed correctly in that ALF has indeed climbed in the back of Foley's truck and opened all the presents he was intending to give to sick children. You guessed incorrectly in that Mr. Foley's WIFE ALSO DIED TWO WEEKS AGO.
Deck the halls, everybody!
Mr. Foley drives away in bitterness, having been grilled by the Tanners about his (late) wife incessantly before he revealed the grim truth; but he drives off with ALF in his truck, too. ALF, unable to reveal himself to humans other than the Tanners, pretends to be an extremely odd-looking stuffed toy. This is supposed to be dramatically tense, except it means ALF has to shut up for awhile, and besides no one would have any problem if ALF got caught and he spent the rest of his horrible life getting vivisected in Area 51.
But instead ALF is given to an 8-year-old girl named Tiffany, because she was the last girl in Santa's line, and even sick kids have taste. She named ALF Amanda, takes "her" to her room, starts brushing her hair and has a tea party with her, while dropping a few not-so-subtle hints about why she's in the hospital. Tiffany is about to put earrings on her "doll" when ALF's masculinity finally becomes too threatened, and he reveals himself. Tiffany takes it pretty well, and doesn't even point out the horrible irony when ALF tells this sick 8-year-old that he's in danger and she needs to help him get back to his home.
At this point, it is implied that in order to explain what happened to him and how to correct it, ALF has to tell Tiffany that Santa isn't real.
So the numbed Tiffany gives "Amanda" back to the ex-Santa Mr. Foley, and gets another one in return. But it's okay, because Mr. Foley stops by the one of the doctor's offices to drop off another envelope ("Don't open it until Christmas morning!"). The doctor explains all Tiffany really wanted for Christmas was to meet Santa. Which ALF, in his bid to return home after attempting to ruin Christmas for a multitude of sick children, has successfully ruined for the rest of her life.
Although in ALF's defense, this won't be long because the doctor reveals TIFFANY WILL NEVER SEE ANOTHER CHRISTMAS. WHAT THE FUCKING FUCK PEOPLE.
ALF overhears this, and is shaken out of his monumental self-importance just enough to return to Tiffany's room to hang out with his newest, terminally illest friend for a little bit. Oh, Tiffany is so happy to see her friend! She even shows him the picture he drew of them, which doesn't include ALF's nose because it was too big to fit on the page (ha haw!) but it does include a drawing Tiffany did of herself but with wings WHAT WHAT ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME THIS IS A NIGHTMARE A NIIGGGGGHHHTTTTTTMMMAAAAARRREE
This is an followed by a scene where Tiffany asks ALF if he misses his home planet of Melmac and his friends. ALF says of course, but even the sociopathic alien knows he should chip in a little at this point. "When I came to Earth, I made new friends!" ALF claims, and talks about the other wonderful new experiences he's had (that Tiffany will no longer have access to in the very near future). It's clear the TV show is trying to equate ALF's traveling to a new planet with Tiffany's traveling to a new plane of existence, and it doesn't quite jibe, but I appreciated what I thought was the ALF Christmas Special's attempt to mitigate this extravaganza of grief and woe. But it actually wasn't; it was just to set up a scene where an 8-year-old girl cries pitifully to an ugly puppet about how scared she is to die.
ALF tells her it's okay to be scared and that everyone in heaven will be her friend. ALF does this. ALF. This guy:
AND THEN ALF CRIES.
Right before we kick the chair away, the show cuts back to the Tanner family. It's late at night, and only then does little Brian notice that the family's fucking alien has been missing for 12 solid hours. In fact, they only notice this after Willie has expressly ignored the wishes of his benefactor, and opened Mr. Foley's letter — it's the deed to the cabin! Why, Willie can't accept such an extravagant gift! Why would Mr. Foley possibly be so generous?! Oh, but maybe they ought to look for that extraterrestrial asshole, too, and the family searches the nearby woods for a while before the cold outweighs ALF's meager charms.
Meanwhile, ALF is running around the hospital for no goddamned good reason; when someone comes in, he hides under a gurney… which a pregnant woman in labor immediately gets on to be wheeled to the delivery room. Obviously, this means ALF is the only person around when the woman is accidentally left alone and the elevator, of course, gets stuck. So, extra of course, ALF scrubs up and delivers the baby.
It's incredibly dumb scene, but incredibly dumb in a way that falls naturally to ALF, far more than the death and anguish of the rest of the special. Frankly, after all the horror we've seen so far, this insulting stupidity is practically a relief. And happily, neither the women nor the infant die in childbirth (at least for the one minute and 30 seconds immediately following the delivery. After that, there's no telling). Of course, we do get ALF suggesting that the woman named her new daughter Tiffany, in honor of the dying child who is dying and just a child lying a few floors below and THERE ARE DYING CHILDREN DYING CHILDREN ARE DYING EVERYWHERE WE CAN DO NOTHING CHILDREN DIE THEY DIE CHILDREN DIE AND ALL THE ALIEN AARDVARK PUPPETS IN THE WORLD CAN'T STOP IT AS MUCH AS WE WISH THEY COULD
Obviously, having a mother and child both continue living is a little too fucking upbeat for the ALF Christmas Special, so the Doctor has to stop Mr. Foley as he takes ALF (having provided all the joy to Tiffany a terminally ill kid could possibly need) out of the hospital, because the Doctor opened Mr. Foley's letter too. It contains a check — a large check. The Doctor thinks it might even be Mr. Foley's life savings. As it's late Christmas Eve, the Doctor asks Mr. Foley to see him on the 26th. "I have other plans," Mr. Foley says flatly OH MY GOD HE'S GOING TO KILL HIMSELF, HE'S KILLING HIMSELF, I'M SO TRAUMATIZED I'M NOT EVEN SAD ANYMORE I JUST WISH PEOPLE WOULD STOP BEING STUPID AND ALSO I TOO WOULD LIKE THE PAIN TO END.
Mr. Foley drives off and, of course, parks on a narrow bridge. As the snow comes down, Foley slowly climbs the railing, getting ready to jump to his death, as the loss of his wife wracks him with loss and pain. This is when ALF comes out, somehow decked out in a Santa suit. He tells Foley to stop, and Foley briefly dismisses him as some sort of fever dream before somehow determining ALF is THE TRUE INCARNATION OF SANTA CLAUS. One can only assume that Mr. Foley has been on powerful antidepressants and copious amounts of gin all day.
With Mr. Foley clearly out of his mind, ALF tells him he can't kill himself because he, Santa, ALF, has delegated his responsibilities to many people in this crazy modern world, and Foley's work is important. He let a homeless family stay in his cabin. He gives toys to sick kids. He brought a smile to a dying girl's face, in case you'd somehow forgotten that young Tiffany is doomed, doomed, DOOOOOOOOOOOMED.
But Foley, perhaps in his insistence that an anthropomorphic brown creature with a pronounced snout is somehow an ancient Turkish holy man, allows ALF's words to touch his heart, and decides not to kill himself this Christmas Eve night (he will kill himself two weeks later, after the pain of his wife's death overwhelms the residual feelings of joy Christmas may have temporarily provided). His fate momentarily averted, he drives ALF back to the cabin where the Tanners sit in warmth and mild concern for their alien friend.
Of course, since a rational, adult man believes that ALF is Santa Claus, he's forced to enter the cabin by the fireplace, which is more theoretically funny than it is actually funny. But lest the ALF Christmas Special accidentally leave you with a smile on your face or joy in your heart, the epilogue features the Tanners giving most of their Christmas presents to Tiffany, Willie gives the deed to the cabin back to Mr. Foley because of "tax problems" (not a pleasant lie to give the deed back; Willie is genuinely concerned about how the cabin will affect his tax return), and the show ends with Tiffany looking forlornly out the window at ALF, who waves back from the car below. Roll credits.
Credits which include a "dedicated to Tiffany Lee Smith," who was a real girl who died of Leukemia in 1987. The character was played by a young actress, but she was inspired by a very real little girl who really died. MERRY CHRISTMAS, EVERYBODY.
In the end, I would like you all to remember one very important thing: this fucking special had a laugh track.
• You can watch the whole nightmare of despair here if you don't believe me.
• There are three references to Perry Como in this thing, all of which are "jokes" in the sense that the laugh track starts up. At the name "Perry Como." This is the height of the ALF Christmas Special's humor.
• So I checked it out: Cleavon Little — who some folks might know as the star of Blazing Saddles — played Mr. Foley, and was born in 1939. Max Wright, who plays patriarch Willie Tanner, was born in 1943. Assuming Willie was as old as 12 when "Mr. Foley" lent the Tanner family his cabin, Foley was 15. I DOUBT THE VERISIMILLITUDE OF YOUR CHRISTMAS SPECIAL, ALF
• The only reason I discovered that Mr. Foley was Cleavon Little is because I checked the ol' ALF Christmas Special IMDB page to see if the actor who played the character actually committed suicide after filming. No joke; Little radiates depression. His sadness as Foley is palpable and harrowing and disturbingly authentic. But Little had several more character parts until his death in 1992, and he was so brilliant in Blazing Saddles that I pray he had no regrets.
• Remember when I said Tiffany drops some not-to-subtle hints about her condition? There are two hospital beds in Tiffany's room, and she put ALF in one of them. She tells ALF she used to have a friend who slept there until that girl's parents moved her to a different room, and again I quote: "Her mother was afraid she'd get depressed if we became friends, and…" HOLY CHRIST, PEOPLE.
• There are a few scenes that require ALF to be walking somewhere, instead of being a stationary puppet, and folks my age might remember that the show had a full-body ALF costume for somebody to wear when the need arose. I had forgotten how completely fucking terrifying this looks. I don't know how the actor or the suit does it, but ALF doesn't walk, shuffle or run — somehow he skitters like The Thing.
• There's also a scene where Willie tries and fails to build Brian's bike, and it's also super-depressing as Brian just stonily watches as his dad sweats and fails to make his Christmas wishes come true right before his eyes. But given everything else that happened in this fucking thing, it felt almost petty to even mention it.
• So did ALF drive actor Max Wright into doing crack and having sex with homeless men, or did doing crack and having sex with homeless men drive Max Wright into doing ALF? I can see it going either way.
• In this 1987 TV special, Cleavon Little is black, thus Mr. Foley is black, and so when he dresses up as Santa to give out the toys to the sick hospital kids that means Santa is black. WHERE IS YOUR GOD NOW, MEGYN KELLY